What Should First-Year Composition Students Learn
about Writing across the Curriculum? WAC Defined

Chris Thaiss
George Mason University

   Works Cited            A Few WAC Websites

Ideally, the answer to this question should be “whatever they learn from writing in their first-year courses across all the disciplines in which they study.” Ideally, the first-year English composition course (and most, but not all, colleges and universities have one or more of these) works in coordination with these courses in making students able to meet these varied assignments and prepare them for the challenges of writing in more advanced courses in the disciplines.

College and university writing requirements can be met through a variety of models, although the free-standing first-year English compositon course is the most frequent of these. See “Freshman Seminars, Links, Learning Communities: Alternatives to the FYC Course” for some of these options.

 But we know that for many, perhaps most, first-year students, their opportunities to write in the range of introductory courses they take are limited by such factors as class size and faculty members’ perceived lack of time or expertise to read and respond to writing (I’ve explored these “resistances” in The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing across the Curriculum, 1998). Thus, often that first-year English writing course is students’ sole introduction to “academic writing”—an introduction that may not be followed by real writing experience in their major fields or other disciplines until one, two, or even more semesters later. In such a scenario, the comp course can paint a picture of “what academic writing will probably be like for you”--a poor substitute for the real thing, but often the best a teacher and course materials can do.

So the task for the English comp instructor who honestly wants the course to prepare students for what they will encounter as they proceed into the wilds of academia is to paint as accurate and useful a picture as possible. Or, to extend another metaphor, to give students as useful a backpack as possible to carry into those wilds. Because in many schools there is so great a burden on the comp teacher to provide this preparation, the real question becomes, “What should the FYC teacher know about WAC in order to prepare the students?” 

Here are some tentative answers, based on 26 years of teaching, my work with faculty across disciplines at GMU and around the country, and my reading of the burgeoning WAC literature:

  1. Every student’s first-year writing experience is different, shaped by the courses, sections, and teachers encountered; every school’s writing curriculum is different, shaped by policies, commitments, student population, course offerings, and a host of other criteria. Hence, the bad news is that it’s impossible to predict with certainty and specificity what “academic writing will be” for all or any of the students. But the good news is that the students in your class can become your eyes and ears in seeking to understand WAC in their differing contexts.
  2. While the specific details of actual assignments, faculty expectations, and ways faculty will respond to and grade student writing vary greatly from course to course, academic writing theorists and writers of textbooks for WAC-oriented comp courses have developed rough lists of characteristics of academic writing. These traits can be translated into principles that become the building blocks for the comp course, although faculty should be sure to disabuse students of the notion that learning any schema or pattern will smooth their ways in ensuing courses. The devil, as they say, is in those greatly varying details.
  3. Similarly, there has been a tendency over the years, for various reasons, to limit the first-year course to particular genres or purposes—among the most prevalent of these has been literary analysis, formal argumentation, or various forms of the “research paper.”  Proponents of each of these can argue with some justice that students’ practicing each will be of some use in later college courses, but the same can be said of any genre (e.g., a lab report or a play review or a personal narrative) that a student practices in a given course, since that genre usually partakes of some of the general traits of academic writing. But no genre focus is more essential to a first-year course than any other such focus. A FYC course that teaches a particular genre, or two or three, may be a worthwhile course, but its agenda is specialized, not indicative of what students should expect elsewhere in the curriculum except in the most vague way.
  4. A genuinely WAC-oriented composition course should push students to understand both the general commonalities of academic assignments AND the obvious and often subtle differences that exist from discipline to discipline, course to course, teacher to teacher, and assignment to assignment.
  5. My own current research (with colleague Terry Myers Zawacki) among faculty and students from a variety of fields supports the notion that the conventions of writing in any discipline are continually changing; that all fields and their modes of discourse are subject to technological development, cross-cultural pressures, and the influences of other disciplines.  Perhaps the most important force of change is that of individual scholars, whose differing backgrounds, talents, and interests help shape the field and/or force the emergence of subfields, each with its own standards, jargon, and publications, these continually evolving as well.
  6. This dynamism suggests a flexible composition course design that moves away from a particular genre and instead introduces students to principles and methods of environmental analysis, by which they can discern the differences in ways of thinking, reader expectation, and formal structure that exist in the many “writing cultures” they’ll likely encounter as they proceed through the university and into professional life. It suggests that sample materials in the WAC-oriented comp course should come from a wide variety of departments and courses—some contributed by the students—and should be regarded not as “models” to be emulated, nor as “representative of the field,” but as objects of study that can help the student understand particular rhetorical contexts.
  7. Moreover, the “material” of the WAC-oriented comp course is not primarily printed or electronic documents, though these play an important role. Equally important are the materials that the students gather from “fieldwork” in their major courses (A Rubric for Understanding Writing in Different Classes and Disciplines).


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