A question of politics? Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#10, 9 and 8):o

The Post War Era (Part III) of American academic writing(s) (David Russell, 2002)

A Girl Writing
‘A Girl Writing’, V&A, London, Henriette Browne (1829-1901), Oil on Canvas

Writing focuses “our attention on the deep contradictions of education and of our civic life. The need for specialisation versus the call for a unified, democratic civic life drives the debates over general versus professional education” (331)

This post concludes my reflective engagement with Russell’s overview of American academic writing since the 1870s by beginning with the last chapter, Chapter 10 (1990s to 2000s). This brings us up to the Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives (WAC) which, to this day, remain committed to how writing and education interdepend and integrate.

Despite acknowledging that:

We still do not have an analysis of how students (from various backgrounds) come to write in the various ways disciplines expect (or how students change those expectations) (328)

WAC remains wedded to the notion that:

By learning to write in new ways, students are expanding their involvement with the different worlds that make up our world (331)

In Chapter 10, Russell explains the WAC and WID (Writing in the Disciplines) initiatives from 1990 to 2000. WAC was concerned with writing about the disciplines; WID was concerned with writing in the disciplines. Much research devoted to this dichotomy saw it as a dichotomy that was both real and false. Real because there exists such a thing as disciplinary writing which has rules and confines us to a genre (311); false because writing can also be seen as two sides of the same pedagogical coin: WID (discipline-specific writing) is always going to be part of WAC (general writing, ibid) in the sense that even when teaching general cognitive skills (WAC), disciplinary knowledge is always involved. WAC has therefore always been concerned with how knowledge is created within disciplines.

The chapter develops how WAC has dealt with disciplinary knowledge by looking at different curricular models of writing (from writing intensive courses to writing centres, and research). However, despite Russell’s claim that we do not have any evidence to support that writing competence results from these myriad models (328), he also states (encouragingly!):

… when these studies attempted to test a central claim of WAC, that writing improves learning or thinking (Emig 1977), they found that writing does not automatically improve either. Indeed, when writing was used to improve students’ performance on the usual kinds of school tests, it sometimes had no effect or a negative effect. However, when students were given tasks differing  significantly from the standard knowledge-transmission purposes of the school, writing helped students learn (327)

Chapter 9 (1970 and 1990) defines and deals with the development of WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum):

WAC is not a single trend or movement; it is, like its predecessors, a collection of often conflicting approaches to the problem of linguistic differentiation in the modern world. It offers no panacea, but it need not support the myth of transience either (307)

WAC is ultimately about finding textual pathways to help students enter and eventually transform powerful organisations of people (331)

The seemingly simple questions, “What will my students write?” and “How will I assess it?” lead to questions of the futures we envision, questions of equity and access for traditionally excluded groups, questions of who our students, and we, are and will be as members of society. WAC is a way of still answering those deeper questions (331-332)

WAC is essentially a response to the need for greater equity and access to higher education. Its mission reminds me of a talk given by Alan Tuckett (President of the International Council of Adult Education) at Nottingham University in 2013 during which he argued that with widening international participation, we face new challenges of equity and fairness: in the UK, political elections have been won and lost on policies relating to fair and comprehensive education (with frequent media attention on the elitism of Oxbridge); Tuckett’s specific question, back in 2013, was ‘have we now shifted our domestic elitist educational attitudes onto the growing international community of students by accepting only those students who come from the upper classes and who can therefore pay for their degrees?’. My own questions would be: ‘if we have, then how does this affect how we teach writing to the international community, what kind of writing should we teach, and to whom’? (in this sense, I align myself with an academic literacies analysis of access to higher education advocated here by Mary Scott from the IoE, my review of which is here).

Chapter 8 (1940s, 50s and 60s) traces the gradual replacement of widespread skills testing in American universities with a more holistic approach to assessing writing: the essay. One of many possible explanations for why more holistic approaches to assessing writing took hold is that socially, America was undergoing a period of specialisation, differentiation, and widening participation (e.g. secondary education was expected for all and being a ‘drop out’ was stigma) all of which called on academia to reflect this social differentiation:

Higher education became (…) a vast aggregate of “small worlds, different worlds” (239)

In the rush to create new knowledge and new degree programs, the genres of academic writing proliferated. Faculty accepted as theses novels, plays, films, reports of specific experiments, and performances (243)

Graduate writing also started to become a huge focus in academia: the 1960s were boom years for graduate-level writing courses to help with thesis writing and saw the publication of writing self-help books flourish – many of which were based on the theories of American psychologist and educationalist Bruner, namely that language plays a role in acquiring knowledge not just displaying it or demonstrating it (which paved the way for the WAC movement in the 1970s). Bruner was also an advocate of the ‘spiral curriculum’ based on discovery methods connected to the activity of organised disciplines (a scaffold approach) in which learning builds on previous learning in ever more abstract ways. In writing terms, this would support a process, rather than product, approach.

Science education reforms took off in light of WWII and the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, with much attention being paid to how writing should be taught in the sciences. Moreover, in an attempt to rebuild post war society, an influential report was published called General Education for a Free Society (Redbook) which hankered after American values and traditions without actually saying what these values and traditions were in the new world. Importantly, the Redbook was silent on what writing – understood as being intimately connected to education – should be like in the social sciences and humanities.

Writing instruction at university thus continued to remain marginalised with the tertiary sector placing the onus of writing instruction on secondary schools (256).

Gradually, communication, rather than writing, was what teachers at university started to talk about. This, in turn, lead to a revival of interest in rhetoric and lay the foundation for WAC in the 1970s based on the theoretical framework of The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) by Richards. Critical Thinking became important and inspired the following interesting programs:

  • Functional Writing Program (Colgate University 1949-61): a developmental cross-curricular approach rather than a remedial approach to writing in which writing tutors worked with discipline tutors to clarify, plan and engage in the process of writing. Short-lived because enthusiasm waned;
  • Writing in the Multiversity (California at Berkeley (1947-64): developmental not remedial. It died out because of the compartmentalised structure on the university and because of entrenched attitudes to writing (266) despite the fact that:

writing is not an ability acquired once and for all (…) but a complex and maturing ability growing along with knowledge (265)

These two progressive, inclusive, cross-disciplinary approaches to writing – that see it as a process of learning and educational development, not a mechanical, transferable and out-sourceable skill – were linked to communism (269 – quoted from Arthur N. Applebee) and therefore not flavour of the post war era!

To what extent are our current academic writing approaches, curricula, genres, and expectations political?

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