Discipline-specific writing TAs: Examples from Art & Design and Urban & Regional Planning

by Andrea R. Olinger

“What is visual analysis?” “What kind of point should I be trying to prove in an art history paper?” “What’s the best way to structure a paper that compares two works of art?”

These are the kinds of questions that students taking introductory Art and Design courses have asked Laura Shea, a PhD student in Art and Design and this past year’s “Writing TA.”

UIUC undergraduate and graduate students have always able to make appointments at the Writers Workshop. But recently, two units in the College of Fine and Applied Arts—Art and Design and Urban and Regional Planning—have found new ways to help their undergraduate students learn discipline-specific writing. These units have funded Teaching Assistants to consult with and develop programs for students across a set of courses (Art and Design) or an entire department (Urban and Regional Planning).

Art and Design: Writing TA

For Art and Design, the Writing TA position was created to support the growing number of international undergraduate students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). According to Alan Mette, Executive Associate Director of the School for Art and Design, 15-20% of undergraduate students are international EAL students, a number that has increased in the department over the past five years but has been rising across campus since 2005.*

In 2013-14, Laura worked with students in introductory Art and Design courses like Art History 112 and Art Foundations 105. She would meet students in the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art, which had the added benefit of introducing students to the library who had not yet visited it. Students typically brought in assignments such as comparison papers, visual analyses, research papers, and artist statements. Most students who came, Laura reported, asked questions specific to writing in the discipline: “How do you cite in an art history paper? What kind of point should I be trying to prove?” Other popular questions, she noted, ranged “anywhere from how to make an outline, to how to write a thesis statement, to the kind of language needed to sound formal and professional enough for the assignment.”

In addition to consulting with individual students, Laura collaborated with TAs in the introductory courses, visiting their sections so they could split up and give groups individualized feedback. According to Alan, the School of Art and Design would like to make this a permanent TA position and is currently searching for a Writing TA for 2014-2015.

Urban and Regional Planning: Planners’ Writing Exchange

A few blocks away, the Department of Urban and Regional Planning operates the “Planners’ Writing Exchange” (PWE). Since 2011, the department has funded a graduate student TA to hold individual consultations with undergraduate and graduate students, lead lunchtime workshops, and maintain the PWE website. In 2013-14 the PWE was staffed by Natalie Prochaska, a graduate student in Urban Planning. Natalie said that students brought in a wide variety of texts, including policy memos, literature reviews, white papers, graduate school application essays, and graphically embedded text made in Adobe Illustrator. Inspired by the Writing Across the Curriculum seminar for TAs that she attended in January 2014, Natalie said that she has stressed “identifying and following an individual writing process.” She explained, “When you talk about the writing process as unique to each individual, and then offer some advice for optimization at different stages within that process, students seem more open to that advice and those tools.”

Natalie’s workshops, around three per semester, ranged from topics like the genre of policy memos to issues of grammar. The majority of students who used the PWE’s services this past year were undergraduates, and Natalie estimated that about 60% were EAL students. The students, she remarked, have been “overwhelmingly positive” about the PWE, and they regularly observed how valuable it was to get feedback from someone in their department—an opportunity the Writers Workshop can’t always offer.

Departmental writing TAs can have an even bigger impact when they have access to in-service training on the teaching and learning of disciplinary writing. Both Laura and Natalie, for instance, participated in Center for Writing Studies’ Writing Across the Curriculum seminars for TAs, and the Center also offered a specialized workshop on supporting EAL writers just for Art and Design TAs. (Click here for some resources from that workshop.)

If you’re thinking about using discipline-specific Writing TAs, try to build in opportunities for them to collaborate with other instructors in the department and to provide feedback to the department, especially to the faculty and committees that shape the curriculum. Because of their location, departmental writing TAs collect lots of information about successful and unsuccessful prompts, the range of writing tasks assigned in courses, and variations in instructor expectations. They can, as a result, be invaluable resources for departments wishing to improve how writing is taught, whether in a single course or across a sequence of courses.

We’re always eager to hear about innovations that instructors and academic units are making to better support students’ writing, so please let us know what you’re doing. We may feature you in the fall!

*As of fall 2013, 15.5% of undergraduate students were classified as “international”; you can view UIUC demographic information here. Since 2006, the Institute for International Education has identified UIUC as enrolling the greatest number of international students of all U.S. public universities.

Who are our ESL writers?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Yu-Kyung Kang

English as a Second Language (ESL) students, both resident and international, have always been present on our campus. However, the past five years have seen a steep increase in our international student population, rising to 19% of the student body in 2011-12. (UIUC is, as a result, the U.S. public university with the largest number of international students.) This change in classroom demographics has gotten many folks interested in learning more about these students, whose writing may look different from that of “native speakers.” In this blog entry, we wanted to talk a little about who ESL students are and how you can support them in class. (See also our annotated resource list for instructors working with ESL writers in their classes.)

Like all labels (e.g., multilingual, non-native speaker, English language learner), the term ESL contains certain assumptions about students. We employ it here because it’s widely used to describe students of diverse linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. At the same time, it identifies English as a student’s second language (instead of, say, a third), it can carry a stigma, and it tends to blot out the complexity of a student’s language and literacy experiences.

Wan Shun Eva Lam, for instance, illustrated the depth and breadth of an “ESL” student’s competence in several language varieties when she followed Kaiyee, a high school junior who migrated from China to the U.S. when she was 15. In communicating online with family and friends in different countries, Kaiyee marshaled, to varying extents, “standard American English, hip-hop English, the Shanghainese dialect that she used in her family, Cantonese and Mandarin that predominated in her immigrant community, and both Mandarin and Shanghainese that connected her to people and events in China, particularly her hometown Shanghai” (p. 393).

Every ESL student has experiences like Kaiyee’s. If part of your first-day-of-class routine involves asking students to submit answers to a few questions about themselves, you could add a few like these to help you get a better sense of the backgrounds of all your students. (And if you have a chance to meet one-on-one and talk, even better.)

In fact, like your ESL students, we all command a unique blend of partial, ever-changing language varieties—dialects, registers, genres, styles. Linguistic anthropologist Jan Blommaert prefers to view everyone’s language competence as “truncated repertoires” because, he states, “We never know ‘all’ of a language, we always know specific bits and pieces of it. This counts for our ‘mother tongue’ as well as for the languages we pick up in the course of a lifetime, and this is perfectly normal” (p. 23).

Think about all the different repertoires you have little or great proficiency in (e.g., French conversation? computer programming languages? certain translations of the Bible?  journal articles in a certain field?). Just because you are fluent in “English,” for example, does not mean that you can easily write a literature review on a topic in abnormal psychology, say, or design and present a poster at an ecology conference without study, practice, feedback, and other kinds of support.

The idea that one can “master” writing, or English, in a single course or in a discrete period of time, is what Mike Rose has called the “myth of transience”: the idea that “if we can just do x or y, the problem will be solved” (p. 355).  And the idea that all of “writing,” or all of “English,” can be mastered is tricky, too. It is better to think of language and literacy acquisition as lifelong, “embedded in content and tied to specific contexts” (Zamel & Spack, 2006, p. 147). This goes for everyone—not just ESL students.

Writing-across-the-curriculum approaches aim to help all students develop the disciplinary “bits and pieces” of their repertoires and participate more deeply in general. “When students are given multiple, meaningful opportunities to write (not just to read) as a way to learn within their courses,” write Zamel and Spack, “they can engage actively with the material they are studying, make sense of their texts, generate ideas and interpretations, make connections, experiment with unfamiliar language and literacy practices, and construct new knowledge” (p. 138). For all writers, and especially for ESL writers, this rich blend of active learning and writing is the way to grow.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lam, W. S. E. (2009). Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in negotiating local, translocal, and transnational affiliations: A case of an adolescent immigrant. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 377-397.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47, 341-59.

Zamel, V., & Spack, R. (2006). Teaching multilingual learners across the curriculum: Beyond the ESOL classroom and back again. Journal of Basic Writing, 25, 126-152.