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Talking to Our Major Stakeholders about Writing Education

posted: 8.4.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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As I write this, I’m preparing to get on a plane to go to the Summer Conference of the American Association of State College and Universities (AASCU) in Portland, where I will speak to dozens of provosts and vice provosts, as well as a few faculty, about the nature of writing education in American colleges and universities, and why that approach to writing education needs to change. I’ll admit that this talk is about the most difficult thing I have ever tried to write. I’ll speak for an hour, and then potentially work in small groups with provosts and faculty to consider potential “course redesign” at their institutions. They might not be listening at all to my message. But if they do listen, they have the power to return to their home institutions and invest heavily in writing education, just as our president has done at UCF.

I have a few messages for this audience, and finding the right way to frame those messages is proving to be a tricky business. For example:

  • Most of the public and many faculty members feel like writing instruction is failing students.
  • And it is.
  • But not because we don’t know how to improve it.
  • Rather, writing scholars know exactly what needs to be done, but doing it requires top-level intervention to change funding priorities and the culture of writing at all of our institutions.

One of the things that needs to change, I want to tell them, is hiring or training composition faculty who are actually familiar with the relevant research on writing and teaching writing. Up until now, writing has been so important that every student must take classes in it, but also so unimportant that we think anyone can teach it, even if they come from other fields, are hired at the last minute, and are paid less than the school’s janitors.

If you can hire faculty who are familiar with writing research, or train faculty to become familiar with that research, then you can design research-supported composition classes as excellent entry points to writing in the university. These courses can focus on both declarative and procedural concepts about writing that should transfer.

But such composition courses can only be entry points, not “one-course-fixes-all” inoculations; to improve as writers, students must write frequently across all of their courses and receive feedback and revision opportunities. This means institutions need to support writing across the curriculum programs and writing centers. And by “support,” I mean fund.

So my basic message to the AASCU audience is this:

If you are unhappy with student writing, you can improve it by investing in writing teachers and expecting all faculty members to share in the responsibility for helping students write.

Easy message. So obvious to all writing scholars that it seems silly to say it out loud.

But so many institutional impediments continue to stand in the way of making this message a reality. And those institutional impediments—like lack of funding, the historical values of English departments, and the need to support English graduate programs—are tricky to talk about.  I doubt I will win any popularity contests raising these issues in Portland.

But don’t they need to be raised? If we have some time in front of our major stakeholders and decision makers, don’t we need to get down to the heart of the matter and help them see the problems—and the solutions—as clearly as possible? I think so. I hope so.

Wish me luck.

In related news: We are in week 4 of 6 in the national WAW training I wrote about in my last post. The discussions about writing research across institutions and types of faculty have proven much more interesting than I could have predicted. I don’t have the time or space to overview those discussions here; you can only imagine the sorts of things being said with discussion thread headings like “I’m in!” and “Good Heavens!” If you are interested in following along and seeing what the fuss is about, send me an e-mail at ewardle@ucf.edu and ask for an invitation to the Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant training site.

As a result of the seeming success of this national training, someone suggested we offer a WAW “boot camp” at UCF next summer, where teachers from across the country can get together and read, discuss, and plan. We could do this online, face to face, or in some hybrid form. What do you think? Would it be worth trying? Let me know!

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Categories: Professional Conferences
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2 Responses to “Talking to Our Major Stakeholders about Writing Education”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    At my institution it is the writing faculty (TA’s and adjunct Lecturers) who are actually most likely to be “familiar with the relevant research on writing and teaching writing,” insofar as they are required to take courses in writing pedagogy as preparation for their teaching duties. These courses are taught by senior faculty who are well versed in contemporary research, and their students—who frequently go on after their TA training to become the adjunct faculty who teach the bulk of our writing classes—tend to be energetic and idealistic in the classroom (often far more so than the tenured faculty) , in spite of their low pay.

    I expect that this is not an uncommon campus circumstance.

    Yet, the wider public continues to blame teachers for all of the shortfalls in education, regarding education as a commodity that is passively consumed by students, who have no responsibility for their own learning.

    My own research would indicate that the problems we face in education cannot be reduced to any single explanation and must be found in a culture-wide etiology that is both overdetermined and politically fraught.

  2. Doug Downs, Montana State University Says:

    Wishing you luck, Elizabeth. 🙂

    Quick point re Prof. Solomon’s reply about “not uncommon” TAs and adjuncts well versed in comp theory. I’m hazy on the exact stats but with north of 4,000 institutions of higher ed in the country and more than half of all composition courses being taught at 2-year colleges which have no graduate programs and fail to support faculty research, I don’t think academically well endowed composition programs are anywhere close to the norm, particularly not those with TA programs, as higher ed institutions with graduate programs (and faculty) are in a solid minority of all schools in the country.

    I don’t disagree that “the problem” has a lot of sources, but Elizabeth’s indictment of a nationwide system that hires a fair proportion of instructors off the street three days before classes start is a fair and important one.