Communication Across the Curriculum: Teaching and learning creatively
Writing leads to deeper learning, study finds.
That was the headline on a Nov. 10, 2008, article in USA Today about a report from the National Survey of Student Engagement on how much writing college students do — and why writing assignments are a good thing.
Student performs 'visual poetry.'
When courses provide intellectually challenging writing activities, students are more likely to analyze, synthesize and integrate ideas from various sources, the study found. They learn to think critically and reflect on their learning.
What the NSSE study describes has long been a pillar of the Clemson University undergraduate experience. When Time magazine selected Clemson as the public university of the year for 2001, it was chiefly on the strength of the university's Communication Across the Curriculum (CAC) initiatives. Every year since 2001, U.S. News & World Report has included Clemson in its “Writing in the Disciplines” list of schools that make writing a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum.
It began as an emphasis on Writing Across the Curriculum and in 1990 it officially became Communication Across the Curriculum (CAC), to encompass writing, speaking, visual and digital communication, says Lee Morrissey, English department chairman. The university's Pearce Center for Professional Communication was established that same year to support CAC activities.
CAC @ Clemson: Premises
• We use writing and speaking to learn new and
• We use writing and speaking to communicate to
• We become engineers or historians by learning
In practice, CAC at Clemson ranges from advanced writing courses to help business majors and engineers become more effective communicators to poetry assignments in a biology class.
"In some majors, there is rarely an opportunity to write creatively," says Catherine Paul, who teaches literature and advocates teaching and learning creatively in all disciplines. When students write poetry about the topics they are studying — or draw a picture or create a model — "they tap into a different part of their thinking," she says. "They invest in the material and find a way to explore it and reflect on what they have learned."
Paul and a few other faculty members pursued this idea with an initiative called Poetry Across the Curriculum, which soon expanded to include other types of creative expression. In 2006, she and four Clemson colleagues — from psychology, sociology, biology and English — published a book of these student creations, each paired with an essay by the student's professor.
Clemson's focus on communications begins with freshman composition and sophomore literature courses required of all students. The Advanced Writing Program, with courses in business writing and technical writing, helps students prepare for the kinds of writing they will do in the workplace. About 30 academic majors require an advanced writing course.
Many of the advanced writing classes take on real-world projects through the Client-Based Program.
A key component of Communication Across the Curriculum is the ePortfolio that every undergraduate student is required to develop. Simply described, an ePortfolio is a collection of a student's work in electronic format. Through text and photos, perhaps video and audio, the ePortfolio documents a student's academic and extracurricular accomplishments and provides evidence of the General Education competencies all Clemson graduates are expected to have.
But — much like writing poetry in a biology class — creating an ePortfolio requires creative thinking and reflection. "It's about connecting the dots, reflecting on your experiences, processing information and presenting it in a way that you probably wouldn't have otherwise," said biology Professor Jerry Waldvogel, one of Clemson's most ardent advocates of teaching and learning creatively, not long before his untimely death in 2009.
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