Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Robert Mitchell
Julia Sapin
Kathleen Saunders
Theme Contents
Creating a Culture of Writing
Carmen Werder, Ph.D.
Director, Teaching-learning Academy & Writing Instruction Support Affiliated Faculty, Communication


Growing Writing in Fertile Fields of Study

culture: raising by proper or special care
cultivate: to grow in a specially prepared medium

I am honored to introduce the three writing faculty being featured in this year's CIIA Showcase on Creating a Culture of Writing: Bob Mitchell, Julia Sapin, and Kathleen Saunders. I have worked with these three admirable professors over the course of a number of years. Julia and Kathleen have participated in our Teaching-Learning Academy dialogue; Bob and Julia have been Writing Faculty Fellows formally studying their own writing instruction practices, and Kathleen has been a regular participant in our writing instruction workshop-retreats and a member of the Writing Assessment Group. While their work is familiar to me individually, I am curious: What distinguishing characteristics might they share across the boundaries of their individual disciplinary fields?

Understandably, faculty often admit to feeling distressed, even overwhelmed, by the realities of teaching academic writing given their disciplinary instructional needs, but these three instructors seem to gravitate toward the challenges. That is not to say they do not acknowledge the frustrations they face, especially structural ones such as increased class size and limited support resources. Bob notes, "writing is the (instructional) component (he) finds to be the most challenging." Yet their expressions and manners reveal a certain relish for the work. When they talk about their ideas and practices, they are spirited and speak animatedly. Dare I say they seem to enjoy the labor? They even seem to be attracted to it as an intellectual enterprise, rather than as a pedagogical obligation. By paying careful attention to what seems to work and why, they build their practices on a careful study of evolving success. This attitude of appreciative inquiry towards the teaching of writing seems to be one common hallmark of their approaches.

Besides this zest for the intellectual work of writing instruction, they talk and act as if deliberate and thoughtful writing instruction is highly likely to help student writers get better. While some instructors might cast their instructional seed religiously, though randomly, hoping some of it will fall on fertile ground, these three exhibit a certain pedagogical confidence. I am not referring to some kind of teaching hubris, for they are among the most modest and unassuming faculty I know. Rather, they approach their instructional practices as if they will make a difference – given careful assessment and revision as needed. Their willingness to experiment with new techniques and assignments, such as blogging (Sapin), Community Action Project letters (Saunders), and daily writing tips (Mitchell), suggests a belief that using deliberate and systematic practices can enhance the writing of their students. Not content with simply letting writing happen, they move deliberately to foster cognitive and composing growth.

Based on an appreciative and purposeful approach to teaching writing, they also understand writing as a cognitive act: Writing is not just a package for thinking; writing is thinking. In their commentary, they highlight this correspondence in saying: "the writing process is integral to the process of learning science" (Mitchell); "(writing across a range of types) "gives them a place to work out their ideas…to gather their thoughts" (Sapin); and "imposing the discipline of writing helps to impose discipline on thought" (Saunders). They give students ample opportunities to cultivate their writing - to plough up their thoughts before insisting that the cognitive dust settles into perfectly formed claims. This esteem for the cognitive value of writing-to-learn accounts for the impressive range of products that these faculty prompt in their courses including Blackboard posts, blogs, yarns, video reflections, article abstracts, persuasive letters, exhibition texts, contextual projects, and mini-reports.

Quite clearly, these faculty tend their students' writing with pedagogical care. At the same time, they demonstrate emotional care as well. Tally Callahan-Kanik, a Writing Center Assistant who has worked closely with Sapin and Saunders, has observed how much they show genuine care for their students and also how much they demonstrate passion for their subjects. Perhaps what strikes me finally about the showcased faculty is how much the way they grow writing reflects how they cultivate learning: appreciatively, confidently, and carefully.

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