Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Chapter 4. How am I writing?

This essay, the fourth of an intended twelve-part series on writing instruction (and its parallels with math instruction), deals in part with an issue raised in the last essay in the series. Namely, what happens to writing instruction when first-year composition courses are done away with? Whereas the emphasis in the aforementioned essay lay on the changing roles of faculty in the event of severe shake-ups in curricula and course scheduling, the emphasis here will lie on writing instruction.

Several years ago, when its Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) program was first implemented, our school opted to scrap half of its first-year composition program. In compensation for the lost semester of writing instruction, all first-year Liberal Studies Introductory Colloquia (LSICs), which are taught by faculty in disciplines and departments across the university, were automatically designated as Writing Intensive (WI) courses.

How good a substitute for the missing semester would these courses prove?

Some of my colleagues objected (and still object) to these courses' WI designation, claiming that faculty who are not trained to teach writing have no business in fact so doing, and that trained rhetoricians will do an incomparably better job of imparting writing skills on young college students. On the other hand proponents of writing across the curriculum and writing in the disciplines indicate that the LSICs expose students to authentically discipline-specific writing conventions, and that no one could do a better job at this than the practitioners of the respective disciplines in which the LSICs are run. (The next essay in this series will have a bit more to say about these points of view.)

Nevertheless, the sentiment among the WI folks of late has been that the LSIC instructors have as often as not been failing their students when it comes to providing meaningful writing instruction: where intentional instruction is given at all, it often focuses on the mechanics of writing (e.g., grammar and spelling) and not on substantive issues such as audience, tone, writing as a means to learning. Evidence for this failing comes not only from student/faculty scuttlebutt but from various data collected during the first year of the writing assessment study my colleague Lulabelle directed. (In particular, the rubric constructed by the participating LSIC faculty was weighted quite heavily towards mechanical issues, and the syllabi collected from these faculty showed little evidence of robust writing instruction. In fairness, the rubric constructed by the participating writing-in-the-disciplines faculty suffered from critical weaknesses of a different sort, and these faculty members' syllabi were little better, by and large, than those of their colleagues leading LSIC courses.)

Why these weaknesses? I.e., why is it that these courses' instructors are often providing what composition theorists would describe as substandard writing instruction? There are microcosmic issues at work here, as well as some broader macrocosmic ones. The former affect individuals and departments, and ultimately determine which faculty members end up leading the LSIC courses; the latter affect the nature of the LSIC courses themselves and the response that the faculty, as a body, has to them. Ultimately both of these kinds of forces stem from the structure of the ILS system as a whole.

What of the microcosmic forces? As I just said, their genesis in the structure of the Integrative Liberal Studies program itself: as it is desirable that LSICs be offered in every conceivable discipline, and as it is desirable that all of the university's faculty bear an equal share of the burden of providing the LSIC experience, every department in the university is expected to offer its fair share of LSICs.

But who in a given department is going to teach them? While there are some who will gladly volunteer to teach an LSIC, there are as many or more who will resist doing so. Given that the ideal LSICs will have minimal prerequisites (thereby making them accessible to as many first-year students as possible), offer authentic engagement of rich course content, and fulfill the university's WI requirement, they are challenging courses to teach and even more challenging ones to teach well. Moreover, the ideal LSIC instructor will show true passion for the subject matter the LSIC treats, but crafting a course about which ones feels truly passionate while remaining within the confines of the LSIC's structure can be a challenge. (For example, regular readers may recall an anecdote related by my CWPA colleague Leona back in September, as retold in the second of this series of essays, and in which she told of a fellow instructor of writing who lamented that she'd not had a chance to teach a literature course, despite her earlier assertion that she was all about first-year comp courses.)

Another, more pragmatic factor: those students enrolled in LSICs who have yet to choose an adviser are by default assigned as advisees to the instructor of their LSIC course. As a result, those faculty teaching LSICs are laden with considerably higher numbers of advisees, and in particular, more difficult-to-advise non-major advisees, than are their non-LSIC-teaching colleagues.

As a result many department chairs find themselves twisting their colleagues' arms in order to get enough LSICs on the books to satisfy the administrative powers that be. It doesn't take a learning theorist to explain that a willing instructor is going to do a much better job of teaching a course than a nonwilling instructor will do.

And what of the macrocosmic forces? Well, as I hinted at above, not everyone has bought into the ILS system in the first place. Proponents and opponents alike will agree that the ILS system is unwieldy and cumbersome: to explain it in moderate detail takes eight full pages of the latest course catalog (see pages 51-58 of the on-line version of the AY 2008-09 catalog). Not counting the required intensive courses, the student will put 47 credit-hours of work towards fulfilling the ILS goals.

In fairness, some credit-hours can be double- or even triple-counted; for instance a student might enrol in a single 3-hour course in order to satisfy simultaneously a Quantitative-Intensive requirement, a Cluster requirement, and a Lab Science requirement. However, "accounting tricks" like this make course selection seem more like a game or a strategic military move than an exercise in personal or intellectual development.

Nevertheless the ILS system is byzantine and often arbitrary; many feel it was implemented too hastily, while others bemoan the fact that it was implemented at all. The opponents of ILS are numerous and some are powerful, and I believe that some of these folks promulgate the view that the system's components and requirements are not to be taken seriously.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am not an opponent of the ILS system as a whole, as one might expect knowing that I serve on the ILS Subcommittee for Writing-Intensives. I do, however, feel that the program was implemented too hastily: it was thrown together in its entirety all at once, without sufficient attention paid to its outcomes and impacts. I feel that certain of its components have proven more successful than others, and I would recommend phased elimination of some of the less successful aspects of the program, in particular the Cluster system. On the other hand, I feel that the Intensives (Diversity, Information Literacy, Quantitative, and Writing) all serve useful roles and should remain in place, although I believe much more careful management and oversight of these Intensives must go on. To put it bluntly, some of these Intensives need to get their shit together.

So what's the upshot of all of this? What havoc do these forces wreak on the writing-instruction that goes on in LSICs?

Because LSIC instructors are as often draftees as they are volunteers, and because they do not actively have to seek WI approval for their courses as instructors of any other WI course would have to do, and because they interact with often influential and powerful peers who pooh-pooh the importance of the ILS system as a whole, a good number of LSIC instructors are simply overly complacent about their duties as instructors of writing. I don't claim that this is the case of every LSIC instructor, but undeniably a fair number of our first-year students are receiving writing instruction (or, tellingly, are not receiving writing instruction) from faculty who see little reason for providing that instruction in the first place.

How widespread is this phenomenon?

I don't know.

And I don't think we're going to know any time soon.

We're a year and a half into a two-year assessment of our school's WI program, yet I don't believe we could even hope to answer that question through our study: those LSIC instructors who took part in the first year of the program (and those who are likely to take part in the final semester during Spring 2009) were highly self-selected; they're the ones who already recognize the importance of writing instruction and are therefore likely not among the ranks of the complacent.

For the time being let's assume that complacency exists, regardless of our powerlessness to measure its extent. What can be done to combat this complacency?

In May 2008 Lulabelle and I put together two day-long faculty development workshops on writing instruction; one day focused on writing in the disciplines, the other on writing instruction in LSICs. We tailored the goals and activities of each workshop to the audiences we hoped to reach. For instance, in the LSIC workshop we focused our efforts on helping participants understand the role that writing serves as a learning tool (emphasizing writing process over writing product), on guiding participants through construction of well-staged writing assignments, and on providing meaningful (not simply mechanical) feedback on students' writing.

It was a start. As one might expect, the LSIC workshop participants were noticeably less engaged than their colleagues in the disciplines workshop, but I still feel that the former get-together was a fruitful one. Similar and frequent faculty development opportunities exposing LSIC teachers to the ideals of first-year writing instruction will be crucial. My colleagues and I on the WI Subcommittee also hope to schedule meetings with interested departments in order to apprise them of resources we and the University Writing Center can offer their faculty as those faculty begin to craft WI courses, including LSICs. Moreover, through the nascent IWIn (Integrative Writing Initiative) I've been working on for a while now with several of my colleagues from across the campus we should be able to nurture further support in the form of Faculty Writing Fellows (at least, if Lulabelle has anything to say about it).

It's a tough row to hoe, but hoe that row we will.

Before I end this essay I should acknowledge that much of what I've written about here applies as much to WI courses in the disciplines as it does to LSICs; the primary difference between these courses and the LSICs is that for the former writing-intensive status must be actively sought and thus the petitioning faculty member has taken it upon herself to craft a well-structured writing experience for her students. Even if she has not taken part in any formal professional development related to writing instruction, she has submitted her plans for a WI course to a body of her peers who have been recognized as able assessors of writing instruction. Moreover, those faculty who have not themselves applied to receive writing-intensive status for the WI course they are teaching are generally apprised by their department chairs of the nature of writing instruction expected in a WI course. This circumstance arises, for example, when the instructor is one of several people who teaches a course that has received "blanket" WI approval, regardless of the course's instructor.

My next essay in this series will treat an issue that relates closely to the one dealt with here, namely, the Reluctant Instructor of Writing: how is it that someone not trained in formal composition theory can serve as an expert instructor of writing? As you may expect, my response to this question will deal primarily with writing in the discipline, the sort of writing any disciplinary expert should feel eminently confident in approaching. Moreover, I will do what I can to establish parallels between writing instruction and mathematics instruction. In so doing I will bring up a question about which I've given a lot of thought: who makes the better math teacher, the weaker mathematician or the stronger one?

Until then, as always, I invite your comments and your feedback.

1 comment:

Precise Edit said...

Great post. I was looking for the next part in this series and couldn't find it.

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