History of WAC - NIU - Writing Across the Curriculum


A Short History of WAC

In the mid 1970s, Elaine Maimon, a junior English faculty member at Beaver College, was charged with developing a program to improve student writing. Her dean was concerned, as were many academic leaders, with the Newsweek article "Why Can't Johnny Write?" that criticized American universities for producing students with poor literacy skills. Maimon's response was to contact colleagues around the country who were doing research in composition theory, and in doing so she tapped into the Writing across the Curriculum movement.

Maimon's experience shows how the concern over declining verbal scores on standardized tests and complaints from business and industry were fueling reform in many colleges and universities. The WAC movement, known in England as Language across the Curriculum, sought to make use of the pioneering work being done by theorists such as Jerome Bruner, James Britton, Mina Shaughnessy, and Kenneth Bruffee, who were seeking to revive the importance of writing in the classroom by stressing the cognitive and social aspects of the writing process. Many schools began offering workshops, such as those led by Toby Fulwiler at Michigan Tech, that helped show faculty members how to productively incorporate writing assignments into their courses. At first such programs grew slowly because no one department would fund this activity that stood outside the departmental structure. Soon, however, WAC programs began receiving corporate and government funding because they were responding to the public demand for improved student writing.

David R. Russell's article "American Origins of the Writing across the Curriculum Movement" offers an excellent overview of how efforts to improve writing have developed and why WAC has been so successful. As WAC programs sprung up in institutions across the country the definition of WAC became more flexible, and this led to varied levels of implementation of the original theories. Some schools carried out curricular reforms and routinely sponsored seminars and retreats for faculty members; other schools simply added more varied essays to their standard composition course reading list. It was this flexibility that allowed the WAC movement to address numerous problems within colleges and universities. For example, faculty members had a means of discussing pedagogical concerns and how they were to approach teaching writing in a society characterized by increasingly specialized discourse. Those outside of English and Communication departments were offered a theoretical base of rhetoric and composition that was not geared exclusively for traditional literary study.

The WAC movement at NIU had its origins in a joint effort between the English department and the Provost's office to obtain state funding for the campus writing center in 1989/'90. The funds went to increase the staff and enhance the presence of the writing center on campus and to hire a full-time faculty member to organize and staff the writing center. A primary goal for this faculty member, one that relates directly to the work WAC consultants perform, was to promote the teaching of writing across the curriculum, to create a network of faculty members across campus who were interested in actively assisting to improve student writing in all the disciplines, and to provide workshops and other forms of assistance to the faculty in achieving this end. Today, this network continues to grow. The WAC program has a solid foundation in the University Writing Center, located in Stevenson South, Lower Level, which carries on the daily work of supporting students in their cross-curricular writing tasks.

Original text by Graham Tillotson, Writing Consultant 
Send comments to bpeters@niu.edu

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