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Simplifying Writing Across the Curriculum

By Sean Egan

Review of Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum by Art Young (Prentice Hall, 1999).
[Full text available online at]

Art Young's short guide to teaching writing across the curriculum (WAC) provides an easy-to-use introduction to the thinking behind WAC programs and some of the most common and effective practices employed by instructors across the disciplines. Young's aim is to make WAC seem straight-forward, sensible and useful. For the most part the introduction of writing into courses across the disciplines is sensible and very useful, but it is not always as straight-forward as Young (and other proponents) sometimes make it out to be. Young does acknowledge that integrating writing into a course is a complicated task that obliges an instructor to think about his or her teaching goals and how writing might help in reaching them. However, his introduction to thinking about WAC tends to over-simplify his subject by relying too much on thinking about writing in terms of two categories. It might seem unfair to criticize the author of a introductory booklet for over-simplifying (since, after all, you have to start somewhere), but Young's over-simplification misses a chance to give instructors intellectual tools which would be more useful to them in thinking about writing and their teaching than the breakdown he offers. But, to be fair, I will start by addressing the strengths of Young's gentle lead-in to writing in the disciplines.

A Useful Introduction

One of the good things about Young's introduction to WAC is that it begins with a conversation between faculty members. He starts with a conversation between a biology professor and himself about a particular student's writing and, in doing so, is able to address the misunderstandings and misconceptions that can arise between WAC proponents (such as writing coordinators or writing fellows) and faculty members in disciplines where writing instruction is not a big part of the curriculum (Young mentions his experiences with students and faculty in the hard sciences and engineering).

Young's description of his interaction with a biologist at his college will sound familiar to anyone who has been involved in a enough discussions about writing in college. The biologist was unhappy with the writing ability of an senior in his class and contacted Young, who had been the student's instructor for freshman composition, to discuss the problem. Young shows how discussions like this can be a dead end in some ways. For one thing, they pit writing people (usually the English department) against everyone else, on the assumption that they are the only people who can or should do writing.

Young uses this particular student and conversation to make one of the standard rationales for teaching writing across the curriculum: that people in all the disciplines are responsible for writing (otherwise no one is). Or to put it another way, if writing only gets done in English classes then the students get the impression that paying attention to writing is a specialized activity (like recognizing iambic pentameter) that only matters in English classes and not an essential activity in learning, which is how practically all college instructors would see writing. Young gets to this point without straying too far from his illustrative anecdote. He says that after discussions with the biologist and the student involved, "We came to believe that writing was integral to a professional education in biology (and every other discipline) and not simply a generic skill easily mastered in one or two courses and then transferred effortlessly to all disciplines¡¨ (Young 1999, 3).

Young uses the same inductive approach as he moves on to introduce the practices of WAC: he starts with particular assignments, examples of student writing, and faculty responses and develops from them some general concepts and approaches to writing. It is at this point that Young divides the kinds of writing students do into writing-to-learn and writing-to-communicate. He begins with writing-to-learn assignments, which, aside from the obvious, are meant to allow students to use writing as a tool to explore course material and their ideas about it in a context other than an exam or report. There are plenty of creative and useful examples in this section for which Young provides the all-important mundane details of how these assignments are given, collected, evaluated, and made use of. The assignments include: letter writing, one-minute essays, poems (including examples from the unlikely disciplines of accounting and computer science), journals, collaborative notes, and more. I won't try to go into details here. If you are interested I would recommend looking through Young's explanations of these writing ideas.

The next sections deal with writing-to-communicate, which consists for the most part of the traditional essay and paper assignments. Young's emphasis here is on structuring assignments so that they allow for actual communication from student to instructor, meaning a paper should contain some of the students' insights and ideas and not just report information that the instructor likely knows already (and as a result has very little interest in reading). Young provides lists of ideas for structuring a paper assignment into many small assignments or activities at different stages in the writing process. Both of these sections are potentially useful (the writing-to-learn section probably more so since it contains more novel and creative assignment ideas), but the usefulness of the division itself is worth considering.

Two kinds of _______ in the world.
Dividing complex phenomena into two categories is a bit like having fast food for dinner: it's quick and convenient, and there are times when it's the best option, but it's better not to make a habit of it. Young divides writing into writing-to-learn and writing-to-communicate. He asks his readers to think about writing this way and follow along as he presents his argument for the creative approaches to writing he presents, and for someone who is completely new to thinking about writing this way the simplicity of the division is a virtue. Unfortunately, Young leaves his readers with this division and the only way to think about writing, which is limiting. This division is not an innovation of Young's; it has in various forms become standard in WAC literature. In Young's formulation, writing-to-learn is writer-based writing. It is done for the writer's own purposes, to advance his or her understanding of a concept or to help think through ideas on a topic. Writing-to-communicate is done with the reader in mind. The writer has to keep the audience in mind when trying to convince them of something or to communicate with them. Young makes the appropriate caveats when introducing these categories: he notes that there are many kinds of writing that fall into both categories and mentions that any piece of writing lies on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes. Nonetheless, the division is still there and his booklet is structured around it.

So what is the problem with this division? The first is that it is not very convincing. Writing-to-learn is written to "please the writer" writing-to-communicate is written to "please the reader." This makes it sound like writing-to-learn is arhetorical, that we don't shape writing that we write for ourselves according to established patterns and for particular purposes. We do of course. We just do so with patterns and for purposes that are so familiar to us that we are barely aware of them. When Young introduces writing-to-learn, he gives as an example a short informal writing assignment. The instructor told his students that this was an informal piece of writing, but it was still collected, and it would have been hard for the students think of the assignment as for themselves and not for their reader, the instructor. They certainly wrote it according to the standards they had for writing assignments that teachers will read. And I don't think it is easy to get them to stop writing that way--just telling them that it won't be graded or that they should write for themselves is not likely to do it since they often won't believe us (and often we don't really mean what we are saying.)

Young extends this problem by including "notes and rough drafts" in the writing-to-learn category. This leads to the second problem with his categories: they tend to hide some very important lessons about what we need to do when we write. We do learn when we write rough drafts, but we don't write them for ourselves, and it would not be helpful for us or our students to think of them that way. They are early attempts to write something to please an audience. It is just this complicated question of the writer's relationship to the reader (or readers) that gets ironed over by the writing-to-learn, writing-to-communicate division. The audience for a rough draft may be literally the same as for a final draft, usually just the instructor, but the relationship with that audience is different because the drafts will be read for different purposes.

An alternative to this division is to think in terms of purpose and audience, the concepts which underlie the writing-to-learn versus writing-to-communicate distinction. Thinking in terms of purpose and audience could be useful to instructors who don't see how the writing they do in their course or their discipline fits into either of Young's categories. The important element that Young's division introduces is that the purpose of a piece of writing determines how an instructor should respond to it and make use of it. Every piece of writing doesn't need to be responded to as though it were the final draft of a formal report. Ultimately, however, getting past the writing-to-learn, writing-to-communicate division is most helpful to the students, who I suspect will find the distinction even less convincing than most instructors. Students have the most to gain from thinking about the purpose and audience and the effects they have on what they write. The ability to understand that different writing situations will oblige them to pay different levels of attention to their tone, correctness, wording, and so on is probably the most portable and valuable lesson in writing that a student can get.


Publication Information: Young, Art. 2002. Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, Third Edition. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies. Originally Published in Print, 1999, by Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Electronic Publication Date: May 29, 2002.
Visit the WAC Clearinghouse for Landmark Publications in Writing Studies for more electronic resources on this subject.

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From the Editors
Teaching Writing in a Multilingual Environment
Queens College Writers at Work: Murphy Halliburton
Queens College Writers at Work, Rikki Asher and David Gerwin
Simplifying Writing Across the Curriculum: A Review of Art Young's Teaching Wring Across the Curriculum