How Writing Program Best Practices Have Transformed Carleton College

Carleton College, a small private coed liberal arts college of 2,000 students in Northfield, Minnesota, has been closely associated with the beginning of what is now called writing across the curriculum (WAC). Sources differ on naming the first WAC program, but all agree that then-Chair of English Harriet Sheridan decided in 1974 to abandon the freshman writing course for what she called “Teaching Writing Extra-Territorially” (Sheridan 1975). Fortunately, that term did not stick, but the notion of dispersing the responsibility for teaching writing throughout the college did catch on at Carleton and elsewhere.

Writing at Carleton

Writing had been a staple of the curriculum since the college’s founding. According to catalogs from previous years, students were required to take writing courses for three semesters from 1867 to 1904, a requirement reduced to two semesters from 1904 to 1961. In 1961, the academic calendar was changed from two semesters to three ten-week terms, with writing required for two terms. Over the next dozen years, the requirement was gradually reduced to one term and then to a half-term course of five weeks. That half-term course was unpopular among students and the faculty assigned to teach it. Part of Sheridan’s inspiration rested on the practical problem of staffing a course that was universally reviled. Her recognition that writing was expected—and expected at a high level—in all departments led to the “extra-territorial” approach supported by two important innovations: a summer rhetoric institute to train faculty willing to teach writing more intentionally in their courses and the concomitant training of a handful of advanced students to be rhetoric assistants to faculty who were taking on the extra responsibilities of teaching and assigning more writing. The initial group was limited to fifteen volunteer faculty and five student assistants. (For more on that story, see Rutz, Hardy, and Condon 2002.)

Sheridan’s innovation led to a key pedagogical change for faculty: teaching writing across the curriculum differs from assigning writing across the curriculum. Toward that end, faculty development should itself feature a curriculum that draws on course design, course goals, assignment design, response strategies, and assessments.

Faculty development curricula should include instruction on how to

  • ƒ articulate course learning goals;
  • ƒ scaffold assignments in the course and stage assignments to build up to larger assignments and assign drafts as part of the assignment;
  • ƒ encourage students to pay attention to audience in writing and oral reports;
  • ƒ develop and evaluate student work with a rubric;
  • ƒ encourage students to write multiple drafts and revise in response to feedback;
  • ƒ provide clear, helpful, and timely comments on student work;
  • ƒ provide students with exemplars;
  • ƒ incorporate student peer review into the process;
  • ƒ encourage help-seeking habits for all students (e.g., seeking help from writing centers, libraries, professors, faculty, staff, and peers).

Faculty Development Programs

At Carleton, these pedagogical principles infuse faculty development programs in a range of contexts. Carleton’s calendar features three ten-week terms, with a six-week break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. December is typically packed with workshop opportunities for faculty and staff. Topics for December 2016, for example, included advising, global engagement, learning beyond the ten-week term, responding to student writing, and a comprehensive workshop for new faculty. Most years, a workshop on quantitative reasoning is offered, often in conjunction with WAC. Other recent topics included communication across campus, visual learning, art and technology, grant-writing strategies, information literacy, and several IT-related sessions. Most workshops are led by faculty and staff, although some have featured outside facilitators. Participants receive modest stipends, contact with peers (who have been closeted in their own departments during fall term), opportunities for group work on assignments and other activities, and plenty of good food.

A typical WAC workshop has included some preworkshop readings distributed electronically that were tied to the subject matter. In December 2016, readings covered research on responding to student writing from scholars interested in tone, efficiency, rubrics, technological bells and whistles, and testimony from students about their response to instructor feedback. Groups discussed some classroom scenarios, and for overnight homework, everyone drafted an assignment—paying attention to goals, scaffolding, and so forth, as well as the following WAC-specific pedagogical teaching goals:

  • ƒ Analyze assignments for effectiveness.
  • ƒ Teach students to write clear prose.
  • ƒ Teach students to write with clear organization.
  • ƒ Teach students to use appropriate diction.
  • ƒ Teach students to use Standard English effectively.
  • ƒ Teach students to understand writing as a process.
  • ƒ Teach students how to apply forms of attribution and citation as appropriate.
  • ƒ Teach students about academic honesty.
  • ƒ Help students develop confidence in their writing.
  • ƒ Help students to become self-aware and self-reflective writers.
  • ƒ Help students develop their information literacy (e.g., research skills, citation, and documentation).

In addition to a focus on a faculty development curriculum, Carleton has emphasized the assessment of student writing. Between 1999 and 2006, Carleton was awarded a series of faculty development grants from the Archibald Bush Foundation, which supported typical faculty development combined with learning to conduct writing assessment. A significant outcome of those grants is a college-wide writing portfolio modeled on the junior portfolio at Washington State University that requires students at the end of the sophomore year to submit work addressing a range of rhetorical tasks from at least three disciplines or interdisciplinary programs. To connect this assessment to faculty development, student writing portfolios are read by Carleton faculty and some staff, and for them, the benefits have been profound. Without such an assessment program, few who teach writing-intensive classes would also see the writing students do for other courses, especially outside of their own departments and programs. When thirty-five faculty members sit down to share the reading of five hundred portfolios, everyone will read material from outside her field, written by students she does not know.

A greater awareness of the disciplinary expectations across campuses and more empathy for student experiences produce thoughtful assessment of individuals’ approaches to writing pedagogy. Those specific experiences feather nicely into the curricular features of faculty development (noted above) aimed specifically at WAC.

The Carleton Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge Initiative

As much as this assessment-based professional development program has nurtured writing at Carleton, it has also been an effective vehicle for other curricular programs. This phenomenon is best exemplified in the Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge (QuIRK) initiative. QuIRK began in 2004 as an informal group of faculty concerned about students’ use and misuse of quantitative evidence. While it is hardly unusual for faculty to gather and gripe about their annoyance with foibles in student work, an odd turn in the conversation sent this group off in a very unorthodox direction. When simple venting gave way to more serious curricular discussion, someone asked how we could figure out just what our students were and weren’t doing well. Long-time WAC participant and geologist Mary Savina responded, “Well, we have boxes of student writing samples stored in the attic. We could just look.” And in that instant Carleton’s writing portfolio became a critical foundation to our quantitative reasoning initiative. While a writing portfolio may be an unusual place to begin the search for students’ quantitative reasoning, it has also struck us as odd that so many discussions of students’ quantitative reasoning avoid all use of quantitative evidence to support claims.

With support from a Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) grant from 2004 to 2008, QuIRK refined a rubric for assessing quantitative reasoning in student writing (Grawe, Lutsky, and Tassava 2010). At the same time, we created an assessment-grounded curriculum for faculty development. To say this program was “modeled” on our WAC program would be a gross understatement. In fact, we partnered with the writing program to use their well-established workshops to promote assignment development and address the problems we were seeing in student writing. This partnership was truly symbiotic. By leveraging the writing program’s existing expertise, QuIRK hit the ground with a fully developed program designed by a faculty development expert. At the same time, focus on the use of quantitative evidence in writing drew new faculty members to writing program events.

Access to the Writing Portfolio dramatically altered the focus of QuIRK’s work. From the start, we recognized the importance of what we called “central quantitative reasoning”: the use of quantitative evidence to address the central question of an argument. However, through reading student work we became aware of the equally important “peripheral quantitative reasoning”: the use of quantitative evidence to provide context or enrich description. An example of the latter would be an introduction to a philosophy paper arguing for a particular definition of poverty in which the author uses income distribution statistics to hook the reader. While the central argument in this case is qualitative (a philosophical defense of a particular definition), the student has used quantitative evidence as a rhetorical device. Grawe reports that nearly half of all instances of quantitative reasoning in student writing are peripheral in nature (2011). And of these, the majority of instances are found in papers written in arts, literature, and humanities courses. Almost no examples of peripheral quantitative reasoning were found in the natural sciences, where most work focuses on the central use of quantitative evidence.

QuIRK across the Curriculum

If almost half of student quantitative reasoning is peripheral, and if a majority of that work takes place outside the natural and social sciences, then quantitative reasoning needs to be taken up across the curriculum. That is a daunting idea with implications for serious faculty development to help faculty take on new roles. Thankfully, writing programs at Carleton and elsewhere had been confronting these same challenges for three decades and had developed best practices for providing just this kind of faculty support. Even better, QuIRK had partnered with our writing program and was already taking advantage of that work. With a portion of the FIPSE grant and additional support from the W. M. Keck Foundation from 2008 to 2011, QuIRK provided faculty workshops, student research support, and small stipends to aid faculty in nonquantitative fields to design or revise assignments that provided students the chance to grow in their quantitative reasoning. Like the writing program, QuIRK linked assessment (through student writing) with workshops designed with explicit curricular goals for our audience of teachers. Following workshops, we hoped that participants would be better prepared to create assignments and courses that:

  • ƒ Institute a quantitative habit of mind for students.
  • ƒ Help students implement quantitative methods correctly.
  • ƒ Help students interpret and evaluate quantitative information thoughtfully.
  • ƒ Help students communicate effectively with quantitative data.
  • ƒ Give students experience with real-world, ill-structured problems with no single “correct” solution structure.
  • ƒ Help students visually represent numbers to support their arguments.

The resulting course and assignment revisions confirmed our understanding (developed in part through WAC work) that higher-order thinking skills like quantitative reasoning are integrated in diverse ways across the disciplines. For example, a French professor invited her students to examine a cultural topic (e.g., education or social integration) through the intersection of fictional films and statistical data so that they might consider the universality—or lack thereof—of the art. In the history department, a colleague asked students to study the reports of bear sightings in the journals of Lewis and Clark as a case study in the challenges environmental historians face when attempting to reconstruct a past that few witnessed. And an English professor added an assignment to her introductory American Studies course that required students to find stories within a census table that reported educational attainment by race/ethnicity and age.

While it may seem obvious, it is worth underscoring that in all of these examples the methodologies involved are quite simple—the count of bears seen by Lewis and Clark or the mean years of education attained by various demographic groups. QuIRK steering committee members quickly learned that, just as disciplines employ different writing genres, the definition of quantitative evidence understandably varies across fields. Too often those of us in the social or natural sciences (that is, those who are likely to lead quantitative reasoning initiatives) are tempted to overvalue the “more advanced” methods of our own fields and, in the process, lose sight of the wonderfully sophisticated ways in which colleagues use basic quantitative constructs to make their point. Indeed, given the nature of the data they are working with, it is often impossible for humanists to make credible arguments based on more complex techniques. If instead we choose to honor the multiple ways in which quantitative evidence can be used in arguments, we open an exciting and new type of campus in which students wrestle with quantitative evidence throughout the curriculum. Just as it has done in writing, this crosscutting approach promises to reach a broader audience and develop stronger habits of mind as students learn that there is literally no place in the curriculum where people are proud to say they don’t write or reason with numbers.


QuIRK has refocused and enriched WAC for both faculty and students at Carleton. Quantitative reasoning is now an official feature of the curriculum, resulting in a robust list of options for students in nearly every discipline. Consequently, students are reminded through writing assignments of the rhetorical power of numbers to lend authority and precision to their prose, even if their intellectual interests are not primarily quantitative. Thanks to QuIRK’s faculty development, faculty have an increased appreciation of the benefits of quantitative writing, especially for setting the context for an argument in the humanities or arts.

In 1974, Harriet Sheridan encouraged faculty to help students write well in all courses. Her approach to bringing faculty together to promote effective writing pedagogy changed Carleton forever and engendered best practices for WAC. While she probably did not anticipate how this goal would be strengthened by the unity of faculty development and assessment, much less the advent of QuIRK as an enriching influence, we suspect she would be delighted by the results. 



Grawe, Nathan D. 2011. “The Potential for Teaching Quantitative Reasoning across the Curriculum: Empirical Evidence from Carleton College.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 5 (1).

Grawe, Nathan D., Neil S. Lutsky, and Christopher J. Tassava. 2002. “A Rubric for Assessing Quantitative Reasoning in Written Arguments.” Numeracy 3 (1).

Rutz, Carol, Clara Shaw Hardy, and William Condon. 2002. “WAC for the Long Haul: A Tale of Hope.” WAC Journal 13: 7–16.

Sheridan, Harriet. 1975. “Teaching Writing Extra-Territorially.” ADE Bulletin 044. February: 32–33.

Carol Rutz, Director of the Writing Program, and Senior Lecturer in English, Carleton College; and Nathan D. Grawe, Professor of Economics and Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences, Carleton College

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