DSU rethinks Writing Across the Curriculum, tailors to disciplines

File photo.

Dickinson State University is refining and expanding its Writing Across the Curriculum program.

"It’s been pushed at every school I’ve been at, but especially at DSU, to make sure the students know in first year composition that what they’re learning there isn’t a one and done. They’ve got to carry it through the curriculum and carry it into their careers," said Michelle Stevier-Johanson, Writing Across the Curriculum coordinator.

This can be challenging for students in certain majors such as math or science.

"They think they know their majors; they think they know the career they’re going into, and they believe they’ll never write again. So many times we hear from alumni that they’re writing all the time, and they wish they’d had more experience. Our writing across the curriculum program here especially is partly designed to make sure that doesn’t happen," Stevier-Johanson said.

While Writing Across the Curriculum started in the 1960s, but the way the university is approaching it is new.


"Back then, they thought writing across the curriculum meant assigning pages, so everybody write 10 pages," Stevier-Johanson said.

But dictating that students write a certain number of pages doesn't make sense for every major, as mathematics professor Dr. Paul Johanson explained.

"Dictating by pages doesn’t make sense to mathematicians. If I can write a more concise, more to the point proof that still gets the point across, that’s better than making a lengthy argument, so we want things short," he said.

The revived program centers around the idea that writing styles differ throughout the different disciplines. She said she didn't realize the differences until she was a college student herself and dropped a political science class.

"I got a C on a paper in a PoliSci class and immediately dropped the class," Stevier-Johanson said. "I was just the type of student (who) couldn’t have anything less than an A. … A few days later, (I) ran into the professor in the post office area, and she said, ‘Why did you drop? You were doing so well’ … she said, ‘You just didn’t know how to write a PoliSci paper. You wrote it like an English paper.’ They use evidence differently; they have different standards for introductions and conclusions."

Different disciplines use different methods of citations, such as MLA for English majors and APA for nursing majors. Some disciplines, as Johanson points out, don't have a set standard at all.

"Mathematics is an unusual discipline," he said. "We don’t necessarily — There’s not a set accepted form. … A mathematician who submits articles for publication basically every peer publication journal out there has their own way of how they want things set up, so it all kind of depends on who you are submitting to, how you would want to cite things."

Because there are so many different writing styles, professors will teach their students how to write in their discipline.


"We want to make sure that students get that expertise from the people who are best adept to teach them, people who are doing the writing in the disciplines. An ultimate goal is just when students walk out the door, they’re able to write in their careers," Stevier-Johanson said.

Professors outside of the English and writing disciplines may not have the knowledge necessary to teach writing in their area, though.

"We’re bringing in a trainer to help us with writing across the curriculum in various classes, because professors don’t get a lot of information about how to teach writing in (their discipline)," Stevier-Johanson said.

New this year, the committee is introducing fun activities to engage students across the campus.

"We’ve got a newsletter where we interview students and faculty and staff about how they use writing in their lives. ... We’ve started to do this 'is reading' competition where the writing committee professors all have these whiteboards outside of our offices and they say the books we’re reading," Stevier-Johanson said. "A week ago, we decided just to put on our Facebook page the books we’re reading with the professor’s name blanked out, and the student who guesses the most correctly gets a $25 gift certificate to a bookstore of their choice. It’s not technically writing … but you know how connected they are."

They have also started writing across the disciplines contests, too.

"Last spring, we had $25 gift certificates for the best essay in science, best essay in agriculture … just to reward the students, let them know that we’re taking an interest and watching and appreciating their hard work," Stevier-Johanson said.


Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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