Designing a Writing in the Major Course

A Writing in the Major class is not just your favorite class with an extra writing assignment added to the syllabus. Rather, it’s a class that actively and explicitly teaches how to write within a particular disciplinary tradition and community. This page will help you

  • integrate writing instruction within a variety of course types (lecture, seminar, or lab class)
  • create space in a packed syllabus for students’ writing process and
  • make assigned reading and writing work together

Questions to ask yourself before you put together your syllabus

Who will be taking this course?

The student audience for this course will dictate what kinds of writing you can assign.

  • First-year writers may not have completed PWR 1 yet, so the course will need to provide some orientation to academic argumentation.
  • Second-year students will have completed PWR 1, but will need guidance in transferring their research and writing skills to the specific disciplinary context.
  • Third-year and fourth-year students can be expected to be more prepared, but as the nature of learning to write is recursive, the course will need to explicitly build on foundational concepts and skills in order to introduce students to discipline-specific ways of writing.

An effective WIM course will have a clear understanding of the preparation levels of the students and an assignment arc that sequences writing tasks intentionally to build students’ skills (see more about designing and sequencing writing assignments here).

What kinds of writing do you want your students to be able to do once they complete your course?

Reverse-engineer your course from this big question: what makes for a successful communicator in your field? Is it someone who can tell a story with original data or apply complex theories to new situations or something else? Your assignments can discreetly teach the particular skill sets needed to achieve these kinds of communication challenges.

For example, in a successful engineering WIM course, the instructor assigned a final policy paper that drew on two previous paper assignments, one that focused on technical description and one that focused on the historical and social use of the technology, in order to add a reasoned policy section in the final that drew on the first two. If communication in your field is varied, the assignment sequence can encourage students to explore and experiment with different approaches to environmental science communication, for example.

Fundamentally, your assignment choices should be driven by your course learning objectives, which should include both conceptual goals related to disciplinary content as well as practical, transferable knowledge that is related to communicating in the field. Taking time to brainstorm the most important field-specific approaches to communicating knowledge will help you name the most appropriate outcomes for your students. Not every genre of writing (e.g., Op-Ed, Policy Report, First-Person Ethnography) will be useful--and will often require that students learn the genre in order to write successfully about the material. John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas is a very useful text to walk you through this kind of goal-setting, reverse-engineering, and purposeful assignment design. We've also put together a list of potential writing-intensive assignment types that you could assign in your WIM, so that you could explore the possibilities.

What kinds of assignments are possible within the context of this course?

You should reflect on what may be too much to ask your students to write and what they can stretch for. From the first, cautionary and limiting perspective, it is important not to ask for genres that are wholly unknown to students without providing them a great deal of training, or for research at a scale that can’t be completed in the time allotted, or for multiple assignments that address quite disparate skills and writing approaches. On the other hand, writing in genres that make great sense for the kind of out of the box thinking you may want to encourage (say a feature article for Scientific American if you are teaching technical communication to wide audiences) can be really wonderful, fun, and extremely effective for your writers’ development.

Is your course meant to be a capstone, and what is its relation to honors or capstone projects?

If your WIM course is also a capstone course, your syllabus will often assign a major project as the culminating work. You will need to reflect on the genre of the projects and the kinds of knowledge your writers need to work well within the genre, including content and style. For example, if the capstone is a creative project, you will need to consider how the writers gain exposure to creative genres such as the visual essay and instruction in best practices for composing in these genres. A genre analysis might be a useful first assignment in this case.

On the other hand, if an honors thesis emerges from the class, you might consider what section the writer should prioritize and how you can scaffold human and material resources for your writers to build their thesis through research, analysis, and argumentation over time. What extra-departmental writing resources may be valuable (e.g. Hume Center tutoring, additional Teaching Assistant feedback, or peer writing groups)?

What role will assigned reading play in the course?

You likely assign reading to teach content; for example, in a history course you might assign primary sources chronologically to show change over time. In a WIM course, you can continue to do this, but you should also think about how the readings you assign model key rhetorical “moves”--such as a research motive or a method section--or introduce foundational concepts that students will need to engage in their writing.

When you discuss the readings you assign in class, model how students can “read like writers,” noticing and naming what makes a disciplinary text persuasive so that they might imitate the moves in their writing. For example, students may not know what counts as analysis in your field; discussing exemplary written analysis, both by published academics and students, can show students what they need to perform on the page. You can also encourage them to “read rhetorically,” that is, with a sense for how they might use the argument in their own projects, whether as evidence, counter-argument, or theory source. (Here’s a sample reading response assignment from History 209S.)

Finally, you may ask students to read writing about writing in your WIM course. You can assign texts that address academic argumentation generally, such as Kate Turabian’s venerable A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, or you may assign essays that reflect on your disciplinary tradition, or both!

What role will research play in this course? (especially in the context of a quarter?)

When you teach writing in the disciplines, you will also need to teach how research shapes writing in the field. You may need to teach what counts as an answerable research question in your discipline, a distinctive research method (or two), and how to present evidence on the page to a disciplinary audience; for example, will specific tables or citation styles be required? If you prefer that students use others’ data, show them how to assess the validity of studies in your field and how to make original use of others’ findings. This learning can happen through in-class activities, assigned reading, or low-stakes writing assignments, but it will need to be built into the syllabus.

What does revision mean in your discipline, and how will you teach it?

Students often believe that disciplinary experts don’t have to revise. Or, they may have little sense for how the finished written products they see published in academic journals got to be that way. A successful WIM course will demystify writing processes and allow time for students to revise as well as provide motivation to do so. For example, you might show your students how your own writing evolves, from notes and annotated bibliography to first draft, late draft, and final published paper; you might also explain how you respond to reader feedback. (Learn how Professor Jennifer Burns brings her own writing into her WIM class.) Then you will need to build into the course plenty of time for students to respond to feedback from you, their peers, and their own sense of what it means to improve their writing. (See “Revision Strategies to Encourage Strong Student Writing").

How will class time change?

You may still lecture to provide background information and you may still lead class discussion to inspire new understanding and insights, but in a WIM course, more time will be devoted to unpacking the writing process and then giving students time to practice and discuss writing opportunities and challenges in class. Your course design should reflect these priorities. (See, for example, a syllabus for History 209S.)

How do we assemble our team and prepare them to teach this course?

Reflect on how many faculty are teaching the course, and whether or not your teaching team includes TAs. It can be very helpful a few months out to collect writing pedagogy resources (sample syllabi, assignment sheets, rubrics, and class activities), discuss who will assess the writing, and how you will norm the evaluators so their assessment is aligned with the course goals and the team’s. Consider hosting a training session ahead of the course to accomplish this syncing. Hume Center consultants may be available to guide this workshop.