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Getting Ready for WAW at the MSU Writing Program

posted: 4.11.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Say you had been on the writing faculty in an English Department at a sci/tech/ag land-grant university for five years and had just earned tenure. Say, further, that in the coming summer you would be rotating into the department’s Director of Composition role, administering the first-year composition program. (It’s not terribly large – about 140 sections a year, taught by about 12 graduate teaching assistants from the English M.A. program and about 12 part-time, adjunct faculty.) Say that the tradition of your FYC courses is rather undisciplined, something to do with teaching extremely thoughtful, argument-based response to cultural-issues texts. (Such that many versions of the course are indistinguishable from the also-required first-year seminar.) The adjuncts have extreme seniority and a tradition of being left to themselves; the TAs are assigned a textbook and overall syllabus and prepped by the director of composition. And say, finally, that into this you were thinking, “What a great time to move to a writing-about-writing approach to first-year comp!”

What would you do to actually make the first moves?

This is where I find myself, coming into the end of Spring semester: designing a new TA orientation and workshop program plus a support system for interested adjunct faculty, and coming up with the framework of a WAW curriculum that I think will fit MSU first-year students and work well for new writing instructors in their first semester of graduate studies.

Of course, I’m not the first to do such a thing—Elizabeth and many others have walked this path, and re-reading our blog has been a fascinating reminder of how much we think about these things. I will probably access Elizabeth’s excellent online training resources (contact her at for access).

But in thinking about what, simply, will be some logistical challenges and places for my attention, I’m already starting to assemble this list regarding GTA prep:

  • Mapping our existing FYC outcomes to WAW courses, in order to help new instructors think about the purpose of FYC and the ways in which WAW can accomplish that purpose.
  • Planning an order of readings for new instructors to encounter, remembering that they need to learn the material before they’ll feel confident introducing students to it. I won’t have a six-week summer course (at least not this year), so this will be a challenge for flow.
  • Similar flow problem over a longer term: what I’ll put in the pre-semester orientation versus how I’ll spread material across the (new) semester-length “teaching comp” workshop this approach will necessitate.
  • Because incoming GTAs overwhelmingly lack teaching experience, I’ll also need a plan for integrating curricular background-building with typical teaching-prep work. In a pilot I ran a couple years ago, though, it became clear that the WAW approach didn’t make the difficulties GTAs already typically had any more severe.

So, I am simultaneously a bundle of energy and a bundle of nerves on walking this path that so many others already have.  This list is far from exhaustive, of course – I wonder what those of you who have already done this, or those who are also contemplating it, would add. Comments welcome!

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3 Responses to “Getting Ready for WAW at the MSU Writing Program”

  1. Liz Says:

    Congrats on tenure, Doug! Long overdue, and well deserved!

  2. John Whicker Says:

    I’d add to the list a plan to help students with BAs in English learn to read texts as voices in a conversation rather than as literature to be analyzed. After a year of GTA training and implementation of our WAW program, this is the thing that I find GTAs still struggling with the most. They still tend to treat the individual articles as something to do a close reading on and discuss its individual minutia. We want them to read these texts in relation to a larger framework for understanding writing and in relation to the student’s writing experiences.

  3. Aaron Yost, Belgrade High School Says:

    Invite former WAW-slinging graduate student teaching assistants into your TA orientation to address the realities of WAW pedagogy and logistics in FYC courses.