In Sight of New Vistas

In Sight of New Vistas

photo_pamela_fletcher_200px.jpgRe-Visioning The Teaching of Using Sources in Academic Writing

On November 15 and 16, 2012, I attended a small and worthwhile writing conference, “New Vistas: WAC/WID Intersections in the 21st Century,” at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. As the title indicates, the focus of the conference was on the fitting connections between writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in the disciplines (WID). 

The conference entailed a one-day schedule of 12 well described and compelling one-hour panel presentations organized in the following six groups:  General WAC/WID; Humanities and Social Sciences; Math and Natural Sciences; First-year Writing; Composition and Rhetoric; and, Research and Documentation.   As you may imagine, I had a challenging time deciding which presentations to attend.  Eventually, I chose to attend those grouped in General WAC/WID.

Prior to the Saturday schedule, I had the opportunity to attend the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) meeting on Friday afternoon.  Twenty faculty, who are in the process of launching or directing new writing programs in Northeast area colleges and universities, met to discuss their successes and challenges, and to confer with each other.

For me, this NEWACC meeting laid the foundation for the imminent conference, as it offered insight into the common challenges writing program directors encounter, ranging from budgetary constraints, to faculty development matters, to academic integrity issues. At some point during the meeting, we participated in small groups to discuss mutual concerns. 

The NEWACC meeting also included a beneficial informal talk—at each quarterly meeting, someone presents on a problem or a solution to a problem—that propelled the group’s discussion. At this meeting, Suzanne Lane, Acting Director for WAC at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), reported on the work MIT WAC faculty did to address academic integrity issues.  They decided that taking a pedagogical approach rather than a punitive one would promote student learning.            They piloted a two-hour workshop, “Academic Writing with Sources,” and offered it in various settings, like first-year orientation. The workshop presented neither a lecture nor remedial instruction, but a survey that sparked discussion of what students didn’t know about citing sources.

At one session, even though they were targeting undergraduate students, only graduate students attended. A total of 60, or 20 percent of the attendees (40 undergraduate and 20 graduate), reported that they knew nothing about documenting sources in their writing. Additionally, they reported that they enjoyed and appreciated the casual delivery of the workshop information. 

Subsequently, instructors began inviting the WAC faculty to their classes to distribute and discuss the survey. Given these propitious invitations, the writing faculty reached an additional 150 students. Ultimately, the pilot resulted in the survey becoming embedded in the curriculum of the first-year seminar.

In light of teaching students how to document sources in academic writing, on Saturday morning, I attended a panel presentation that both puzzled and delighted me. Cecelia Musselman, who teaches writing in the sciences at Northeastern University, gave us a handout that stated on one side, “Do not flip this over yet.”   Of course, we couldn’t wait to do so!  She explained that we had to undergo trepidation like her students, who were given the upcoming assignment. After a few seconds, Dr. Musselman permitted us to turn the sheet over and to read the following directions:  Write a Wikipedia article—one that does not exist.  Put your first three steps here. 

Several of us gasped.  What in the world?  Some of us laughed.  Those of us who frown on students’ use of Wikipedia had to recover quickly to get the assignment done. 

At the end of five minutes, Dr. Musselman had persuaded most of us of the merit of assigning a Wikipedia research paper that students could opt to publish.  She guided us quickly through Wikipedia’s specific criteria for searching among four million articles to find topics that have yet to be covered. She also revealed the extensive instructions for good writing and correct citation of sources.

Moreover, Dr. Musselman informed me that now scientists regard Wikipedia highly because they are able to quickly publish high-quality, up-to-the minute, peer-reviewed research that would soon became dated if they had to wait to publish in traditional academic presses.

Despite struggling with incredulity, I gradually gained respect for this free, public source of collaboratively written information. Now, I could imagine Wikipedia serving as a captivating teaching tool. My brain swirled with ideas. That day, I left Quinnipiac eager to teach better and to think differently! I return to St. Kate’s with a renewed mind.

Sources:

  • Writing Across the Curriculum Conferences  
  • Lane, Suzanne. “Academic Writing with Sources.”Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) Meeting. Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut. 16 Nov. 2012.  Presentation.
  • Musselman, Cecelia. “The Advanced Writing in the Discipline Course: Merging Critical and Disciplinary Thinking.” Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut. 17 Nov. 2012. Panel Presentation for Conference, New Vistas: WAC/WID Intersections in the 21st Century.

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