Anyone want to talk about small, informal WAW pilots?

On the WAW network Ning in 2014, instructors had a conversation about pilot programs implementing WAW approaches. With the contributors’ permission, we have copied and pasted the initial post and–in the comments–the replies.


Hi.  I’m new here.  We are heading into the fourth semester of a small, informal WAW pilot at Hunter College.  For two semesters, I was the pilot.  Now we are three teachers and next semester we will be at least four.

So far it’s been bottom-up and horizontal, run mostly below the school’s radar by a grad student and adjuncts, with support from WPAs who see us as an interesting experimental model.

We are thinking about issues like common course elements and goals, recruiting other adjuncts to do a kind of teaching that we know requires more work for no extra pay, and formulating programmatic assessments that move beyond rubric-based essay or portfolio readings so we avoid the negative washback effects and unanticipated misuses of information we generate, so that our assessment can deeply benefit our teaching.

We haven’t thought about “threshhold concepts” as such; but we agree with Liz Clark’s 2010 argument that we face a “digital imperative” so this semester we all taught paperless classes that included website portfolios and movie essays. Rhetoric feels important too: we all taught some classic rhetoric and some visual rhetoric, even as we learn it ourselves.

Wardle and Roozen’s goal of teaching to promote “rhetorical dexterity (Carter, 2008) across boundaries and in multiple contexts.” (111-12) feels like a powerful touchstone.

Anyhow, I’d love to talk here or directly at smolloy at hunter dot cuny dot edu.

-Sean Molloy

8 thoughts on “Anyone want to talk about small, informal WAW pilots?”

  1. This is Cynthia Cochran’s reply (reprinted with permission):

    This sounds interesting. I have been increasing my use of a WAW-like approach (writing about language and communication) and am working my way toward more writing about writing. My goals is very consistent with the rhetorical dexterity concept as well as “cognitive flexibility” (Rand Spiro 1987). I want them to truly understand how to navigate communicative situations, especially those that involve writing in some way. I am tied to being in a learning community, though, and my partner had the theme of human-animal relationships in Japan and the US. So I have students do a little with literacy narratives. Then we read and write about sign language, hate language,animal-human communication, They do a language-related research paper.They also do a group service project in which they look at/write public communication about animal safety and pet care. They do an open-topic argument paper. This term I am adding a unit on discourse communities for one analysis paper, human-animal communication for an analytical research paper (maybe as a shared assignment with my partner instructor), and a straight-out argument paper on….and there is the problem. I find it intimidating to think of trying to get them to compose meaningful arguments about writing or any kind of communication that include the opposition unless I narrow it down, perhaps to something about gender and communication. Any ideas?


  2. This is Justin Everett’s reply (reprinted with permission):


    I am also new to this group and am the writing director at a small health science institution (about 400 first-year students each fall). We have been piloting WAW for several years now by field-testing assignments, first with our three full-time faculty and then with our group of approximately eight adjuncts. We spent all of last year, in six workshops, preparing adjuncts for our curriculum by reading articles, discussing key concepts, and test scoring of piloted assignments. In spite of all of this preparation, I was a little shocked when, half-way through the semester, one of my long-time adjuncts told me that she was embarrassed by the curriculum and thought teaching it was “unethical.” I really don’t know how to respond to this. I had thought that our very careful phase-in over three years with three workshops each semester would prepare all of our teachers for this curriculum. (She is the only one who has objected, is a very good teacher, but has a PhD in Victorian literature and clearly has some reservations about the Writing Studies field.)

    I would be very interested in hearing the experiences of others in health sciences or technology institutions. We teach the science accommodation, and our dean is over the moon about this assignment and is generally very pleased about the relevance we have brought to the program. (Five years ago it was modes and litcomp.)


    1. This is Cynthia Cochran’s reply:

      What was she embarrassed by, exactly, and why did she think the course unethical? Does she think it is too self-serving or something?? And what do you mean by “the science accommodation” that you teach?


      1. This is Sean Molloy’s reply (reprinted with permission):

        Hi Justin and Cindy!

        Cindy, are you still having trouble coaxing your students to inquire deeply rather than argue? (Sorry I didn’t answer you before. I got locked out with some ning password troubles.)

        Justin, Congratulations on your new model and all the work and thought that went into it. In particular, it sounds like your WAW preparation was really substantial. Like Cindy, I’m curious why one instructor was so uncomfortable. Does she prefer to teach from a literature model or maybe a course theme model? Did the new model force her far from her comfort zone? Maybe her new methods aren’t working in her classes and she isn’t getting the kind of work she has seen in past years? –Sean


  3. This is Cynthia Cochran’s reply (reprinted with permission):

    I do have trouble. It seems as if on average 1/3 of the students just do not have any experience being asked to think deeply. Another third or even half the surface but give up when things get hard. The top want to think as deeply as they can. So I am now connecting more of the work to them by using techniques common WAW, such as inquiry-based assignments, as well as a lot more meta-cognitive discussion and writing.

    I do think that using first-year writing as an Introduction to English studies would include writing about literature as well as doing some work with writing studies, and this could be a legitimate WAW approach.


  4. This is Justin Everett’s reply (reprinted with permission):

    In terms of preparation I wanted to be careful because we are a “special purpose” university with a limited number of peer institutions. We are small (about 3,000 students) with a long history of educating pharmacists. We are only one of two institutions in the country to have a “straight through” Doctor of Pharmacy program. Approximately 45% of our students enter as first-year students, go through general education, and by the end of their third year start transitioning to the “professional years”–basically graduate school. That said, our institution is selective and our students are bright. On the downside there is a tendency to see “skills” like writing and math, or gen ed things like humanities, as irrelevant.

    In 2007 we had an 80s era “modes based” college writing course followed by introduction to literature. We were made independent by the administration and started working on our reforms. WAW was part of the second phase of our redesign after the assessment program was in place and the program stable (we were relocated to the business college after our separation, which has turned out to be a very good home for us).

    Most of our adjuncts come from literature backgrounds. I inherited two of them from our old department (Humanities), but hired the others following separation. I have spent the last five years training them in composition and rhetoric theory. Most of them are supporters, but the individual I mentioned, though a good teacher, has continued to be an unrepentant supporter of litcomp. I found her recent statement that WAW was “unethical” shocking considering all of the workshops last year focused on the theory and several of the typical assignments. (She considers the readings too hard and only suitable for graduate students. She also objected when we taught an annotated bibliography and literature review in the past as being too sophisticated for our students.)

    The science accommodation is straight out of Wardle and Downs’ text. It is pretty standard WAW fare these days and works well for our institution.

    Though I have heard some arguments for teaching literature in a WAW course, I personally wouldn’t do it. It comes from a completely different discourse community and has a completely different set of threshold concepts. At this point, to my mind, it belongs to a completely different field–as distinct from us (as a form of applied writing, with social science research methods) as zoology is from anatomy. The fields are related and have grown from common foundations, but have separate bodies of research, separate threshold concepts, separate conferences, separate journals, and, in my opinion, should reside in separate departments.


    1. This is Sean Molloy’s reply (reprinted with permission):

      Literature based writing courses are vestiges of power structures within English Departments dating back to the 1950s and earlier. Even now, most writing programs are subject to control by literature dominated departments. Many literature scholars are assigned to teach writing courses with no grounding in comp/rhet. (And we all want to teach what we know and love.) I suspect these conflicts are recurring across the field as comp/rhet grows more and more independent of literature analysis.

      To me, breaking away from the literature model and all it implies seems like a great benefit of the Wardle and Downs pedagogy. (So, congratulations Justin, on your independence and new agency.)

      If we see writing courses as preparing English majors– then the literature model may make sense. I think that is rarely the case these days anywhere. Certainly not at community colleges or STEM or professional schools.

      And if we view comp/rhet as a separate field with a distinct body of theory that is more broadly applicable and transferable to other fields and contexts, then focusing on the specialized techniques and genre of critical analysis of fiction may not serve students well. –Sean


  5. This is Cynthia Cochran’s response (reprinted with permission):

    Good point about context. I am at a liberal arts school, and faculty autonomy is slipping away so I always try to build in some flexibility where it can fit when I write proposals for courses that may be taught by others. Writing about literature is a skill that is not well taught at many high schools, so I see no problem if someone wants to include one assignment (it is, after all, writing about someone’s writing). I don’t include any fiction or poetry in my WAW course, as a rule.


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