Tuesday, October 30, 2012

WAC 3: Writing to Connect

I said in an earlier post that the first objective of a writing across the curriculum program is "to enable students to learn more and better." In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for mapping knowledge networks both in their own minds and in the world about them. The second objective is to enable students to connect with others. In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for exchanging knowledge networks with others.

I think that even a casual reader will sense that these are not unrelated goals; rather, they are interconnected goals. Often, we writers learn best when we are connecting with others, and we connect best when we are learning. From a writer's point of view, the distinction is a matter of focus rather than a change of goals. When writing to learn, we are focused on ourselves; when writing to connect, we are focused on others. For the writer, however, this shift is a complex and dynamic boundary along which a skillful writer constantly checks and refines what she knows with what she wants to achieve with the reader and vice versa. This shift is dynamic because the skillful writer is constantly looking back and forth, and it is complex because what she finds in her own knowledge feeds into and affects what she wants to achieve with another just as her interaction with the other feeds back into her own knowledge.

By the way, I am using the phrase writing to connect rather than my earlier phrase writing to communicate. I want to emphasize the connectivity that writing enables, and of course, that connectivity includes communication, but I think it can include more. Connectivity also resonates with the concepts of networking and connectivism in a way that communication does not. Let's see.

So writing is a network phenomenon that connects us to other people. A writing across the curriculum program can first cultivate writing to connect through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) for each student. This, of course, connects us back to writing to learn, but as should be obvious, I see no separation between the two modes of writing (the one hardly makes sense without the other, though over the years I have found it convenient and useful to talk about them and to teach them separately). A PLN, built mostly through writing and reading in both electronic and print modes, connects each student to other students, to teachers, and to a profession (I am not using profession merely in the sense of a future job, but more so in the sense of a community of practice). Ample research shows that successful college students form strong connections to one or more of three aspects of college: other students, favorite professors, or a discipline. Students who do not connect to at least one of the aspects of college tend to falter, fail, and leave.

The original purpose of college, of course, was to foster such personal learning networks through close, physical proximity on a campus. Such physical proximity is still important, but physical connectivity is now supported and extended through electronic networks that allow any person to connect usefully with so many more people. A useful writing across the curriculum program must rely heavily, then, on these electronic networks.

In addition to helping students build PLNs, a useful WAC program helps students connect to a community of practice (COP). In one sense, one can view a college education as an introduction to and indoctrination in the conversation germane to a particular community of practice. Colleges teach students to walk the walk and talk the talk of some scholarly or professional community of practice. WACs help students first become familiar with the conversation of a COP and gradually to participate in that conversation. It's useful to say that one becomes a professional member of a community of practice when one can engage in the dominant conversations of that community (to rip-off a phrase from George Siemens). WACs cultivate the abilities of students to engage those conversations.

Finally, useful WACs should help students to connect to the world through project-based learning relevant to the students' COPs. Project-based learning is an ideal vehicle for enabling the kind of real-world writing that engages the world (a customer or client, for instance) to effect some change or elicit some response.

Hmm. Does this wear well? I'll have to think on that.
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