- Interdisciplinary Writing Workshops1Vol. 43, No. 2, January 1981
English teachers know how to teach writing skills in writing classes, but the lessons do not last because they cannot teach motivation or guarantee reinforcement. Those lessons need to come from somewhere else. I believe that such help can come only from colleagues who teach subjects other than English. Teachers in the student's major department are far closer to the student's prospective world of work than we English teachers are. They do not suffer from the same long-term stigmas as English teachers who have too faithfully red-penciled misspelled words on student compositions all the student's life; students do not view teachers in other disciplines as they view English teachers—hung up on correct language ("I better watch my grammar").
Many universities lack a comprehensive literate environment to teach, nourish and demand good writing habits. Without such a literate campus environment, students are not compelled to take writing seriously. In other words, if the lessons taught in writing classes are not repeated and emphasized in the student's other classes, those lessons will atrophy. We must share with our colleagues what we teach to our students. If, for example, history and business teachers are not aware of "the writing process" and how to use it in instructing their students, then we must teach them that.
This essay offers some suggestions for teaching teachers in all disciplines how to develop and encourage good writing habits among their students. Biology, music, and chemistry teachers know, experientially and intuitively, that revision, for example, is necessary for good writing; at the same time these teachers seldom make multiple draft writing assignments to their students which reflect that tacit knowledge. Their understanding of writing has not been translated into classroom pedagogy. While a few teachers continue to insist that writing is strictly the business of English teachers, most teachers simply have not thought about teaching writing nor felt confident enough to teach it. We English teachers, as professional students of writing, need to show our colleagues just how much they already do know and how to put that knowledge into classroom practice.
"Writing across the curriculum," to use James Britton's phrase, places some responsibility for instruction in writing with every teacher; language instruction becomes the business of all teachers who use language.1 It does not matter at what age students begin to take writing more seriously or [End Page 218] which major they select. At every turn of the university curriculum someone is paying the serious attention to writing that any interdisciplinary learning skill requires.
The best way that I have found to generate writing across the curriculum is through an off-campus, overnight, retreat-like writing workshop, removed from mailboxes, telephones, students, classes, secretaries and families. In this setting writing can be explored slowly, thoroughly and experientially among colleagues who are mutually concerned with the quality of student writing.
During the last several years I have helped plan, set up and staff half-a-dozen writing workshops for teachers at Michigan Tech; I have also worked with high school and college instructors from schools other than my own. The principles of good writing workshops are remarkably consistent whether working with high-school English teachers or university engineering professors. By introducing workshop participants to the complex nature of "the composing process," experientially rather than through lecture, I have been able to draw consistently on knowledge and ideas already present among the participants. I avoid, wherever possible, appearing to be the resident expert among a crew of novices, for these teachers are, in fact, my peers in every important sense. The writing workshops work because all the lessons are learned through personal experience or appeal to common sense.
Experiential learning, while it takes more time, makes a far stronger impact than simply telling our colleagues what they ought to do to add more writing to their classes. The workshop group tries something out, then examines it collectively, then considers implications for individual classrooms. Insights so gained result in powerful personal commitments by participants to incorporate ideas in their own classes.
A carefully designed writing workshop, attended by a...