Book Review

Okay, where do I begin?  This book was just a wealth of information and I enjoyed every page.  Originally I thought I would outline the book chapter by chapter, but then I thought I did not want to have to follow a chapter by chapter outline.  Maybe I want to J                  M

                                                                              U                       P around in the book!  So I think I will but first let get some class requirements out of the way.  In the Long Run:  A Study of Faculty in Three Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs is available on Open-Access Books on the WAC ClearinghouseThe book can be purchased in print format from the NCTE online bookstore for $10 for members and non-members.  The book was authored by Barbara E. Walvoord, Linda Lawrence Hunt, H. FiI Dowling Jr., Joan D. McMahon, with contributions by Virginia Slachman and Lisa Udel and published by the NCTE  in 1997.  Now let’s get to the meat of the matter.

Just as the title says this book is a study of three WAC programs.  Included in “the study” was not only data collected from 1993-95, but also “bodies of data” that was collected earlier, during periods of years at the individual institutions. In the beginning of the book the authors focused on research that had been done in the past and methods used to answer the question “What happens to WAC participants in the long run?”  However, they felt that the methods used by previous researchers to obtain the answer to this question were problematic.

Three Major Bodies of WAC Outcome Research

Match-to-sample surveys – based largely on faculty self-reports suggested that some faculty use WAC strategies after workshops.  Problem: “raises serious questions about the role of the researcher, the value of faculty self-report, the ‘training’ model, who defines what is ‘good’ practice, power in the teacher-researcher relationship, and the meaning and value of faculty change”

Open-ended Questions – faculty asked open-ended questions about change and WAC’s role in causing  or “spurring” change.  Problem:  “such broad questions aboutchange and improvement is that they lack informative detail about the complexity of classrooms and faculty lives”

Case Studies – “valuable in showing the complexity of classroom situations; some are cast in the ‘testimonial’ showing how faculty moved through resistance to adoption.”  Problem:  “still assume the match-to-sample paradigm-the researcher defines what is good practice, and the focus of the study is to discover why that good practice was not implemented”

“All three groups of studies, we believe, ignore teachers’ ‘wisdom of practice;’ their ‘practitioner knowledge;’ the power of their personal vision for their students and themselves; and their right to determine the path of their own career-long development. Further, as McCarthy and Fisher say ‘We believe that educational research has too long focused on teachers’ supposedly reproducible behaviors while excluding their voices’ (14).

I agree with everything they have outlined in this quote.  The WAC workshops serve as an aide to help teachers come up with varying ways to reach their students — every student in every discipline. However, not all instructors are going to follow the script as outlined by the WAC program at their schools. And they very well shouldn’t because not all WAC practices are going to be beneficial in every classroom.  No two classes are alike and certainly no two students are alike.  Here’s the key:  find what works for you and your students. It may be WAC it may not, but you have to do something to reach your students.

Who was included in the study?

University of Cincinnati (“Papa Bear”) – largest college in the study with 36,00 students; WAC program began in 1989 but at the time of the study they did not have a WI course requirement

Towson State University (“Mama Bear”) – second largest college in the study with 15,000 students; WAC program began in 1976; WI course requirement since 1976

Whitworth College (“Baby Bear”) – smallest college in the study with 2,000 students; WAC program began in 1987; WI requirement since 1987, plus team-taught CORE courses with writing component

In our research, we have assumed that there would be no absolute “truth” about the impact of WAC, but that many observers and participants might legitimately construct different interpretations (20).

I think that was a safe assumption to make.  Let’s face it not everyone is going to jump on the WAC band wagon.  In fact, many may feel that all WAC is doing is confirming what they had said years before — they just said it to themselves and no one else.  I mean really, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out.  More student-centered activities — everybody writes, peer review, and collaborative exercises — are naturally going to increase student involvement right?  Right!  But the problem is that not all instructors know how to construct these assignments or implement them into their classrooms.  This is where WAC with all of its WACINESS comes in.  The WAC program provides the “community” for all of this to take place.

A majority of the data that was collected for this study was obtained through actual faculty interviews and in my opinion these interviews were awesome and really provided me with a deeper understanding of WAC and its purpose.  They also made me realize that many college instructors (those tenured and not tenured) feel much like I do.  They want to be better teachers but even more they want to help their students achieve success.

“I learned to be a nurse years and years ago,” said a nursing faculty member from TSU, “but I learned to be a teacher along the way, and I think that learning continues. Hardly a semester goes by that I don’t learn something new” (56).

I think that this is how most college instructors, especially those with no education background, feel.  This is exactly how I feel now.  Yes, I am proficient in English but does that mean I can teach it.  When I was thrown into the frying pan, I felt when I began teaching college students.  I could not believe that someone had so much confidence in me and my ability to teach.  I had no formal training at all.  But I was determined to do my best in helping my students learn English.  Little did I know that I would be the one doing all the learning and my students did most of the teaching.  I hate to think how I may have looked or sounded during those first semesters.  I still am not confident that I am doing the best job and giving my students all that they need, but I am determined to keep learning and growing. 

Luckily for me, I have an education background and I can pull from that.  In reading this book, I noticed how many things  that I learned in my education classes were WAC.  I now know that all of this knowledge and all of the techniques I learned don’t just apply to secondary education — I can implement them into my college classrooms as well.  And I plan to do so.  In fact, I did so yesterday!

“The writing group-a peer-response group itself—demonstrated to me not only how to use the technique with my students, but also how to experience and appreciate the power of the process myself as a writer and teacher” (66).

“. . . by writing themselves and sharing in small groups, participants would experience, not merely be told about, the power of writing for learning” (60). 

I could not agree more with the premise behind the WAC workshops.  They get the participants in the workshop involved in the kinds of activities they want them to expose their students to.  We learn by doing.  Requiring the instructors to become active participants in the WAC workshops, gave the instructors a first-hand account of the benefits of WAC principles and theories.

“The most long-lasting outcomes of WAC workshops for faculty may not be in individual teaching strategies, such as previous research has often measured as WAC outcomes, but in changes in teaching philosophies and attitudes” (78).

This quote falls right in line with was I said earlier in my post.  Everyone is not going to welcome WAC into their classrooms.  But by going to the WAC workshops they are exposed to so many ideas from so many people that it is hard to go back into the classroom the same as before they took the WAC workshop.  Some change has taken place.  It may be a simple as them realizing that their students’ poor writing is not the fault of the English department.  They may never implement any WACINESS into their classrooms but perhaps they go back and revamp some of their writing assignments and make their objectives and purposes clearer to the students.  Some may take nothing back to their classrooms, instead they may use the WAC workshops to help with their writing and critical thinking.  If this is the case, my only hope is that eventually they will realize that this is not something that should only be used for their selfish gains and spread the LOVE to their students.

“Before the workshop, I’d always felt strongly about writing and I’d always been a stickler for grammar and punctuation. I could correct mistakes, and  I always did, but it didn’t get me anywhere.  It didn’t help the students. And I’d try to figure out how to do that better. The only agenda I had was just to know different ways, more effective ways, to do this …. And also maybe different ways to craft assignments, too, because I’m always looking for that” (63).

That person I just quote is me.  Well, not really, but Ido those things in my classes.  I always read my students papers and go through and correct every mistake I find.  So much so, that by the time I’m finish I’ve virtually re-written their entire paper.  Only to get a second paper with the exact same errors as the first. Which leads me to believe that they didn’t even look at my comments.  So why even bother?  But that was the only way I knew to try to get them to pay attention to grammar and punctuation and the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in their academic writing.  That is until now.  After reading this book, I discovered that there are more productive WACY ways to get my students to do this.  One way, in particular,involves just putting a check mark beside the sentence that has an error and require the student to figure out what the error is and fix it.  This way I am promoting critical thinking skills and also holding them accountable for their own learning.  Another method is doing the peer reviews.  Again, this promotes critical thinking and creates a more student-centered environment.  Still another WACY technique is to hold conferences with students about their writing.  Especially those who have major grammatical and punctuation errors in their writing. 

“The validation of the importance of teaching and trying different methods to teach something and that it was OK if they didn’t work” (112).

I don’t know about anyone else but I am afraid of failure.  I want to succeed in everything that I do; therefore, it took me a minute to wrap my brain around this quote.  I know that trying different teaching methods is beneficial to my students, but I hate to think of what they will think of me if they don’t work the way I think they should.  Will they consider me to be incompetent and not worthy of teaching them English?  I mean really, I’m supposed to already know what works and what doesn’t before class begins.  I shouldn’t still be figuring things out midway through the semester.  Right?  Wrong.  If what I was doing at the beginning of the semester is not working then I most certainly should figure out what is wrong and try to fix it.  I should never be afraid of trying new things with students and trying even newer things when the new things don’t work.  I know that last sentence was a bit confusing but you get my point.  Don’t be afraid to fail — nothing fails but a try.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Hey!  How did I end up in a study from 14 years ago?

Like I said this book is loaded with lots of valuable information. The best part about it was that it is arranged in a simple format that is easy to read and understand.  It also includes lots of funny personal accounts from WAC faculty at the three schools included in the study.  These personal accounts were the highlight of the entire study.  I could see myself in many of the personal stories that were told.  For example:

“Prior to the workshop, what I had done was take a paper and virtually rewrite it for the student, which is maybe not such a bad idea, although I think I was a bit heavy-handed, and the process was excessively time-consuming. But I didn’t have any accountability afterwards. I just handed the corrected papers back to the students and expected that would do some good” (113).

This is totally how I grade my students papers.  I now know that this has to stop.  Perhaps I’ve known this for some time now but was afraid to admit it.  I also did not know what else to do.  WAC provides me with ways to change the way I grade papers and actually do some good.

“To be honest … I tend to procrastinate. And those ideas [about preparing effective assignments and stating explicit criteria for grading, as discussed in the workshop] require that you don’t procrastinate, but that you front-load your efforts …. When I have gotten around to doing it, I have been very glad and gotten all kinds of positive reinforcement. And when I haven’t gotten around to doing it, I feel like, ‘Oh, Help!’ I mean, what am I going to do with this? … I think I’m making a little progress in terms of being deliberate about what I want to know from students, what I want to be able to see into their minds about, what I want them to learn-as opposed to, ‘How can I think of a thirty-point assignment that is good at this point in the term?'” (124). 

Yep, that’s me being honest.  No, not really that’s a faculty member from one of the schools in the study being honest.  But it’s me! I’m a procrastinator.  Not so much in my regards to teaching but basically in ever other aspect of my life, especially as a student.  Really, it’s quite sad considering I tell my students how important it is not to wait until the last-minute to complete their assignments.  But that’s exactly what I do.  I just loved hearing that college professors do the same thing even when it comes to planning and preparing for their classes.

“I was a consistently good teacher, according to both student and peer evaluations. But though my reputation as an effective teacher and committee chair was known and respected within my department, I was virtually unknown to the campus at large. . . I was a tree that needed to grow more roots. The root influences I needed began to come in 1981, in the form of new approaches to teaching writing, with their firm commitment to writing in all disciplines. This root nourishment that I received not only revitalized my career but also enabled me to put out branches, in the form of WAC workshops and other activities, to other faculty at Towson” (130).

I consider myself to be a good teacher and I the root influences I need are coming now in the form of this WAC class.  I can’t wait until I have fully utilized all of this new-found knowledge and grow my branches.  I am also looking forward to planting seeds with others (namely the community college where I am currently working) and help them develop into trees as well.

 What did I learn from reading the book?

I think I am what the book calls the “little by little” pattern:  I’m making progress, slowly but surely!  Here are some key ideas/points that I picked up on while reading this book:

  • WAC is good
  • I don’t have to use every WAC principle or theory in my classes
  • I can modify any WAC principle or theory to fit the needs of me and my classes — find what works
  • I should not only teach the students the skills that go into writing, but more importantly I should teach them the writing process and make sure they understand it
  • peer review, peer edit, peer collaboration — any kind of peer interaction is always a  good thing
  • re-writing a student’s paper is never a good idea and it doesn’t help the student at all
  • we can learn from everyone — college instructors (tenured and non-tenured), K-12 teachers, our classmates, students, our parents, our children, our neighbors — we should never stop learning and passing that knowledge on to others
  • there is always room for improvement
  • I am grateful to Dr. Woodworth for helping us to create a WAC community within our class

I was very impressed with this book.  I have to admit that in the beginning I wasn’t excited about having to read a book and then do a book review.  Yet reading this book has given me insight into the world of WAC that I desperately needed and genuinely enjoyed.  At first I thought that the study was kinda pointless because it was just going to prove that WAC was the best thing to happen since sliced bread and every college should have a WAC program.  I mean look at the authors, all of them played some part in establishing the WAC programs at the three schools in the study.  Barbara Woolvard was a common denominator in all the schools and their WAC programs, so do you think she was going to report any negative views about WAC and admit that it was not successful?  If you do, which I did, you should read the book.  She and her coauthors made sure that they did not present a one-sided view of the WAC program.  They let everyone (those who chose to participate) voice their opinions about WAC both good and bad. 

In my opinion, the authors did just what they intended to do.  They let the voices of the instructors shine through in their study and sing about the praises and pitfalls of WAC.  The inclusion of these voices made the book even more compelling to me because I could relate to them.  The dialogue with the instructors and their own written personal account about their dealings with WAC was easier and more enjoyable to read than a technical study that spit technical jargon and statistical data at me.  

The book also does great job of including WACY writing assignments that instructors actually used in their classrooms.  They even go as far as including assignment sheets for research papers/projects.  I was a little disappointed that more of these assignments were not English, but then it wouldn’t be WAC if they did that, now would it?  I found one music assignment to be very interesting.  “Based on research findings that people who dislike a certain piece of music may come to like it after multiple listenings, the assignment asks students to listen to a piece of modern music six times, writing about it in different ways throughout the listenings” (95).  I thought this was a clever and effective way to teach music.  I wish someone would have told my music instructor about this method when I was an undergrad many years ago.  I think I would have gained a new respect and appreciation for music after doing this assignment. 

I recommend this book to all my classmates and all instructors and teachers.  It is a great book that provides true insight into the world of WAC and those who use it as well as those who don’t.  The focus of this book is not just simply to tell us whether WAC works but why it works and in some instances why it doesn’t work.

Walvoord, Barbara  E.  et al.  In the Long Run:  A Study of Faculty in Three Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs.  Illinois:  NCTE, 1997.  Web.  28 June 2011.  ISBN 0-8141-5642-8

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