A WPA Roundtable: Implementing Program-Wide Writing Studies-Based Composition Pedagogies
In this roundtable, five WPAs discuss how they implemented program-wide writing studies-based curricula, addressing concerns such as expertise, labor, resistance, and assessment.
The history of so-called “writing about writing” approaches to teaching composition is well-documented (Downs and Wardle, “Teaching”; Wardle and Downs, “looking”; Bird, Downs, McCracken, and Rieman). The approach, though often shorthanded as “writing about writing” or WAW, is actually a capacious set of approaches that share one guiding principle: faculty creating curricula that teach research-based conceptions about writing that can be repurposed and built upon in later writing contexts. Along with a wide range of approaches documented in Bird et al.’s Next Steps and Wardle and Downs’ 2014 survey of instructors, among “writing studies-based” pedagogies we include Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s 2014 “teaching for transfer” curricula based on threshold concepts of writing (Adler-Kassner & Wardle), and any curricula that make writing, rhetoric, discourse, or literacy the studied content of the composition course.
As Downs and Wardle noted in their first publication about this pedagogy in 2007 (see also Samuels), faculty labor and expertise are central to implementing such curricula, though not solely as a challenge (see Hansen; Finer; Kutney). Nationally, many composition faculty are not trained in rhetoric and composition. Many are part-time, making professional development more difficult. Of full-time faculty, especially tenurable, many are trained in literature or creative writing, modulating writing classes with their own disciplinary knowledge but often without grounding in research on how people learn to write and how to conceptualize writing studies.
Such constraints make implementing writing studies pedagogies at program-scale a significant feat of writing program administration, entailing the challenges of all program-wide curricular implementation (organizing faculty members, articulating outcomes, developing assignments, assessing pilots, building buy-in), but with an additional challenge: WPAs must weave teachers’ existing knowledge and expertise with new, growing knowledge and expertise about writing they may not have from their graduate training (see Wardle and Scott for a discussion about the challenges of expertise and writing courses). In terms of program development, then, the teaching and learning process for faculty in a writing-studies based class is not so different from that of a writing studies classroom itself. Engaging that process and implementing a writing studies-based approach requires careful planning, implementation, and rhetorical abilities on the part of the WPA undertaking the task (see Mahaffey and Rieman). As WPAs, we are interested in several interrelated questions about those transitional activities:
- How do WPAs at various types of institutions tackle the challenges of building outcomes grounded in writing studies?
- How do they develop research-based curricula about writing that teachers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds can implement?
- How do they engage faculty at all levels in useful professional development activities?
- How do they undertake assessment that helps teachers continue to refine their approaches and provide appropriate resources?
- How do they develop buy-in among teachers who range from unaware but amenable to outright resistant?
- How do they communicate with a diverse set of institutional stakeholders about the principles, designs, effects, and necessary resources of writing studies pedagogies?
A few articles specific to writing studies curricula have addressed such questions over the years (Bird et al.; Carter; Charlton; Dew; Wardle, “Intractable”), but to this point there are no published conversations among WPAs at differing institution types answering—and comparing answers—to these questions. Such a dialogue describing varied strategies and tactics for implementing a program-wide curriculum grounded in writing studies research can provide a resource for WPAs thinking about matters of praxis: applying writing research and theory to classrooms and programs.
This roundtable offers such a dialogue, in which WPAs share their responses to the preceding questions. The dialogue took place first in a Google doc, where participants could see one another’s responses to the questions and respond to them. Participants represent five programs embedded in a range of institutional types, from a small private university to a large public one, with a variety of program ages, rhetorical ecologies, and exigencies that informed their developments. The final section of dialogue offers concluding thoughts and advice for those considering a programmatic shift to a writing studies pedagogy.
REBECCA Babcock, University of Texas Permian Basin
University of Texas Permian Basin is a designated Hispanic Serving Institution and a regional comprehensive institution serving west Texas and southeast New Mexico with an enrollment of approximately 5100 undergraduate students.
DOUG Downs, Montana State University
Montana State University is the state’s flagship public R1 STEM and agriculture campus, with enrollment of about 17,000. Writing instruction has historically been deemphasized, with only one required first-year writing course (exempted by about 30 percent of students via AP or test scores)and no upper-division writing requirement.
JOHN Whicker, Fontbonne University
Fontbonne University is a small private Catholic University enrolling approximately 1500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, many of whom are first-generation students coming predominantly from the local area.
COLIN Charlton, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is an emergent research HSI in south State4 (89% Hispanic), and opened its doors as a distributed campus after UT Brownsville and UT Pan Am merged in the fall of 2015. With the university’s total enrollment nearing 30,000 students, the first year writing program serves about 4,000 students each semester.
ELIZABETH Wardle, University of Central Florida (former program)
University of Central Florida is an “emerging preeminent research university” located in Orlando enrolling over 58,000 undergraduate students, over 90% of whom are state residents. The school enrolls a high population of first generation students, and 37% of the enrolled students are black or Hispanic/Latino.
As a teacher, how did you come to adopt a writing studies approach, and what convinced you to develop it for your writing program?
REBECCA: I took a doctoral course on composition pedagogies that left me searching for a new pedagogy since none that I had studied resonated with me. I then met Betsy Sargent at CCCC in 2006 and joined the Writing About Writing SIG at that conference, where I learned about and subsequently adopted Conversations about Writing (Sargent and Paraskevas) for the online Comp I course I teach and supervise. When that book became hard to obtain in the US, we wrote our own textbook, Reading about Writing (Gipson).
DOUG: The notion of a writing studies pedagogy clicked for me during my doctoral studies around 2001, in reading David Russell’s arguments against “general writing skills instruction” (1995)—his speculation that a course about writing would get closest to the learning transfer FYC instruction is trying to attain—and Michael Kleine’s article on getting students to join us in the university’s genuine inquiry (1987), into rhetoric and writing. If students need to reconceive writing through research-based knowledge-building, then you’re talking about building a course around research-based encounters with writing—those of the field and those of students themselves. As I’ve described in greater detail elsewhere (Bird et al.; Downs & Wardle, “Teaching”), I piloted such a pedagogy in 2002 and was stunned by its effectiveness in helping students reconceive the nature of writing, rhetoric, and process.
JOHN: Like REBECCA, I first encountered WAW in 2006 when I taught as an adjunct instructor at [university] where DOUG served as a WPA. He gave a presentation on using writing studies scholarship at my first pre-semester orientation. After a couple semesters where my students’ end of semester reflections recounted all they had learned about abortion or turtle farming—not kidding—with no mention of what they had learned about writing, I began experimenting with ways to focus students’ attention on writing. I concluded that the only way for my students to learn more about writing than the topics they wrote about was to make writing the topic. Over the next several semesters, I developed my own writing studies approach, and when I became an assistant director of composition during my doctoral studies at [university], I successfully lobbied the composition committee to adopt a writing studies approach programmatically. When I moved to [university] as director of composition, despite some unexpected resistance, I also developed a writing studies FYC program here.
COLIN: I was influenced by [my WPA] when I was the developmental coordinator in her writing program. While she was helping faculty develop new, dare I say disciplinarily up to date, outcomes for first year writing, I was updating our developmental courses from un-integrated reading-writing courses that focused on a writer’s development from words to paragraphs. Personally, I had been teaching institutional context and writing process with a design approach, so I created an assignment sequence about literacy and writing processes that nicely synced with writing studies approaches. At the same time, program TAs were developing shared writing studies assignments in the credit-bearing writing program courses. After the TAs’ success using these assignments, more TAs and new instructors adopted a model syllabus based on ideas from DOUG and Doug & Elizabeth’s 2007 CCC article. Before the Writing About Writing textbook (Wardle & Downs, Writing) came out, we used that 2007 article on misconceptions as the initial reading and foundation for our shared assignment sequence, and the ideas in their article were well received by students. My first writing studies course was a developmental course with over 80% bilingual students, and its success led me to support and help design a whole-program writing studies sequence. A colleague and I, in recent reflection, both realized that our framing FY writing courses as writing studies came from our need to develop a writing terminology with our students; to do so, we were reading pieces on writing concepts with our students and building assignments around that writing studies scaffold. While student resistance was no more noticeable during the transition, my cohort of instructors did feel resistance from faculty who were unfamiliar with our new approach and, honestly, uninterested in changing what they had been doing individually.
ELIZABETH: David Russell was my dissertation advisor, and my dissertation looked at whether or not FYC courses were able to achieve their stated and official outcomes. I found that they were not, and that the problem largely centered around the goal of teaching “academic writing” or “writing in general.” The findings convinced me that either we needed to abolish first-year composition or do something different with the space. The findings were so clear to me that I found it impossible to ask anyone to teach composition without radically changing the goal to “teaching about writing.”
What is your program structure and scope—who’s teaching, what, to how many, when, in what order?
COLIN: Our program has a corequisite transitional/developmental ENGL 1301-0301, a stand-alone ENGL 1301-Rhetoric & Composition I (learning to make rhetorically effective choices as a writer), and ENGL 1302-Rhetoric & Composition II (same goals as 1301 plus a more sophisticated understanding of research choices). I’ve called it a metacognitive approach to writing, in part because when we began to coalesce around key writing studies texts and shared writing assignments, the phrase “writing about writing” caused more issues than cohesion with some of our established faculty. This was an important thread in the program’s development because we had colleagues in literature, creative writing, linguistics, and rhetoric and composition all teaching in the program. Around 45 instructors cover over 300 sections each year, with course caps at 25: 7 tenure/tenure-track rhetoric and composition faculty, over 30 one-year and three-year lecturers with mixed English Studies backgrounds, and 5-8 graduate assistants from our MA-English, MA-ESL, and MFA.
REBECCA: Here at [university], our unique program is a fully online, dual enrollment program with students all around [state]. We have Comp I (introduction to writing) and Comp II (introduction to rhetoric) in addition to UNIV 0400-Integrated Reading and Writing, the required course for those who do not pass the state-mandated [state] Success Initiative. Now, these students take ENGL 1301 and UNIV 0400 corequisite from the same teacher. We’ve created an in-house textbook, Reading about Writing (Gipson). Our program teachers include me (a full professor with a PhD in English), a recently promoted associate professor (PhD English), four full-time lecturers with MAs, two senior lecturers with PhDs, and twenty adjuncts, some with PhDs, some with MAs. In spring of 2018 we had 34 Comp II sections, with similar enrollments in Comp I in fall semesters. Recently we have lowered caps to 20 and have added a corequisite program (noted above) in accordance with [state] law.
ELIZABETH: At [university], where I taught for 8 years and was the Writing Program Director for 5 years, we implemented a writing studies approach in both ENC 1101 and 1102, which together enrolled about 4,000 students each semester. The program was staffed primarily by full-time instructors, GTAs, and tenurable faculty. We used Elizabeth and Doug’ Writing about Writing text in both courses, for the most part, and supplemented it in 1102 with texts about inquiry and research.
JOHN: At [university], all instructors (two tenurable, one full-time non-tenurable, and five to six part-time) now teach a writing studies approach to our two-semester first year writing sequence (ENG 101 & 102), which blends WAW with Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s teaching for transfer (TFT) curriculum. I had previously incorporated TFT’s reflective framework, focus on keywords, and theory of writing assignment, but as I sought to win the approval of two full-time literature faculty in order to implement the curriculum, I also made the compromise of employing a final assignment for each course that asks students to apply what they have learned in non-writing studies assignments: an argument in 101, and a research in two genres assignment in 102 (pared down from TFT’s research in three genres). The first two assignments in both courses, however, are writing studies assignments. In 101, the focus is first on the concept of transfer, particularly why transfer is a necessary part of learning to write in future contexts. The course then explores rhetoric, with a focus on identifying constraints and warrants in public conversations—the final argument assignment is usually on the same topic as a rhetorical analysis assignment. The second course focuses on teaching students how to analyze writing contexts using the concepts of discourse communities and genre. We continue to assign Writing about Writing, but supplement it with other articles, particularly on genre in the second semester.
Our writing courses have a low cap, recently raised from 15 to 17. [University] has prioritized recruiting a more diverse student population, but a majority of students continue to be white, though with growing diversity that is beginning to better resemble [City] demographics and a small international contingent. Likely due to its beginnings as a women’s college, [University] tends to enroll higher numbers of women than men.
DOUG: When I began directing MSU’s Core Writing Program in 2013, there was little coherence across about 100 sections of WRIT 101-College Writing I per year. Most non-tenure-track faculty taught some version of an “academic argument” approach that became ubiquitous in the field in the early ’90s; graduate-student instructors (GSIs) were coached in a “process” version that emphasized responding to cultural arguments via development of writing across multiple revisions, especially stressing peer response. (Usually no tenurable faculty outside rhet/comp teach WRIT 101.) Our program has grown some in the ensuing years—we now teach about 120 sections of 101 per year—but not at the same pace as enrollment because, even though we were able to tighten AP exemption rules, we have a greater number of students transferring in with 101 already taken. While I directed the program (through 2018), we required a writing studies approach of GSIs, encouraged it with existing non-tenurable faculty, and hired new non-tenureable faculty on the basis of their willingness to try it. By the time I finished directing, all but about 5 of our 25 non-tenurable faculty used a writing studies approach.
What kinds of language does your program use both internally and across your institution to convey or describe the approach?
COLIN: We study the “thing” that we’re trying to develop, and that means we study writing, reading, and research as arts, practices, and theories. We can’t just say we’re process-oriented. As a program, we are experts in “rhetoric and composition,” the titles of our first year writing classes. “Writing about writing” worked for many of our teachers as a name, but I intentionally avoided that because we also had faculty who perceived a writing studies pedagogy as a vehicle for creating little rhet-compies, and their predetermined notions had to be accounted for, so I created an alternative narrative that invited dialogue. I articulate our writing program as a service to our rhetorical understanding of contexts for communication, and I frame the disciplinary service as an opportunity for us to expand and not just to support. That means we have a lot of dynamic criteria mapping interactions (you value this, we value this, and let’s leverage the overlaps for the benefit of students). To onlookers, I find myself saying, “We’re in the business of helping people design compelling texts.”
REBECCA: We call it “writing about writing” with the only challenge coming from the few students who do not “get” the program. I have added a “letter from the Freshman English Coordinator” to the online class explaining the approach, especially because so many are high-school dual enrollment students who have mostly experienced English classes as being about reading novels.
ELIZABETH: We called it “writing about writing” when we discussed it with one another, although you won’t see that in the course titles or descriptions (set by the state). When we originally moved to this approach in 2009, we listed a set of principles on which our courses were based:
- Writers need both declarative and procedural knowledge about writing.
- Writers need to engage in sustained drafting and revision in order to write most effectively.
- Writers write most effectively when their writing is purposeful, transactional, communicative, contributive, and rhetorical.
- Writing instruction should strive to teach transferable practices and concepts.
- Particular genres are best learned in the contexts where they mediate activity.
JOHN: In the “program philosophy” I wrote as an introduction to the curriculum, I emphasized teaching for transfer and threshold concepts. In first proposing the curriculum, I emphasized its role in building a vertical writing curriculum beginning with the basic and first-year writing experience and culminating in two required discipline-specific writing intensive courses. We do use Writing about Writing, and within the department, my colleagues and I do refer to WAW informally, but as the only writing studies faculty member, I found that a focus on transfer and threshold concepts allowed me to frame my arguments for the curriculum in terms that faculty outside our field found more persuasive. Even my most resistant colleague was not able to argue with the transfer and threshold concepts scholarship—not that this stopped the resistance.
DOUG: Like ELIZABETH’s response, it’s not in our course title, but it’s in our conversation as faculty with one another and with students, and since all GTAs and most NTT faculty used the Wardle and Downs Writing about Writing textbook, it was, more than anything, in the book title.
Has there been resistance to or concerns about a writing studies-based approach? How have you responded to resistance, questions, and concerns? If some faculty don’t use the approach, where/what is the resistance to it, or why is it not used uniformly?
COLIN: Long term lecturers and tenurable faculty can choose not to follow the program’s lead. All TAs and many new lecturers try the curriculum we offer as a standard and have great success with it, modifying elements but not the philosophy. My sense is that, for us, dissonance happens when the teacher’s investment is in their individual prowess and not in programmatic cohesion. But we also have a system of intensive and extensive observations/feedback that make everyone accountable. Lots and lots of dialogue has to happen to foster a programmatic vision that can function as an extension of diverse curricular expression.
REBECCA: All online faculty teach the same course with no rebellion. Since we develop the course collaboratively and meet regularly, all stakeholders have a say, making the course and program as a whole much better. Faculty in our department may teach face-to-face courses as they wish as long as the same objectives and core competencies are in place. Some use WAW; some don’t. It is not a problem.
ELIZABETH: It took about 4 years for everyone to get on board with the program. In that time, some people left and others resisted. But the actual, visible student results were convincing—and we showcased them in the in-house student peer-reviewed journal, Stylus, and the annual Knights Write Showcase of student work. When I left in 2016, everyone taught this approach in some form or fashion. Because we allowed for people to get to the outcomes in various ways depending on their expertise, there was a lot of variation. But no one was teaching about vampires, as far as I know.
JOHN: Despite having been hired to design and implement a new curriculum, and despite my explicitness during hire that I am an advocate for writing studies-based pedagogies, I have faced a passive-aggressive resistance from a tenured literature colleague. Their resistance has not only hampered my efforts to implement the curriculum but has negatively affected my position as an untenured WPA. When repeatedly asked for input in developing the curriculum, they offered only a reluctant acceptance of what I proposed along with vague concerns that it would be too difficult for both students and part-time faculty. (I later figured out that their concern was largely from their own unfamiliarity with writing studies scholarship.) With little to go on, I continued to develop the curriculum, adjusting as best I could to accommodate the little feedback I received from another less resistant colleague.
I later discovered that my colleague’s passive resistance with me was less so in complaints to the department chair, who only made me aware of these criticisms in a formal evaluation. Once I knew what was going on, I was able to be more direct with my colleague. Unwilling to maintain his resistance more openly, he agreed to allow me to move forward. He remains critical of the curriculum, which emerges once in a while through micro-aggressions, but since he has not taught composition in the last two years, and is not likely to do so in the future, I’ve been able to fully implement the curriculum without significant resistance from anyone else. Part-time instructors have taken up the curriculum with far greater success than even I had expected, refuting concerns that it would be more difficult for them to teach than a different approach. Like DOUG, the major factor in the resistance I faced is a complete unwillingness to engage with writing studies scholarship or to even try the curriculum.
DOUG: My response is a lot like COLIN’s. Our underlying tension is nothing unique to writing studies curricula, but because these demand such extensive engagement with the professional literature, it is heightened. Is the role of non-tenurable faculty to teach in isolation with complete autonomy, or have they some obligation to engage one another and the profession? I insisted on professional and programmatic engagement no matter the pedagogy. The handful of faculty who could not get comfortable with a writing studies approach were the same faculty who refused professional engagement or responsibilities while critiquing a lack of support and respect from the university. The connection between professional development and university respect never computed for them; there was genuine ambivalence about whether the potential improved standing was worth the increased responsibility to the profession and one another. That ambivalence tracked closely with who didn’t adopt a writing studies approach.
What have you found to be the greatest challenge(s) and benefit(s) to a writing studies-based WAW approach?
REBECCA: The greatest benefit by far is when students ask, “Why didn’t anyone tell us this before?” I also love seeing students come to view writing not as a mystery but as a subject that can be conquered, understood, and analyzed. The challenges are those few students who just don’t get it.
DOUG: For faculty, I think the greatest challenge is developing familiarity with the readings that they’re teaching, and thence the challenge of not having time for all the conversation the readings can support. For students, the greatest challenge is the first month of the semester when nothing makes sense yet. The greatest benefit for all involved is real changes in students’ and teachers’ thinking about writing and rhetoric.
ELIZABETH: The greatest challenges were early on, when all of this was new and we couldn’t point anywhere else and say, “See, that entire program is doing this.” After we got past that hurdle, the greatest challenges were mostly about how to help people teach difficult material. The benefits were numerous. I agree with REBECCA that students are often really surprised and excited about what they learn, and wish they’d learned it sooner. The UCF composition faculty changed a great deal after the switch. These faculty, whatever their degrees were in, became interested in the research in rhet/comp, took advantage of opportunities to learn more, and were always thinking of ways to improve. Conversations in the hall were quite different than in 2008 when I arrived. They became a group of teaching professionals with expertise in writing.
JOHN: The greatest challenge of writing studies-based curricula is also key to its greatest benefit: the scholarly content. A class can be very difficult to teach when a challenging concept has gone over the students’ heads. Working through those difficult concepts, however, can also be the best learning experience when students start to get it; that moment is what, I think, leads students to make comments like REBECCA and ELIZABETH mention. A lot of the challenge comes from lingering misconceptions about what can or should happen in a writing class. Instructors seem to sometimes both fear concepts and readings are beyond students and then to expect those same students to fully grasp those concepts so they can get on with learning to write as if writing requires fully grasped ideas and perfectly polished prose. Writing studies-based curricula abandon both the notion that students can’t read difficult texts and that they need to read and write perfectly by the end of one or two semesters. Students can usefully engage with difficult concepts and texts even without perfect grasp of them, and they can write thoughtfully about imperfectly understood ideas in ways that lead to learning.
COLIN: I’ll mention two challenges that are benefits: (1) readings for many of the reasons JOHN mentions, but also because of a lack of reading stamina or sustainable engagements and (2) curricular cohesion. One of the reasons I loved using the “Righting/Writing Misconceptions” piece in its entirety was because it allowed me to teach reading while teaching writing. And once you tackle and start to process the article, your reading improves quickly. This causes a secondary challenge, which is dissonance. When students realize there is a context around the things we struggle with, no amount of strategy can effectively address all their Duh!, A-ha!, and WTF! moments. Again, these are short term challenges that we can treat as long term benefits, but that means setting teachers up for that reality.
Curricular cohesion became a problem because teachers liked the meta- approach and started theming it: I like that way students are responding to our study of writing, so I’m going to throw gender studies in there because I love it. How about poetry? What if I did the rhetoric of _____? We now handle this in our assignment and syllabus review.
What kind of professional development does your program use to help faculty understand and teach a writing studies-based approach?
REBECCA: I have developed a training for new adjuncts, and we have semi-weekly meetings of the entire composition staff. Online-only adjuncts can join the meetings virtually. Graduate students and other new faculty shadow experienced teachers before taking on their own class. We have recently published an article that details our collective course development, teacher prep, and supervision (Rougeau-Vanderford, et al.).
ELIZABETH: This was quite a long process for us at UCF, as professional development is key to making this happen in a successful way. I began the move toward writing studies by asking if anyone was interested in piloting something new. The volunteers met informally with me. Then we did assessment in writing studies and non-writing studies courses, and used those results to help more people become interested, leading to a core group that helped with intensive training. Before people taught the approach, they participated in a semester-long reading group led by someone else who had already taught it, examined others’ syllabi, and created their own syllabus. The GTAs, of course, had their own intensive training in the Comp Theory course (that I taught at the time) before they could start teaching. After everyone had been through the training, we had about four workshops a semester where we took up various aspects of the research, theory, or pedagogy that people wanted help with, which were largely guided by our assessment results. We gave “credit” for attendance and leadership of these events in people’s annual evaluations.
JOHN: At Fontbonne our professional development is largely limited to an unfunded one-day summer orientation. I also offer one or more focused workshops each semester but cannot require attendance from our part-time instructors who usually teach at multiple institutions and whom we can’t compensate. My other primary tool has been teaching observations and the one-on-one conversations they prompt. Because of our small size, I can usually observe each of our instructors at least once each year. In light of limited support, I have been surprised at how positively part-time faculty have responded to the curriculum. Most were able to attend a recent focus group that I scheduled to solicit feedback. While I expected to hear about problems, instructors largely reported satisfaction. I am increasingly convinced that many of the obstacles to writing studies-based approaches are unjustified assumptions that this approach is more difficult or alienating than others. I really don’t think it is; it’s just different, in the best ways.
COLIN: It’s a lot of PD that weaves through our program, though it varies each year. I meet with TAs once a week to talk about local concerns and go over required elements. We also do a series we call Gravity that invites r/c folks from across the country to lead discussion on different topics. We also have tried a variety of regular meetings, currently once a month for a guest speaker and once for discussion. I think we’re going back to meeting once every two weeks with a specific agenda in the fall and a guest speaker series in the spring. These focus on theoretically sound and practically useful strategies, along with program development updates and assessment discussions.
DOUG: Our prep for GSIs versus nontenurable faculty was quite different. GSIs received a week-long pre-teaching orientation, first-semester comp-theory/pedagogy course, mentorship by second-year GSIs, and class visit exchanges for GSIs to observe one another. In contrast, we struggled to fund professional development for nontenurable faculty. We were able to run a reading salon one spring for a handful of our faculty farthest removed from graduate school and comp pedagogy. Another year we could fund a monthly meeting series built around Naming What We Know (Adler-Kassner and Wardle). We instituted a peer-observation system for NTT instructors, requiring them to visit each other’s classes and reflect in triads. But most of our faculty development was through the exchange of syllabi and assignments, plus reading the Wardle and Downs textbook. Probably the most effective development was simply the addition over time of graduated GSIs to our nontenurable faculty, and the involvement of a few key nontenurable faculty who experimented with the approach early in the program.
How much freedom/flexibility/authority do your teachers have in your program? How involved were your teachers in making the move to a writing studies-based approach?
REBECCA: Our uniform online course is developed collaboratively. We have semi-weekly meetings, and we maintain a Google Doc where we note course changes and suggestions. Each semester, faculty will edit the master course. The initial decision to go with a writing studies curriculum was mine, but others came along quite willingly. Now the course is a fully collaborative effort and with a nine-person group (all the full-time lecturers plus me). We wrote a new custom textbook together (Gipson), paid through an internal grant.
ELIZABETH: When I initiated this approach, my primary goal was not uniformity, but instead having a program whose outcomes, pedagogies, and content were grounded in research about writing. We had workshops and reading groups and lots of sharing of ideas, and I think it’s the nature of programs like that to veer toward similarity. But the only thing that full time faculty were required to share was the outcomes; everything else could be adapted to their strengths. GTAs taught a syllabus that had some flexibility, but we asked them to try to stay on the same page during their first year. As I mentioned, we moved to this approach in stages, so the results spoke for themselves and got more people interested. If the first couple years of training and assessment had not shown positive results, I wouldn’t have pushed it.
JOHN: When I began developing the curriculum, I invited all instructors to focus groups, but none could spare time to participate. My full-time literature colleagues were unable or unwilling to participate beyond feedback on what I proposed at department meetings; their opinions remain split, but the only one who teaches composition has been supportive. Our only full-time nontenurable instructor was hired after the curriculum was implemented. The result of this development is that although I, like ELIZABETH, did not seek uniformity, most elements are pretty uniform, especially given the high level of turnover among part-time instructors. I do encourage instructors to find their own best ways to introduce writing concepts and achieve outcomes, for their teaching personas and styles, and many have begun to take ownership of the curriculum in small ways, but most are content to follow what I give them.
COLIN: My goal has been uniformity in assignment arc and outcomes. At the beginning eight years ago, that meant developing SLOs (Charlton) with the writing instructors, and deciding on common artifacts we had to collect from students. That led to many people following a program, but the flexibility has always been there. Some instructors operate outside the program, but a significant and growing number of people work within the program with parallel syllabi (with tenurable folks in each group). If an instructor comes in new, tries the writing studies material, and sticks with it, they will often adapt materials to their voices and integrate their interests in content. TAs and new hires follow the model writing studies syllabi, and we let them know it is the glue of the program, but that doesn’t mean people don’t develop unique approaches. The key is that we constantly talk about what we’re all doing, keeping the majority of us in tune with each other and what is core in writing studies pedagogy for us.
DOUG: My goals were 1) getting faculty to build whatever pedagogy they were using to address course learning outcomes we collaboratively developed at the beginning of my directorship, and 2) to ensure that faculty who tried a writing studies approach had good experiences with it. Through attrition and hiring, I trusted we would eventually become a coherent program. So I never limited nontenurable faculty’s freedom to choose pedagogy and textbooks.
What assessment practices do you use to evaluate curricular effectiveness, student learning, and (if applicable) instructor effectiveness?
REBECCA: We have state-mandated assessments for the Texas Core Curriculum objectives. In Comp I students are assessed for critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and personal responsibility. Instructors are evaluated by the students in the course, and we do observations of adjuncts and tenurable faculty. This year we have begun peer-review of teaching for all lecturers.
ELIZABETH: We conducted portfolio assessment of both 1101 and 1102 every year. The rubric was created around the outcomes and tweaked each time teachers engaged in assessment. We also gave pre and post student surveys. Instructor effectiveness was assessed when we assessed student learning, albeit indirectly, but we also had lots of classroom observations that got at that question—with the primary goal of helping teachers improve.
JOHN: While I have, with difficulty, implemented a writing studies curriculum, I’ve not been able to revise the university’s written communication general education outcomes. It uses formerly state-mandated outcomes focusing on argument and grammar. I attempted to revise these substantially, but any move away from the goal that students must “master” academic writing after two semesters met unanimous opposition: the same people who doubted that students could handle academic readings emphatically expect them to learn “academic discourse” in two courses. My attempts to create more reasonable outcomes nearly derailed the entire curriculum. So I argued the new curriculum would meet the old outcomes and moved on. Later, university forces allowed me to revise the outcomes slightly, but we are still required to assess students according to outcomes that our own courses call into question. This leads to bifurcated assessments: the official assessment measures student work according to official outcomes, while I seek evidence that students usefully reflect on and grapple with threshold concepts.
Each writing course at Fontbonne culminates with student portfolios, which each instructor assesses every semester. Every third year, a sample of portfolios from both courses is assessed programmatically by tenurable faculty. Instructors are evaluated by students, my yearly observation, and the results of the program assessment for their students. Outside of these institutional assessments, I have regularly solicited feedback from instructors, and now that the curriculum has been in place for over two years, I will be collecting data as part of a multi-method research project focusing on transfer.
COLIN: Almost exactly as REBECCA because we’re under the same Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board core curriculum requirements with 1301 and 1302 as Communication Core Objective courses. So we have a yearly assessment of our writing program outcomes that looks at terminal 1302 portfolios, 2 SLO’s each year. That assessment will change to an assessment of 1301 and 1302 every semester in terms of the “skills” REBECCA listed above. We also have regular peer and coordinator observations (a visit and review of feedback), syllabus review each semester by coordinator, and a document review (the instructor chooses a teaching artifact to discuss and evaluate).
DOUG: We built a system of portfolio assessment like ELIZABETH describes, which was effective at giving a broad sense of student strengths and weaknesses on completing WRIT 101. We also created a peer observation system for nontenurable faculty to observe one another’s teaching and have reflection sessions on it, and did the same for GSI’s.
What advice would you give to programs that may want to have a writing studies-based curriculum?
COLIN: Spend some time and energy testing the waters, generating outcomes that are shared, and developing buy-in. You want to get the maximum out of professional development, committee work, curriculum development, etc., so get rhetorical: find the people who will support change outside the writing program, partner with them, and create a strategic approach to reinvention. For us, that meant building model syllabi for teachers that infused the emergent writing program, and, eventually, those teachers and the student results drove the cohesion. So look at what you are currently offering, and build assignments that engage both students and teachers. When teachers see the results of student engagement with those assignments, the ones who want that experience will help foster a reflective community.
REBECCA: You may want to start with graduate students: make sure you have readings on WAW in your graduate course(s) and engage and interest graduate students in the theory and approach (though I don’t force my ideas on graduate students). When hiring new lecturers and adjuncts, be upfront about the program’s curriculum. Most will be fascinated by the approach and curriculum and excited to work with you. At [University] we had no full-time faculty who resisted or rejected the approach.
ELIZABETH: I agree with everything COLIN and REBECCA have said. Find people who want to try new things. Collect data and give people the opportunity to think about it. Showcase the exciting results that come from this approach, with students doing the persuading through their work. Give people the support they need at the time they need it so that they don’t get discouraged. Start working on cultural shifts that will make program shifts possible. For example, be open and share ideas and encourage teachers of all ranks to watch each other teach so that people who aren’t excited about this approach see other faculty members teach it, and then can start imagining what it looks like in action rather than what they are afraid it looks like.
JOHN: I cannot add much to what COLIN, REBECCA, and ELIZABETH have said about gathering support and interest. People do react more positively than we might expect. Writing studies-based curricula work. They work for students and for teachers. Many instructors will resist, but many won’t; many will find that a writing studies-based approach is a solution to many of their dissatisfactions with teaching writing, just like I did. Writing studies has a deep knowledge to share with those whom we ask to teach as well as with our students, and good things happen when we share our knowledge with them.
My own story, however, is a bit of a cautionary tale as well, especially for untenured WPAs. Some may not even be willing to consider such an approach. This work is political, and many people in privileged positions can do more than just resist a curriculum.
DOUG: Further to ELIZABETH’s and COLIN’s responses, I’ve seen that writing studies pedagogies tend to be difficult for instructors to envision beforehand. Whatever a program can do by way of modeling and developing samples to help instructors see both what the classroom looks like and what typical student reactions to the pedagogy and their learning look like, the more easily instructors will be able to envision and try out a writing studies approach.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. University Press of Colorado, 2015.
Bird, Barbara, Doug Downs, I. Moriah McCracken, and Jan Rieman. Next Steps: New Directions for/in Writing about Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2019.
Carter, Shannon. “Writing about Writing in Basic Writing: A Teacher/Researcher/Activist Narrative.” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 8/9, no. 1, 2009/2010. https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/Writing%20About%20Writing%20in%20BW.pdf
Charlton, Jonikka. “Seeing is Believing: Writing Studies with ‘Basic Writing’ Students.” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 8/9, no. 1, 2009-2010. https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/Seeing%20is%20Believing-%20%20Writing%20Studies%20with%20“Basic%20Writing”%20Students.pdf
Dew, Debra Frank. “Language Matters: Rhetoric and Writing I as Content Course.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, pp. 87–104.
Downs, Doug, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no 4, 2007, pp. 552-85.
Finer, Bryna Siegel. Review of Exploring Composition Studies: Sites, Issues, and Perspectives, edited by Kelly Ritter and Paul K. Matsuda. Composition Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2013, pp. 157-61.
Gipson, Kristen. Reading about Writing. Odessa, TX: UTPB Press, 2015.
Hansen, Kristine. “Discipline and Profession: Can the Field of Rhetoric and Writing be Both?” Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity, edited by Rita Malenczyk, Susan K. Miller-Cochran, Elizabeth, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, Utah State University Press, 2018, pp.134-58.
Kutney, Joshua P. “Will Writing Awareness Transfer to Writing Performance? Response to Douglas Doug and Elizabeth, ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 2, 2007, pp. 276-79.
Mahaffey, Cat, and Jan Rieman. “Developing a Writing about Writing Curriculum.” Next Steps: New Directions for/about Writing about Writing, edited by Barbara Bird, Doug Doug, I. Moriah McCracken, and Jan Rieman, Utah State University Press, 2019, pp. 123-36.
Rougeau-Vanderford, R. Nichole, Rebecca Day Babcock, Aliethia Dean, and Victoria Hinsley. “CARDS: A Collaborative Community Model for Faculty Development or An Institutional Case Study of Writing Program Administration.” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 19-52.
Sargent, M. Elizabeth, and Cornelia C. Paraskevas. Conversations about Writing. Thompson/Nelson, 2005.
Samuels, Robert. “Contingent Labor, Writing Studies, and Writing about Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016, pp. A3-A9.
Wardle, Elizabeth. “Intractable Writing Program Problems, Kairos, and Writing about Writing: A Profile of the University of Central Florida’s First-Year Composition Program.” Composition Forum, vol. 27, 2013. https://compositionforum.com/issue/27/ucf.php
Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 3rd ed., Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2017.
Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs. “Looking into Writing-about-Writing Classrooms.” First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice, edited by Deborah Coxwell-Teague and Ronald F. Lunsford, Parlor Press, 2014, pp. 276-320.
Wardle, Elizabeth, and J. Blake Scott. “Defining and Developing Expertise in a Writing and Rhetoric Department. WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 39, no. 1, 2015, pp. 72-93. http://associationdatabase.co/archives/39n1/39n1Elizabeth-scott.pdf
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State University Press, 2014.