I’ve spent a lot of time this summer thinking about writing programs — both at the college level and in K-12 education. Of course, I always spend a lot of time thinking about writing instruction, so this is not new ground. For a while I tried to think about a master list of ideas that every writing program should include. This is definitely not new ground for me, see:
I stand by these lessons and rules, but first and foremost a writing program is made up of people and relationships. The more I thought about how a writing program “should” be structured the more I thought about what kind of program I would like teach in and instead of a writing program guideline I came up with three traits that I think every department, school, and/or institution needs to develop before they can design the writing program that is the best fit for their unique context and students. All three traits focus on the people and relationships within that writing program.
One of the primary reasons my current teaching situation is so fraught is because there is no trust. Too many of my colleagues do not trust our students. Too many of my colleagues and administrators do not trust our faculty. Too many of my colleagues do not trust the administration. How can anyone do the dangerous, delicate, and difficult task of creating writers under those conditions?
I read a great blog post over the weekend from Mr. Middlesworth about respect. I identified so strongly that I almost changed this trait from trust to respect because this lack of trust is very much linked to a lack of respect. We have created an education system singularly lacking in trust and respect among all the stakeholders and we need to address this systemic problem first and foremost or any innovation and all programs will continue to fail at least some of our stakeholders — especially our most vulnerable populations of students.
So what can be done? First and foremost, administrators and other powerful entities need to learn more about both the educators and the students who work in their institutions. Learn about the education and training they have received. Learn about their journey and struggles and challenges. Learn about their motivations. Spend time walking in their shoes, teaching in their classrooms, and using the infrastructure that they use. Too many administrators quickly forget about the challenges faced by the students and teachers they serve because they are too far removed from their daily struggles. Too many stakeholders (school boards, legislators, state officials) have never set foot in many of the schools under their purview or if they have it is a highly-orchestrated and controlled event that bears little resemblance to real life. Most educators I know both like their students and respect their ability, but there is often a creeping distrust of students’ honesty (I have watched so many plagiarism rants play out in department meetings and on social media just the mention of it makes my eye twitch). Similarly, students often do not trust that teachers will grade fairly or even that teachers have been honest about their expectations. These issues can only be addressed through open communication and honest dialogue. In my classrooms I am very open and clear about my assignments, guide students through that process, and develop assessments collaboratively so I don’t really stress about plagiarism like my colleagues do. What do you think would help establish trust among writing program stakeholders?
We are not joining a cult here nor should we be zombies (although we do seek out brains!), but writing program faculty should have a unified purpose and common goal. Without that goal then the program does not work as a smooth unit. Common assessments do not solve this problem and may, in fact, exacerbate the problem as various faculty look at those assessments through different lens. To be truly effective the stakeholders of a writing program need to understand the mission of that writing program. This might be the most critical piece of a successful writing program, but without the aforementioned trust then this unity cannot be achieved. If faculty and administration (at all levels) do not trust and respect each other then that unity is more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
The common goal or mission needs to be something more than standards or learner outcomes required to be displayed on a bulletin board or posted in a syllabus and this is what makes it challenging. As someone with four advanced degrees in English I have a pretty firm idea of my bottom line as a writing teacher and I have no trouble reconciling that goal with my program’s student learner outcomes. I carry that vision with me into our department assessment sessions where it is clear that my vision differs greatly from some faculty teaching and assessing in my program. I know from assessment work conducted under other circumstances that a common goal will lead to fairly consistent assessment. Yet it is obvious from the number of extra readings required that there are very different ideas about the work our students should create. Solving this root cause of programmatic failure is a great challenge. Perhaps it requires community building or common training or some combination of the two or other elements not yet considered. How do you unify the faculty of a writing program?
While it is essential that faculty share a common end goal for their writing program, it is also important to understand that there are and should be many possible paths to reach that goal. Just as our students do not arrive in our classrooms with uniform abilities and qualities and personalities neither do the faculty. Similarly, different methods can be employed to guide students on their journey as writers from teaching rhetorical modes to writer’s workshop to project-based learning. While my classes change every semester as I try out new approaches, I have colleagues who like a more consistent and traditional approach to teaching and other colleagues who fall somewhere between my experimental position and the traditionalists. The path we choose to our common goal is not what matters as long as we stay true to our shared mission. I think offering a variety of pedagogical approaches actually makes a program stronger and I refuse to teach in a program with a common syllabus where everyone is teaching the same grammar lesson on the same day.
But the power of choice cannot only reside with the faculty. I firmly believe that students must be given some control over their writing just as faculty should have power over the pace and content of their class. I like to give my students lots of choice over our reading and the topics for their writing. I provide a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way so those choices are certainly influenced by me, but never dictated. In some of my classes there are guidelines or restrictions in place, but within those guidelines there is still room for choice. I am one of few (perhaps only?) faculty in my program that offers this level of freedom, but I know that most programs contain others like me and I believe our numbers are growing. I know, and research supports my personal experience, that choice leads to higher levels of engagement. I know that engagement (and again this is supported by research) can also drive student success, but I also understand that choice leads to messiness and a loss of faculty control which makes many uncomfortable. Not everyone can afford the level of choice that I offer my students, but I hope others will consider at least increasing the choices offered to students.
I am not certain that this post is finished. It still feels very much a work in progress and this is not exactly the post I intended to write about writing programs. What do you think every writing program should include? What are your thoughts about the three traits that I have identified: trust, unity, and choice?