The History of Writing Across the Curriculum at MIT

The program that is now Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication has a long and varied history at MIT, and has had many names, including Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and the Technical Writing Cooperative.

The inclusion of instruction and practice in writing in all parts of its academic curriculum is almost as old as MIT itself.  Beginning in 1889, Writing faculty reviewed and critiqued undergraduate technical papers in several engineering disciplines as well as from classes in architecture and economics.1  In 1896, Robert Grosvenor Valentine took over the leadership of this innovative program and expanded it by having students, including students in engineering classes, comment on each other’s papers.2  After leaving MIT, Valentine served in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, becoming Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1908 but was forced to resign in 1912 by President Taft after Valentine tried to protect the religious autonomy of Native Americans.3  He then invented the field of “Industrial Psychology” to develop rational methods for mediating labor – management disputes.4

Between the two World Wars, writing instruction became focused in the Humanities. After World War II, the School of Humanities and Social Science was created as a separate unit of the Institute. In the early 1950’s, Prof. Robert R. Rathbone began collaborating with engineering faculty, including Jay W. Forrester, Director of the newly created Digital Computer Laboratory, and faculty in Mechanical Engineering to offer both lectures on technical communication and feedback on student technical reports.  These informal arrangements soon evolved into the Undergraduate Technical Writing Cooperative. For the next forty years this Cooperative continued providing writing instruction, first under Rathbone’s leadership, then by faculty in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.

A writing requirement was established in 1982 to ensure that MIT students were proficient in writing both expository prose and the specialized discourse of their academic discipline. Unfortunately, the Writing Requirement was concerned with assessing minimum proficiency rather than helping students become effective writers and speakers.  Consequently, beginning in the early 1990’s, a new initiative began to build on the existing Undergraduate Technical Writing Cooperative to create a new curriculum that would ensure that MIT students become competent and effective writers and speakers. These efforts, supported by substantial grants from the National Science Foundation and the J.M.R. Barker Foundation, resulted in a vote by the MIT Faculty in 2000 to replace the Writing Requirement with a new Communication Requirement that would ensure that all MIT undergraduates receive instruction and practice in both writing and speaking in each of their four undergraduate years.

This new curriculum necessitated the expansion of the Technical Writing Cooperative into the Writing Across the Curriculum program in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.  The first Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, Leslie Perelman, led the program until his retirement in 2012.  Neal Lerner and Mya Poe both served as leaders within the program, Lerner as Director of Training, and Poe as Director of Technical Communication.  In 2008, Suzanne Lane joined the program as Associate Director, becoming Director in 2013, with the addition of Andreas Karatsolis as Associate Director.  Meanwhile, the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies merged with Comparative Media Studies, to become CMS/W, and in 2014, the WAC program combined with the foundational writing subjects to become Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication, and opening its research lab, ArchiMedia.

In 1989, Writing Cooperative Lecturers totaled only 1.5 Full Time Equivalents (FTE’s). WRAP Lecturers now total nearly 30 FTE’s.

 

(1) David R. Russell. Writing in the Academic Disciplines. 2nd Ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,   108.

(2) Robert Grosvenor Valentine.  “On Criticism of Themes by Students.”  Technology Review 4 (1903): 459-78.

(3) “Resigns Taft Office To Join Roosevelt: Indian Commissioner Valentine Out on Eve of a Decision on His “Religious Garb” Order.  The New York Times, September 11, 1912: 1.http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9407E6D9113AE633A25752C1A96F9C946396D6CF&oref=slogin

(4) Edward Marshall.  “’Industrial Psychologist’ to Prevent Labor Troubles.”  The New York Times, April 27, 1913: Magazine Section Part Five, 11.http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=940CEFDA173FE633A25754C2A9629C946296D6CF