Writing with Writer's Help: In the Disciplines

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I will be visiting the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in early February to work with their writing programs. The campus is an enthusiastic adopter of Writer’s Help, currently using Version 2.0. The campus is working to realize a vision we have held for Writer’s Help since our initial discussions: Wouldn’t it be great to have one writing text that could accompany a student all the way from first-year composition through college and graduation and into the workplace? Since 2003, we’ve been developing Writer’s Help with that goal in mind.

Digital_WH.jpgAs author, something I have worked hard to do is to make the advice, models, examples, and exercises reflect the many kinds of writing found not just in first-year comp, but in all classes and in workplaces beyond college. The original author of Bedford/St. Martin’s Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker, was great at understanding how to offer advice and examples to students in a first-year writing context, where academic essays and library research papers were the dominant genres. We worked from her strong base to address more broadly the many genres of contemporary writing in both printed and electronic modes.

When I visit La Crosse, I should have a chance to meet with instructors from various disciplines, so I am looking forward to hearing about their experiences. Do we have the right coverage and depth? Are they able to integrate the resource with their teaching goals? Is it enough to say “Use Writer’s Help when you need it” or are there more intentional strategies?

If called upon to offer advice, here is a first pass at what I would say:

  • As you create your writing assignments, look at the sections of Writer’s Help that show students how to read and interpret writing assignments. Make sure you clearly establish a purpose and audience for writing, and that you set expectations and constraints for writing in a particular genre. Make your assumptions explicit.
  • See if there are good model papers in your chosen genre. If you are asking for an annotated bibliography, or literature review, or field report, be sure to explore the models in Writer’s Help and point students in that direction.
  • Call attention to those aspects of writing you care most about (i.e., strong argumentative thesis, supporting data, inclusion of charts and graphs, documentation according to APA style). Include suggested links in your assignment.
  • Consider how to stage an assignment effectively, by requiring some in-class time for discussing topics, doing some brainstorming, and organizing ideas. Consider intervening at various stages while the papers are in development, perhaps in conference. Set aside time in class for peer review of drafts. Have a proofing and editing session for final drafts. Spend less of your time responding to final papers and more while work is in progress. Make the work more social and collaborative. Writer’s Help has good advice on all these activities.
  • Use your class management system to post drafts, gather peer or instructor feedback, and expose students to the work of others. Doing so will raise the bar for performance.

In short, think about how best to use an available resource to support your teaching strategies and learning goals. Make Writer’s Help a valued resource for being successful in your class.

Do you have tips, strategies, or assignments for using Writer’s Help in your class? Please comment below!*

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About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.