The CAC Philosophy-in-Transition
UNCG’s current Communication Across the Curriculum program is a traditional Writing Across the Curriculum program, but expanded to include speech as well as writing. As such, it is founded upon two, some would say, contradictory, theories: “cognitive process” theory and “social constructionist” theory.
Process theory holds that we should teach communication by instructing students in the process that writers and speakers undergo as they compose the product (such as “pre-writing,” planning, drafting, revising, and so on). Scholars usually call this “communicating-to-learn” pedagogy. The assumption is that when students write or speak they “objectify” their thoughts—so that when they “think on paper” or “think out loud, ” as one scholar has put it, it “help[s] them discover both what they know and what they need to learn.” Advocates of this approach often promote communication exercises that are “low stakes” (ungraded) and sometimes irrelevant to the actual disciplinary practices of the courses which teach them, such as when students must write journals for a chemistry course.
Social constructionist theory holds that students’ communication within disciplines is effective only when they have learned in advance the system of conventions (or “language”) of the discipline or profession. These conventions include the formal constraints of its common genres-- such as the journal article or laboratory report—understood as linguistic formulae for achieving outcomes in typical situations. Scholars usually call this “learning-to-communicate” pedagogy. Universities have often used this pedagogy to justify CAC programs that marginalize communication instruction into a few “specialty” courses spread across the curriculum, such as “Writing in the Sciences” and “Business Communication.” Universities like UNCG have also used it to justify requiring students to take a few “Writing Intensive” and “Speaking Intensive” courses in their major, often leaving other required courses devoid of communication instruction.
Traditional Communication Across the Curriculum programs like UNCG’s, when they have understood their proper mission, have greatly improved instruction in higher education. As Susan H. McLeod and Eric Miraglia have articulated this mission: “[U]nlike general education, WAC [and CAC] is uniquely defined by its pedagogy. . . . WAC [and CAC], more than any other recent educational reform movement, has aimed at transforming pedagogy at the college level, at moving away from the lecture mode of teaching (the ‘delivery of information’ model) to a model of active student engagement with the material and with the genres of the discipline … ” (5). The pedagogical techniques associated with process theory and social constructionist theory, such as process theory’s “pre-writing” and “revision” and social constructionist theory’s “peer collaboration,” have done much to move university instruction away from lectures and standard exams. Indeed, except for those students who will make their living by attending lectures and taking exams, traditional CAC pedagogy is far more effective than its “information delivery” competition.
Nevertheless, the theories backing traditional CAC programs are over thirty years old and deeply flawed; their claims are under constant attack. Perhaps due as much to academic politics as to the contradictions of their founding theories, the programs often conflate communication in the disciplines with general education and with basic communication instruction, leaving both students and faculty confused and the programs themselves unassessable. Moreover, programs face another difficulty with assessment. Despite the fact that WI and SI are defined by their pedagogy and not by their subject or disciplinary focus, institutions and accreditation agencies typically assume that, because WI and SI are required, they are curricular. Consequently, far too often institutions and accreditation agencies wrongly insist that WAC or CAC programs assess WI and SI courses as if the pedagogies that used writing and speaking activities as aids to learning were additional content that could be assessed independently the course’s primary subject.
At UNCG, we are moving toward the acceptance and promotion of a philosophy of communication across the curriculum so radically different from the traditional philosophy that the program we hope to establish deserves a different name. We are calling it, at least for now, the “Communication-Enriched Curriculum.” The philosophy that undergirds this proposed program is supported neither by cognitive process theory nor by social constructivist theory, but by a much more recent, developing theory, one sometimes called “post-process theory,” sometimes “externalist theory,” and sometimes, more accurately, “interactionist” theory.
Unlike both the cognitive process and social constructionist theories upon which traditional CAC programs are based, interactionist theory holds that we cannot teach discursive competences, except the most elementary (such as spelling, some business formats, etc.), through direct instruction, but must enable students to “acquire” them. Students do not acquire discursive competence by first learning forms, skills, and disciplinary knowledge and then applying them to specific situations. Rather, they acquire discursive competence through what post-analytic philosopher Donald Davidson calls “triangulation,” a recursive process of interactions between at least two people—interactions with words, actions, and objects of common concern, in a world they share. As Davidson has illustrated, we come to understand what others believe, how the world works, and how words work simultaneously as we interact together in concrete situations (or “activity fields”). For academic instruction, among other things this means that we cannot validly separate teaching disciplinary and professional “content” from teaching its communication. Stated more bluntly, when students learn chemistry, management, or history, if they learn them at all, what they have learned is how to perform the communicative acts specific to the discipline or profession.
David Russell puts the consequences of this tenet in this way:
From this perspective, adolescents and adults do not "learn to write," period. Nor do they improve their writing in a general way outside of all activity systems and then apply an autonomous skill to them. Rather, one acquires the genres (typified semiotic means) used by some activity field, as one interacts with people involved in the activity field and the material objects and signs those people use (including those marks on a surface that we call writing). (“Activity” 58)
This view rejects the “myth of autonomous literacy” (Nowacek 1) and insists that for students to learn, they must be “immersed in various forms of discourse and the contexts in which they are used” (Russell, Writing, 61). Learning to communicate in a discipline or profession “is a process of socialization,” of learning to use communication “as a tool in order to accomplish particular tasks . . . in order to belong to a social group” or “as a means of participating in the group” (Russell 61). For faculty to teach communication, therefore, they must create the circumstances that would enable students to engage the discursive tools their chosen disciplines and professions use to get things done. These “tools” we can call “genres,” not in the sense of pre-determined forms, but more in the sense of “typified social actions based in recurrent situations,” as Carolyn Miller defines genres (159). Genres are the typical ways groups achieve common purposes. For students to acquire the communicative competencies of their chosen discipline or profession, disciplinary experts must initiate student novices into the social group whose history, organization, values, typical practices, and purposes give significance to the genres that accomplish the group’s work.
Consequently, not only must we hold disciplinary and professional faculty responsible for communication instruction in their classes, but we must also hold schools and departments responsible for providing every degree program with appropriately designed communication-related instructional sequences. These should initiate students into the genres that perform the discipline’s or profession’s work. Moreover, because the schools and departments should be responsible for their programs’ instructional design, they should also be responsible for their assessment, evaluating their own proficiency in training their students to communicative effectively within their discipline or profession.
Davidson, Donald. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford UP, 2001.
McLeod, Susan H. and Eric Miraglia. “Writing Across the Curriculum in a Time of Change.” In McLeod et al. eds., WAC for the
New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.
Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 70 (1984): 151-67.
Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
Russell, David R. “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction.” In Joseph Petraglia, ed., Reconceiving Writing,
Rethinking Writing Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995: 51-78. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~drrussel/drresume.html
___. Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1991.