The Writing Across the Sycamore Community task force is drawing near to the conclusion of the audit process. We now have a stronger sense of how students, faculty, and employers perceive the writing completed on our campus and are ready to make a series of recommendations to our administration that we hope will improve the experiences of all our stakeholders in myriad ways. Our overall suggestion will be for each department on campus to create and implement its own WID (Writing in the Disciplines) program. This gives faculty more freedom and flexibility than creating a plan for the entire university and imposing it upon everyone. However, we realize some departments will want more guidance than others. To that end, we are recommending that certain members of the task force, faculty members who are experts in writing and grading writing, and the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence be available to act as consultants for departments that need help developing a WID plan. Though we are largely leaving it to individual departments to create their own plans, we do have a series of recommendations that will hopefully offer guidance.
For this post, I asked Heather Roberts, Faculty Fellow from the English department, Ellie Pounds, Math & Writing Center Coordinator, and Levi Elmore, writing tutor leader, to write about their hopes for WASC and how it will affect the trajectory of both the Writing Center and our students. All three touched on the same themes, which will be important guiding principles for our departments as they re-imagine what writing can look like within their curricula.
Changing the Culture
Though select pockets of faculty, staff, and students are already thinking about writing, their efforts are often disconnected from the rest of the campus. There is a significant lack of communication amongst campus constituents regarding writing, and this surely leads to some of the confusion students express when talking about their experience in class. Even within the same major, the amount of writing a student completes and the kind of feedback they get can vary wildly based on which professors they have for their classes. They often do not see a connection between the writing that they are completing in school and what they will do in their careers, as many expressed in focus groups. This lack of a common experience with writing can in part be addressed with a culture change. However, shifting the view of the entire campus to one that values writing and sees its importance in helping students develop critical thinking and practical works skills will take a significant amount of time.
As Heather states, “I think implementing WASC will be a long road, one that will have many bumps and challenges, but will really enrich our students’ educations and lives in the long-term if it is properly supported. I want to see WASC transform our campus and make ISU an institution known for its focus celebrating and supporting writing as a key factor in producing well-educated and productive graduates.” Ellie agrees with this ambitious goal for our new program. “It is my hope that the WASC initiative creates a campus-wide awareness of the importance of writing in the personal, academic, and professional success of students. By creating a writing culture within the ISU community, we will demonstrate our commitment to the current and future success of our students through engaging curriculum that will prepare them for entry to the next stage of their careers.” As students expressed, they often see writing as a hurdle they have to jump through in some of their classes. Similarly, some faculty do not assign writing because they see grading it as a time consuming hoop to jump through despite there being no clear pay-off in the end, as students often ignore their feedback. As a campus, we need to erase both of these views by helping both populations view writing and the grading of writing as integral to the development of students’ thinking skills, as well as their success in careers.
Linking Writing to Careers
Though students in some majors saw a clear connection between the writing they do for class and the writing they will do on the job (such as our Education majors), others did not. Our employers also expressed that the bulk of the writing alums do in their jobs is professional emails and reports, which are generally not practiced in classes. In general, we all feel that students need to see the relevance of writing in their careers. Levi would like to see the Math & Writing Center work with more job-related materials. This would be an obvious place for better collaboration with our Career Center. “Changing the types of assignments given to provide better examples of the writing found in the professional field would allow the students to better determine the types of writing they will encounter. These….should also include cover letters and professional correspondence.” Like the writing tutors, Heather sees students of all majors come through her English Composition classes, and she hopes they all realize the value of learning to write. “I want my future nurses, police officers, social workers, and teachers to all understands as undergraduates that the ability to communicate clearly and professionally in their writing is not only a valuable skill but also a necessity in their careers.”
Ellie envisions the role faculty play in introducing students to writing in their professions somewhat differently. Instead of the instructor just talking to students about writing on the job and assigning writing tasks that reflect what they will see after graduation, she wants faculty to arrange guest speakers who are currently in the field. “I would like to see the WASC initiative support faculty in developing course curriculum that demonstrates a direct connection to students’ future careers. Hosting guest speakers from local industries, alumni that have secured employment, and industry-specific HR specialists can help students overcome fear of the unknown while building rapport and comfort with the next step. These real-world interactions allow students to be involved in the education process – to understand the outcomes and be an active participant in charting the path to success.” Levi agrees: “Another nice touch to the program would be professional conferences or speakers who can come to classes to discuss writing with students. Hearing what types of writing go into the job from someone in the field who isn’t the student’s professor would give them more of an idea about the practical applications for writing.”
In fact, one of the things that students stated we could do better as an institution is to prepare them for what lies ahead in terms of writing. Many of them move along their educational path without knowing what types of writing they will be expected to produce from class to class, or in their eventual job. The departments should be able to help students develop a better sense of where their writing will take them by talking about writing in the career in the first classes students take in the major, by assigning writing that reflects the work they will do in their jobs as well as more traditional writing, and by arranging for students to talk to people actively in the field about the writing they do every day.
Just as all four of us agree that departments must give students a clear idea of what it will look like to write in their professions, Heather, Ellie, Levi and I also agree that there should be more faculty development available to help professors, instructors, and TAs assign and evaluate writing effectively. There is currently a Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence (FCTE) that faculty can seek out for workshops and guest speakers, but it is often under-utilized by instructors and TAs. It would be great to see WASC create more consistent, widespread opportunities for faculty to learn to work with writing. Given that she so frequently sees students confused by inconsistent assignments and grading, Ellie hopes “the WASC initiative will provide a standard for assigning, grading, and providing feedback on student writing.” Given that students often do not take feedback seriously, or even read it, it may also be beneficial to offer instruction on how to go over feedback in class to ensure students know how they can improve their papers. This can easily be done by summarizing the most frequent mistakes during a class period.
Heather sees a particular need for faculty development with those who teach large classes and thus cannot provide a lot of individualized feedback for students. “We need to provide training and support to faculty who teach large classes in incorporating writing in both creating appropriate assignments and helping them provide timely and constructive feedback that will help the students grow as writers. I hope to see faculty working with the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence to learn new ways to create writing assignments that will really match their core course content and strategies to grade that materials because I know that will be a concern for many faculty members of our campus.”
This solution is in part a compromise for Heather, who here represents the views of many faculty who believe class sizes should be kept small so that more writing and feedback can take place. She also realizes that because of tight budgets, the university is not likely to shrink classes any time soon. Still, she hopes that one day she will see “our university lower class sizes so that instructors and professors could provide more on-on-one attention not only to students who struggle with writing, but also the stronger writers who often get less attention because their skill set is higher to begin with. Lowering class sizes would allow for more timely feedback, individual conferences, and multiple drafts – things students and faculty all want but do not always have the time or means to provide at this point.”
Levi represents a very specific take on faculty development in thinking about how faculty effect the writing center. He wishes faculty were given more insight into the best ways to use the tutoring service. He would like to see faculty give up the practice of simply requiring all students, or any student who struggles, to visit the writing center regardless of their motivation to do so voluntarily. “Continuing to encourage the students to seek assistance with their writing as opposed to requiring them to go to the tutoring center just to get a proof of attendance slip would help. It would both stem from and contribute to continuing efforts to engage the students in their writing so that it becomes less of a simple task, assignment or chore to them.” From a practical standpoint, discouraging faculty from requiring entire classes of 75 students to visit the center would reduce the number of no-shows and increase tutor morale, as many get frustrated by students who come in just to say they have visited.
Given that each department will be asked to develop their own WID plan, there would be many options for faculty development. Departments could bring in guest consultants to work with instructors, or they could choose to send faculty to the FCTE. They might also choose models like teaching triangles or book discussions to get faculty talking about best practices. However they chose to incorporate faculty development on writing, the goal of getting everyone to talk about writing and how it relates to classes and careers would be realized. In addition, faculty development opens up a great opportunity for collaboration between departments.
One result of the WASC effort that seems inevitable, and which all of us are optimistic about, are the stronger relationships already being built between departments and centers. As noted in a previous post, a number of joint efforts have sprung up between the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, Extended Learning, the library, and the Math and Writing Center. In addition, alliances have been formed between the MWC and Student Conduct and Integrity as we work together on plagiarism intervention. We are also currently forging new links with the Graduate Student Association and Interlink, which prepares non-native English speakers to enroll at ISU. On a broader scale, members of the task force representing many departments on campus now have a greater understanding of the many types of writing going on across campus, as well as a greater understanding of how the Math & Writing Center functions.
Levi would like to see a strong tie between Math & Writing Center tutors and faculty members continue. “More involvement…by the Math & Writing Center would be another aspect of the program I would like to see evolve as the initiative continues. The tutors have many great ideas for what they believe would assist their tutees in becoming better writers, as was shown by the focus group sessions. Their continued involvement and feedback would be a fantastic asset to the WASC program because they see firsthand the kinds of struggles the students have with their writing….I would also like to see more frequent involvement and collaboration between faculty from each of the departments. The faculty focus group along with the tutor focus group would be something that could help the program grow if repeated a few times throughout the academic year. This would allow faculty members, the tutors, and other faculty and staff members working on the WASC program to check in with each other for feedback and suggestions. Just as the name Writing Across the Sycamore Community would imply, creating a community of educators dedicated to improving their own curricula in an effort to assist their students’ progress would allow growth.”
A stronger faculty development plan, aided by a better connection with the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence and possibly the English department, would allow faculty to learn writing evaluation techniques that focus on content and organizational issues instead of grammar. As a campus, we need to come to the agreement that while grammar and mechanics are important, clarity and things like supporting evidence are the foundations of good writing. If this was understood, the writing tutors would have an easier time helping students improve without either party getting too caught up in the details. Ellie sees this clearly. “It is my hope that the WASC initiative will eliminate or reduce some of the challenges faced by tutors in these interactions and allow sessions to focus on important issues. One of the most common issues faced by tutors is a focus on grammar. Many students come to the center seeking help with grammar and refuse to focus on larger issues like thesis development, organization, and in many cases, meeting the prompt. Due to inconsistent grading policies, student misconceptions, and the absence of rubrics, many students feel that grammar is the most important element of their writing and therefore focus their attention entirely on this detail.”
The overall goal of all four of us, and for those on the WASC task force, is for our students to see the value of writing, and to become stronger writers before they enter the workforce. All of the departments on our campus might have different ideas for how to accomplish this, but our hope is that all of them will remain focused on writing in the career, building collaborations, helping faculty assign and evaluate writing, and creating an overall culture that values the student’s ability to express themselves in a variety of written formats. After all, writing is a clear expression of and exercise in critical thinking, and those skills, developed not only in class, but in the writing center, in student organizations, at internships and in extra-curricular activities, are what will ensure our students’ success throughout the rest of their lives.
It is my hope that the Writing Center will continue to play a critical role in student writing by providing programs and services tailored to the needs of our ever-changing population. Especially on a campus with such a high number of students who need remedial assistance, and where class sizes are growing, the center serves as a space for serious learning. Though some faculty perceive it as merely a fix-it or editing shop, those students who visit every week are actually learning new material that they may have missed during K-12 for a variety of reasons. They are also learning important time management techniques and study skills. International students also use the center to learn about culture. Thus it is important that faculty understand the educational purpose of the center and incorporate it into their departments’ Writing in the Disciplines plan. This will likely take the form of writing tutors actually placed in the classroom, functioning as supplemental instructors. This provides in-classroom support, as well as writing sessions outside of class. The SI functions in similar ways to a professor; they may not grade, but they can provide a level of individual feedback that the instructor may not have time for. The use of a writing SI supports the educational function of the writing center and would help faculty gain a clear understanding of how writing tutoring works while providing students with extra support. It is hard to say exactly what writing will look like on the ISU campus in five or ten years, but whatever the future holds, I am glad that the Writing Center has played a part in moving us forward.