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Writing as Learning through the Curriculum

Author(s): C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon

Source: College English, Vol. 45, No. 5 (Sep., 1983), pp. 465-474
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon

Writing as Learning
Through the Curriculum

Writing-across-the-curriculum is an increasingly visible educational concep

these days, attractive, it would seem, to English and non-English faculty alike.
The spread of cross-disciplinary programs, the cooperative spirit of colleagues in
other fields, and the recent success of textbooks such as Writing in the Arts and
Sciences (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop, 1981) testify to the power of the ide
and perhaps even to the likelihood that writing will become, as it once was, the
concern of all educators and not just the narrow specialty of a few. Yet, as we
hear teachers talk about writing across disciplines, whether they come from Eng
lish departments or elsewhere, we are struck by the predominantly negativ
quality of discussion, its preoccupation with declining verbal abilities, its pre-
scriptivist character, and its grimly resolute, "back to basics" tone. We note,
especially, the limited and contingent role that writing is expected to play outsid
composition courses, a signal that instructors are resigned to do their bit for
literacy but have not considered the relevance of writing to their classwork. It
seems a pertinent question, therefore, whether teachers are getting as much out
of the concept of writing-across-the-curriculum as they could-whether, that is
writing is seen as an important activity in "content courses" or as just a neces-
sary inconvenience, tolerated in the interest of collegiality.
Our review of high-school and college programs offering cross-disciplinary
writing shows the greater number of them to be little more than "gramma
across the curriculum," in which English teachers counsel their colleagues in
other departments about deviations from "standard written English" so that his-
tory and biology teachers can learn to "correct" student writing with the same
reverence for prose decorum displayed in the English department. Even at thei
best such programs emphasize "packaging information across the curriculum,"
offering ideal models for the presentation of knowledge in different fields. In
either case the main concern of a content course is the mastery of information

C. H. Knoblauch is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York in Albany
He is coauthor of The Writing Process: Discovery and Control (Houghton-Mifflin, second edition
and has completed a new book on eighteenth-century theories of the composing process.
Lil Brannon is an assistant professor of English and English Education and the associate director of
the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She is coauthor of Writers Writing
(Boynton/Cook). Knoblauch and Brannon are now collaborating on a book about rhetorical theor
and the teaching of writing (Boynton/Cook, forthcoming).

College English, Volume 45, Number 5, September 1983


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466 College English

pertinent to its field of study, while writing is a wholly subordinate activity,

most enabling students to demonstrate the extent of their learning, ceremonial
as it were, in a prescribed format. The cooperative teacher of philosophy
political science thereby helps out the English teacher by reinforcing "skills"
first introduced in the composition class while also testing the understanding
student may have of the intellectual material of a course. But there is no doub
about the priority of that material over the often perfunctory verbal exercis
designed to represent a student's grasp of it.
The reasoning that leads to these typical but, we believe, sadly restricted ver
sions of writing across the curriculum is not difficult to trace. Everyone agre
that students do not write as well as they could. (Who does?) And everyone als
agrees that writing more makes for better writers. So colleagues in other disc
plines can support the development of writing skills by placing a composition
assignment or two on the periphery of their syllabi. At the same time, howeve
the areas of writing improvement that presumably deserve most attention ar
grammar and the various modes and forms of argument, matters supposed to li
outside the expertise of our colleagues in other fields, as they are often quick t
remind us. Accordingly, these teachers look to the English department for guid
ance, or at least assume the posture of surrogate English instructors, in their
reading of student texts. In effect, therefore, the English department retains co
trol of how writing is taught and valued elsewhere, not as a medium of intell
tual discovery but as a system of technical constraints, introduced into class-
rooms chiefly so that an expert in grammar or rhetoric, or an ersatz expert, ca
evaluate its mishandling by student writers.1 No wonder, given this perspective
that the art or social-science teacher views writing as an alien activity and th
students in these areas find writing as barren and ritualistic as it often is in the
composition classes: a matter of making and correcting errors or recapitulatin
what everyone already knows, not of finding and conveying meanings.
We would like to recommend a broader concept of writing-across-the-
curriculum, one that makes writing central to courses in disciplines other tha
English, one that accommodates the expertise of the historian, the biologist, an
the engineer, and one that finds justification for writing, not in a concern fo
displaying commonplace ideas in prefabricated forms, but instead in the potent
for new learning implicit in the act of writing itself. The motive for such a re
ommendation is partly political, since there is no reason to suppose that c
leagues will eagerly use writing in their classrooms if they perceive that they a
only being asked to do the job of the English department along with their own,
to take on a task that lies outside their competence. Alternatively, their attitud
toward classroom writing may improve if they can be shown what they have
gain from its use, that is, if they see how writing enhances instruction and faci
tates their students' learning. The value of writing in any course should lie in i
power to enable the discovery of knowledge. Since writing makes knowledge,

1. David Hamilton has discussed the limitation in allowing English departments to retain to
exclusive a control, actual or spiritual, over the teaching and use of writing across the disciplines
See "Interdisciplinary Writing," College English, 41 (1980), 780-96.

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Writing as Learning Through the Curriculum 467

the history teacher, as one example, can use it to assist the learning of
history-by inviting students to employ it as a probe or heuristic for conceiving
the relationships among facts and ideas that we designate as a knowledge of
history. At the same time the history teacher need not "correct" writing at all,
since the concern is less for formal propriety in this context than for the making
of new meanings. Over time we might expect students' writing to "improve" as
a result of efforts to learn by composing. But the improvement is a desirable
by-product, not an immediate goal, of sustained writing, just as physical coordi-
nation may improve, accidentally as it were, in the process of playing a sport.
The special expertise of the composition teacher is properly subordinate here to
that of the historian, whose emphasis is legitimately on intellectual penetration of
the subject. By using writing to assist that penetration, the teacher also coinci-
dentally strengthens both the motive and the capacity to write elsewhere.
The trouble is, many teachers preserve notions about the nature of knowledge
and learning which limit their ability to recognize the heuristic value of composi-
tion. Instructors both in English and other fields often assume that knowledge is
a stable and bounded artifact, a collection of information, a set of facts and ideas
to be delivered to students through lectures and course readings. The goal of
instruction is to "cover" a subject by enumerating its relevant data. The teacher
as knower recalls the body of facts and conveys it to students, learners, who
passively receive and store it, perhaps for later retrieval in term papers or
examinations. "Learning" means receiving information; "knowing" is the con-
dition of having retained it, which can be measured by students' ability to report
it in writing at a teacher's discretion. Teaching means turning learners into
knowers by passing on to them the substance of knowledge.
These assumptions are venerable and deep-seated-and wrong. A more plaus-
ible argument, substantiated over three hundred years of insight and research,2 is
that knowing is an activity, not a condition or state, that knowledge implies the
making of connections, not an inert body of information, that both teachers and
students are learners, that discourse manifests and realizes the power to learn,
and that teaching entails creating incentives and contexts for learning, not a re-
porting of data. Specifically, learning is the process of an individual mind making
meaning from the materials of its experience. As George Kelly has described the
process in A Theory of Personality knowledge is comprised of patterns of rela-
tionships endlessly evolving through accretion, disintegration, and reconstruc-
tion. Learning consists in the assertion of those relationships while knowing is
the consciousness of a pattern of relationships that enables learning to take
place. One way to facilitate students' learning about a subject is to have them
write, because learning and articulating are inseparable activities. Writing ena-
bles new knowledge because it involves precisely that active effort to state rela-

2. For the beginnings of this important shift in focus, see C. H. Knoblauch, "Modern Composi-
tion Theory and the Rhetorical Tradition," Freshman English News (Fall, 1980), pp. 3-4, 11-17. For
contemporary views of the relationship of learning and composing, see Jerome Bruner, Toward a
Theory of Instruction (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967); George A. Kelly, A Theory of Per-
sonality (New York: Norton, 1963); James Britton, Language and Learning (New York: Penguin,
1970); and Ann E. Berthoff, The Making of Meaning (Montclair, N.J.: Boynton/Cook, 1981).

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468 College English

tionships which is at the heart of learning.3 Composing always entails the searc
for connections: its nature is to compel the writer to undertake that search. I
involves the sustained effort to select and order ideas as patterns of connectio
and thereby to generate creative insights through developing form. It is the sha
thinking takes when constrained by laws of syntax, logic, and rhetoric. To insis
only on its technical propriety is to underestimate its power as a heuristic and
therefore its value in the classroom. Conversely, to accentuate the role of com
posing in discovering new knowledge is to show students why their writing ma
ters, therefore to increase their motivation to write, and therefore, ultimately,
increase the likelihood of improvement because they have become more aware
of the purpose and value of making meaning.
Most advocates of writing across the curriculum would surely agree with all o
this. But theoretical awareness notwithstanding, teaching practices too often en
up paying mere lip service to writing as learning while exaggerating a concern f
formal and technical correctness. The authors of Writing in the Arts and Sci-
ences (Elaine Maimon, Gerald Belcher, Gail W. Hearn, Barbara F. Nodine, an
Finbarr W. O'Connor), for example, mention the heuristic potential of compos
ing, speaking on p. xii of the use of writing as "a way to learn." Yet the
emphasis is finally on prose decorum, the belief that writing is "a form of soci
behavior," that students must "learn to control the common conventional fea-
tures of the written code: spelling, punctuation, conformity to standard Engl
usage." Writing to learn is subtly displaced by an extensive discussion of h
learning is to be acceptably displayed. "When you use this book," the autho
admit, "you will still be teaching composition, not introductory courses in the
disciplines, and you will be able to exemplify principles of good writing from
much broader range of material" (p. xii). One might question whether or not a
composition course is really the best vehicle for encouraging writing across th
disciplines, precisely because its focus is likely to be on formal shells rather tha
on modes of thinking and learning in different domains. But the more immedia
point is that, whatever the authors' commitment to writing as learning, their
preoccupation with "models" of acceptable verbal behavior attracts attention to
writing chiefly as a species of social etiquette, thereby allowing teachers who ar
less informed than they are to retain their traditional concern for what Ann
Berthoff has called "muffin tins" for discourse. To be sure, an awareness of
generic constraints facilitates effective professional communication. But there is
little gain in showing students how to write like professionals before they have
discovered any good reason to write at all or before they have developed the
capacity to think well about their subjects. A competent, motivated writer can
quickly master the constraints of a lab report or a case study. The pedagogical
priority, therefore, ought to be to develop that competent, motivated writer-by
first encouraging writing for the sake of learning.
Unlike the authors of Writing in the Arts and Sciences, Anne J. Herrington,
another advocate of cross-disciplinary writing, argues explicitly for incorporating

3. This is the connection Janet Emig establishes in "Writing as a Mode of Learning," College
Composition and Communication, 28 (1977), 124.

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Writing as Learning Through the Curriculum 469

composition assignments in content courses. But she ends up exacerbating the

problem of what kind of writing to recommend in that context and what attitudes
toward composing to instill in our colleagues. Her arguments too return eventu-
ally to a concern for formal constraints despite an initial attention to writing-as-
learning. She begins with Janet Emig's insights about language and learning, but
in her description of the Johnson State College faculty training experiment she
details assignments that emphasize students' recapitulation of text and lecture
material together with the teacher's concern for evaluating the writing in terms
of "how well [the students] had understood and applied the material" ("Writing
to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines," College English, 43 [1981], 383). By
"learning" Herrington seems really to mean receiving information from the
teacher, which can then be "applied" in conventional ways through writing. She
speaks, therefore, of the importance of teachers' clarifying in advance what they
consider to be the range of "acceptable responses" to an assignment (p. 386), as
though all the plausible connections students might discover, and the forms they
might take, are somehow predictable (and therefore prescribable) before the stu-
dent even begins to write. As a result, the writing elicits, not an open-ended
investigative dialogue between writer and teacher-reader leading to new learning,
but rather a teacher-centered evaluation of how close the writer has come to
telling "the truth" about some subject. Herrington suggests that writing in con-
tent courses will be evaluated "for content only," but then proceeds to argue,
disingenuously, that, while grammatical and structural excellence will not im-
prove writers' grades, lapses in these areas may nonetheless lower them. The
message to colleagues in other disciplines seems to be that they can disregard
formal achievement in favor of "content," but not failures of form, which after
all must be located before they can serve as motives for lowering grades. In
other words, content matters only to the extent that formal expectations have
been met, a judgment which Herrington, presumably, would encourage our col-
leagues to make.
The problem, again, is political as well as intellectual. How can we encourage
teachers to keep students writing throughout the curriculum without engendering
the impression that we wish to place an English teacher's responsibilities on the
shoulders of those whose interests, commitments, and competence lie
elsewhere? The answer seems to be that instructors should be led to see the
direct value of writing to their own classroom purposes and also the ways in
which they can elicit writing without assuming the added burden of extensive
evaluation and "correction." The easiest way to achieve these ends, it seems to
us, while also maintaining intellectual honesty, is to highlight the heuristic value
of composing, in particular the potential for enhanced learning available from
writing which James Britton would call "expressive" rather than "transac-
tional."'4 Imagine this setting, for example. A sociology teacher has a class of
150 students, surely too many to allow for assigning much formal writing, such
as term papers. But suppose that, on any given class day, the teacher asked

4. See James Britton, T. Burgess, N. Martin, A. McLeod, and H. Rosen, The Development of
Writng Abilities, 11-18 (London: Macmillan Education, 1975).

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470 College English

students to spend the first ten minutes of class writing freely about the readin
assigned the previous night, perhaps relating it to earlier lectures or to so
question the teacher raises. Then suppose that these students traded their stat
ments among themselves, read each other's writing, wrote responses to that
writing for five more minutes, reflecting upon its meaning for them or offeri
counter-arguments, and then returned the statements for inclusion in course
notebooks. At the end of this procedure, and because of it, students would ha
achieved a level of intellectual engagement with the materials of the course
probably well in advance of what we usually see at the start of a class. Now
suppose that midway through a lecture, at a critical juncture of argument or after
describing an especially complex idea, the instructor stopped and asked students
to write for five more minutes, representing for themselves the substance of the
teacher's point. Then suppose the teacher asked a few students to read their
statements aloud, using the readings as a basis for some class discussion. Again,
the level of intellectual commitment and penetration is likely to improve, simply
because writing forces any mind to confront new experience, make connections
with other experience, and discover some personal coherence.
These exercises are valuable because they keep students writing while em-
phasizing a demonstrable motive to write. They are also valuable because of
their evident relevance to an instructor's own goals in a course, enabling a richer
learning experience for students without increasing the teacher's workload or
forcing the teacher to learn (or pretend to) an alien expertise. Any writing which
allows for open connection-making and intellectual dialogue can be useful for
encouraging thought and learning. A journal or notebook, for example, which a
teacher might review once or twice in a semester, is probably more useful than a
term paper because it allows students more freedom to explore the ideas of a
discipline from a personal vantage point, and therefore greater opportunity to
learn without the anxiety of anticipating formal expectations that are made to
seem more important than the search for meaning. A notebook can become the
vehicle of a mind's progress toward understanding a subject. It is also the record
of that progress, which a teacher can view and respond to in order to encourage
additional learning.
By notebook or "journal" we do not mean the private writing that is often
recommended chiefly as an invention procedure prior to composing a more for-
mal discourse, a kind of writing that can be coherent or not, readable or not, as
the writer chooses. Instead we mean writing that tests various possibilities of
connection and coherence in an orderly, penetrating way, writing intended to be
read by a supportive teacher whose role is not to evaluate what is said but only
to respond to it, raising questions about it in order to facilitate more writing,
more connection-making. It is also, somewhat like free writing, a mode of com-
posing that allows maximum flexibility to pursue connections as they occur to
the writer without the overriding concern in more public discourses for adhering
to intellectual and formal limits arising from choices already made. As the au-
thors of a 1976 report of the London Schools Council Project observed, in this
kind of composing the writer "feels free to jump from facts to speculation to
personal anecdote to emotional outburst and none of it will be taken down and

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Writing as Learning Through the Curriculum 471

used against him."5 The concern is to create intellectual dialogue as a way of

stimulating more learning, to use writing as a means of personal discovery but
also as a means of communicating the honest extent of the writer's understand-
ing, including difficulties, inadequacies of insight, imperfect or unproductive
connections among ideas and information, so that a more experienced learner
can provide, through reinforcing commentary, some new directions for explora-

The teacher's role in responding to this kind of communication is obviously

different from the traditional English teacher's role. Only the teacher of a par-
ticular discipline knows enough about the learning process characteristic of that
field, the ways in which information is gathered and organized, the perspectives
that apply, the ways in which problems are solved and questions answered, to
respond in a manner that really establishes intellectual dialogue. Moreover, the
teacher here is not an examiner, judging the writer's retention of information or
mastery of formal principles, but rather an intellectual guide whose concern is to
lead the less knowledgeable toward fruitful lines of inquiry of interest to them
both. Correcting writing in this context is more than superfluous: it is damaging
to the enterprise, while responding to it seriously and with all appropriate con-
ceptual discipline is essential. As the Schools Council Project points out, a
teacher's comments are not just about students' completed work, but are about
"the next steps that each could take to penetrate the facts further. The teacher's
capacity to make such connections between what he knows of the child and what
he knows of the subject are at the heart of his job." The authors conclude that, if
a teacher "can encourage his pupils to find points of contact between the un-
familiar and the known-in their own terms and in the context of their own
needs and interests-he will be helping them to extend their insights into the
world around them and their own relation to it" (pp. 83-84).
In this revised model of writing-to-learn-across-the-curriculum, the teacher's
concern changes from dispensing knowledge to stimulating conceptual involve-
ment and investigation in order to encourage the growth of students' intellectua
capacities. We are far from implying any relaxation of rigor in responding to
student writing, but only advocating a shift of the direction in which teachers
focus their critical energies, a new concentration on students' developing imagi-
native power and reach as opposed to an improved expertise in manipulating
superficial formal conventions. We do not suggest that those conventions should
never be introduced, but only that, since learning is more important, their value
should not be exaggerated, as it so often is in writing courses and elsewhere
Teachers can make the best use of writing when they depend on it for creating a
dialectical relationship with writers. Notebook or journal writing can initiate a
learning process while the teacher's responses to it can sustain the process by
confronting the writer with problems and possibilities that had been unforeseen
or only partially explored. The writing is content-specific, that is, related to the
knowledge of a given discipline, and the teacher's responses are equally specific,

5. Nancy Martin, Pat D'Arcy, Bryan Newton, Robert Parker, Writing and Learning Across the
Curriculum, 11-16 (London: Schools Council Publications, 1976), p. 23.

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472 College English

the observations of a knower of history or psychology, not grammar and

What might this notebook writing look like and what sorts of comments are
possible? The London Project offered numerous examples, including the writing
of elementary and junior high-school children. Here is an excerpt from the
notebook of a young teenager in a science class:
We put a rabbit on a table. He sniffed around and looked over the edge of the table.
He twitched his nose and ears and he kept jumping onto a nearby box. Then we put
two rabbits together. The Rabbit that we had first put on the table sniffed at the new
rabbit, and they stayed close together twitching their ears and noses. Then we sepa-
rated them they tried to get around the book which was dividing the table in two
they tried to get over the book, and sniffed at the bottom and edges of it. We then
let them go back together again, they didn't seem to take any notice of each other.
So we think that Rabbits communicate by twitching their ears and nose. If they are
frightened they jump and wriggle. We think that rabbits when they are alone and
twitch their nose and ears, are communicating lonlyness, and when they are
frightened they wriggle their tails and jump. They communicate friendliness when
they lick and nibble one another. (p. 75)

Observations like these continue over a period of several days, revealing the
child's growing interest in and awareness of the behaviors she is witnessing. The
researchers offer some samples of teacher response intended to sharpen the
child's awareness of her assumptions, for instance, the connection she is making
between animal behavior and what she regards as typical human behavior. How
can we be sure, for example, that such facial movements as twitching noses have
anything to do with the way rabbits behave toward each other? Whether the
child's connection is plausible or not, a teacher might use her interest in the
rabbits' behavior to stimulate additional concern for the ways people behave. To
what extent do human beings rely on facial expression when they communicate
feelings? What are some examples? How has the human ability to use language
given us an advantage over other animals? (pp. 76-77). Such questions can lead
to more writing, and more learning, by drawing the student into ever deepening
dialogue. They engage the subject from the student's standpoint, thereby en-
abling additional connection-making in terms of the student's own interests and
abilities while also encouraging growth in understanding of the subject.
Here is an excerpt from the journal of a graduate student in a course on con-
temporary rhetorical theory. Members of the class had been discussing the
applicability of rhetorical theory to the teaching of writing with reference to
readings from the work of James Kinneavy and Frank D'Angelo, among others.
Since it was only the second week of class, students still had not really come to
grips with the principles of modem discourse theory or with their potential appli-
cations. The writing in this student's journal is, therefore, generalized and unfo-
cused. One goal of the course (but not of the instructor's immediate commen-
tary) would be to focus the writing, through questioning, as a means of encourag-
ing the sort of energetic, intellectual connection-making that would constitute
learning in this particular subject matter:
As I was reading James Kinneavy and D'Angelo I just let their ideas run together in
my mind-somewhat anxious about what they might be trying to say. I was not

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Writing as Learning Through the Curriculum 473

trying to see how they were going to help me as a teacher, but just trying to gather
in information. What exactly are they saying to me? D'Angelo argues for salvaging
the classical models of conceptualizing: definition, comparison/contrast etc., he
says, are processes of the mind. Meanwhile, Kinneavy points to the "fact" that all
discourses have "aims," that is, a direction toward the audience, or the world, or
the writer herself, or the discourse itself as an aesthetic object. It seems to me he's
also, like D'Angelo, working from the classical tradition, sorting and categorizing,
working from the classical model of knowledge. Now what does all this mean to me
as a teacher? Or am I getting ahead of myself? Should I be asking first about the
assumptions on which they base their taxonomies? I'll back up: Kinneavy is right
that we can sort texts the way he says-but what does that tell us about the com-
posing of them? And D'Angelo is right that we occasionally compare things, or
define them, or look for causes and effects. But how selfconscious are we about
that when we write, how selfconscious should students be? Since all these sortings
and categories are listed in textbooks, I guess I'm supposed to teach them. But they
seem awfully static, artificial, afterthefact to me.

The confusions and uncertainties that we notice in this entry not only reveal
the student's relationship to the content of the course but also suggest some
points of teacher intervention in the student's thinking to improve intellectual
penetration. One comment might be: "Can you tell me what you think the 'clas-
sical model of knowledge' is? Do we still accept it? Does our teaching still de-
pend on it? How? What would a 'modern' theory of knowledge look like? How
might it change our teaching?" Another comment might be: "Granted that we
can sort texts as Kinneavy does, what is the point of sorting them? Could it be
valuable to know the sortings even if you do not teach them explicitly? What
kinds of aims are we conscious of when we write? Some of your own questions
are good ones: now that you've posed them, why not try out some answers?"
Any number of issues could have been raised, of course; these happened to
interest a particular teacher. The choice of response or question is less important
than the type: these serve to initiate dialogue about a shared subject, and there-
fore more thinking, more writing, more learning about it.
What we see in these two instances of writing in "content" courses is the
feasibility of using composing as a central feature of instruction in courses that
do not directly emphasize writing "improvement." Presumably what any class-
room seeks to nurture is intellectual conversation, leading to enhanced powers of
discernment. Since writing enables both learning and conversation, manifesting
and enlarging the capacity to discover connections, it should be a resource that
all teachers in all disciplines can rely on to achieve their purposes. Naturally,
students should learn, over time, how to observe prose decorum in the forms
available to writers in different fields. So too we would all hope that their writing
will "improve" as they continue their education. But we should put first things
first, creating motives to write by showing its value for learning before laboring
the mastery of superficial constraints. If our cooperative colleagues in other dis-
ciplines can see the importance writing has for their own instructional purposes,
they may be more willing to ask for it, and not just in order to do a favor for the
English department. Meanwhile, if students have frequent opportunities to learn
by writing throughout their curricula and across all levels of education from the
primary grades to graduate school, the English department's special concern for

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474 College English

literacy is likely to be far better served than it is now in pointless ritual regurgita-
tions of the pros and cons of capital punishment with title page, notes, and bibli-
ography. It will be easy enough for historians and biologists to show thinking,
verbally acute human beings how to write in their professional modes, provided
we teachers, collectively, have worked to develop thinking, verbally acute
human beings in the first place.

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