The Excelsior OWL Takes on Writing in the Disciplines

Francesco Crocco

Dr. Francesco Crocco is the Director of the Online Writing Lab at Excelsior College.

by Dr. Francesco Crocco

The Excelsior OWL recently launched a new section on Writing in the Disciplines (WID), which supports the teaching of genre-specific writing and reading skills. Developed in partnership with Excelsior’s Writing Across the Curriculum initiative, the new WID section debuts with resources targeting genres in the healthcare professions, such as care plans, case studies, community health literature, health policy statements, patient education literature, and SOAP notes. In keeping with the Excelsior OWL’s signature style, each unit features interactive multimedia (e.g., videos, online activities, and handouts), and all materials are open education resources (OERs) completely free to the public. These OER resources enable students to deepen their understanding of discipline-specific content and improve career readiness by learning to read and write genres with real-world applications.

WID originated as a branch of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), an initiative that supports faculty in developing and applying effective writing assignments as instructional tools. Often, the two are conflated or referred to jointly as WAC/WID. Since the 1970s, WAC/WID programs have become institutionalized across the nation, with surveys suggesting that more than half of U.S. colleges and universities have one (Thaiss & Porter, 2010). These programs support faculty in applying the dual strategies of writing-to-learn and learning-to-write.

Writing-to-learn is an offshoot of expressivist and constructivist theories that promote the cognitive value of writing for deepening understanding of disciplinary content. Thus, writing-to-learn often focuses on the application of informal writing assignments, such as journaling or reader response, to deepen learning by promoting reflection and self-expression.

Learning-to-write, on the other hand, has a longer, more established pedigree. Traditionally, writing programs focused on teaching students how to write academic essays. However, WAC re-tooled the learning-to-write strategy by focusing on the teaching of discipline-specific writing genres, an approach that is commonly referred to as WID. With a WID approach to learning-to-write, writing instruction is embedded in content courses so that students are taught to write in the genres and rhetorical modes specific to a particular discipline. So, for instance, a student in a nursing course might practice writing SOAP notes or care plans, while a student in a business course might practice writing a business report or market prospective.

WID has the advantage of better preparing students for the specific types of written communication valued in the workforce. According to a joint study conducted by the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management, written communication is the most frequently reported deficiency for high school, two-year, and four-year graduates entering the workforce (2006). By embedding the teaching of reading and writing skills in real-world genres that are more accessible to students and more relevant for their eventual careers, WID offers a practical solution for addressing this deficiency.

Despite the ubiquity of WAC/WID programs and the any practical applications that these programs offer for career readiness, academic writing continues to focus on the teaching of essays and the standard rhetorical modes (e.g., narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive). This discrepancy is evident in the fact that most writing instruction is still assigned to freshman-level English composition courses that teach the standard academic essay. It is also evident in the lack of comprehensive online resources to support genre-based writing. A survey of the top online writing labs reveals that, while there are some resources on subject-specific writing, these resources are minimal and ancillary to the main function of supporting standard essay writing.

WAC/WID has taken on a new urgency in the last few years with the release and adoption of a new set of national writing and reading outcomes clearly inspired by the tenets of WAC/WID. In 2014, the Council of Writing Program Administrators approved an outcomes statement that makes genre-based reading and writing instruction central to the work of first-year composition programs. For instance, one of the outcomes specifies that by the end of first-year composition students will, “Gain experience reading and composing in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes” (2014). While these outcomes are meant to spur reforms in traditional first-year composition courses, the emphasis on genre-based approaches to writing and reading instruction revives WID and makes it central to the practice of mainstream writing instruction. As colleges and universities seek to implement these new outcomes, educators and program administrators will increasingly find themselves looking for free WID resources to support faculty in meeting these outcomes.

The new WID resources provided by the Excelsior OWL arrive just in time to help educators and administrators achieve these outcomes. Although the current offerings are limited to healthcare genres, plans are afoot to expand the WID section to include resources targeting genres in business, professional and technical writing, and STEM. The Excelsior OWL will also expand its Educator Resources Guide to include more support for educators interested in devising effective genre-based writing assignments. In the meantime, visit the new Writing in the Disciplines section of the Excelsior OWL to sample the new open education resources.

References

The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf

Council of Writing Program Administrators. (2014). WPA outcomes statement for first-year composition (3.0), approved July 17, 2014. Retrieved from http://wpacouncil.org/positions/outcomes.html.

Thaiss, C. & Porter, T. (2010). The state of WAC/WID in 2010: Methods and results of the U.S. survey of the international WAC/WID mapping project. College Composition and Communication, 61(3), 524–70.