Take "writing across the curriculum" seriously and reduce messy GE subsidies

Imagine an institution in which the English department offers each year 13 or so sections of a “rhetoric and composition” course enrolling about 200 students for a 1.25 semester credits. These credits are covered exclusively by adjuncts. Suppose this represents about 18% of the department’s total credit production and it is produced by about 12% of its FTE. Having guaranteed enrollment and deploying only adjunct labor to teach it might amount to a “GE subsidy” that is messy in that it might allow departments to appear artificially more efficient.

The institution currently believes it is experiencing an “under deployment” of its tenured and tenure track faculty. This is perceived to be especially true in a few departments.

The institution has for many years flirted with variations on “writing across the curriculum,” but has never seriously implemented a program based on that idea for beginning students.

Proposal: all introductory rhetoric and composition classes will be taught by tenured and tenure track faculty in departments across the college. The college will make the fact that “freshman comp” is taught exclusively by full time faculty one pillar of its brand.


  • Since instructors will inevitably draw on their own discipline and the majors they teach in, the first year comp course will effect broad liberal arts exposure for all first year students, can serve as a second gateway to possible majors in addition to intro courses. 
  • Having instructors of these courses spend a little time together will yield the elusive cross-program collaboration that will almost certainly have healthy knock-on effects. 
  • The program undercuts the tendency of students to think of writing as something associated with English courses but not others. 
  • Majors could permit inclusion of the writing class as an elective reducing the need to staff electives. 

The FTE deployment will be managed and incentivized by a fair algorithm that favorably adjusts departmental credit hour production expectations to account for the size limits on composition classes.

NOTE: technically, this move INCREASES the cost of staffing first year composition since TTT faculty are more expensive. But if the perception that these faculty are currently under-utilized, then this can be a cost effective solution.

Departmental Collaboration Around Writing

A group of young sociology professors at Oakland University* (MI) got together and collaborated on a concerted effort to improve writing in their department in connection with a wider university project on writing that produced a “Writing to Learn Wiki” for faculty and students**. An account of their efforts was published in Teaching Sociology, our discipline’s journal of “the scholarship of teaching and learning.” Like much in that genre it is rather basic research and the article is longer than it needs to be, but some useful takeaways can be gleaned. Primary benefit: with this as a humble starting point, one could probably design a more robust and effective version 2.0.

They deployed several tactics: in class exercises, a library research orientation session in each class, peer review, in-class writing workshops, an online plagiarism tutorial, and a “student integrity statement” that students appended to written work. At the end of each semester they surveyed the students about their experiences.

IMHO, the project seems flawed by not including any explicit outcomes (i.e., some measure of whether students became better writers) relying instead on student self assessment (“did technique X help your writing?”), over-emphasis on citation format as a component of “good” writing, and the overarching goal of “writing like a sociologist” as something their graduates should be able to do. Given how sociologists write, this could constitute educational malpractice ;).

A few findings:

  • Students found the library research orientation sessions repetitive unless they were tailored to specific topic of a given class. The researchers distinguish between redundant repetition and reinforcing repetition.
  • Students did not like peer-feedback. In some cases mis-match of skill level meant lack of helpful feedback. In other cases, concerns about hurting feelings dominated urge to be helpful.
  • Focus on plagiarism can create an unproductive plagiarism paranoia – students’ worry about committing it outstrips their capacity for writing well while avoiding it.
  • Common message from instructors across the program seemed valuable.

The researchers also noted some “accidental” benefits of their collaborative approach:

  • Ongoing discussion of process helped them fine tune it along the way.
  • Students appreciated consistent message.
  • Reduced overhead for individual instructors in terms of thinking through and preparing various writing exercises.
  • Discussion of process helped identify more optimal timing/scheduling of the various exercises within courses.

I would add a possible fifth benefit: I bet there is more follow-through among the instructors when they are aware that they are part of the collaborative project. Whether the focus is writing or something else, I suspect that has gigantic pedagogical payoffs.

A side note: Peer feedback is subject to a classic perceptual bias: instructors see it as time saving and thrill at the interaction they are encouraging, but the aggregate amount of person-hours, its ratio to quality results, and the wear and tear of emotions may be very unfavorable.

At the end of the article the authors say that their purpose is NOT to “ease their teaching duties” (it’s about “sincere, shared commitment to improving students’ writing”). I think this is unfortunate; the latter should be assumed – the problem is that living up to it is really quite labor intensive and we should constantly be on the look out for techniques that improve our efficiency. It’s misguided to see these as antithetical.


* There is an old historical connection between this institution and my own, but I’ll leave that to Mills trivia experts.
** Built on the open-source platform PBWorks.


Another Buzzword or The Holy Grail: Knowledge Transfer

The basic idea – generalizing from something learned in one context and applying it in another – seems sound, if a tad obvious. But is this a case of over-complicating/over-analyzing something as a means of achieving enhanced prestige, importance, and budget-line in the face of evolving irrelevance?

Institutional Reports and TagAlongs

While talking with GKH about writing today, I figured out what was wrong with a draft of an institutional report I read yesterday: it was packed with tag-alongs: words and phrases not invited to the sentences and paragraphs I was trying to read.  Their presence unnecessary and their company unwelcome, but all such familiar rhetorical faces that authors forget to play the doorman, ticket taker, bouncer, or maître d’hôtel and so all comers were admitted and seated.  Too polite to thin their own ranks, some sentences meander from initial cap to final period like an oversubscribed progressive dinner.  Some paragraphs careen down the page like overstacked, overstuffed pickup trucks you hate to drive behind for fear they’ll tip over and spill their load.  And things that need saying and arguments worth making are left to fend for themselves, like a shy guy trying in vain to get a bartender’s attention in a crowded, noisy pub.

This phenomenon is a variation on what Orwell had in mind when he wrote that “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” (1946).  He was advocating for elevated political discourse, but his characterization of it as “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought” works for institutional uses of language too, which are too often, as Orwell says of political language, as if “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

When it comes to reports, perhaps we’d do better to charge by the word instead of paying by the hour.