When I started my English PhD in the US, it was expected that I would teach the introductory composition courses that are required for all first-year students. I was surprised to find that I did not really know how to speak to my students about writing. During my undergraduate English degree in the UK, I had picked up how to write a literary analysis essay, albeit with much confusion along the way, but I still did not know how to explain and conceptualise the conventions of my discipline nor how it was different from writing in other disciplines. Later, after training as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow and in my role as an Associate Professor of English, I learned more about the US’s approach to writing, which is one that embeds writing and metacognitive reflection about writing in multiple spaces across the curriculum. Now that I am an Academic Developer at Sussex, I see that much has changed since I left the UK and that teaching academic skills, especially student writing, is an important topic of conversation. Thus, in this blog, I will give a brief overview of WAC in the US, and, while acknowledging the differences between higher education in both countries, I will discuss what we might learn from the US’s more systematised approach to developmental writing.
What is Writing Across the Curriculum in the U.S?
Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is an initiative in US higher education that calls for frequent opportunities for students to write, revise, and discuss writing in all their classes, not only in introductory writing courses. The idea behind WAC is to help students develop their writing skills while learning the content of various subjects. WAC encourages active learning and the construction of knowledge through writing and reflection, all of which help students to develop critical skills for success in all fields of study and in the workforce. WAC programmes in the US support collaboration between writing instructors and faculty in different subject areas to develop assignments that are contextualised and relevant to the learning objectives of each course, while also providing students with opportunities to practise and develop their writing skills.
Over half of all universities in the US have dedicated WAC programmes, but in Britain WAC is mostly a primary and secondary school initiative (Russell, 1991). Why is this? Structural differences between US and UK higher education can explain why WAC did not take off in the UK. Students in the UK specialise earlier, narrowing down their disciplinary focus for A-Levels. The British degree is shorter and more focused, and assessment is largely essay and exam based. By contrast, students in the US study a wide range of subjects until they graduate from high school. At the university level, students spend their first year taking a range of general education courses and enrol in composition classes to practise academic writing and research. Students in the US usually do not decide upon their disciplinary focus, their major, until they are in the second year.
WAC emerged in the US when scholars in the field of composition and rhetoric argued that writing is central to disciplinary teaching and learning and that it should be embedded across the curriculum and contextualised within a particular discipline (Bean & Meltzer, 2021). WAC includes Writing to Learn (WTL), writing activities that allow students to learn foundational concepts and instructors to check students’ understanding of material, and Writing in the Discipline (WID), the embedding of writing within the genres and conventions of specific subjects. Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) note that: disciplines “differ extensively in their fundamental purposes, genres, symbolic artifacts, traditions of communication, evaluation standards of quality and precision, and use of language” (9). Thus, WID develops authentic writing tasks for audiences that students will write for when they are professionals and promotes classroom reading and writing using materials that support the development of content-specific knowledge.
WAC and WID promote writing beyond the traditional essay by having students read and write in genres that mimic professional writing and that introduce students to the conventions of a discipline, such as grant proposals, progress reports, management plans, lab reports, position papers, literature reviews, case studies, and many more depending on the discipline. Students engage in rhetorical analyses of disciplinary genres that not only focus on content but also on rhetorical elements such as scope and focus, organisation, types of evidence used, use of citations and style, and they record what they learn in reading and “jargon” journals. These writing activities help students to practise critical thinking skills that are relevant to analyses in their chosen discipline and to provide a broader field-wide context for the subject (WAC Clearinghouse). WID asks faculty to make it more explicit to students how they are participating in a particular discourse community that has its own way of thinking, reading, and speaking.
WAC in UK Higher Education
Earlier specialisation in UK higher education has meant that students are expected to be familiar with the writing conventions for their discipline when they enter university. Yet, there has been a long-held concern that students do not know how to write, which has only intensified with the recent emphasis on Widening Participation and inclusivity. Indeed, with the changing context of higher education, we can no longer assume that all students will be proficient in academic writing when they start their degree. Wingate (2009) notes that in contrast to the US, writing support in UK higher education often takes a remedial approach and skills are taught separately from the subjects students are studying for their degree (A15). As a result, students struggle to understand the requirements of their discipline and what lecturers expect of them.
In their study of UK higher education, Lea and Street (1998) found that what faculty viewed as good writing, and the type of feedback they provided students, was defined through “implicit assumptions about what constitute valid knowledge within a particular context,” assumptions that were not clearly understood by students unfamiliar with the language and writing conventions of that discipline. They argue, therefore, that student writing in UK higher education should be understood not only through a study skills model but through an academic literacies approach, which like WAC, acknowledges that “From the student point of view a dominant feature of academic literacy practices is the requirement to switch practices between one setting and another, to deploy a repertoire of linguistic practices appropriate to each setting, and to handle the social meanings and identities that each evokes” (Academic Literacies).
While some universities have established writing centres that promote WAC and WID, there has been a mixed response to introducing Writing Across the Curriculum in U.K. higher education. Clughen and Connell (2011) report that although faculty support for writing instruction is high, there is often tension between literacy development tutors who argue that students need to learn writing in the context of a particular discipline and lecturers who prefer the provision of skills-based support outside of subject curricula (333). This debate, they note, raises doubts as to whether WAC’s integrative approaches to writing development can be incorporated into UK higher education because the issue of who is responsible for writing instruction is still contested (334).
Despite these challenges, as the University of Sussex embarks on its ambitious Curriculum Reimagined, especially in its goals to be entirely inclusive and future-proofed, we should consider what we can learn from WAC’s focus on engaging students in constructive and experiential learning. As well as embedding employability initiatives across the curriculum, there should be an emphasis on supporting and developing partnerships between writing specialists and faculty so that writing instruction is embedded within specific writing cultures and aligned with the specific expectations of different disciplines.
At Sussex, the Academic Skills Hub already offers support to faculty in the embedding of academic skills across the curriculum, and the Academic Skills team, led by Clare Hardman, is keen to collaborate with faculty in the disciplines. Russell (1991) points out that lecturers are crucial partners in this endeavour because they “bring to bear their resources as specialists, addressing the unique curricular and pedagogical problems of their disciplines” (19). Since the U.K degree is shorter and there is less time and space than in the American curriculum, it is important that WID initiatives are mapped along with course learning outcomes to allow for progressive interventions in the curriculum over the course of a degree.
WAC does not look the same in every institution, but a more recognised and systemised recognition of WAC pedagogy could help to solve some of the most contested debates about student writing. For instance, viewing writing as a mode of learning rather than a means of assessment brings a different perspective to the debate about Artificial Intelligence technologies such as ChatGTP. In their statement about AI, the Association of Writing Across the Curriculum (AWAC) noted that although AI can be integrated in fruitful ways into writing pedagogy, it cannot facilitate the kind of deep learning that happens when students construct knowledge through writing to learn or through writing in the context of a particular discipline. The statement concludes by reaffirming best practices in WAC pedagogy:
Current AI discussions remind us, yet again, of long-established best practices in Writing Across the Curriculum, grounded in research and extant for decades: designing meaningful and specific assignments that foster learning and develop skills; focusing on processes and practices such as peer-response and revision; encouraging writing in multiple genres, including ones connected to specific disciplinary practices (2023, para. 7).
Perhaps most importantly, WAC initiatives promote equity and inclusivity by seeking to ensure that all students have access to the tools they need to succeed in college and beyond. Moreover, by helping students to see that literacy is socially situated and contextualised, WAC encourages critical thinking and innovation. Being able to identify the ways in which academic writing is constructed to establish and promote the values of specific academic cultures also reveals the ways in which those who do not share this culture’s way of thinking, writing, and speaking are excluded. Indeed, Clugen and Hardy (2012) argue that integrated approaches to writing are “not just about socialising students into a particular writing culture, but also about opening opportunities for them to enter into a dialogue about and even shape the cultural convention of writing so that their individual contexts are recognised as being central to the culture in which they are participating in” (xxiii). In this, WAC and WID can engender the very transformational learning that is at the heart of Sussex’s mission.
Academic Developer, Dr Laura Clarke
Association of Writing Across the Curriculum (2023, January 30). Statement on Artificial Intelligence Writing Tools in Writing Across the Curriculum Settings. (Press release). https://wacassociation.org/statement-on-ai-writing-tools-in-wac/
Bean, J. C., & Melzer, D. (2021). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
Clughen, L., & Connell, M. (2011). Writing and resistance. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(4), 333–345. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022211429543
Clughen, L., & Hardy, C. (2012). Writing in the disciplines building supportive cultures for student writing in UK higher education. Emerald.
Lea, M. R., & Street, B. V. (1998). Student writing in Higher Education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157–172. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079812331380364
Morrison, G. (2023, March 2). Gabriel Morrison. Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. https://wacassociation.org/statement-on-ai-writing-tools-in-wac/
Russell, D. R. (2020). American origins of the writing-across-the-curriculum movement. Landmark Essays, 3–22. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003059219-2
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18. https://doi.org/10.1097/tld.0b013e318244557a
Wingate, U., Andon, N., & Cogo, A. (2011). Embedding academic writing instruction into Subject teaching: A case study. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(1), 69–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787410387814
What is Writing in the Disciplines? The WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/resources/teaching/intro/wid/