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The Write Track, Write Now: A Virtual Symposium with Three RIC Rhetoricians
Writing Center Director
Submitted to: Issues in Teaching and Learning
November 1, 2011
According to Ron Pitt, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Rhode Island College, "many students today require more writing instruction to achieve the level of proficiency that they will need in their professional, personal, and public lives." He further states that (1) writing instruction at RIC has traditionally centered on Writing 100, which places an inordinate burden on this single course, and (2) with the new general education program, students will be expected to engage in writing experiences throughout their undergraduate careers, including requirements for Writing 100, First-Year Seminars, and a Writing in the Disciplines course to be determined by each program. In conjunction with the apparent increasing focus on writing, I consulted with Becky Caouette, Director of Writing and Assistant Professor of English; Mike Michaud, a composition specialist and Assistant Professor of English; and Jenn Cook, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rhode Island Writing Project about writing generally, the RIC writing program and its future, and teaching writing. Their observations are presented here as a kind of virtual symposium derived from emails and conversations during July-October 2011.
Griggs: Can you provide a brief statement about the hows and whys of writing instruction?
Caouette: My priorities are really about giving thoughtful feedback to each student—and, as much as possible, in person. I implement and encourage others to use Small Group Tutorials that are similar to peer-review sessions, except I'm present and we reassign class time to conduct the SGTs in my office. I meet with three students for an hour, and we discuss, as a group and as readers, each student's essay. Students learn how to give and receive constructive feedback and, presumably, walk away with revision plans. I'm not a razzle-dazzle kind of instructor in terms of strategies. I like to try new things, it's true, and to re-try teaching strategies that might have fallen off my radar. But I also find that the best practices are the ones that stay on my radar: assignments that interest students; time and space to write (like in a computer classroom); personalized feedback that shows the responses of an invested reader; and ample opportunities to revise one's writing and thinking. Those are the hallmarks of my teaching and, in some ways, the hallmarks I've tried to establish in this writing program.
Michaud: My approach is based, essentially, on what we know that good writers do when they write: draft, daydream, draft some more, get feedback, procrastinate, reread, draft some more, daydream some more, seek more feedback, procrastinate some more, revise, avoid drafting, draft, revise, get more feedback, and publish (not necessarily in that order). My job is to create an environment in which these activities can take place. From another angle, I want students to learn to think about writing as an act of participation. We write in classrooms and workplaces, but also in our homes, churches, clubs, civic organizations, etc. We write to different people in different settings, and we use different kinds of writing (genres) to accomplish our goals. We are old timers in some settings and newcomers in others. All of this matters, and I want students to become attuned to the notion that "learning to write" is a lifelong activity.
Cook: I direct the RIWP, where our mission is to "open up" writing for teachers of all grades and content areas so that they are more likely to use writing in their own teaching. Writing is thinking, and the more we use writing as a way to consider problems, ideas, scenarios, and burning questions, the more our classrooms open to complexity and the idea of a "live" social network of learners who communicate through writing. My teaching of writing is built around the following classroom practices:
- Know my audience. Learn my students' names, get to know my students, and allow my students to know me as their teacher and as a writer.
- Find out what my students think about themselves as writers and what they have already learned, in school and out of school, about writing.
- Model the habits of mind I want my students to exhibit, such as curiosity, empathy, critical analysis, and reflexivity.
- Use student interests as a springboard from which to teach inquiry, research methods, interpretive skills, critical reading, and writing for different audiences and purposes.
Griggs: What have you noticed specifically about the RIC writing program, Writing across the Curriculum (WAC), and/or Writing in the Disciplines (WID)?
Michaud: As far as I can tell, there isn't really a writing "program" at RIC, in the sense that someone has tried to take the view from 35,000 feet to ask what such a program would include. That's what we [the Composition Committee and the Writing Board] are trying to do now: to think in a more explicit way about the writing our students do—at different times during their college careers, in different places, for different purposes—and to think more explicitly about the teaching of writing. It feels like, up to this point, we've had a number of groups and people interested in writing, but no one is bringing it all together to ask what it adds up to—for us or for our students. A first-year composition course is not a writing program. A writing center, a writing board, or a writing minor is not a writing program. But if we step back and think about what all these things (and others) add up to, I think we are moving towards a writing program. I hope to be a part of that what-does-it-all-add-up-to conversation.
Caouette: I am impressed by the potential for multiple writing programs at RIC. I'm the Director of Writing, but the focus tends to be on First-Year Writing because that is the only "established" program at RIC. My colleagues and peers, including but not limited Jenn, Mike, you, and other composition faculty, illustrate the potential to grow our writing program and branch out into WAC and WID. I'd like more collaboration with the institutions, programs, and departments that serve and inform student writing practices, like the Writing Center, Writing Board, and emerging WID program. There is a real potential for the college to foster a climate of writing.
Cook: In my eight years at RIC, I have seen our emphasis on teaching writing gain momentum through the hiring of new writing faculty, like Mike and Becky, who've brought their energy to campus; new writing initiatives, like Mike's Summer Seminar and the Writing Center's Faculty Writing Retreat; and new programs, like the Writing Minor in the English Department and new writing-related partnerships with local schools, like Rhodes Elementary in Cranston where a RIC writing instructor, through the RIWP, is facilitating a new afterschool creative writing program. I am encouraged by the support that VPAA Ron Pitt and President Carriuolo have shown for all of these efforts to bolster writing on our campus. I believe, though, that administrative support and the best intentions won't do much good unless we have a "buy-in" from the faculty and the students. Much of the challenge is growing a grassroots writing movement from the bottom up so that instructors, professors, and students can feel that they've shaped it; and at the same time, we must work with administrators and program directors to institute new programs from the top down. Changing the culture of any institution is complicated!
Griggs: What are some long-range plans, individually or collaboratively, for writing at our campus?
Caouette: Oh, the dreams! First and foremost, as mentioned above, I'd like to see RIC foster a climate of writers and every member of this community—students, faculty, staff, and administration—to consider themselves writers and to think about writing as a necessary component of learning. Besides insuring that our FYW courses reflect best practices in current scholarship, we also work to clarify the outcomes, to increase professional development opportunities for our instructors, and to celebrate the work of our students. Too many (nearly 90%) of our FYW instructors are adjuncts; the problem is not their expertise, which is considerable, but the lack of institutional support for the work they do (no benefits, little security, and few opportunities to systematically enrich their teaching). I think that we need to consider our hiring agenda, not only in terms of tenure-track faculty and lectureships in the English department, but also writing program administrators across campus and even in individual schools, programs, and departments. Every department should have someone who has some expertise in teaching writing in their respective disciplines. And I think we need to bring together the seemingly disparate programs and people who are invested in writing—RIWP, WC, FYW, WB—in one central location so as to not only share resources, but also to share scholarship and let students know that writing is a force at RIC. Finally, I'd like to see more discussion between K-16 instructors about what each grade does and how we can build on the work of others. RIC should be setting the agenda for writing in Rhode Island, and standardized tests can only be part of the pedagogical picture.
Michaud: Well, I sort of hit on that in the previous section. Long-range, I think we need to be much more thoughtful about writing. There is data available—we know a good deal about what makes for meaningful writing instruction and its role in an undergraduate education. The question is whether we have the will to try to figure out (a) what the data tell us and (b) how to apply what we have learned to our unique local context. Ideally, we would work to create what some have called a "culture of writing" at RIC.
Cook: My immediate writing-related responsibilities on campus are connected to the Rhode Island Writing Project and the Secondary English Education program. As far as the RIWP is concerned, my short- and long-term plans are to keep that organization alive and vital on our campus. The RIWP is the only National Writing Project affiliate in Rhode Island and is the only organization in RI dedicated to the teaching of writing across the K-16 spectrum, which includes elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. The RIWP has a network of over 1,000 teachers in Rhode Island who promote the teaching of writing in their schools and across all content areas and grade levels.
As Rhode Island looks to the future and to the implementation of the Common Core Standards, the relationship that the RIWP has developed with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and with partner institutions, like North Providence High School and Warwick Veterans High School, will be vital in supporting teachers—many of whom walk through the doors of RIC at some point—as they navigate the transition to a new world of writing-related standards and assessments. Some examples of how we are building connections between RIC and the RIWP include:
- Bringing 35 English teachers and English education professors (K-16) together to campus on Saturday, December 10, 2011, to attend an all-day RIDE workshop on implementing the Common Core Standards in English language arts.
- Hosting our Annual Spring Conference on campus on Saturday, March 10, 2012, featuring Jeff Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and Tom Chandler, RI Poet Laureate emeritus. The conference theme will be "Literacy and the Common Core."
Collaboratively, I think our long-terms goals are to make writing more visible and more valued on campus. We are but a few people, though, so it's vital to collectively spread the messages that "writing is central to thinking and learning" and "teaching writing is everyone's responsibility."
Griggs: Do you have scholarship interests that might complement some of the goals of the Composition Committee or the Writing Board?
Caouette: I am interested in WPA research—and the history of Composition excites me. The course I'm teaching in the spring (ENGL 379) is about the time period when Composition emerged as a schoolroom subject. Right now I'm looking at early Composition anthologies and considering the ways that they helped establish the ethos of the field, how the field came to be, and what is it now. So I'm all about looking back to look forward. Jenn trains future K-12 educators; I try to help new English adjuncts and instructors acclimate to our courses and programs by observing classes and providing feedback for them (although many of them have been here longer than me!). Mike's interest in WAC and WID initiatives complements my interest in growing a program college-wide. Your work as writing center director is essential to a successful FYW program...I think I went rogue on this answer.
Michaud: I'm especially interested in ways to use technology to create an environment where meaningful student writing can happen. Technology, in my experience, does more than provide another medium for our work. By combining thoughtful writing pedagogy with technological tools, we can actually create new opportunities for interaction and instruction.
I am also interested in working with faculty on the teaching of writing—or, perhaps less threatening—the facilitating of writing instruction. This past year, along with Joe Zornado (the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning) and Becky, I designed and taught a week-long intensive course on facilitating writing instruction at RIC. We met during the summer and had over a half-dozen participants. This was rewarding work for me and, I think, for those who participated. I hope to be a part of many discussions with faculty from across the campus on how to bring writing instruction into their classrooms.
Cook: The Writing Board is the most important committee on campus that nobody's ever heard of! And it's the only body charged with implementing a writing-across-the-disciplines agenda. The January Faculty Development Workshop, which has a rich history, thanks to our predecessors, is one of the most important professional development opportunities at RIC, and we are fortunate to continue to receive support from the VPAA for this all-day workshop specifically on the teaching of writing. The Writing Board is also a "hub" of sorts where the various writing constituencies gather together; so, in that way, it serves as a kind of think tank or consortium on writing.
As a teacher educator, I am perpetually interested in and fascinated by teacher development. How does a person cultivate a professional identity as a teacher? I am always studying how authentic, intellectual work can enter the writing classroom so that "writing for school" is not "writing for the teacher." Currently, I am fascinated with teaching academic writing through the lens of ethnographic research, an approach I learned from Fieldworking (Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater, 2011). In my Honors Writing 100 class, students conduct mini-ethnographic studies, and after engaging in field notes, interviews, typing verbatim transcripts, searching for secondary sources, and qualitative data analysis, they produce original research that motivates and empowers them as writers and as scholars. I'm writing about this all the time right now.
Griggs: Is there anything else that ought to be said that I didn't think to ask?
Cook: Throughout my 10-year affiliation with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I witnessed firsthand the power of bringing teachers and writing together not only to study writing and the instruction of writing but also to study the complexities of the "teaching life." Even my teacher candidates know that I am the "writing person" in Ed Studies; and in my teacher education classes, I necessarily use writing as a mode of thinking, observing, analyzing, and communicating.
Michaud: In the 21st Century, writing has taken over from reading as the predominant literacy. It's not that we don't read anymore—we do, we read a lot, and much of it is done on screens—but we write a good deal, too, and the tools for writing and reaching audiences have never been so available. Because of technology, more of us today are writers. There are now more ways to participate though writing and more platforms for participation. Further, more people write for more purposes to more audiences in more genres with more technological tools than ever before, so there is no practice more critical to our students than writing.