Why WID?

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9780312566760.jpgNext month, the book I co-authored with Roy Stamper and Stacey Cochran, An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, will be released. The three of us will be blogging in our new Bits blog “Teaching Writing in the Disciplines” about how to teach with a writing in the disciplines (WID) approach in foundational writing courses, which is the approach of the text. We hope this blog can be a space where we explore methods of teaching and practical classroom activities and approaches.

When I first arrived at North Carolina State University nine years ago, I joined a First-Year Writing program that was launching a relatively new curriculum that focused on writing in academic disciplines. I had never taught first-year writing as writing in the disciplines (WID), and I was skeptical: how could a teacher with a background in English teach writing in other disciplines? I was no expert in writing in biology or nursing or math or psychology or any other field other than rhetoric and composition. What in the world would I teach my students?

We talk about imposter syndrome a lot in academia. I experienced a pretty severe case of it at that moment. Not only did I feel unqualified to teach the first-year writing course, but I was supposed to start directing the program the following year.

I began thinking of all of the reasons why a WID approach seemed challenging:

  • Faculty comfort level: Wouldn’t many of the writing faculty feel uncomfortable about teaching writing in other disciplines, just like I did?
  • Challenges of transfer: How would students transfer knowledge into their other classes? Would they be transferring inaccurate knowledge about genres in other disciplines?
  • Stigma as a service course: Would teaching a WID approach make first-year writing even more of a service course with no real rhetorical, disciplinary content of its own?

What I didn’t realize at that moment was that the most effective ways of teaching a WID approach in a first-year writing course do not solely emphasize mastery of various disciplinary genres. Rather, they draw on the disciplinary expertise of the writing faculty teaching the courses, focusing on rhetorical principles and understanding the context for writing. The rhetorical context in a WID-focused course just happens to be writing in different academic disciplines. Students are engaged in close, rhetorical reading of writing in different disciplinary areas.

They aren’t memorizing formulae for writing across the college or university. They’re learning to ask smart, rhetorically-focused questions about what writing conventions are followed in a specific field, how arguments are shaped, what evidence is used, what questions are asked, and what methods of inquiry are most common.

Students would leave my first-year writing class better prepared to write in contexts outside of my class because they would know what to pay attention to—even as they encountered contexts we never discussed in my class. And as the icing on the cake, if I could help them understand what they were learning in my class and how it would help them in the future, I could imagine an increased potential for student motivation.

Once I realized that I could take what I knew about writing and rhetorical context and apply it to a WID context, my list of reasons not to teach a WID approach were immediately countered by arguments for why it was a great idea:

Why not?

Why WID?

Faculty comfort level


Rich, meaningful application of rhetorical principles

Challenges of transfer


Potential for transfer when taught from a rhetorical approach

Stigma as a service course


Student buy-in and motivation

What I can claim after directing a program for eight years that used this approach is that students understood the potential for transfer of what they were learning. When they saw the curriculum, they understood that they would be learning something different from (but hopefully building on) what they learned in high school. Faculty invented a range of ways to approach teaching WID that emphasized some of their passions and interests. And best of all, our program assessment demonstrated that students were mastering the rhetorically-based student learning outcomes for our first-year writing course. A program director can’t ask for much more than that.

What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

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About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.