Study: Writing and the Teaching of Writing Across Disciplines at Wake

At the intersection of Writing Studies and Education, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is a field of study that broadly asks (1) how writing might be used as a tool for learning and engagement and (2) how writing is a communicative tool that inscribes the ways of knowing and doing in our academic disciplines and corresponding professions. WAC scholars describe the typical written forms – or, genres, – within any academic discipline or profession as “social actions” (Miller): The regular features of journal articles, or grant proposals, or conference proceedings are what allow us to engage in an ongoing conversation with shared expectations, background knowledges, and values (Carter). In other words, writing is where knowledge is created and shared. Because different disciplines create knowledge differently, the writing looks differently, too (Bazerman). As an example, many scholars in the sciences write their journal articles in an Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion organization that reflects the experimental research process, as well as the importance of separating data and the interpretation of that data. Meanwhile, many scholars in the humanities write their journal articles with a thematic organization that moves seamlessly between evidence and analysis. Even common writing terms – “thesis,” “evidence,” “analysis,” “clarity” – can be characterized quite differently in, say, Biology than in History. Thus, writing is a fundamental part of becoming a member of a discipline or profession and engaging in its actions (Prior; Tardy).

This primary research project seeks to uncover how writing is defined, described, and taught by faculty who are part of different disciplinary communities. Understanding how writing works within various fields of study reveals the very nature of knowledge creation. Moreover, explicit and comparative descriptions of how writing works in various disciplines can improve our ability to teach newcomers (namely, students).

Data Sets

We have 47 faculty partners from across 19 departments enrolled in this study. Our current data sets include:

1.)   Faculty survey (and mirrored student survey). This survey asks about beliefs surrounding student writing, writing pedagogies, and possible resources. (Dr. Zak Lancaster is running a similar student-facing project, and we collaborated to have a mirrored survey for students.)

2.)   Course materials for upper-level courses in the major. Faculty were asked to submit syllabi, writing assignment prompts, successful and unsuccessful student writing samples, and a “real-world” equivalent of their own writing for between 2 and 4 upper-level major or minor courses that they taught recently or regularly. We have course materials for 83 upper-level courses.

3.)   Faculty interviews. These one-on-one interviews lasted between 45 and 95 minutes long. The interview asked faculty members to describe the role of writing in their discipline, how they write in their discipline, why they assign writing in their major courses, etc.

Data Analysis

With this data collected, we am currently in the midst of four distinct phases of analysis across the data sets. These four phases correspond to the following driving questions: 

1.)   Why and how do faculty integrate and teach writing in their major courses? This phase describes, in faculty’s words, why they assign writing, their go-to-strategies for teaching writing, and the obstacles or challenges they face in teaching writing. This phase also deductively analyzes writing assignments across 80+ courses for their taxonomy (Melzer), their genre titles, their audience, their mode of feedback, their process elements, etc.

2.)   What is “good writing” across academic disciplines? This phase identifies recurring and singular key terms and moves (Swales) that faculty use to describe good writing in their discipline, and it compares these terms and moves across disciplines. Importantly, faculty descriptions are compared to their own published work, as well as their description of what good student writing is.

3.)   How do faculty conceive of and approach writing in their discipline? This phase details how faculty begin writing projects, how they manage their writing process, how they make decisions while drafting, how they seek and receive feedback, etc. This phase further maps these writing practices onto faculty’s writing pedagogies, revealing differences between the two activity systems (Russell). 

4.)   What are the differences between expert disciplinary writing vs. student disciplinary writing? This phase draws on faculty interviews, as well as faculty and student writing samples, to describe how genres written in classroom settings are simulations of genres in the “real-world” (Freedman et. al.) The comparison clarifies how genre expertise is gained in stages, as well as the purpose of writing pedagogies in higher education.

Overall, the answers to these driving questions provide a rich picture of how writing sustains the work of the academy, as well as how writing both reflects and inscribes the values of a discipline. This study especially uncovers the relationship between faculty’s own writing practices and their pedagogies, which is greatly under-researched in the field of Writing Studies (most studies focus on either one or the other).

Next Steps

We are well underway in conducting analysis for Phase (1), which has involved a combination of deductive coding on the course materials and inductive coding on the faculty interviews. We plan to finish this phase of analysis over the Fall 2023 semester, and we will produce both scholarship and internal reports on the findings before moving to the other phases of analysis (which will take multiple years to complete). 

We plan to host multiple lunches in the Spring 2023 semester to present the first wave of results and open discussion for faculty partners and for the wider university. 


Dr. Alisa Russell, Principle Investigator

Alisa joined the English Department & Writing Program at Wake as an Assistant Professor in Fall 2020. Her research explores how writing works in the world, and she especially focuses on how writing plays a role in shaping institutional access. Moreover, Alisa turns that knowledge of how writing works in the world back to the classroom so we might better teach it and prepare students for their various spheres. Her work has appeared in journals such as Written Communication, Composition Forum, The WAC Journal, Across the Disciplines, Composition Studies, and Pedagogy. Alisa is an Executive Board Member of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum (AWAC), and she currently serves as Chair of the WAC Summer Institute Committee.

Extended Rationale

In the Wake Forest College Curriculum Review Committee Report (CCRC) for the Committee on Academic Planning (CAP) that was presented in May 2019, the CCRC found that 80% of surveyed Wake faculty ranked “writing clearly and effectively” as one of the two most important learning outcomes for Wake students. One Writing Program recommendation out of that finding was to phase out AP exemptions for WRI 111, which is currently (and excitingly) underway. The other Writing Program recommendation, though, was to “add a second ‘intensive’ writing requirement for all students, taken after their first year, preferably in the major” (p. 8). This recommendation was made by the Writing Program because, as research in our field strongly suggests, a writing course in the first year is meant to be an introduction to academic writing; students then need continued writing instruction through their second, third, and fourth years to fully develop their ability to write across genres and especially in the genres of their discipline/profession. Every discipline defines “good” writing differently – historians build arguments quite differently than biologists. Thus, we cannot expect an introductory writing course alone to give students a tailored perspective on writing for each of their varied fields. Moreover, research tells us that student writing development happens recursively over time, and writing is one of our most powerful pedagogical tools for engaged learning. Writing, then, works on two pedagogical levels for our students: (1) write-to-learn, which describes writing as a tool for thinking and engagement, and (2) learn-to-write, which describes writing as a tool to communicate within and across our disciplines.

Researching how these two pedagogical approaches work is the purview of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), a scholarly and programmatic endeavor situated at the intersection of Education and Writing Studies. WAC scholars study how disciplinary knowledge is created and shared through writing, and they also consider how disciplinary values become embedded in a discipline’s written genres. Perhaps most importantly, WAC scholars use their research about how writing works in different academic disciplines (or subject-specific workplaces) to better support faculty who integrate and teach writing in their courses for both write-to-learn and learn-to-write approaches. Integrating and teaching writing is easier said than done: Just because one can write as a philosopher does not necessarily mean one knows how to teach others how to write as a philosopher. WAC scholars identify this phenomenon as the difference between “practical knowledge” (knowing how to do something) and “discoursal knowledge” (being able to articulate the doing). Thus, as a curricular reform movement, WAC programs across U.S. and international universities often take on initiatives such as faculty workshops and writing-intensive course management. At Wake Forest, Dr. Zak Lancaster has already begun this work with the Writing Associates Seminar. Based on similar projects completed at other universities, Dr. Alisa Russell was hired in 2020 with the charge of collaborating with Dr. Lancaster to expand these initiatives.

This primary research project, then, is designed to collect more information from a wide range of Wake faculty about how writing is understood, assigned, taught, and assessed across the disciplines. Before we can move about shaping an upper-level writing requirement, we first have to know faculty goals for student writers and the challenges they face in reaching those goals – all of which will most likely vary across disciplines. What do chemistry faculty want their students to be able to write (or do through writing), and how might these goals differ from or overlap with goals in music, sociology, and business? In other words, we need to build curricula based on research findings, so this study will most likely shift or refine what kind of vertically scaffolded writing instruction is needed for students as they move through the Wake curriculum. In this study, we are especially interested in uncovering how classroom writing assignments – such as lab reports, observational reports, concert reviews, press releases, research papers, etc. – relate to their “real world” counterparts that faculty write in their daily work. These findings will help close the gap between practice and discoursal knowledge.

Overall, this study is crucial first step in developing a range of WAC initiatives at Wake Forest. In a recent but already landmark book in the field, Sustainable WAC, the authors emphasize that WAC initiatives are only sustainable if scholars begin with an “understanding” phase, which includes determining the campus mood around writing, mapping institutional systems, and noting various ideologies toward writing. Only after this thorough investigation should WAC leaders move on to planning concrete initiatives, curricula, or programs.