“WAC’s Disappearing Act” by Rita Malenczyk


In this chapter of Exploring Composition Studies, Rita Malenczyk examines how the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement has transformed since its inception nearly 40 years ago. She argues that “WAC has been, or is in the process of being dispersed into many other structures and disciplines” (91). By looking at the traditional areas of WAC scholarship–programmatic structure, curriculum, and faculty development–she considers how the idea of writing in non-writing classes is still evolving.

Malenczyk notes that pioneers such as Elaine Maimon, Susan MacLeod, Toby Fulwiler, Art Young, and Chris Thaiss developed WAC programs in response to the 1970s “literacy crisis,” in which students were supposedly leaving college unable to write. Malenczyk explains that “as composition began to develop a body of knowledge about how writers learn, the first-year course alone came to be seen as insufficient” (93).

WAC isn't disappearing. It's just headed in a new direction.

Created by Leslie Johnson, using GIPHY.

In general, two types of WAC programs exist: Those loosely designed around faculty development and helping faculty integrate writing into their courses and those with strict programmatic requirements, such as ensuring that students all take a “writing-intensive” class in their major before graduation (Malenczyk 94). Those with strict student requirements believe such a curriculum “helps maintain faculty investment in writing” (Malenczyk 95). Malenczyk notes that while the argument over which model is better has always existed, the recent trend has been toward moving away from classes with a “writing-intensive” designation.  “Some argue that the establishment of specifically designated writing-intensive courses absolves faculty from the responsibility of incorporating writing into as many of their classes as possible–a responsibility that should in fact be encouraged, since one premise of WAC is that more writing is better ” (95).

Malenczyk notes how the location of WAC programs, once generally situated within English or Composition programs, has changed. First, many colleges are seeking to infuse writing into every course. Furthermore, due to broad general education reform, writing instruction has increasingly moved into the various discipline areas. She writes, “…instead of trying to sustain the differences between WAC and general education…WAC directors are deciding that is in the best interests of both their students and their programs to acknowledge the places where the two intersect, even if that means making writing less obviously visible than it had once been” (97). Secondly, WAC is moving outside academia altogether; in some ways, it is becoming “Writing Across the Community.” For instance, some scholars are looking for ways to provide students with meaningful writing experiences by having them work with community partners to craft texts for a range of real audiences–combining service learning with writing practice (Malenczyk 98).

Malenczyk also describes the evolution of WAC faculty development. At first, such programs were aimed at convincing non-writing faculty that they did indeed have a role to play in teaching writing and that they needed to include more writing in their courses. Workshops would often focus on such topics as writing to learn, responding to student writing, and teaching disciplinary rhetoric (Malenszyk 101). However, as WAC principles have become embedded in more institutions, faculty don’t need convincing. Malenczyk states, “Greater knowledge on the part of faculty now mean less need for conversion” (102).

In her conclusion, Malenczyk emphasizes that WAC isn’t disappearing as much as it is transforming, becoming something new and different from its origins. However, she asserts that WAC leaders should not resist these changes. Instead, Malenczyk argues that holding onto past visions of the WAC movement “risk[s] not allowing it to shape the academy in important ways, ways its pioneers may not have envisioned” (104).


For much of my time at Lansing Community College, I have worked with non-writing faculty to assist them in working with student writing. I completed a stint as our Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, and now I serve as our Center for Teaching Excellence director (which, since we don’t have an official one anymore, I’ve again become our WAC guru).  Based on my experience, I think Malenczyk makes a few key points.

First, I have to agree that faculty have a somewhat different attitude toward writing than they did 20 years ago when I first began working with the WAC program at Montana State. For the most part, they no longer need to be convinced to include more writing in their classes. Most have come to see the value of journals, think-pair-share activities, and 1-minute essays. They’ve come to see how writing can help their students learn and think critically. However, I feel most faculty still need convincing to actually teach writing in their discipline. We have one biology instructor who regularly stands up in divisional meetings to complain that the English faculty aren’t teaching his students to write lab reports. Others complain that they don’t have the time to respond to student writing. Some faculty find student errors in grammar and mechanics disturbing. Often, they want to know what to do about plagiarism.

I understand what these faculty are saying. Teaching writing is hard work–I know that. When I work with faculty on these concerns, I usually try to emphasize that my job is to teach students “rhetorical flexibility,” some basic decision-making skills that will help them write in any situation. When faculty are working with students in their major, I emphasize their role in initiating students into the rhetorical practices of that particular “discourse community.” I do my best to explain that everyone writes in the academe, but not everyone writes the same way or holds the same values about writing. Once they understand that basic concept–which most often they already know and just haven’t applied to their teaching–they see why they need to teach writing.

One of the ways I try to work with non-writing faculty is to introduce them to some composition research. I’ll mention the studies that have demonstrated how writers make more grammar/punctuation errors when they first enter a new discourse community or learn a new way to write. Then, I’ll give the faculty some suggestions about minimal marking and requiring an “editing step” of students. When I’m trying to convince non-writing faculty that they do indeed need to help teach writing skills, I bring in the WPA/ComPile bibliography about the transfer of skill between first-year writing and discipline-based courses. If it’s a workshop, I like putting this quote on the screen: “There is little empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that transfer actually occurs” (Snead 2).

I also really enjoyed Malenczyk’s discussion about merging WAC with updated general education curricula. I can see the ePortfolio movement as evidence that such a combination is can work. Well-done ePortfolio programs require students to archive –and often make public–written work from all of their courses. The reflections that students are required to write allow them to make connections between those courses. The faculty can then not just assess the student in a single course; they can assess a student’s entire educational journey. Moreover, ePortfolios allow students to easily share writing and project samples with potential employers as well as catalog any community-based learning that occurred outside the traditional classroom. ePortfolios really do seem like the perfect meeting of WAC and general education. Admittedly, we still need a great deal more of empirical evidence about their effectiveness (Bryant and Chittum), but the ability to examine a student’s entire college career  for effective learning, in a way that is meaningful to them, holds great promise for the transformation of Writing Across the Curriculum.

Works Cited

Bryant, Lauren H. and  Jessica R. Chittum. “ePortfolio Effectiveness: A(n Ill-Fated) Search for Empirical Support.” International Journal of ePortfolio 3.2 (2013): 189-198. ERIC. Web. 30 July 2017.

Malenczyk, Rita. “WAC’s Disappearing Act.” Exploring Composition Studies. Eds. Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2012. 89-104. Print.

Snead, Robin. “Transfer-Ability”: Issues of Transfer and FYC. WPA-CompPile Research Bibliographies, No. 18. WPA-CompPile, December 2011. http://comppile.org/wpa/bibliographies/Bib18/Snead.pdf.