Monday, October 31, 2005

A Few More IWCA/NCPTW Conference Thoughts

Michele Eodice shared some of her IWCA/NCPTW conference thoughts and photos last week in the WCJ blog, and the conference onversation on WCenter--particularly about Victor Villanueva's electrifying keynote--has been rich. I wanted to add a few thoughts/observations in today's blog entry.

On the whole, I thought the conference was meticulously planned, invigorating, and, of course, fun. One of my favorite features was the research fair, one during breakfast and one during lunch. These were terrific opportunities for writing center folks to show off their research while the rest of us walked around talking and listening with our mouths full. I wished I had had a chance to see every one of the posters, but the crowds around several of them were simply too large! I did see, however, research on gender and writing centers, on attitudes toward the writing center, on patterns of interaction when tutor and student are in front of a computer, on the concept of community and the writing center, and several others. Good stuff.

I also want to offer praise for the first featured session. Chris Anson and Paula Gillespie offered their views and experiences on what "globalization" of education, generally, and our writing centers, specifically, might mean.

Here's what else I saw:
--Brad Peters, Rebecca Rine, and Harvey Kail described how each uses the written word to communicate with faculty (Rine) and administration (Peters) or as the focus of staff education (Kail).
--Matt Berg, Kyle Oliver, and Jason Rozumalski of the Univ of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows program described their individual research into practice, whether using metaphors to reach science students in humanities classes (Kyle), the efficacy of online tutoring (Matt), or the muddiness of higher-order/lower-order distinctions (Jason). Awesome research by talented undergrads.
--Disciplinary and intellectual boundaries were complicated when Deb Burns and Kathryn Nielsen-Dube of Merrimack College described their writing fellows experiences with students from business-oriented classes. And then Carol-Ann Farkas of the Mass College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences (my previous employer!) and Susan Mueller of the St. Louis College of Pharmacy presented their thoughts on working in the unique (and sometimes, odd) environment of pharmacy education.
--Beth Boquet, Michele Eodice, and Anne Ellen Geller offered a rotating workshop on strategies they and their staffs use as learning situations for each other and for helping students. I made a cool Cootie Catcher. Thanks, Michele!
--Dan Gallegher and Lori Salem of Temple University offered the extensive work they've done on statistically analyzing students at their university who they can target for writing center services. The math nerd in me was allowed to come out! Thanks, Lori and Dan!

Finally, the conference was wrapped up by a featured session with Lil Brannon of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Derek Owens of St. John's University, and Dan Mahala of the Univ of Missouri-KC. They offered a terrific balance of history, vision, and caution as writing centers move into the challenges of the 21st century.

Then, of course, there were the chance encounters with old friends, the Summer Institute reunion, the coffee breaks to plan future projects, the fine eating that downtown Minneapolis had to offer. I have to say that I came to the conference feeling somewhat adrift in my professional life as I try to figure out just what it is that I want to do from this point on, but I came away renewed with confidence about the importance and opportunity of writing center work. Thanks to all who contributed to that effect.

Finally, the added spooky bonus for Halloween at the start of this entry is a picture of the front door of my house, fully decorated by my 7-year-old daughter, Hannah.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sound Bytes You Back

With the speaker's consent, Clint Gardner offers a very short but powerful sample of Victor Villanueva's keynote at the IWCA/NCPTW conference in Minneapolis.

The editors of Writing Center Journal (Beth & Neal, above) have invited V.V. to publish the keynote in an upcoming issue.

The discussion on WCenter since the conference ended on Sunday has been thick and rich and risky, and looks as if it might just take us to a new level of conversation--a good first step.

More conference pics:

The UNC crew presenting their findings at the Research Fair

Janet Swenson (Michigan State) & Michele Eodice (KU)

Four authors in search of a writing center - Darwin, Amelia Bloomer, Roland Barthes, & Bakhtin

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

SI Reunion

We found about 40 Summer Institute participants and leaders hanging around the lobby on Saturday--a happy hour was had by all!

This is the SI 03 group . . . the first voyage out

SI 04 (oddly, the participants were missing, making us wonder if we have run them out of the profession!)

SI 05 - a wild bunch . . .

Monday, October 24, 2005

My Dogs Are Yappin'

I arrived home on Sunday-- with that "good tired" feeling . . . but my feet still hurt!

As a member of the IWCA/NCPTW 2005 conference committee, I roamed around, actively soliciting feedback (and we hope all who attended will submit their feedback form as well); I heard some amazing assessments of the conference. Peer tutor-led sessions were stronger than ever-a testament to the students' preparation and to the commitment and mentoring of the directors. The energy and quality offered in sessions was way way up there and the keynote took us to an important place for thinking about our work. I'd like to hear others chime in with thoughts on what Victor Villanueva's talk meant to them.

More later . . . including photos of the Summer Institute Alums Reunion!


Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Mauling of America

How do you get this software to work anyway, Michele?

Just point and click, Neal, point and click.

Oh, okay, I think I've got it. At first I thought it was drag and drop.

We're blogging live from the IWCA/NCPTW conference in Minneapolis. How has the conference been so far for you, Michele?

Pretty darn good, Neal. I've been meeting and greeting. Saw some good sessions, too.

Me, too, Michele. But we shouldn't talk about sessions. Clint Gardner is covering that in his blog. Let's talk about the important issues here. For instance, who gets in a photo. Michele, I heard your batteries gave out taking pictures.

True that.

KU tutors Mark Anderson & Dan Watson
flanking assistant director, Moira Ozias

Swarthmore tutors with Kate (right) from
Portland State!

Folks out there reading this: you are missing some good stuff. Good sandwiches in the box lunch today too. You bethca.

You know, I heard about the newest conference hazard.

What's that Michele?

The shawl. And the name tag loss due to hugging.


The shawl is the latest conference accoutrement. Most of them look dangerous --fears abound of getting the fringe caught in elevators, escalators, zippers and whatnot.

The name tag loss due to hugging is a true henom. Many folks told me that they lost the hanging name tag after the first signficant hug of the conference. You all, go to the registration desk to retrieve lost name tags.

I found several name tags, Michele. For awhile today I was Harvey Kail. Then, Jon Olson. Finally, Paula Gillespie. How about you, Michele?

I picked up Brad Peters' tag. It was a good catch.

That's a lot of hugging, Michele.

You betcha.

Well, I think we had better sign off and rest up for tomorrow, Michele. Big day ahead for the IWCA/NCPTW conference. All day fundraiser for Hurricane Relief with magnet poetry. Tstaskelehs, the all-girl Klezmer band tomorrow night. Sessions, of course.

Looking forward to it, Neal.

Me, too, Michele.

You betcha.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Problems with “Peerness”; Or, When Who Your Are Limits What You Do

But first, something completely different . . . .

"Neal Lerner, Wearing a Baseball Cap & Hanging Out In A Bar At South Park"

"Melissa Ianetta, if she was made out of Legos"


I’ve really enjoyed my “blogging my way to IWCA” for you all this week, and I think this experience has helped me push my thinking on the WPA / WCD relationship in new ways. Some of those ways are the subject of my ruminations today, gentle reader, so please excuse me if some of these ideas are undigested, half-baked, or positively raw.

As our postings yesterday suggested, Neal and I are pretty close together on the notion that there’s something disturbing about the manner in which directing the writing center is often treated as a “junior” wpa gig. But I’m wondering how much of that is a result of the poor fit between our pedagogies and those of our colleagues:

Think about our defining philosophy: In direct opposition to the “Boss Compositionist” model, the writing center is a place of “peerness;” we talk about the ways in which students can help one another, the ways in which all writers need readers. We talk about how every writing center is different and requires different preparation for its administrators. I believe this mantra; in fact, it’s one of the things I love about the field. However, the bread-and-butter of our colleagues across the disciplines is expertise. From this vantage point, the “peerness” of writing center appears a place prior to disciplinary knowledge. If we position ourselves as the administrators of “peerness,” a field with (as recent discussion on WCENTER has shown) no set of best practices or outcomes, it can appear that we are positioning ourselves in a place prior to disciplinary knowledge.

Think about teaching and tutoring, too: there’s a whole body of research out there (to which your humble narrator blushingly admits she has contributed) on the benefits of tutor experience for teachers of writing. While I firmly believe such benefits are real; what are their implications for the disciplinary positioning of the writing center? That is, if we position the writing center in a role where we prepare teachers of writing, are we again locating our administrative selves in a place prior to the administrators “real” writing program? Tutoring isn’t teaching, tutoring is prior to teaching?

Now think about numbers: many many many many of my friends in writing center studies resist any kinds of numbers to do with budgets or statistics. And they certainly resist any numbers that demonstrate any changes may be necessary in the writing center. Rather, they want to argue that “there are things that you just can’t quantify.” I believe this also, but I also believe that such resistance makes a writing center director look less like someone in charge of a program – who can explicitly argue from the precise workings of her program -- and more like “the nice lady in the basement” who’s a bit vauge. Admittedly, we can get away with this innumeracy – often we are far enough under the administration’s radar and so ill-funded that there is no great exigency to stay on top of this data. But poor funding and low visibility don’t seem to me the best basis for an administrative approach. By contrast, if I didn’t keep track of numbers related to the writing programs – projected course enrollments, courses needing staffing, monies to staff courses – the writing program would derail in a highly-visible train wreck that smashes on a grand scale. And, of course, stakeholders across campus want to know what the writing program thinks its doing. In other words, my course-based WPA role forces me to greater numeracy and to greater external accountability than does my writing center work.

Some of these are grim thoughts for a grey day her in DE. But I do wonder if we, as a field, pay enough attention to the costs of some our most entrenched ideologies.
That's all folks. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

No Penguins Were Injured
In the Creation of this Blog Entry

As promised in my last entry, today I’m going to review some of the scholarship of the field to see if I can work towards a better understanding of the relationship between the writing center director and the writing program administrator. I’m really not sure how well this is going to work out, but I promise there will be penguins and a link to a page guaranteed to lift you out of the doldrums on those days when misconceptions described in North’s “Idea of a Writing Center” seems like a best-case scenario.

But first, what I’ve found so far. In a nutshell, I am apparently way more obsessed with the conceptual relationship between the WPA and WCD (Writing Center Director) than most folks. That is, I didn’t find much on this topic. The most notable exception to this claim is Carol Haviland and Denise Stephenson’s “Writing Centers, Writing Programs and WPAs” (The Writing Program Administrator's Resource: A Guide to Reflective Institutional Practice, 377-92). As part of their analysis, Haviland and Stephens forward the notion that “being a writing center WPA means setting aside the comfort of staying small and insular and working to see/know/create contexts for writing programs on specific campuses” (382). The do suggest, however, “directors who are not tenure track faculty may feel marginalized because of their lack of faculty status” (381), both on campus, and in one anecdote included in the story, by other WPAs. We may define ourselves as WPAs, then, but do others? This story also got me wondering: is “WPA” as a potential term of higher prestige in some circles? And, if so, is the WPA assignation constructed in an exchange between two individuals, who either confer expertise by naming / being named as a writing center director AND a WPA? By contrast, can it be used as a marker of lesser prestige to define another as a writing center director, but not a WPA? Hmmmm . . .. . .

Such would seem to be the case if we look to two other sources of information: job ads and James McDonald and Valerie Balester’s essay “A View of Status and Working Conditions: Relations between Writing Programs and Center Directors” (WPA 24.3 59-82). In the former case, I’ve seen (and I know that discussed with some of you) those writing center director ads that suggest these jobs for individuals who would “like to get a few years under their belt” before moving to the work of administering a course-based writing program. Such suggestions position writing center work as previous to (and presumably requiring less expertise than) administering course-based programs. In the case of McDonald and Balester’s essay, the data they gathered again suggests that the WPA designator affixes itself to the higher-paid, higher prestige position. And don’t I remember reading something somewhere (aside: you gotta love this blog thing – where else can I publicly cite a source as “something somewhere”) critiquing a CWPA statement for omitting writing center directors from the statement’s definition of “WPA”? Hmmm . . . gotta find time to look that up . . . .

Finally – and I admit this ruefully – but my own experience reflects these omissions, trends and biases. For my first TT job out of graduate school, I was hired as a writing center director at a Research II. I didn’t have any pubs or experience directing a center. Admittedly, I had been a tutor since Hector was a pup and had served as a graduate-student composition program WPA. But I wonder, would I have gotten that first job if the position was reversed: if I had administered a writing center as a graduate student and it was a job for a Director of Composition? I really don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting question to ask.

Four years later, I’m a Director of Writing (still TT – someday real soon I’m going to successfully track that tenure, I swear), in a job that includes administrating the writing center, but also the writing programs and WAC. (Aside: Who was it, anyway that said you know you’ve been a WPA too long when you’ve taken over the writing center, the writing program and you’re just about to invade Poland?). I have a much better budget and access to the senior administration than when I was “just” a writing center director (and, yes, I’m using “just” ironically). I find myself wondering how much of my enhanced say so-is institutional and how much is related to the fact that I’m “more of an administrator.” Another interesting question, I think.

Now that I’ve provided the questions, I’m sure you, gentle reader, can give me the answer, no?

Okay, that’s enough text for one day. Now for that fun website I promised:

Site of the Day:
Did the Dean turn down your budget request?
Did faculty send students to you for spelling help and oral hygiene remediation?
Time to do a little penguin whacking.

(be sure to have your volume on so that you can hear it say "wheee!")

Don’t get an ulcer, take it out on the penguin.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Would all the WPAs in the room please raise their hands?

Yesterday I mentioned a few reasons for blogging, including Clancy Ratcliffe’s discussion of blogging as “management of sources” and Scribbingwoman’s notion that blogging is somewhere prior to drafting in the writing process. Both of these sounded good to me, but I don’t have enough experience in this genre to know if “sounds good” equals “works for me” in this situation. So, in the name of science (and by “science” I mean trying to get my paper started), today, I’m going to try this notion of blogging as part of the writing process out for myself on my IWCA paper.

What I’m think/reading/writing about is the definition of the writing center director as writing program administrator. That is, are all directors WPAs? If so, why don’t there seem to be more cross conversation between all sorts of writing program directors? I know I’ve learned an awful lot from the director of technical writing at my last institution (some of the technical writing stuff can really come in handy when you’re writing an annual report or strategic plan) and of course the administrator of the Comp program was a partner in crime and is still a fast friend. It would be nice if there could be more cross-disciplinary conversation than currently exists, I think.

-- More to the point, though, I’m wondering if writing center director is a subset of the category WPA? Or two distinct categories with overlap.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many of my friends and admirers in writing center studies would choose option “B” to preserves the distinctness of what we do, but that sort of begs the definitional questions

  • When is a writing center director a WPA?
  • Are all directors WPA sometimes?
  • When we perform certain roles?
  • Is it a matter of self-definition?
  • Is it structured into our jobs – are we a WPA if we have duties that can be identified with a writing program as it is traditionally defined?

Those are the questions that currently concern my and I’d love it if y’all would help me write my paper – er – I mean – share your insights . . .. Next entry, I’ll look at some of the scholarship on writing centers and writing programs to see if *those* scholars can write my paper – er – I mean enrich my thinking . . . .

Today’s link:
Assessment got you down? Looking for a message statement that will tie into the corporate university? Let the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator lend a hand:

The (Dilbert) Mission for the University of Delaware Writing Center

We exist to assertively simplify diverse meta-services.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Trying Not to Sit Around Like a Bump on a Blog

Hello, all . . ..

It’s me again – last time I was you heard from me, your “humble narrator” (or humble blogger), I was in Alaska for the 2005 WPA conference. I’ve made it back to the lower 48 – Delaware, to be exact – and now I’m taking another crack at this whole blogging thing.

This morning I turned to my old posts for inspiration (and, yes, I often turn to my own self for inspiration, thank you very much). I can’t say I was entirely impressed with my prior efforts– when I read blogs like Nels Highberg’s A Delicate Boy or Samantha Blackmon’s Dr. B’s Blog, or John Lovas’ Jocalo’s Blog, I think you get a sense of the author’s personality. In fact, in the case of Lovas' blog, I think it gives those of us who didn't know him a sense of his gifts and what he brought to the field.

I’m not sure that personality came across the first time I tried this genre. So I’m trying to rethink this whole thing (Maybe that’s why Neil and Beth offered me this gig again – a move in the tradition of writing centers everywhere – “Not better blogposts, better bloggers? ). So my question today: why blog? And why blog the Writing Center Journal?”

Like many of my students, my initial answer this question was “Well, because the teacher/editors sez so.” Not a great reason, so I’ve gone looking in the blogosphere for better ones; one’s that seem particularly suited to the work we do in the writing center.

Nil’s entry “Why I Blog” seems to me to have some reasons that blogging might be particularly suited for writing center folks. He argues that his blogging is an extension his work in autobiographical studies; his study of “the writing process and how people create texts about their lives.” This idea reminds me of what we do in the center – we help writers see writing as part of life, and, in some senses, about their life. So maybe the writing center blog provides us a space to look at they symbiotic relationship between what we do in the center and the rest of our lives.

On a different note, Clancy Ratcliffe, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Culture Cat, has an article in Lore we about blogging as “knowledge management.” I think this is one of the things I find the most attractive about a writing center blog: unlike WCENTER, where many of the threads tend to be cyclical (as in “Yay! WCENTER is talking about annual reports! That must mean its almost the end of the school year!”) the goal of a blog, like the IWCA discussion board allow us to preserve the conversation, in order to critique and revise it. (Yeah, I know, I could just go the WCENTER archives if I wanted to see the conversation preserved, but I always have problems getting on and figuring out what search terms to use. I guess I’m archivally-challenged, which is a bit of a bummer for a historian of rhetoric).

Last fall, Scribbingwoman shared with her readers “What I told the tenure committee” about blogging. If you’re interested in this topic, and haven’t read her post, go check it out. Particularly if you’re starting from square one on this whole bloggin thing, as I am. Go on, I’ll wait here.

What interests me in this post is the way it links blogging to the writing process – something that happens before we label something “product,” to be sent out to an external audience for acceptance or evaluation. This notion of writing before writing, is also something I think of as intrinsic to the writing center.

I’m going to try to end each day this week with something on the web entirely unrelated but still fun. So today, I ask you, Which Peanuts character are you?

Melissa aka “Snoopy”

You are Snoopy!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Friday, October 07, 2005

N Train from Brooklyn

It's a rainy, muggy morning here in NYC, and we're back at Def Con Vertiginous--Be Afraid! Don't Worry, Be Happy! Well one upside: Now moms won't be using strollers as battering rams when the trains are crowded. I'm off to Western Mass for the weekend and I don't think there's a subway system up there...

WCenter has had a recent thread about cultural diversity that's really rich. The topics and directions perfectly dovetail with the conversations we have at Stony Brook all the time. Like the listserv discussion, most of the talk centers on how to best tutor to linguistic difference, be it for second language learners or non-majority students among American students. Some folks advocate an awareness of contrastive forms of expression and rhetoric, and other warn of that mindset's intrinsic essentialism. Other folks renew calls to drill folks on certain markers of linguistic fluency, and another camp intones an appreciation for students' right to their own language. Our writing center has those very positions too, and I've tried to get folks to think about the politics of accent and dialect.

To me, a certain identity politics is at play in these conversations, and they tie back to my initial reflections on the Queering article. At the core of this talk about the linguistic features of student writing and the sort of cultural capital on display, there's assumptions about discourse practices that are privileged and those that are marginalized. This play of the marked and unmarked is interesting to me; the other in this talk seems to have an abundance of signifiers, and the unmarked center appears to lack the same level of interrogation. Of course, that's not the case on closer examination: in our continual encoding of folks as Other, we map on to them ways of recognizing not just nationality and race but also more subtly class, gender, and other forms of difference in our culture. I doubt any of us would deny the "reality" of these dynamics; the more important issues involve the material and pedagogical implications of difference.

How do we train tutors to deal with difference that's neither colonialist nor reductionist? How do we help students feel empowered and invited to join in an enigmatic academic discourse community? I don't know that I articulated it very well, but the liminal spaces that arise in conferences are fine occasions for folks to explore similarities and differences in cultural capital. That is, pedagogy doesn't necessarily require the transmission of rules and forms, but a dialogue that fosters inclusion and mutual learning. Not internalizing or owning the codes of linguistic privilege, particularly for someone who is already marked as other, is not a realistic option, but having the agency to invoke those codes or knowing that they are arbitrary and contingent are imperative and ethical information for students to know. Still how do we have those conversations without being ham-handed?

In staff meetings, we talk about the center or privileged discourse in the academy. I've tried to get tutors to be more aware that people's historical and physical proximity to that center isn't innocent, but that all of us have learned some level of codeswitching. However the gap between dialects or vernaculars differs based on a wide set of variables. So then conversations turn to reflecting on the tutors own experiences with struggling to learn those rules to the academic game. I'm lucky in that my staff shares similar forms of diversity as the students who come for tutoring. A number of the Stony Brook tutors are second language learners or first or second generation immigrants, so they connect with the backgrounds that the center's students bring. Of course that's not to say a predominately white, middle class majoritarian staff couldn't tutor to a diverse population, but our critical mass forces folks to question their assumptions. I guess the center is decentered to some degree in our space.

Being gay and working in a writing center has helped me appreciate this complicated play of margin and center in tutorials. I won't go into a personal narrative on that because I'm not really sure that the queer variable is the most crucial. I also come from a solidly working class background, and I'm generally a loner. So being uncomfortable with/at the center comes natural for me. Still, I've learned to be very aware of the dynamic at play in assuming those positions--of being at the center and on the margin, and they seem to depend on one another in a foundational way. I guess it's symptomatic of our society and culture--we mobilize around "us" versus "them," but we also repelled by that mindset. We rally and shore up "us" identity formations, and we have more or less ambivalent or hostile attitudes and perceptions of "them." I don't know that we can ever break from the cycle of othering or whether we even want to on some level, but fostering knowledge of it might transform folks learning experiences. That is, actively fostering such critical interrogation might just be smart pedagogy. Going back to the assessment talk that we're always talking about, awareness of audience and critical thinking seem to be prioritized in most outcomes studies. Hopefully these conversations will continue.

Well I'm off to Costco to buy munchies for the writing center. Thanks for reading this week, and I hope you enjoy Melissa next...


Thursday, October 06, 2005

Towards Organic Tutor Training...

Okay, after an hour of running, stairmaster, and elliptical trainer, I’m recharging in my friendly, Bay Ridge Brooklyn Starbucks. But oddly I want to take a nap despite the java in me.... What does it mean that Dylan and Crowe have exclusive CD offers here? Had a lovely tuna-salad on sunflower seed bagel that likely killed any benefit from the exercise… but I digress…

In spite of the flux that the larger writing program finds itself in, the writing center seems to be in a very different space. Thankfully, for the tutors, conferences don't have the same stakes that lecturers find themselves contending with. Still, we've tried to take up the data coming out of the larger assessment project as a way to collectively self-assess the direction of sessions and what the staff wants to focus learning on. Readers might remember that the Stony Brook assessment looked at writing captured a four different moments. Two of them don't intersect easily with what we do in the center--the "timed" essays performed during summer placement and the closing weekend of 102. The other moments--thesis-driven essays in 101 and 102--are the focus of many conferences (44% to be exact), so knowing how students "perform" was valuable information.

The assessment indicated that, as a group, students struggled the most with critical thinking and genre knowledge, and they did the best with rhetorical skills and mechanics. Put another way, the assessment found that students didn’t so well with their own engagement of texts, argumentation, sense of audience and perception of essay conventions, but they had greater competency controlling paragraphs, transitions, and sentence-level prose. Those “outcomes” shouldn’t be surprising to people familiar with novice writers. In staff meetings, I shared the data with the tutors and asked them to think about what it suggested to them. They had been reading Paula and Neal's Guide for Peer Tutors, Christina Murphy's source book, and selections from Landmark Essays. I'd either brainwashed them well, or they're just all brilliant and well-read: if given the opportunity to negotiate a focus for a session, the tutors agreed that the data seemed to support continued work on content, thinking, argumentation--high-order concerns.

But the tutors were quick to point out that our demographic is often caught in a bind--L2 writers often battle self-imposed and professor pressure to eradicate "accent" in their prose (about 60-70% of our students are L2). The tutors rightfully asked how they're supposed to reconcile competing sets of information--professors and students obsessed with correctness and writing program/comp studies scholarship making sentence-level instruction a dubious, uphill battle. Great question, one we're struggling to answer. Ultimately, we agreed to resist the binary nature of that thinking, to encourage students to move forward on parallel fronts and to foster awareness that no amount of prose polish will obscure a lack of substance.

At the IWCA Summer Institute I shared another couple ways we use data collection to drive staff education and training at Stony Brook. When students sign up for sessions, they complete an online registration that captures the usual essentials--course info, major, assignment information, goals for the session, due dates, etc., but we also ask for optional demographic information about language background. That information has been useful for documenting the wide reach of the center, but also the sheer diversity of our user base. After sessions, tutors also go online to do a formal conference reflection. The information gets dumped into a database and printed out for student’s files. Tutors use past reports as a guide for current and future sessions, and we code and analysis the information that the group produces. In some staff meetings, we'll use this data to workshop and problem solves difficult sessions but also as fodder for the tutors themselves to agenda set what they we need to be working on as a center. My associate and assistant directors and I also write back to the tutors about their conference reports as a way to mentor them and do outreach. With so many tutors and students, it's hard for us to come together and literally share the same page, so we hope that doing it virtually can be a provision substitute until face-to-face discussions and meetings can happen.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Assessing Assessment

Neal, you're right on about those suggestions and questions. The “standards” came about as the product of a long set of negotiations with the faculty, but with a good deal of prodding from our WPAs. The lecturers would say at some point they resigned themselves to a rubric imposed from above, and the WPAs would say the lecturers had a voice in the process. At any rate, the rubric eventually was folded into portfolio assessment, as the most convenient occasion to capture and sample student writing at the close of 102. Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff have written pretty extensively about the history of assessment at Stony Brook in the days before the Writing Program became separate from English (that's a whole other story), and they didn't have a role in the current iteration of the program. Our portfolio system required students to produce a researched-argument (an essay in which academic research is used to support a thesis driven-argument), a textual analysis essay, and a "timed" iMoat essay that was thesis-driven. Instructors could follow any curriculum or method to get students to those portfolio materials, and they could have their students produce more writing. At some point, instructors were allowed to include an informal essay (but that element didn’t count toward the assessment), which could mean a personal narrative or in-class impromptu writing. Somehow--between all the talk about assessment and outcomes expectations and student/instructor pressure to pass portfolio review--the portfolio became very high stakes—granted, it was the linchpin for completion of the writing requirement, so many instructors focused much of the semester on teaching to the portfolio, rather than having the portfolio become a pedagogical means to a curricular end. On one level, the portfolio got equated with assessment and that got conflated with teaching. Of course, to anyone teaching in K-12 No Child Left Behind America, this situation isn't surprising.

As many might imagine, when the faculty learned about the numbers coming out of the assessment pilot, its later implementation, and subsequent communication to administration (locally and state-wide), there was a perfect storm as the fury over the politics of the data met the clash over job security and debate over professional trajectories. At Stony Brook, our faculty is mainly comprised of 23 full-time lecturers who teach 4/4 loads (with one-course offloads to mentor graduate student teaching assists). Besides low pay, their job security has been subject to ever-changing winds of funding for higher ed in New York State. For example, in year two of our assessment, half of them worked under the threat of losing their jobs as a way to close a budget gap in the college.

Beyond the financial crisis, the lecturers face uncertain prospects for the future: they work under three-year renewable contracts with no possibility for tenure. One option that has been floated is for folks to become "senior lecturers," but the positions are for people with terminal degrees in their teaching fields. Alas, most of our people are MFAs or MAs or PhDs in literature. As the senior positions are defined, someone would need a doctorate in rhet/comp or some related field, none of which we currently offer. Short of spending nights at CUNY or traveling to IUP to do its summer program, the lecturers are caught in a bind. We do offer a graduate certificate, but pushing folks to take those courses creates ethical dilemmas on a host of fronts. Some of our folks have been teaching writing, granted without official education and credentials in comp/rhet, for years. What does it mean to tell someone who has been teaching writing for 10 (even 20) years that they lack sufficient experience and training, particularly when they've been mentoring and working with novice teachers all along? On the flip side, why have an disciplinary identity if comp studies really doesn’t matter to teach writing? Of course, these are perennial issues.

When our seemingly innocent assessment project started to yield results, people can imagine the reaction. The lecturers felt betrayed and used. A major part of that feeling came from the realization that they had participated in the assessment project as scorers and scoring leaders; they had, in effect, become complicit in the production of information that was used to suggest that they were ineffective instructors. Ouch! And they're right. Still as Neal's response suggests, how do we measure efficacy? What variables are operative? Can we flatten down the value that composition adds to looking at the two moments in time in student writing early on in their career? Neal's variables are crucial--sense of belonging, retention, critical thinking--and those are being looked at too. Interestingly--they're even harder to tie to a one to two semester experience with writing.

The whole situation leaves me wondering, what then is the place of a writing program? Being someone with one foot in a writing center and another in a writing program, I feel much more confident about what our center contributes than what our program adds. Part of my uncertainty with the program doesn't rest with what it does or doesn't do, but with what the larger institution understanding of writing and the place of it (or lack thereof) across the curriculum. I often tell people about friends in the Women's Studies program who want to use writing in their classes, but feel dissuaded when they have 75 students per section and 3 sections to teach. Then I hear of a history professor with a class of 150 who actually does peer response in her lecture hall. Lacking a coherent and dynamic process for WAC or WID, I really wonder how a writing program can flourish? Beyond that, should the project of a writing program be to inoculate a student for future writing? Are writing programs purely service centers? And if a writing program is going to be a one-size-fits-all preparatory program for college-writing, how do we develop a workable curriculum and pedagogy, and who will teach it under what conditions? And those questions get me thinking: gosh, has the vocational and pragmatic imperative overtaken higher-ed? Has writing for the sake of writing, writing to explore, writing across modes/genres/occasions disappeared? I guess that's why I feel at home in the center where collaboration and dialog and critical dialogue dominate, and when we’re lucky, we can stave off the utilitarian.

The most chilling moment so far in the assessment experience came in a quote the WPA placed in a memo in a binder for the external review of the program. The dean of our college was quoted saying that in light of the assessment numbers that suggest that the writing program produces little value for the money the institution puts into it, he frequently has faculty from other departments ask why the program isn't dissolved and the money re-distributed around the college. Talk about demoralizing, huh? I wonder if other disciplines are subjected to that kind of scrutiny. Or better, is it because many would argue we're not a content-specialty that we are held as suspect?

Alright enough already. Tomorrow I'll talk about how we're taking up this assessment data in the writing center to guide and affirm what we're doing. Maybe before the week’s end I’ll figure out how this all ties back to being queer and queering the writing center.

Later! Harry

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Day Two of Rosh Hashanah Break

So yesterday I did two laps on the Shore Parkway, from the 68th St Pier that looks across to Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Manhattan out to Bay Parkway, the other end of the park that looks out to the ocean and Coney Island. All in all, sore thighs and a sun burn on my thighs—at least I remembered to cover my head. I took a pit-stop at Starbucks to do some writing—I’ve been working on this project about contemporary rhetoric about civil rights. More specifically, I’m interested in the clash between the New Right (typically understood as a coalition of Evangelical Christians and neoconservatives) and the gay community over a series of issues. The larger book will map out their debates and fights over language, but I’m trying to argue that as the queer community follows the precedents of earlier New Left extensions of civil rights, the right simultaneously works to beat back that movement and to change the foundational concept of what civil rights mean. I hope to focus on campaign rhetoric from both movements, media representations (or framing) of the issues and movements, and governmental response. At any rate, I know what I doing in the body of the text, but I’ve been stumped on the introductory chapters and keep spinning my wheels. One day, I want to play off of current events, another day I want to open with a personal narrative, and still another day I think vignettes might be another way in.

After I got frustrated with that, I came home to work on another on-going project at Stony Brook. As some of you may know, assessment has consumed more and more of my energies as my program tries to come to terms with all the data we produced from our SUNY-Central mandated assessment. Our campus-based assessment protocol involved collecting four writing samples (placement, thesis-driven essay from WRT 101 [if placed in that course], thesis-driven essay from WRT 102 [most students, except honors students, cycle through this course], and exit essay) and scoring them for four primary traits (critical thinking, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge and mechanics & usage). The placement and exit essays are produced through MIT’s iMoat software; students go on to the system at a pre-determined date, read a prompt, and then have 72 hours to produce an essay. The system is nice because it doesn’t penalize L2 writers and enables students to produce more coherent, cogent responses without as much time pressure, but we don’t have a sense of performance differences between students who wrote in an impromptu manner (before iMoat) and after until this “standardized” form but loose timing. The data we’ve produced is compelling, and our students’ performances generally confirm those that can be seen in national tests like the CAAP or Academic Profile. Aside from the percentages that the state asks from us (how many students don’t meet, approach, meet and exceed standards/expectations), we also needed to show what value was added by the writing program’s instruction.

Cynical readers like me will have their ears prick up on that note: How do you prove value-added? Isn’t that just a euphemism for change and causality? Well, yes and no. So in an earlier cranking of the numbers through my lovely SPSS software, I did discover significant change between placement and exit essays and to a lesser a degree for the subpopulation who took 101 and 102 (thereby having two time-separated essays). More importantly, the 2-semester students came in generally weaker than the 1-semester students, but the 101/102 left showing far more improvement or growth than the 102-only. Nevertheless, the one-semester students still out performed the 101/102 students, even though the former showed marginal value added to their experiences. That’s one of the things I’m trying to get my head around—what’s the significance of stronger students, at least by our measure, not getting value added? Is that the case? Is there value that these students gain that our protocol doesn’t capture? If so, what is it? At any rate, these insights on data representing group performance or changes in statistics that capture the whole cohort, and it doesn’t really look to individual change. On another run on the data, we did that, and then calculated the percentage of students who have value-added (or lack or lose value). Looking at the data this way, 2/3 of our students either stay the same or lose ground—that is, their scores stay the same or drop. To my chagrin, when a binder was compiled for our recent external review, my WPA took this data up with the dean, advisory board, and review team to suggest our full-time instructors weren’t having an impact on student learning. Mind you, the dean and advisory board were suspicious of our numbers—what did it mean to lose value in instruction? Was that possible? Going by our number, at least, it was… and so goes the old adage about being skeptical of stats…

So yesterday, I went back and looked at our raw data after meeting last week with a mathematics expert in our institutional research office. She helped me understand that our rubric and representations were biased against the students who come in and leave performing well. In other words, the scale is not set up to measure changes for students at the ceiling of our rubric, so she looks at the data and said that we’d probably get more interesting information looking at shifts for particular scores. I spent a good part of the day tracking students who came in with X score and left with Y score. In our previous take on the data, 33% lost ground, 33% stayed the same, and 33 showed improvement (that’s a rough generalization across semesters). Looking at the data another way, students who came in (or on the placement essay) scored as:
• not meeting our standards showed 100% improvement (50% moving up to the approaching standards category, and 50% moving up 2 levels to meeting standards)
• approaching standards—63% showed improvement (52% moving up 1 level to meeting standards, and 11% up to exceeding), but 41% showed now change or didn’t move out of that category
• meeting standards—80% showed no change, but 4% moved up to exceeding standards (and 4% moved down one level to approaching standards, and 4% moved two level to not meeting standards)
Now begins the analysis—is this representation of how students performed better or just more complicated and accurate? To what degree is it encouraging? What does it say to whether we ought to have a two-semester or one-semester sequence? Are 14-28 weeks really enough to certify a student’s college-long experience with writing?

Most important to me, how can I make this information useful for staff education in the writing center. We’ve used other profile information from the assessment, particularly from the primary traits, to support our focus on HOCs over LOCs, but this recent data has left me perplexed…

Still all this number talk makes me want to re-read Neal’s bean-counting article.

Stay tuned… harry

Monday, October 03, 2005

First Monday in October

Morning all,
It's a nice cool, clear morning here in Brooklyn. MTA buses are screeching by about every ten minutes, relieving my coffee of some of the burden of helping me wake up. I've transitioned from lying on the couch listening to NPR to switching between Good Day New York (cute weather guy) and CNN.

On Friday, some local writing center folks and I met to talk about WCJ's last issue. Our conversation focused on Gardner and Ramsey's "Polyvalent Mission." A number of their points bothered us, but the framing of oppositionality and marginality struck many of us. All the participants in our group happened to be marked as Other by either gender or sexuality, so being marginal(-ized) is not theoretical or speculative for us. In our discussions, we spoke to the value and costs of maintaining oppositional identities, and we were struck by how dissidence is often framed as naive, immature, and idealistic (and assimilation as reasonable, wise, and pragmatic). Despite Gardner and Ramsey's problematic binary, we appreciated their use of the Carnegie Foundation's call to expand what scholarship means in college and university discourse communities. The authors suggest that the day-to-day performances/work of writing center professional constitutes a sort of organic scholarship that must be celebrated as on par with theoretical, experimental and observational research.

At any rate, the article spurred a good deal of talk that eventually moved from the play of identity in the article to the role of identity among our group. We found ourselves debating what kinds of conversations do we need to have to keep our group growing, and we wondered what constitutes needs for folks that don't come to our meetings like this one where we explore readings and where we discuss (research and writing) projects in progress and reading discussions. This turn in talk got us wondering about professional tracks and professional development for people in writing centers in the area. As Lauren Fitzgerald has discovered, the NYC metro area has more than 100 writing centers, so fit stands to reason many people are doing WC work, often without a whole lot of institutional support or training. We wondered: how do we grow our community and maintain our emphasis on a writing and research collective? Do these imperatives need to be competing imperatives?

All this talk about identity, the politics of margin and center, and outreach made me hopeful. I was worried about my article how might come off to the pool of readers. If it fires up folks like Gardner and Ramsey did for us, then I'll feel good. Already one director has used it as an occasion to come out to her staff--I don't know a better honor to bestow. I love to be subversive, but I tend to prefer to do it from the shadows. So all this talk is very public for me…

At any rate, I remain a strong believer in writing centers as communities, complete with all the baggage that the concept carries. My faith in that term comes from my own experiences at WCs through the years. From Temple to LIU and now Stony Brook, writing centers have been these complicated spaces where the teaching/mentoring/tutoring of writing (process) never just involved helping people understand and do better planning, drafting, revising and editing. In almost every session, the politics of race, ethnicity, sex, class, and language culture have been important, even crucial, variables to engaging in dialogue. It seems axiomatic to me to assume these variables affect us, so in writing centers with diverse constituencies, it seems natural to factor them into interaction. As a field, writing center theory has considered all these variables and refined pedagogy to account for them, or at least to acknowledge them as affecting pedagogy. In all these rich discussions about diversity in the writing center, the perspectives of sexual minorities and our identities have never been a part of the conversation. Part of that oversight has to do with the legibility of our identity--not knowing or seeing queer folks allows for a certain degree of avoidance. Another part, however, is a certain degree of institutional homophobia, or better compulsory heterosexism... I doubt many people are uncomfortable with LGBT people; it's more likely that folks assume a heterosexual mindset in most matters until contested.

So my article, in part, was about bringing those voices out into the public talk. I've been struck by how invisible in official conversation and research sexual minority perspectives are, yet queer folks are very much at home in the field. We're like the lesbian and gay aunts, uncles, or cousins that every family has but rarely talks about. But in my book, it's not enough to know the homos in our midst. I knew that queer theory, like Aftrocentric, feminist, critical, and postmodern theories, provides another lens through which to view our world, but also our pedagogy and perspective on interaction in sessions.

Another motivation for me to press the issue--although I don't talk about it in the piece--is the homophobia I continually encounter through student writing as a teacher and writing center staffer. We talk a good deal about the politics of message and language in this profession, but (sexual) minority perspectives often are not foregrounded outside of SIGs at our conferences. Just this summer, I had a student write up an ethnography in which she talks about the gay folks that come into her Greenwich village laundry. She spoke about how they disgusted her, how she wondered why god let "them" exist, how she pitied them and wondered why they all dressed like women. The venom of the article threw me for a loop and hurt--I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin and good radar for such folks that I could usually avoid them. I had a hard time reconciling this sweet woman in class with the thoughts and language in her paper. But then I remembered when I worked against anti-gay activists in Colorado; these folks were always wonderful and sweet, particularly when they assumed no "gays" were in their presence. Even when we were around, they would be unfailingly polite because they loved us, not our sin. Back to my student... I realized, or assumed, that she must not know I was gay... She didn't cross me as the type to be an in-your-face homophobe, so she must have assumed I was a safe person to use that rhetoric on, that I was a part of her discourse community that wouldn't challenge or question her. There was also this odd point where I found myself wanting to challenge her perception of the queer community--that we're not all like "that." This internalized homophobia of my own bothered me too--I ought to be challenging or pushing her to critically explore her sense of audience, not turning towards an apology for my community -- to performing an act of self-policing. This is one among many stories I could tell--from tutors coming to me for advice when they've encountered such rhetoric to tutors being torn over whether they could ethically refuse help to folks whose thoughts they found offensive. In each case, I advise them and myself to engage the student, to validate their thoughts, and to push their students to interrogate what they may safely assume about the present and assumed audiences.

Alright, time to head out for my morning work-out. Instead of NYSC, I'm going to get the bike out to the harbor and enjoy time away from school. More tomorrow... Harriet Mier and the Supreme Court have my head spinning at the moment.

Harry Denny