Showing Students That Good Writing Matters, and Not Just in English Class
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a teaching method that emphasizes writing not only in English classes but also in other disciplines.
RS: It's called writing across the curriculum, and it's an old idea, but one that has taken on new importance in American education. So says Nancy Tuten, an English professor at Columbia College in South Carolina and director of the program there.
NANCY TUTEN: "We realized that not only could we use writing as a tool for learning -- that is, writing is thinking and writing exercises in every discipline could be very valuable tools for learning. But we also realized that we as a faculty, not just the English faculty, but the entire faculty, have a responsibility to teach students how to be competent writers in every discipline, so that when they go out into the workplace, the engineer knows how to do the kinds of writing that engineers have to do, and with the voice of that discipline."
AA: "So does that mean, then, that the engineering professor or the chemistry professor has to also be a good writing teacher?"
NANCY TUTEN: "Well, sometimes you have colleges asking the English department to teach courses for other disciplines, but it really works most effectively when the engineering professor him or herself says to the students: 'This is valuable, and I use it every day in my career, and let me share with you what I know about writing as an engineer.'
"The English teacher can't do that. We can teach the organization, development, voice. We can talk about the conventions of that discipline. But we can't speak with the authority of one who does it day in and day out and to whom the students look for their guidance as professionals. If it's all pushed off to the English department all the time -- and this is true at the college level, the secondary level, all the way down. If it's pushed off the English language arts teacher, the students believe that it matters only in those classes."
RS: "How does it work at Columbia College, where you head this program?"
NANCY TUTEN: "Well, I'm very fortunate. We had a businessman endow our program about ten years ago, but at that time, we already had active writing across the curriculum. In fact, one of the strongest writing across the curriculum departments on our campus is the math department, because they understand that having students write a paragraph about how they solve an equatio, it not only helps the student understand where her holes are in her understanding, but it helps the faculty member see where the student is getting off track."
AA: "But what about a situation where, especially in the sciences, many of the teachers, many of the professors in this country are not necessarily native English speakers?"
NANCY TUTEN: "Right."
AA: "How does it work for them to teach English or to teach writing to their students?"
NANCY TUTEN: "Well, I think the comfort level differs from one faculty member to another. Some are very comfortable teaching writing and are more likely to be the one to assign the formal five-page, ten-page, whatever length-page papers that are expected to be polished and well-organized and have a clear thesis and good examples and use documentation properly and so forth. Others in the department may be less comfortable, and that's where the writing-across-the-curriculum director comes in and can help that person develop his or her own skills, if that's the professor's desire."
RS: "Now, how is Columbia College doing this, and how are they doing it well?"
NANCY TUTEN: "I think what makes Columbia College's program special is that we are endowed [have a steady source of revenue], so we aren't subject to the rise and fall of college budgets. We have money dedicated to the program, so we can offer one-on-one instruction to our faculty who wish to have it. It's not really instruction as much as it is collaboration. And we also, by the way, do this on the oral communication side, as well, not just writing, but with speaking."
AA:Professor Tuten says providing models of good writing for the student is helpful.
NANCY TUTEN: "We look at the whole picture: how is this writing assignment evolving and how can we strengthen it to ensure success on the students' part, and to lessen the burden on the faculty member's part? Because let's face it, one reason many faculty members won't assign writing is the time-consuming factor. It's very time consuming to grade writing, so we look at ways to try to design rubrics that will ease that burden. We try to talk about designing grading and assessment rubrics that ask for the same kinds of qualities of writing that we're asking for in the English department, so students can say: 'Hey, I learned how to do that. I know how to do that. You mean you want me to do the same thing over here in my history class? Oh!'"
RS:Nancy Tuten is director of the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Program at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. It's a small, private liberal arts college for women, with a co-educational graduate school and evening college.
AA:And that's Wordmaster for this week. You can learn a lot more about English at our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster.
RS:And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.