An Interview with Dan Murphree, Winner of the Schell Award for Implementing Innovative Writing Instruction in the Disciplines

Posted on November 11th, 2015 by

On the morning of Friday, April 18, 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing associate professor Dan Murphree from the Department of History about his prior experiences in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Faculty Fellows program. Dan was a Fellow during the spring 2012 semester and has since incorporated many lessons about writing assignment design and scaffolding into his courses. For these efforts, professor Murphree was awarded the first Schell Award for Innovative Writing Instruction in the Disciplines. In the abridged interview transcript that follows, he shares some of his thoughts about writing and his experiences in the Faculty Fellows program.

Prior to participating in the WAC Faculty Fellows program, what did you see as the purpose of writing assignments in your course?

Prior to being in the WAC program, I was very discipline-heavy with my writing assignments. I only thought of my writing assignments as conveying historical information or having students understand historical content. What the WAC program enabled me to better understand is that a lot of the assignments I give shouldn’t just be about historical content—they should help students to better understand how writing is thinking, or how the writing process actually allows them to better understand any kind of content. One of the best things this program did is it got me to change my writing assignments to … promote better writing and thinking skills in general.

What prompted you to apply to the WAC Fellows program?

I got here in 2010, and one of the first people I met was Elizabeth Wardle, the chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. I worked with her on creating an in-class specialized training process in writing which involved Writing and Rhetoric faculty providing workshops for my students during their U.S. history class time. When that was over, Dr. Wardle mentioned that the department was going to have a WAC Fellows program. By that point, I’d met the director of WAC—Pavel Zemliansky—and I just talked to him one day and expressed my interest in the program. They were gracious enough to accept me into the program, and here I am.

What conversations, activities, concepts, or readings from the program were the most valuable to you as an instructor?

The most valuable concept was the idea that “writing is thinking.” I created all my writing assignments around that. Other valuable aspects of the program were the idea of scaffolding writing assignments; I was able to teach my students how writing could build on itself. All of my writing assignments are based on that formula now. Also, the idea of revision as part of the writing process is something I’d always known about, but I’d never looked at like a WAC Fellow in the sense that revision is not just a way for students to “pretty up” a rough draft that they’d had before—it’s a way for them to see their mistakes, improve upon them, and show you [the professor] that they’re better able to understand the problems they had in the past. Even though I teach history, that’s still an important point, because students’ ability to convey historical arguments and historical evidence is very important to their understanding of history in general. In a disciplinary context, revision allowed me to better gauge how students understood the content.

What were some positive takeaways from your WAC Fellows experience?

Two things stand out: 1) The WAC Faculty Fellows program provides a great opportunity for you to interact with your colleagues across different disciplines. When I was a WAC Fellow, we had a history cohort, a chemistry cohort, and a nursing cohort. I had not interacted with the latter two groups much before this program. Even though I wouldn’t even pretend to say I understand the nuts and bolts of their disciplines, I now understand the importance of writing in their disciplines as much as I understand it related to my discipline. 2) Becoming involved with WAC has shown me a new avenue of research in terms of my own professional development. I’ve written a couple of articles about my WAC experience in the classroom, and this has been really important for creating my Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) portfolio. So, what I would say to faculty members that might be skeptical about joining the program or embracing WAC principles is that participating in this program is actually a way to further your research career.

Now that you have gone through the WAC Fellows process, how have your views about writing changed?

I’m what’s considered a “midcareer professional”—I’ve been doing this for about fifteen years, and what WAC has forced me to do—although I’ve really enjoyed it—is look at how I do everything in the classroom differently. In a way, it’s been a very revitalizing process. It’s made me reevaluate everything I do in the classroom in ways that I probably wouldn’t have done, if I had not been a WAC Fellow. Being a WAC Fellow really helps you change your approach to writing and how you view education and your role in the university.

Please join me in congratulating Dan Murphree on his award and thank him for sharing his valuable insights about the value of the WAC Faculty Fellows program. If you or your colleagues are interested in creating a cohort for a future Faculty Fellows program, please contact Pavel Zemliansky at