D.41: 106 State Universities' Study of Writing Programming: Bird's Eye View with Local Contextualization
Reviewed by Natalie A. Johnson, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Emily Isaacs, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
Speakers: Amy Woodworth, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ
Teresa Burns, University of Wisconsin–Platteville, WI
Brenda Helmbrecht, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA
Alan Church, Dickinson State University, Dickinson, ND
Emily Isaacs, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
John Gooch, University of Texas at Dallas, TX
Aviva Taubenfeld, State University of New York at Purchase, NY
Respondents: Sarah Arroyo, California State University, Long Beach, CA
Jackie Cason, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK
Emily Isaacs conducted a state institutional study of writing instructors with 106 universities. In this session, Isaacs outlined her approach to this project along with many of her key findings. Representatives from the institutions who responded to this survey presented their own responses and discussed their writing studies programs, faculty composition, and desired improvements in their program; and many discussed the fragmented nature of the field, along with approaches for addressing this issue.
Isaacs’ survey was sent randomly to 106 different schools and eight representatives from different schools that participated in the study presented at this session. Although the schools ranged from Texas to Alaska, and from small, affluent colleges to large universities, common problems within the writing studies programs were identified. These problems included: a) Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) being given the title of writing expert, more than any other position within writing studies; b) writing centers not being connected to the writing studies discipline, c) overreliance by administrations on part-time and non-tenured faculty for writing instruction, and c) first-year composition not being discipline-based.
In Teresa Burns’ presentation, she discussed the recent increase in students at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, while the number of faculty remained the same; she also noted that there was a recent budget cut within the institution. Although the bottom line, that in order to make more money you must teach more students, sounds like a simple business proposal, she noted that it is unrealistic for faculty who already have a full course load. With no prospect of a promotion and no way to improve ones’ status or position, according to Burns, the morale and motivation of faculty is low. One way to improve the work environment that Burns discussed is to implement best practices espoused by the Council on Writing Program Administrators. Alan Church also discussed the implementation of WPA standards and the resulting positive effects.
John Gooch noted there are no departments at the University of Texas at Dallas, and composition courses do not exist there; instead rhetoric courses take their place. These courses are viewed favorably by the administration as a means by which PhD students can gain experience and earn money while they are completing their degrees.
Brenda Helmbrecht discussed the strong union at California Polytechnic State University and with that the institution-wide support for professional development among faculty, along with mini-grants to assist in motivating involvement. One of the concerns Helmbrecht expressed is the disconnect among different universities, which she believes is greater than needed, along with the fragmentation of the field of writing, which is a factor that causes administrations to be skeptical of the mission and purpose of writing programs.
Aviva Taubenfeld presented an innovative approach taken at her university to address many of the common concerns among institutions about how to train and keep qualified first-year-composition teachers. Taubenfeld discussed the benefits of institutions working together. Her college, State University of New York at Purchase, teamed up with a local private college, and now they are able to have MA students as interns. These interns participate in required training to teach first-year composition courses and then teach the courses during their internships. This collaborative effort benefits both institutions, improves the MA students’ experiences and knowledge, and provides a future pool of trained faculty to teach first-year composition.
Amy Woodworth tied her use of WPA Outcomes along with the high involvement in professional development among instructors to the improvement of the first-year-writing curriculum at her institution. She also noted that, in order for improvements to occur, administrations need to see data and numbers as evidence. For example, empirically based evidence regarding class size is key to showing administrations why first-year writing courses should have an enrollment cap, and therefore showing why pay increases should not be based on class size.
Jackie Cason pointed out in her presentation that many of the issues common among the institutions should be considered the ground truth that helps each of us better understand our own institution’s struggles. Sarah Arroyo concluded the session with presenting information on the development of a social network she established called “Composition at the Beach,” a website aimed at bringing composition instructors and students together to build a community of knowledge and support.
In this session, both the presenters and the findings from the survey proved that, while writing programs face institutional obstacles, there are institutions, administrators, and instructors who have a desire and are willing to collaborate in order to overcome them.