In Deborah Brandt’s book The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy, she argues that the U.S. has changed from a reading society to a writing society. The informed citizen is no longer simply one who is informed by reading, but one who produces by writing. Furthermore, she addresses the “emergence of the so-called knowledge or information economy” and notes that “It is not unusual for many American adults to spend 50 percent or more of their workday with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences” (3). That is, most students who go to college will likely end up in some sort of career that requires them to write, whether that means they are submitting journal articles for publication in fields like chemistry, physics, or psychology; submitting reports to their CEOs or managers; explaining their research to those outside the field; or writing manuals or instruction guides. The possibilities for writing are diverse and seemingly endless.
However, despite the prevalence of writing in daily life and the increasing demand for workers to be able to write in the various genres of their fields, many students seem to continue to harbor not only an aversion to writing but also a disinterest. It’s commonly accepted that students are more interested in work that they find useful or believe is directly related to them, and that they consequently expend more effort in completing such work. So, somehow, it would appear, students believe that, if they don’t study English, they don’t really need to know how to write.
Students are correct in believing that if they don’t enter literary studies, they will not need to know how to write literary analysis. And that seems to be the crux of the problem. So many schools expect the English department to also be the composition department, even though rhet/comp is its own field of study separate from literary studies, and every discipline requires specialized writing skills that tend to be specific to that discipline. That’s why Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) emerged back in the 1970s. Rhet/comp individuals realized that there was a need for students to be able to recognize that the writing done in each of their classes was based in values specific to the discipline and thus requires unique ways of expression.
However, most individuals have probably never heard of WAC, even if their school had or has a WAC program. Most students probably are not quite sure why their history teacher seems to want them to write one way but their biology instructor wants them to write in another way. And they continue to view writing as synonymous with English because it’s typically English instructors and English grad students who are recruited to teach the general education composition courses. And, of course, in grade school and in high school, writing routinely gets lumped together with literary studies as “English class,” even though students ought to be writing in all their courses.
WAC is one way to address students’ disinterest in writing. However, there is still work to be done. We need students to recognize that all writing is valuable and increases understanding of the field and the content of the field. We need students to understand that learning to write well in one genre does not mean learning another genre will not be difficult–for example, just because you learned how to write a thank-you note, that does not mean you know how to write a cover letter, a book review, or a recipe. We need students to learn that writing skills can be transferrable, however, and that the general education composition course does not have to be meaningless because it is required, and not part of the major. And we need to get students–and society–to recognize that writing isn’t just the job of the English department. It’s everyone’s job because it’s important to every discipline. Maybe it’s time to show our students some statistics, time to show them how writing really impacts their lives and their careers.
- Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2015.