A very WAC program (Brooklyn College)

The City University of New York’s Brooklyn College has a wonderful Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program. I found this particular college’s WAC program as most of us did: Google. The first thing that impressed me about this particular program at Brooklyn College (BC) was that their website was on WordPress. Now, we have all been using WordPress for our blogs and that works great. But a campus using WordPress? It seemed very open-source to me. At least very against the grain if you will. So, I perused Brooklyn College’s WAC blog (no pun intended) to see what I would find. As well as looking through the program online, I also had the opportunity to exchange some emails and questions with the co-coordinator of BC’s WAC program, Dr. Ellen Belton. When the dust and emails had settled, what I found was a college that is dedicated to using writing as a tool for educational use across the curriculum. Brooklyn College is forward thinking, and I think it is evident that BC cares about its students and strives to make their educational journey a successful one by looking at what their WAC program is doing.

I suppose I should first establish some history about the program. I did not find much about their past program on the website so I asked Dr. Belton how the program had changed through the years. Here is her response:

When Brooklyn College underwent major structural and curricular changes in the late 1970’s and introduced its Core Curriculum, a “writing across the core” requirement was one element of the new curriculum. The annual Core faculty development seminars, which originally lasted for several days, generally included sessions on writing to learn and other topics that are based on WAC principles. In the 1980’s the college revived its Writing Center, which provided tutoring for undergraduate and master’s students, and this facility ultimately expanded to become what is now the Learning Center. There were no Writing Fellows, but a number of English MA students were hired as master tutors. They worked with students, not with faculty. During my tenure as dean of undergraduate studies from 1995-2005, I ran an annual semester-long faculty development seminar, and two or three of these focused on writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines.

The current WAC program was introduced in 2000 under a university-wide initiative. Each campus was encouraged to develop its own version of WAC, but the common denominator was that the CUNY Graduate Center would provide six Writing Fellowships for each campus; the WFs are fourth and fifth year doctoral candidates at the Grad Center. The selection process is competitive, and we always look for candidates from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds (though we generally have two from English). In the past, the fellowships were two-year appointments, though reappointment for the second year was not automatic. This meant that each year there would be three first-year and three second-year fellows. To the great disappointment of all the CUNY WAC coordinators, the terms of the fellowship have just been changed to one year only, which means that the entire cohort will be new to the program each year.

As you see, BC has initiated many programs that we have come across from our class readings: faculty seminars, a writing/learning center, and a core curriculum. I’d like to say something brief about the seminars. When I read about Beaver College’s beginning stages of what would be called “faculty development,” I had no idea how far-reaching this idea was nor how quickly it spread. Every campus with a WAC program dating to the 70s or 80s that I looked at included some form of faculty development almost immediately in their program. However, what I found interesting about BC’s faculty development seminars was Dr. Belton’s implementation of semester-long development seminars. I’m interested to know how these influenced teaching pedagogy. I’ll update this post if I get any additional information on the subject.

The Writing Fellows (WF) are the most interesting aspect of BC’s program to me. BC’s WAC webpage says, “Brooklyn College Writing Fellows are part of a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative to encourage the use of writing as a tool for learning in every discipline.” In one of my blog posts I described them as “WAC ambassadors”. More recently in class, I called WFs a “Power Ranger WAC force”. I think either of these descriptions is accurate. As Dr. Belton said in the above history of BC WAC, each campus of the City University of New York has six Writing Fellows. A unique characteristic of WFs at BC is that they work with faculty.

The Writing Fellows have greatly enhanced the understanding and implementation of WAC pedagogy and principles on our campus. Although many of our sister colleges use the WFs primarily as tutors, we at BC have chosen to focus on having them work with faculty and departments. Two of the signatures of our program are the “mini-lessons” and the series of workshops open to all full and part time faculty. (email from Belton)

Brooklyn College utilizes WFs to mingle throughout campus departments, make connections to other faculty, and generally facilitate WAC development over a broad spectrum of schools, departments, and faculty. As BC’s page describes it, “the primary mission for Writing Fellows at Brooklyn College, as at most senior colleges, is to help faculty more effectively incorporate discipline-specific writing practices in their teaching. The aim is to embed WAC institutionally and to help faculty absorb WAC practices and culture.” Another interesting thing about the WF program is that, “WFs are fourth and fifth year doctoral candidates at the Grad Center. The selection process is competitive, and we always look for candidates from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds (though we generally have two from English”(previous quote from Dr. Belton). By not restricting the WFs to only English-majors, BC increases the WFs outreach and educational power. They are familiar faces in departments all across campus. Therefore, some of the footwork has already been done before a WF ever gets hired. This increases interdepartmental connections immensely. Simply, WFs are an integral part of the WAC program at Brooklyn College. The webpage states that WFs have worked with 29 of the 31 departments at Brooklyn College. That’s a very impressive statistic! Now, WFs do all this wonderful outreach through various methods. For example, WFs work with faculty, undergraduate departments, and with students.

(The following bullet points are the direct quotes from BC’s WAC webpage.)

  • Faculty – Writing Fellows assist faculty who want help to better integrate writing into their courses. This includes: assisting with revising writing assignments, modeling the peer revision process, working with faculty to develop low stakes writing exercises, helping faculty devise more efficient protocols for responding to student writing, and creating specialized workshops to help faculty learn more about using writing effectively in the classroom. (Priority is given to faculty teaching a writing-intensive or a Core course for the first time.) Fellows are not permitted to teach (other than workshops) or to grade student papers.

I like how WFs assist faculty develop writing assignments and rubrics for their courses. I’m at the cusp of teaching and I can testify that grading writing seems very daunting. I can only imagine that this is even more daunting for professors that have been teaching for years and don’t want to give up their authority or knowledge by admitting they do not know how to grade writing. The book I reviewed had a chapter in which the authors asked how professors could give up their centrality and authority without giving up their expertise. By empowering teachers to take on new assignments (writing assignments), they may retain their subject-expertise while giving the students a chance to collaboratively learn (assuming the writing projects use some kind of peer work, etc). The workshops mentioned here are the aforementioned signature workshops Belton mentions.

  • Undergraduate departments – as word has spread about the excellent work done by previous Fellows, deans, chairs, and groups of faculty are requesting help to further embed writing in their curricula. Fellows meet with the initiating parties and plan how they might best work with the program. In 2006-7 two Fellows worked extensively in the School of Education, especially with faculty teaching its gateway course. In 2007-8 two Fellows and the coordinators met with eight members of the Speech Communications Department to discuss how Fellows might best help them improve their students’ writing, and the Fellows now work directly with some of those faculty.

Working with departments is equally important as working with individual faculty. In this capacity, WFs can help departments initiate writing programs or new curricula. WFs work to instill core-WAC principles into department pedagogy so that the WAC program is unified and cohesive. This is where I think of WFs as a “Power Ranger WAC Taskforce”. An elite group of educators seeking out writing injustice across the system, showing departments how to defend themselves against bad composition, and finally leaving with justice being served. Belton gave me some additional information about these faculty workshops. For example, WFs develop and run four annual all-day workshops for full and part time faculty. Two of the titles for this year’s workshops are “Five Tools Every Teacher Can Use” and “Writing in the Digital Age.” WFs also run seminars over the summer. Two WFs teach a three-day seminar in the summer that covers WAC principles and pedagogy. They also run miscellaneous workshops throughout the semester. As you can see, WFs are pivotal in faculty training and awareness of WAC.

  • Students – Fellows often present 20-30 minute modules on specific aspects of writing, such as various skills needed to write the research paper. The aim is for the Fellows to model these presentations in class so as to indirectly “teach” the faculty members how to present these topics themselves in the future. (We fondly refer to this practice as “stealth pedagogy.”)

I -loved- this idea. Many WAC programs prefer that professors give lectures on writing, campus databases, citation, MLA/APA guidelines/etc, and other things pertaining to writing for the college. However, some professors do not necessarily know the newest MLA guidelines or specific grammar rules. This “stealth pedagogy” program allows professors to be taught without having to have a training session. Faculty members can learn how to teach a specific skill to students all from the comfort of their own classrooms. Many of these “mini-lessons” are available on their blog I asked Dr. Belton specifically about this program and this is what she said.

Overall, I would say that the “stealth pedagogy” (we never call it that in our communications with faculty) has been quite successful. Follow-up with faculty who requested mini-lessons and attended workshops indicates that many of them have changed the ways in which they incorporate writing into their courses and in which they respond to their students’ writing. One of the most frequent comments about the value of the workshops is that the participants felt that they left with practical tools and products that they could put to immediate use in their classes. We do find that a few instructors ask for repeated versions of mini-lessons, which we try to discourage, but we try to empower faculty to present these lessons themselves by making fairly detailed scripts and handouts available for them.

It sounds phenomenal doesn’t it? I think it’s a great idea to give professors detailed scripts of the lessons so that they learn to give them in class without WFs. It sounds very open source doesn’t it? What would the copyleft people say? Of course they’d love it! In all seriousness though, this is a fantastic program that seems to really benefit not only the faculty but the students as well. The wonderful part of this entire quote is, “participants felt that they left with practical tools and products that they could put to immediate use in their classes.” In 20-30 minutes an entire teaching tool can be giving to an educator whether it is teaching citations or catching grammar mistakes. That’s a wonderful return on time investment if you ask me. I suggested this on my own campus, and I’m hoping we can get a similar program on its feet soon!

However, don’t be lead into believing that WFs are simply high-ranking tutors. They are professionals working in their own fields. Brooklyn College invests a lot of resources into the WFs to assure that they are effective and successful both at BC and later on in their professional careers. The WF page says that they have training and seminars. Incoming WFs are mentored early in the fall semester. They read “canonical WAC articles” and also use resources written by other WFs that are archived on the WF website. I asked Dr. Belton if she could tell me what were some of the specific “canonical” texts that incoming WFs are assigned to read. She was more than happy to fill me in.

We generally try to have the WFs read and discuss one or two WAC-related articles at each of our weekly meetings during the fall semester. Our “bible” is John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, and we give copies not only to all new fellows but to the faculty who attend our workshops… Other readings that we’ve selected include Susan McLeod’s Pedagogy of WAC, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the oppressed, Peter Elbow’s High Stakes Low Stakes, Ann Raimes’s Errors: Windows into the Mind, Nancy Sommers’ Responding to Student Writing, Vivian Zamel’s Strangers in Academia, Eleanor Kutz’s From Outsider to Insider, and Toby Fulwiler’s Why We Teach Writing in the First Place.

As you can see, the WFs are well taught before being given the reigns. There are some great articles in that quote. The John Bean book is pretty great. I have a copy myself (that I haven’t, but should, read all the way through). As well as weekly meetings and readings, WFs in the WAC program also have professional development. Guest speakers give discussions on topics such as ESL teaching and learning communities. WFs also have meetings where they share professional concerns and advice. The WFs are constantly in contact with one another and thinking collaboratively. I believe that this constant group reinforcement is the thing that makes the program so effective. Ideas are encouraged to be shared. Sharing is pivotal in a WAC program (copyleft anyone?) and Brooklyn College’s program is full of it.

Brooklyn College’s WAC program also consists of a Learning Center. The BC LC (that has a nice ring to it!) sees around three-thousand students per year. Yikes! That is a lot of students! The Learning Center has a website that includes online tutorials for a few specific courses. The tutorials range from the small FAQ of writing to a complete webpage for computer sciences. They have scheduled tutoring sessions as well. Most of the LC content and information is the same as other LCs I’ve read about. However, the Brooklyn College Learning Center’s tutors offer group-tutoring. I found this very cool. I wonder if these group-sessions mirror the WFs mini-lessons in the way they are setup. As a tutor who has periodically had a series of students come in for the same class, I really see the benefit of a group-session. In this sense the tutor could address similar problems across a wide spectrum of students without losing time in repetition of ideas. A good LC is a valuable asset to a WAC program. Having one-on-one help from someone that is not necessarily in the authoritative position (like a professor) gives students a whole other view of education. The LC at Brooklyn College seems well organized and has some very helpful programs such as the online tutorial pages.

Overall, I was very impressed with the WAC program at Brooklyn College. They offer over 30 writing-intensive courses and have seven writing-intensive majors (with two upcoming). The Writing Fellows at BC make the WAC program unique. I’m impressed with how BC utilizes the talents of WFs to reach out to various departments and schools within the college. I am also impressed with how much work the WFs accomplish in helping initiate new programs and empowering professors to utilize writing in their courses. Dr. Ellen Belton was happy to reply to my emails, and I thank her for that. BC’s WAC program appears to be a well-oiled machine that is capable of educating its educators and its students with resources from every nook and cranny of the academic program, and I am honored to have been able to discuss what they have been able to achieve.

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