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Making Effective Arguments for Improved Writing Education

posted: 9.21.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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In my last blog post, I talked about my upcoming trip to Portland to speak to a number of AASCU provosts, vice provosts, and deans. I also mentioned that our WAW grant-related training was in full swing. Now both of these events have passed, and I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned from them. Most importantly: we are all facing a difficult fight to provide students with writing education based in best research-based practices.

I did not know what to expect in the online conversations about writing research and WAW pedagogy. Many of the faculty members who were signed up for the grant training did not know about WAW and had not realized that is what they were getting into. Yet we quickly met many smart, interesting faculty members and TAs at schools of all sizes and shapes who were excited to connect with other faculty members, talk about writing research, and reimagine their writing courses. We had some good online conversations with experienced faculty members, some of whom were approaching writing research for the first time, and came away energized and interested. This was yet another affirmation that the writing research and our own personal experiences continue to speak for themselves in stressing that composition courses as they have been imagined for decades aren’t working. Many people seem to believe this whether they have read the research or not. The research (on transfer, genre theory, and program assessments, for example) can sometimes clarify what experienced teachers have felt for some time.

The NGLC grant project we were part of focused on “blended” learning, and as part of that grant, Debbie Weaver (UCF Composition Coordinator) created some sample modules for a blended learning WAW class to share with participants. However, Debbie and I focused most heavily on the teacher discussion and training, hoping that participants would leave the project with an interest in outcomes and research-based pedagogies rather than on using our sample modules all-inclusively. Thankfully, that was, in fact, what seemed to happen. The participating teachers found their own ways to approach some writing-focused outcomes and developed their courses out of their own expertise and understanding of how writing works.

Provosts and governors, on the other hand, sometimes see things quite differently. At the AASCU conference I found myself needing to continually stress that a rigid, inflexible, template curriculum is not the way to encourage better student writing. I found a disconcerting trend toward “teacher-proofing” course materials.  There was even some talk of having an entire state and all its colleges and universities develop and use the same composition course modules with the same content. Online learning seems to have stoked the flames of this standardization fire, which I assume is part of the current trend toward disparaging teacher expertise.

The teachers who worked together this summer are armed with some research that stresses the importance of teaching writing rhetorically and flexibly, and they also now have a small national network of public college and university colleagues to talk with if their governors try to force them all to teach from the same template. But I fear they—all of us, in fact—face an increasingly difficult fight. Now more than ever we need to marshal our forces to explain what best writing pedagogies and structures look like, how writing placement and testing can function usefully and equitably, and why it pays for states to invest in good writing teachers and professional development. While we might want to confine our attention to our own classrooms and our own students, I don’t think we have that luxury any more.

What can we do to be more prepared to persuade our administrators and politicians to support best practices for writing instruction? At UCF we have been able to use the WAW curriculum to develop a cadre of writing teachers with clear expertise who cannot easily be replaced at the last minute, and we have been able to demonstrate what the course can help students do and how it can serve as an introduction to a writing education that must continue across the students’ time in college. Yet the argument for improving writing education is one that must be made continually, to multiple audiences, in new ways as appropriate. And like it or not, we must engage our politicians, since they continue to try to enact legislation that limits our ability to act from our best research-based practices.

What are your thoughts on how best to do this? Do you have success (or failure) stories to share?

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Categories: Professional Conferences, Writing about Writing
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One Response to “Making Effective Arguments for Improved Writing Education”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    Provosts and governors are hearing from a lot of people who also claim to have research based curricula in hand, and who run for-profit learning management companies who promise better results for less money. In a political environment where corporate culture is preferred to academic culture, and where the money lies in corporate, not public, coffers, academic culture has a very tough row to hoe, especially when most states are verging on bankruptcy. The same thing is going on when private companies promise urban public school districts that their charter schools will outperform the existing schools. When the results come in, the charter schools don’t really do any better much of the time, but trying to explain this is like arguing with someone who denies the reality of global climate change. Arguing with an ideology is a very difficult thing to do. In the end, the only solution may be electoral rather than rhetorical: ie., electing people who do not subscribe to corporate ideology.