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.

(How) do you talk about writing with students?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Alexandra Cavallaro

How often do you talk to your students about your own writing processes, writing habits, and the different kinds of writing you do?

It may seem obvious, but talking about your own work as a writer—and about how particular types of writing they’re producing may be similar to what you read and write—can help students better understand the value and workings of writing in your field and, perhaps, develop more complex processes of their own.

A number of U.S. university writing programs have interviewed faculty members about these sorts of topics and posted their videos online. Some interviews cover what (usually undergraduate) students should know about writing in a particular major; others explore the different processes, practices, and audiences of a particular professor. We’ve described a few of them below and also listed videos by discipline.

You could play one of these videos for your students or use them as jumping off points for your own conversations. Consider the following questions to get you started:

  • What are your writing processes for different tasks? (When and where do you work? How do you block out time? What kinds of responses do you seek out as you write? How many drafts do you typically write? How do you revise? When and how do you edit?)
  • How do you work with others? (Do you collaborate with different people at different stages? What roles do different people play? What sorts of challenges have you encountered?)
  • How do you adjust your writing for different audiences and genres (e.g., for different granting agencies, different journals, or different kinds of talks)?
  • How do you use sources? (How do you organize your research and references? What system do you use to keep track of quotes and paraphrases in your notes? How do you make sure your own voice comes through amid all the sources in your writing? When and why do you use quotes vs. paraphrases?)

A Few Noteworthy Video Series
The University of California, Davis’s Scientists Discuss Writing features interviews with six scientists in fields ranging from food science to physics. The scientists discuss topics like how they write research articles, grants, and pieces for wider audiences. A few pieces of each person’s writing are also available.

  • Don’t miss: In the Grant Writing section, physiologist Helen Raybould states that she enjoys grant writing because it makes her think about what she’d like to find out five or ten years down the line. To help graduate students figure this out, she asks her magic wand question: “if you were granted three wishes, what are the three questions that, if you knew the answer to, would really change the way you thought about this system?”

Iowa State University’s Professional Connection interviews thirteen engineering professionals about how they communicate at work. The (approximately) five-minute videos cover topics from interviews to email to teamwork.

  • Don’t miss: In The Resume: Part 2, Emily Kinser, Competitive Analysis Engineer for IBM, describes the importance of incorporating job ad language into a resume so that the resume will be retrieved in hiring managers’ keyword searches.

The University of Richmond’s Writing in the Disciplines site incorporates interviews with professors in a variety of fields (from accounting to film studies to psychology) into webpages for undergraduates in different disciplines. (These webpages often include descriptions of common genres, advice from professors, and examples of student work with instructors’ comments).

  • Don’t miss: English literature professor Elizabeth Outka suggests ways to develop a research paper: start with close reading before moving to secondary materials. “If you start with all the critics,” she says, “sometimes…you can feel like there is no room for your particular voice.”

Stanford University’s Writing Matters: Faculty Edition features short interviews with ten STEM faculty members reflecting on the importance of writing in their fields. They describe the role writing plays in the production of scientific knowledge, while also critically reflecting on the importance of revision, writing for different audiences, and the role of narrative in crafting and communicating scientific arguments.

  • Don’t miss: In 2010, Stanford also produced a series called “How I Write” that contains detailed interviews with writers in a variety of fields (from English, Drama, and History to Materials Science, Human Biology, and Behavioral Science) reflecting on “the nuts and bolts, pleasures and pains, of all types of writing.” The writers offer in-depth reflections on their writing processes. Although most of the videos are no longer working, the transcripts offer a rich record of the discussions.

Videos by Discipline