Whenever I talk about the kinds of changes that will make the modern university more responsivel to the age we live in now and less rooted in the standardization, regulation, enforcement, and assessment model prized by the Taylorist Industrial Age, people think I want to throw out the baby, the bathwater, and everything else.
Actually, in many situations, we have lots to build on and lots that is an easy win---even before we examining that bathwater and its baby.
Here's an example I used at a wonderful event at Washington State University Vancouver that really resonated with some people: many universities already have "writing across the curriculum" programs. To my mind, WAC programs are, often, an important conceptual improvement upon more traditional rhetoric programs. The rationale for WAC programs is that one needs to communicate well in writing whether one is a software programer, a lawyer, a nurse, or a would-be English professor. It's a complex skill, in other words, that has been identified as important for the world we are living in.
Well, yes. I agree. And the very important objective of "writing across the curriculum" has been conceived precisely to dislodge students from earlier, formulaic forms of writing such as the five-paragraph essay building, eventually, towards the final research paper. Neither the five-paragraph essay nor the research paper has much intellectual shelf life as a form beyond graduation (no matter how fabulous an experience it may be while in the classroom). Especially in the model where a student writes a paper, gives it to a prof, the prof grades it, makes comments, and gives the paper back to the student, we have an important skill that is rendered less important by limitations of audience.
So starting from a WAC foundation that learning to write well is an important life-long educational objective, the next step is writing in public in different fields, writing with engagement about topics that matter, and learning to take feedback from others who are also engaged in public discourse. The act of writing in public breaks the writing classroom out of a process and circuit and audience that can sometimes be too insular, too hot house, where the person teaching the writing is the only person grading and commenting on that writing, or when the only readers who are not teachers are in the class, hearing the same lessons in writing.
In the real world (I say this as a writer, now), you learn to write for an audience you may never meet. In the real world, if your writing doesn't have a purpose, no one is being paid to read it, grade it, write comments. And in the real world, people who read you may not share your assumptions, may know something you do not, may have different areas of awareness or different blindspots, and thus challenge you in a way that is different (not necessarily better but different) than the way writing is critiqued in the controlled setting of a classroom. You have to capture the attention of a potential reader with compelling writing, narrative, logic, research, substance, ideas, all that when you send your writing out into the world.
Writing in the world beyond the university isn't about fulfilling an assignment, it is about communicating what one has to communicate to the person to whom one needs to communicate, in the best possible way given the nature of that interaction and relationship. There won't be a "professor" there compelled to read because that's his/her job.
So, whether you are in a great and inventive new program or one still tied to earlier rhetorical models or one that is a little bit of both (like most things in our world), but if you are not now having students write online, then why not Writing (In Public) Across the Curriculum? In other words, one does not have to rush wholesale into "digital humanities" or "web literacy" or other new areas to make a change that can still be profound. If you are already having students write well for a larger online public, you can ignore this--or, much better yet, tell us what you are doing and how. Send us links so we can learn from you. If, on the other hand, you have not made changes in your rhetorical model, think about what might happen in your classes to be having students writing in public in a serious, engaged way. It can make a difference in small and large ways.
To my mind, some of the best ways of writing in public are ones where students enter into ongoing and urgent conversations already happening on line--or try to bring about a high-level intellectual exchange on a subject of urgent interest to others beyond their classroom. The simplest way is to create a blog or have your students create one. Many writing programs now use Blackboard or other programs for online writing. I mean something bolder, something out there in the world, whether comments to a New York Times piece or to the Huffington Post or elsewhere. Or possibly by finding partners at other universities where critical pairing can be meaningful.
The point is not to simply use the online writing to be the same thing as older forms of essay writing to be discussed in small groups. It is to think about what and where online writing happens and how to go from online writing to online interaction. For example, I wrote this hastily, in O'Hare, waiting for a plane, a pretty casual way to write a blog post--and it showed. Someone on Twitter critiqued it for setting up "Writing Up the Curriculum" programs and "five-paragraph essays" as "strawmen." I was shocked by that because I am a fan of WAC and think of it as an alternative to traditional rhetoric. So somewhere in moving from gate G1 to G1B, I lost a train of thought and communicated a negative when I had meant to communicate a foundation to build on and an invitation to invite those already engaged in public writing to please share their ideas, syllabi, and so forth. I was pretty shocked, actually, when I went back and read what I wrote through the eyes of those who critiqued it. (And here is where having a prof or an editor would have been useful--that was not A writing. It was definitely 'revise and resubmit!')
Fortunately, this blog post exemplifies exactly what it preaches. A lot of students write with even more distraction and interuption than I did, starting and stopping between gates and announcements. But I had Twitter followers who offered a critique and so did a reader in one of the comments below. Derek Mueller wanted to know "which programs" still used the old five-paragraph rhetorical structure--and I realized I was not hitting the mark. That helpful critique made me aware of something I was not aware of when I wrote the blog: that somehow the blog had come off as a critique of WAC and not as a way of building on it. And, fortunately, because I wrote this as a blog, I have taken that critique to heart and written this revision. [NB: In a different circumstance, I would have used a Google Doc or a different tracking system so people could see how I revised this blog. I'm simply editing here because we have the stats and far more people will read this post than will read the comments so I'm trying to "perform" the process of interactive revision, even though the affordances of this blogging tool don't really allow that very well.]
We live in a world of the Internet where now anyone with access to an Internet connection can publish instantly to anyone else in the world with an internet connection and without an editor. How are we teaching our students to live in this world? I am suggesting that "Writing (in Public) Across the Curriculum " is one excellent way to gain practice and become better in this skill of public communication and interaction. In a world of trolls, in a world of appalling cable news broadcasting where "debate" can often be yelling past one another, learning to give and take constructive feedback in public is a skill we all need to master. In a world of high-stakes end-of-grade testing, learning iterative thinking is more valuable than ever (and way undertaught).
Writing for a teacher or even for classmates is one kind of writing. Going public changes the writing itself. Sure, if you favor the five-paragraph essay or a research paper, you can still make that kind of formal academic writing a requirement. But, typically, writing and reading online changes the way we write--and that, too, is worth discussing and investigating. Text, for example, is only one of many online communicative forms. Even the most staid prof might ask why the post doesn't have some images, or a sound or two, or even shorter paragraphs.
Form and function. That's what can be added by writing in public across the curriculum. There is nothing standardized about great writing. There's a lot that is real and important about great writing. Think about that! Certainly this little blog post was improved by the critique from Derek (see Comments below) and on Twitter. Thanks, everyone!
Maybe Writing (in Public) Across the Curriculum doesn't seem like much of a revolution, but it is a beginning. And a good one. And if you already have a fabulous program, that does address the kinds of concerns that I'm alluding to here, please use the Comments section below to tell us about what you are doing. To my mind, that is the whole purpose of writing in public: we learn from one another and grow.
---A final note: It can be brutal and dispiriting entering the fray in the comments section of the New York Times or the Chronicle of Higher Education or Huffington Post . . . and not everyone wants to build an entire website or use the university tool. One reason we created hastac.org as an open community is to offer people an easy and respectful community in which to discuss and explore new ideas.
Over 100+ Groups on HASTAC use this forum to communicate with one another and the world and anyone is invited to use it for a class, as many people do. If you need help getting started, please use the FEEDBACK button and our Program Director will be in touch. HASTAC of course is free and does not use your data for commercial purposes. You can toggle to make your blog post private to just your group or public to the world. And if you tweet it with an @CathyNDavidson or @HASTAC, if we see it we will retweet it to thousands. So something I often do is write a response to a NYT or other article on hastac.org and put that "Response to NYT" in my title so I can tweet it easily and encourage a dialogue, both on the blog and on Twitter. We made Groups for this interactive purpose and hope that, in the next iteration of hastac.org, this function will be made even easier and more welcoming.