A Collaborative Faculty Approach for Improving Teaching of Writing and Critical Thinking across Disciplines: A Wyoming Case Study1

Article excerpt

Introduction

Student writing causes many college faculty members to complain, but perceptions about whose job it is to teach writing vary. Faculty in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wyoming are no exception. This paper documents a two-year process undertaken to improve writing across the curriculum in two departments: the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. It will first provide background and a brief overview of the current literature on writing across the curriculum. Then it will outline a writing workshop project. That workshop was conducted to identify both faculty perspectives of student writing as well as student impressions. Next, it will present findings based on faculty interviews, faculty focus groups, and student interviews. It will conclude with a discussion of curriculum changes that resulted as well as dissemination opportunities generated.

Background

The University of Wyoming adopted a general education core curriculum in 1990 called the University Studies Program (USP). One of its important components was greater emphasis on writing across the curriculum (WAC) with the purpose of ensuring that "writing as a mode of learning and as a means of communicating has a central place in the undergraduate education of all students (1989, USP, p. 7)." The university's approach was to require three writing intensive courses to infuse writing horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. The courses were labeled W-1, W-2, and W-3: W-1 represented the traditional freshman composition course, W-2 represented a mid-level writing course requiring investigative or analytical writing, and W-3 represented an upper-division course with emphasis on professional writing within the student's major discipline. The university provided additional resources for its writing center and redefined the writing center's mission to include faculty development.

The 2002 university bulletin lists 160 approved "W" courses offered in forty-nine departments or programs in all six of the undergraduate colleges. The general writing education emphasis has also increased university interest in, and attention to, student writing in a wide variety of settings beyond official writing courses.

The College of Agriculture has maintained these trends. The thirteen "W" courses in the College of Agriculture serve students in all of its departments and in disciplines as diverse as agricultural economics, agroecology, animal science, entomology, family and consumer sciences, molecular biology, rangeland ecology and watershed management, and renewable resources. This heightened faculty interest in student writing and critical thinking skills has translated into higher expectations of self, in terms of pedagogy, and higher expectations of students' writing.

Writing across the Curriculum

Writing across the curriculum (WAC) is not a new concept. Since the early 1970s American teachers of writing have recognized the benefits of extending the British secondary school Learning Across the Curriculum (LAC) movement to college learners (Goodkin & Parker, 1987; Mahala, 1991). WAC programs historically have been built on the principle that students need to be active participants in their learning, and that writing is a vehicle for them to become engaged in course content while they construct their own knowledge (Fulwiler & Young, 1990; Gere, 1985; Lunsford, 1979; Pinkava & Haviland, 1984; Walvoord & Smith, 1982).

Centers for teaching, English departments, and writing centers have played a central part in conducting workshops and seminars to help faculty learn WAC concepts and create partnerships to improve teaching and learning. Eble and McKeachie (1986) reported that WAC workshops were found to be very effective in helping faculty improve the quality of student writing and learning. The University of Wyoming College of Agriculture, through a grant from the Ellbogen Center For Teaching and Learning, created just such an opportunity for seventeen faculty members. …