Writing in the Majors


Based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field, the Writing in the Majors program extends the Institute’s discipline-based approach to advanced courses in all spheres of the curriculum. An essential ingredient of the program’s success has been the Institute’s support of additional teaching assistants, drawn from the professor’s own discipline, to help implement these projects. Some of these teaching assistants collaborate with faculty to improve entire courses; others lead optional, writing-intensive sections of larger courses. Teaching assistants assigned to Writing in the Majors projects enroll in WRIT 7101: a six-week course on teaching strategies in advanced instruction.

Program History

Following its creation in 1987 by former Knight Program Director, Professor of English Harry Shaw, Writing in the Majors functioned in its first decade as an effective pilot program that served 400-500 upper-division students per year. Initially funded by a university grant and then by the College of Arts and Sciences, Writing in the Majors gradually expanded through additional funding from the Division of Biological Sciences and the Park Foundation, which supported new projects in the social sciences.

Since 1997, funding from the Knight Foundation and commitments from the university have allowed Writing in the Majors to support more than 40 courses each year, with combined enrollments of roughly 1,400 students.

For inquiries and further information, contact Elliot Shapiro, Senior Lecturer and Director of Writing in the Majors at ehs9@cornell.edu.

Consultation and Workshops

For more than twenty years, collaboration with exciting teachers has given us a wealth of information about innovative course designs, assignments, and teaching strategies. We have often brought these ideas to informal discussions with faculty members who would like to revise their courses or solve specific problems.

We have also worked with many graduate teaching assistants, individually and in groups, who are not formally appointed to Writing in the Majors courses. This support for teaching assistants has included workshops on responding to student writing in departmental TA training programs and in staff meetings for large courses that assign writing.

Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the following:

  • Course design
  • Development or revision of writing assignments
  • Strategies for responding to student writing
  • Work with peer review and other methods of revision
  • Concerns about particular students
  • ESL problems among student writers
  • Individual or group meetings with TAs


Elliot Shapiro
Knight Foundation Director of Writing in the Majors
M101 McGraw Hall
Phone: 607- 255-5867

FAQs for Students

Will a Writing in the Majors course satisfy my First-Year Writing Requirement?

No. Although First-Year Writing Seminars (FWS) vary widely in disciplinary focus and subject matter, all First-Year Seminars have to satisfy certain basic requirements concerning the number of papers assigned; pages of reading per week; number of papers that are revised; the use of conferences; and the use of substantial classroom time to focus on writing. When Cornell undergraduates apply to graduate or professional programs, the Knight Institute is sometimes asked to communicate these common requirements as a way to indicate that discipline based FWS courses satisfy the writing requirements frequently filled by Freshman English or Introductory Composition courses at other institutions. WIM courses have none of these common requirements. Therefore, they cannot satisfy FWS requirements.

Can I petition to have a WIM course fulfill my FWS requirement?

No. Your petition would be denied. Writing in the Majors are not intended to satisfy FWS requirements, or any other writing requirement.

FAQs for Faculty and Department Administrators

How are courses designated as WIM courses?

There is no way a course can receive the WIM designation except as designated by the WIM staff.

Designation as a WIM course is arranged through consultation between the faculty member(s) offering the course and the Director and Associate Director of WIM. After the WIM staff and the faculty member offering the course have come to an agreement to support a course, the Knight Institute sends a formal letter of commitment to the chair of the department offering the course, with copies sent to the faculty member and relevant departmental administrators. These letters, sent during the spring semester for the following academic year, indicate that the Knight Institute will provide funding to support one TA for the course, to supplement (but not replace) any TAs funded by the department in support of this course. All Knight funded TAs are expected to take Writing 7101, the WIM training course, during the semester when the course is offered. If multiple TAs within a course support writing, we expect all course TAs to take 7101.

What requirements do these courses satisfy?

WIM courses are not intended to satisfy college writing requirements, at the introductory or upper level.

WIM courses can satisfy major or college requirements, insofar as that is appropriate for the subject matter, the course level, and the expectations of the department and college in which the course is offered. Ensuring that a particular course satisfies department, major, or college requirements is handled by the listing department through the procedures that are standard for the listing college. The Knight Institute is not involved in these negotiations between the listing department and the home college.

If I want to apply to teach a WIM course, how should I proceed?

Contact the WIM director. It usually helps to send some information about the particular course and the anticipated role of writing in the course, and to include some description about how an additional TA would support student writing. We would want to know how an additional TA would help the instructor improve students’ learning experience. We also strive to support professional opportunities for participating TAs and faculty. 

An initial query or preliminary proposal should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than a fixed proposal.

How much writing is required? How many writing assignments are required?

There are no fixed or common writing requirements for WIM courses. The goal is to embed writing within each course in ways that support student learning. The program’s goal is not to encourage faculty to assign more writing, or to assign particular kinds of writing. The program supports situated writing that deepens student understanding of and engagement with the subject matter and the discipline.

How big should these courses be? What is the TA/student ratio?

These courses vary considerably in size and structure. Some courses have several hundred students. Some have enrollments in the low double digits.

WIM courses do share a commitment to relatively low TA/student ratios: no more than 1:35, with a preference for 1:30 or lower.

Larger WIM courses typically achieve this low TA/student ratio in one of two ways. In some cases, the WIM funded TA is part of a team that includes several department funded TAs. In other cases, the WIM funded TA leads an extra-credit section—essentially a course within a course.

What are the obligations of faculty members teaching a WIM course?

Beyond the obligations embedded in a course by virtue of its place in a departmental curriculum, a faculty member teaching a WIM course should consider the role of writing in a particular course and design a course that engages students with course material through writing. A second, and equally important obligation, is to mentor the graduate student or students collaborating on the course. Any training or support the WIM program can offer to graduate students is only part of the training they should receive as apprentices within their field of study and as collaborators on a course with a faculty member and fellow graduate students.

Faculty members should keep the WIM staff informed about enrollment in the parent course and in any special sections (when relevant). We gather information about innovations in teaching as well as distinct features of the course, in both formal and informal ways.

The vitality of the program depends on a flow of information between the faculty and the WIM staff.

Faculty members should keep WIM informed about when a course will be offered and whether WIM support will be requested. Renewal of support is frequent but not guaranteed, and, in practice, is often tied to the commitments of a particular faculty member.

A faculty member who wishes to request WIM funding should notify WIM by February 15 for the following academic year, using the renewal request form attached to the commitment letter (or available from the WIM staff). (When plans are uncertain, please communicate with the WIM staff. We can sometimes be flexible in our time table for making commitments.)

What are the obligations of departments offering a WIM course?

Departments should appoint TAs to WIM courses who can demonstrate both reasonable expertise in the course material and commitment to teaching.

Departments should keep the WIM staff apprised of plans for future offerings including staffing changes.

WIM support should not be considered an entitlement. If a WIM course changes hands, and the department wishes to continue to receive WIM funding, the department should notify WIM who the instructor will be. The WIM director will want to meet with the new instructor and ascertain that the instructor is committed to teaching the course as a WIM course. An agreement to support the course should be by mutual agreement of WIM and the instructor of record. WIM always reserves the right to deny support to a given course, even if the course has received support in the past.

What happens if I don’t teach the course every year? What happens if I go on leave?

Keep WIM informed about your plans and whether you hope to teach the course again as a WIM course. Requests for support should come in by February 15 of the academic year preceding the year when the course will be offered.

FAQs on Special or Extra Credit Sections

What are special sections? How are special sections different from other sections? Who teaches special sections?

Special sections (also known as extra credit sections, track two, or WIM sections, depending on the course), are typically offered in large lecture courses, usually in the sciences and social sciences. In these large courses, most students are evaluated based on exams, problem sets, or other modes of engagement that involve minimal writing. Students enrolled in special sections typically engage with course material through writing. This reduces the role exams play in their final grade, or, in some cases, eliminates their obligation to sit for the exams.

Special sections are led by WIM funded TAs, who invite applications from enrolled students and select from among those who apply. In collaboration with the faculty member teaching the parent course, each special section leader design a course-within-a-course intended to satisfy the expectations of the course and discipline as well as the teaching and learning goals of WIM. Special sections typically enroll between 10 and 20 students.

When selecting a special section leader faculty should favor graduate students with previous TA or teaching experience and a demonstrated commitment to teaching. They should also select students with knowledge or expertise in the subject matter of the course.

Although extra-credit sections have a long history with the WIM program, they currently represent a relatively small percentage of WIM courses offered. Of approximately forty courses supported by WIM each year, only seven currently include extra-credit sections.

How do students enroll in special/extra-credit sections?

At the beginning of the semester, the faculty member invites students to apply to the special section. The faculty member often gives the special section TA an opportunity to describe the special section to all enrolled students during the first and/or second class period. Faculty and TAs are encouraged to be creative in figuring out who might be most interested in participating and ensuring that students are aware of the opportunities these sections represent. Applications—which typically involve writing a statement explaining the student’s interest—are submitted to the TA, who selects students.

The model described above represents a standard practice, which departments can adapt to suit the needs of their course and their students.

FAQs for Teaching Assistants

Who are the WIM teaching assistants?

WIM TAs are graduate students enrolled in the department in which the course is offered, or occasionally in an intellectually contiguous department. (For example, the department of Development Sociology might hire a Sociology graduate student). TAs are selected by the department. TAs should be selected for their expertise in the course and field, as well as for their commitment to teaching. As noted above, leaders of special sections should have some prior teaching experience and a demonstrated commitment to teaching. 

What are the benefits of being a WIM TA?

WIM TAs receive special training through Writing 7101, the six-week training course offered each semester. In this course, they have the opportunity to reflect on teaching and writing in many dimensions, and to work with graduate students representing a range of disciplines from across the university.

We strongly encourage faculty to treat these TAships as mentoring opportunities. Whether the TAs lead special sections, regular discussion sections, or interact with students primarily through office hours and one-on-one meetings, faculty should treat these TAships as professional development opportunities for each TA, and consider how to mentor these TAs as apprentice scholars and teachers.

Who has to take Writing 7101, the TA training course?

All WIM funded TAs are expected to take Writing 7101 the semester they TA.

In courses with multiple TAs, all of whom do comparable work supporting student writing, all TAs should take Writing 7101, no matter how they are funded.

Graduate students are only expected to take Writing 7101 once. Graduate students who have already taken Writing 7100 are exempt