While Mason's recent U.S. News ranking as the number one school to watch attracted widespread excitement and interest, Mason's Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program was quietly making history in the listings as well.
For the seventh consecutive year, Mason was included in an elite slate of schools that “typically make the writing process a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum,” according to U.S. News.
Mason is one of only 23 schools — and one of only nine public institutions — highlighted in “Writing in the Disciplines,” one of the special categories under “Academic Programs to Look for” in U.S. News’ “America's Best Colleges 2009.”
According to the publication, in these schools, “Students are encouraged to produce and refine various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines.”
How Does Writing Get into a Biology Course?
The simple answer is: with a lot of hard work by faculty members in the discipline and a lot of support from the WAC program and a university-wide WAC Committee that has representatives from each major academic unit.
Since 1977, when Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum program first took shape, resources available to the faculty have steadily increased, and the idea that even majors outside of the humanities should stress writing has become entrenched.
A milestone was reached in 1995, when upper-division writing-intensive courses in the major were developed and undergraduates were required to take at least one such course. Undergraduates must also take, or test out of, two English composition courses, one of which is an upper-division course focused on writing in disciplines. In addition, Mason has a number of “writing infused” disciplines in which almost all courses stress writing.
A hallmark of these courses is the practice of providing feedback and requiring revision, sometimes more than once, so that students can learn from mistakes and refine and improve their writing.
With assistance from WAC, the faculty has also developed writing guides that reflect goals specific to the major — for example, the ability to write clear lab notes and develop articulate summaries of scientific findings for a biology course or make arguments in a philosophy course.
All of these efforts are supported on an ongoing basis by Center for Teaching Excellence/WAC workshops for faculty, the Writing@Center newsletter and resources listed on the recently redesigned WAC web site.
Staff support includes Terry Myers Zawacki, who heads WAC and directs the University Writing Center; and half-time assistant director Sarah Baker. Sue Durham is special WAC liaison for the College of Health and Human Services.
Writing Help in Person and Online
In addition to stressing writing in the disciplines, Mason offers students free tutoring at writing centers on all the campuses (with several locations on the Fairfax Campus). The centers are staffed with English Department graduate students and select undergraduate tutors in various majors across the curriculum.
According to Zawacki, undergraduate peer tutors currently include majors in administration of justice, anthropology, biology, economics, history, management and Spanish.
Tutoring is also available online: Students submit papers and a tutor will review them and make suggestions.
To reward good writing, many Mason academic units annually present student writing excellence awards. Writing Center tutors are also eligible to become writing fellows. In these competitively selected positions, the fellows work with student writers in a specific course under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
But Does It Work?
That's a question that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the commonwealth’s coordinating body for higher education, wanted answered.
WAC had been assessing parts of the program since the mid-1990s, but in 2000, Mason set up a cross-disciplinary committee, the Writing Assessment Group, to develop a formal process for assessing student competence in writing. Zawacki and Karen Gentemann, associate provost for institutional effectiveness, co-chair this group.
Implemented in 2001, the process has become a model recognized by the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Council of Teachers of English. The key has been having the assessment tailored to the discipline. The assessment results, in turn, are provided to the faculty and used to develop learning objectives for each discipline's writing program.
Students are also asked to assess how well the program is working. A 2006-07 survey of graduating seniors showed that 90 percent thought that the writing assignments in upper level courses had increased their understanding of their field either “a great deal” (52 percent) or “somewhat” (38 percent).
In addition, a majority reported that the feedback and revision in the courses had helped to improve their writing and their confidence as writers.
A National Reputation to Maintain
When asked why she believes Mason’s WAC program has remained on the U.S. News list year after year, Zawacki says, “We have a solid program, and, because of the efforts of committed faculty and administration, we have established a culture of writing across the university. This culture includes extracurricular units such as the library, University Life, Career Services and the Center for Teaching Excellence, for example.”
Secondarily, Zawacki credits the efforts she and others have made in the larger community of writing academicians.
“We have been concerned with getting the program out there for the public and letting people know about the variety of resources, including assessment resources, that we offer on our web site.”
She adds, “Another reason Mason is known nationally is because of
the wonderful teaching with writing so many of our faculty do, as well
as the e-portfolio work being done by New Century College.”
Zawacki, who has led the WAC program since 1998, is active in the field, publishing extensively and serving on editorial and advisory boards for WAC-related journals and supplementary textbook materials.
However, Zawacki admits that having attained national recognition, working to keep it “can be a little stressful.”
“Getting your program out there takes time, and it can be hard to find the time when you’re working day to day to maintain and enhance the program for internal constituencies, not to mention all those external audiences.”
December 16, 2008