Kimberly K. Emmons
Visiting the Outposts:
Do not cite without permission of the author.
The challenges intrinsic to empires of writing on college campuses (whether or not they understand themselves in those terms) are the challenges facing any colonial administrator: whether providing on-site (in the classroom) intervention or monitoring activities from across an ocean (from a far, far distant campus building or basement), writing program directors must make decisions about curriculum, faculty, and outcomes that are often overdetermined by local and national circumstances. Writing empires encompass a variety of configurations: stand-alone Writing Studies Centers (and departments), English department Composition programs, and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs, to name the most common. No matter the configuration, however, as Jeanne Gunner points out, “writing programs authorize a discourse in which writing is already fetishized—is already endowed with special cultural meaning and social importance…[they] focus on writing as an activity in need of surveillance, producing a valence system of competence/incompetence and thus social differentiation” (11). Moreover, as Gunner emphasizes, writing programs “function by presence but also by absence: the lack of a writing program at elite schools is a sign of eliteness, because the valence function and gatekeeping the writing program enables has in these schools been enacted at a more rarefied level” (11). Administering a campus-wide writing program, then, becomes a process of validating student visas for entry into the campus community by “certifying” writing “competence” – a necessary task, perhaps, but also a reminder to the campus community that it must police its borders (unless it is lucky enough to pretend those borders do not exist). But when a writing program no longer calls itself a writing program (reinventing itself as a series of writing-intensive general education seminars, for example), might not there be room for remapping this landscape? Beyond providing sentries to monitor the frontiers, could writing programs help reshape the geographies of student learning? These are the questions that have (by turns) inspired, frustrated, demoralized, and encouraged me over the past four and a half years.1
I served as Director of Composition at Case Western Reserve University for two academic years (2004-2006). They were two years that, coincidentally, spanned the transition from a “local” writing program (housed entirely within the English department – a “Comp Nation” with relative autonomy, which sent its missionaries out on remediation tours) to a “distributed” general education and writing program (housed nebulously within the entire university, but administered from the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences – the beginnings of an empire, which promises to create “one university” through critical thinking and writing). Begun as a faculty-led initiative to improve student learning and retention, this new program – the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) 2 – seeks to replace traditional content-based general education requirements with cross-disciplinary seminars that bring students into the intellectual life of the university (an advanced citizenship course rather than a vocabulary test). The practicalities of maintaining this new empire, however, were perhaps underestimated in the early stages of expansion, and the genres of administration are only now beginning to be formulated. What follows is an attempt – grounded in a snapshot of student evaluations of the writing instruction they received in one semester’s seminars – to understand some of the occasions for program development and curricular redefinition that the transition to this newly expanded writing empire might afford.
At first glance, Case appears to have abolished its writing program in Fall 2005, when SAGES was implemented as the required general education curriculum for all students.3 SAGES represents itself as a “bold new” curriculum that “connects…students with Case’s faculty and culture, and with other University Circle institutions [e.g., the Cleveland Museum of Art], in a series of small, interdisciplinary seminars.”4 In internal campus documents describing the program, SAGES appears to herald a change to the culture of the campus, bringing research faculty into contact with first-year students, and encouraging interdisciplinary inquiry throughout the undergraduate curriculum. The program promises that students will “acquire the knowledge and analytical skills necessary to solve real-world problems, as well as the power to articulate their ideas effectively in both speech and writing.” Thus, writing and speaking are seen as ancillary skills necessary to communicate knowledge and solutions, but not as central to the mission of the program. Nevertheless, the SAGES curriculum was explicitly tasked with distributing the “skills” taught in the previous writing requirement course – English 150, “Expository Writing” (see Appendix A) – across three seminars that fall into the pre-disciplinary categories of “Thinking about the Natural World,” “Thinking about the Social World,” and “Thinking about the Symbolic World.” Students take a First Seminar (4 credit hours) in their initial semester on campus and then enroll in two additional University Seminars (3 credit hours each) over the subsequent three semesters. At the end of the second year, students submit a writing portfolio to certify their completion of the university “composition requirement,” and they move into courses that address disciplinary forms of writing – including a Departmental Seminar and a Senior Capstone project – within their major fields. In its first year of full implementation (AY 05-06), a faculty committee developed a set of program outcomes for SAGES, and in the following year the English department offered a more delimited set of writing outcomes for First and University Seminars (see Appendix B). Despite these modest administrative genres, however, the SAGES program delegates curricular authority to individual faculty members, in effect ceding colonial administration to them.
Table 1: Student Evaluations of Writing Instruction by Faculty Discipline
When the data are coded for the level of writing support – in this case Writing Co-Instructors, from graduate students to lecturers holding Ph.D.s – students rate the seminars staffed with the least professionalized (and, not coincidentally, lowest paid) writing faculty lower than other seminars (see Table 2). Interestingly, the seminars led by humanities faculty and lecturers without Writing Co-Instructors are rated the highest in terms of writing instruction.
While it is tempting to draw a number of conclusions from these data – including the dubious one that collaborative teaching produces negative results – I hesitate to do so for a number of reasons. First, student evaluation data collected at the end of the term is certainly not the best indicator of successful writing instruction. Then, the SAGES outcomes were newly published, and therefore not necessarily widely read, in fall 2006 (when these surveys were collected); and, the writing outcomes were not developed until December 2006, in preparation for spring 2007 instruction. Finally, the sample size (1 semester, only 44 seminars responding) and question format (the writing questions occur in two places within the 7-page questionnaire) are mitigating factors. Nevertheless, these data do suggest that energies should be devoted to working with faculty from disciplines that have not traditionally taught writing. In addition, support and professional development for graduate student writing instructors (and other categories of contingent labor) remain important issues for program administration. Such conclusions are hardly surprising, but the fact that student ratings so clearly highlight both disciplinary and status differences among instructors suggests that the “natives” are far more discerning than colonial administrators often realize; in a consumerist model of university life, we ignore these indications at our own peril.
SAGES writing instruction – even in its early, pre-disciplinary seminars offered in the first- and second-years of the undergraduate curriculum – appears to confirm the notion of writing as a mode of socialization. Michael Carter, Miriam Ferzli, and Eric N. Wiebe suggest this as a model for writing in the disciplines programs in general. Calling for more “situated learning” – where students are given disciplinary problems to solve – Carter et al suggest that in such an educational paradigm, “Teaching would be understood as creating opportunities for students to learn by doing the kinds of activities full members do, though in a form appropriate for apprentices. And writing would be understood as the critical link between doing and knowing in the disciplines” (299). SAGES certainly employs this rhetoric – offering students the chance to solve “real-world problems” – and the students we enroll at Case see themselves as pre-professionals, eager for the opportunities to participate in their chosen disciplines. Perhaps, then, the new writing empire must learn to provide explicit links between practices of disciplinary inquiry and writing activities, even those writing activities that occur in pre-disciplinary seminars.
Writing “Skills” and Pedagogical Remediation
I am afraid that I must conclude without fulfilling my promise to predict the future of writing instruction in the SAGES program. We seem to be at a critical moment in the formation of our empire. Ceding control over writing instruction to the entire faculty risks dissolution – frustrated by a lack of writing “skills,” some faculty have suggested that a high-stakes test of mechanical correctness is the only way to administer this program. Yet, it also promises new forms of collaboration – the English department has joined the School of Engineering in the creation of a technical writing seminar that serves as an introduction to disciplinary writing for all engineering students, and other professional programs have expressed interest in similar collaborations. It is my hope that the latter course prevails, not least because it seems to attend most fruitfully to the “natives” of our empire, who clearly wish to see themselves as members of research communities. In fact, within such a configuration, writing becomes an integral practice that accomplishes disciplinary activities instead of an ancillary skill that requires constant surveillance and remediation. Writing this empire will, however, require new forms of interdisciplinary cooperation and coordination; it will require pedagogical remediation.
Appendix A: Outcomes for English 150 – Expository Writing (pre-2005)
ENGL 150 is a course in composition and expository writing, and a substantial amount of writing is required (approximately 7,000 words [28-30 pages]; 4-5 assignments [that each include various prewriting, drafting, and revising exercises], one assignment is an 8-10 pages research paper incorporating & citing appropriate sources; in-class essay examinations at the instructor's discretion). The goals of ENGL 150 are:
Appendix B: Outcomes for SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship) – Developed in Spring 2006
Mission: The SAGES program is a seminar-based, writing-intensive learning experience that emphasizes collaboration, transformative thinking, and scholarly inquiry. Students and faculty work together to explore the ideas, individuals, and innovations that have shaped human inquiry in a variety of fields. Each SAGES course invokes the power of seminar discussion and foregrounds writing and public speaking to promote the learning of all participants. The program’s developmental sequence deliberately moves from general forms of inquiry, writing, and oral presentation to those practiced in individual scholarly disciplines. Because oral and written presentation skills are fundamental to the SAGES curriculum, the following Learning Outcomes serve as the critical “common thread” throughout the program.
I. First Seminar introduces students to the Case academic community, including the unique opportunities for collaboration with the University Circle Institutions and the city of Cleveland, and emphasizes modes of inquiry, writing, and speaking used throughout the University. At the end of First Seminar, students should be able to:
II. University Seminars build on the common experiences in the First Seminar and focus on academic modes of thinking and writing specific to scholarly discourse about the natural and technological world, the social world, and the symbolic world. These topical courses offer cross-disciplinary insight and attention to effective inquiry and presentation.
III. Departmental Seminars introduce students to disciplinary modes of inquiry and presentation. Students in Departmental Seminars continue to develop the skills and dispositions emphasized in First and University Seminars. In addition, they should be acquiring the ability to:
IV. Senior Capstone Projects encourage students to pursue independent research and scholarship, with the guidance of faculty from their chosen major or discipline. In their Senior Capstone Projects, students demonstrate their ability to:
“English Department Writing Outcomes” (added December 2006)
By the end of First Seminar, students should be able to:
By the end of a University Seminar, students should be able to:
1. My questions are certainly not new – a long history of composition studies research has addressed similar “opportunities” for reform (see Miller) – but despite their potential quaintness, they remain central to the intellectual work of program administration.
2. I am grateful to Peter Whiting, Associate Dean and Director of the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship, for sharing the student evaluation data that I present here. All evaluation data have been handled in accordance with Case Western Reserve’s IRB standards and practices.
4. See: http://www.case.edu/sages
5. Case is continuing to put in place assessment committees, but none have yet produced more than the summary data available from end-of-semester student evaluations.