Given that the political economy of universities has been changing for some time and has, most recently, changed in a visibly dramatic way, new models for writing programs are now required. The first year writing course is fundamental to the general education requirements of nearly every US university, and so any significant restructuring of the university will almost certainly entail changes in writing instruction. But more importantly, writing is fundamental to engaged learning and essential for work and citizenship, and so the need for writing instruction is growing. The current moment is an opportunity for understanding the value of writing programs in new institutional forms.
I begin with one assumption: that given the new economy, writing programs can no longer do everything that we have done in the past in the way that we have done them because the significant decline in public resources for education has put real boundaries on what is possible. The most common impulse in this situation is to begin thinking in terms of scarcity. We are working within boundaries, but there is very little scarcity with respect to need or opportunity. I also begin with one claim, and that claim is that it is difficult to speak in the abstract about “writing programs,” although that is the mode for many disciplinary discussions. To counter that, I will situate as much of my thinking as possible within the context of how I understand the scene at Michigan State University as an instance of one type of US institution and one writing program.
Given that, let me begin by questioning the basic function and focus of most writing programs as a (nearly) exclusive focus—first year writing. In doing so, I am not suggesting an abandonment of first year writing or a lessening of its importance. Quite the opposite. High quality first year writing instruction is essential to high quality undergraduate education. But first year writing is not the only function of a writing program. Furthermore, given the constraints we face, perhaps it is no longer possible or desirable for a given university to attempt to meet the first year writing needs of each and every one of its students and so concentrate its attention in this way. The impetus for such a claim is clearly financial, but I will endeavor to make an intellectual case that I believe to be more important.
We think of our writing programs much as we think of our universities—as islands unto themselves. This is particularly true at research-intensive and “flagship” institutions, which operate, from the viewpoint of faculty at least, as self-contained universes. But each university is situated within a system of post secondary education, even if we don’t see this or understand it very well. Students and parents do see the system, however. They see it as a set of options for meeting their educational goals, and they make choices according to a set of variables. The two variables that I want to focus on here are cost and value. Students have to make cost and value decisions all the time with respect to education. What can they afford? What is the value of a degree, institution, or class? With respect to first year writing, most students see it as a low value class, something that they must take and that they would much rather manage at the lowest cost possible—testing out, using AP credit, and so on. We make this cost-driven option possible through the articulation agreements that enable students take a lower cost course at another institution for credit at our institution.
It is reasonable to assume that a number of MSU students, for example, will continue to choose a lower cost option and take their first year writing course at another location in the system of higher education. For a writing program at an institution like Michigan State University, this becomes a significant issue given the economic conditions that are likely to persist. MSU is not a low cost institution. It is probably structurally impossible to be cheap, and even if cheap were possible at MSU, the outcomes of cheap are likely to be poor. For programs at institutions like MSU to be viable in the future, they must compete on value (every writing program in the country will likely need to decide–explicitly–if they will compete on cost or value—or more accurately in terms of some cost-value ratio).
Given these cost and resource constraints, a writing program must make decisions about where best to invest limited resources—where we can deliver the highest value, make the biggest impact with respect to writing improvement? If we consider the fact that some of our value is to be found in functions additional to first year writing, we might nudge students inclined to make a low-cost decision by limiting their ability to take first year writing at MSU. We simply don’t attempt to meet demand understood as the total number of incoming MSU students who still need to meet the first year writing requirement. The first year course becomes more of a scarce resource (certainly during the regular academic year; MSU needs to utilize summer and online instruction more effectively–we are inefficient). This approach only makes sense, however, if we have a compelling answer to the question of value. We must be able to show convincingly what we do better than anyone else, particularly our lower cost competitors and partners, and how we enhance education on our own campus.
This is why the question of value is the single most important question that a writing program must answer.
Having said all this, let me make another claim: the value proposition for the writing program at institution like MSU is not—and should not be—limited to first year writing. That is, significant value to the core mission of writing improvement exists in other forms and functions, and it is to these issues that I turn next.
A writing program at a research institution should be a research program. The primary value that we provide to the institution, to the discipline, and to the world at large is research. The history of composition studies has been marked by the tension between service and teaching, with most writing programs resisting the perception that they are fundamentally service units for the university. At some institutions, the writing program should be valued for such service; at others the value might reside in pedagogical excellence. At a research institution, a writing program should produce knowledge that transforms how we understand writing, the teaching of writing, and the ways that individuals and groups develop into more effective writers.
I understand this claim to be radical because it entails a shift in how those who work in a writing program understand themselves and their work. We become not a teaching program that does some research but a research program that helps students develop as writers. It means that the program must identify some strategic goals for research, support certain research programs over time, and collaborate and coordinate work among and across faculty and students.
A shift like this is essential, I believe, to the value of a writing program in a research university that wishes to be excellent and to deliver clear value to its stakeholders. Let me make a stronger claim: we have an obligation to research because we have an obligation to provide evidence-based instruction. We should be better teachers. Our students should become more effective writers.
Writing Across the Curriculum and in the Disciplines
For those of us in rhetoric and composition and associated with writing programs, writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in the disciplines (WID) are powerful concepts and vexed programs. At MSU, we have a writing in the major requirement known as Tier II, and it is notoriously weak. We might call it “random” in how it is understood and implemented. The promises and problems of these initiatives are well-understood, and I have no desire to rehearse them here. Instead, I want to discuss a model that we have developed at the WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) Research Center that brings together some of the issues raised in this document and that presents some interesting possibilities.
In collaboration with The Eli Broad College of Business, the WIDE Research Center developed, implemented, and evaluated experimental business communication courses during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 academic years. The central idea of this initiative was to improve business communication by
• Focusing on how teams write (and how individuals write as part of teams)
• Focusing on key communication tasks: proposing, reporting, and relationship building (both within teams and with external audiences)
We sought to solve two problems. The first is an intellectual problem of how to understand business communication. Our decision to focus on three rhetorical tasks is, we believe, powerful and transformative, in part because it is rather obvious. The second problem is a curricular and institutional problem. At most US universities, the business writing course often fulfills the business school’s WAC/WID requirement and suffers from typical problems: it is a required course and so has a significant footprint in the curriculum with meaningful resource implications; it is a course that demands expertise outside of the core expertise of the school; it is not highly valued because it falls outside the core expertise of the school. These three problems can be found across departments, colleges, and schools attempting to implement effective vertical writing instruction.
Our response was to develop modular, case-based short courses built around the three rhetorical tasks. These courses were delivered as 1 credit experiences (lasting 5 weeks each). Just as importantly, the total number of instructional hours were such that we could easily offer these modules as part of a weekend program or similar package to meet the needs of lifelong learners (see below). It is significant as well that this project was designed as a research project with instructional deliverables. As a part of that research project, we designed and tested supporting instructional technology. We also developed and tested assessment metrics and tools to provide both formative and summative assessment of communication ability, and our results show that these courses were successful. Students became better writers.
This is a model worth thinking about, particularly in the context of a reflection on the value of a writing program to any given university. If we consider the possibility that fewer resources be spent on the first year course, we consider that possibility because it is of value to dedicate some of those resources to providing focused, high impact writing instruction later in a student’s experience on campus. As every writing professional understands, it is absurd to think that 15-30 weeks of writing instruction is sufficient, but it is not necessarily an issue of the amount of instruction that is the problem but rather when it happens, how learning is reinforced, and how complex skills are refined over time.
What this model suggests is the possibility for a new partnership between the writing program and departments, programs, and colleges that wish to collaborate on designing, implementing, and assessing writing instruction for their students. The model we developed for Broad is intellectually flexible, and so it can be redesigned for other implementations. The assessment practices are similarly flexible. But most importantly, because the writing program is a research program, the problems associated with new collaborations become research problems to be solved and shared.
Writing is difficult, as is learning to write. Learning to write is a lifelong learning activity, yet few writing programs see supporting lifelong learning in writing as core to their mission. It is true that within the system of post-secondary education, there are a number of institutions that see this as their core market. This is a business opportunity for them. And given my statements about systems and markets, I do not think that every writing program needs to understand itself as serving the needs of lifelong learners. However, it is a powerful idea to understand the writing program at an institution like MSU as a partner in lifelong learning in writing. It creates a new relationship between the university and the people it serves.
For instance, thinking about this opportunity has led WIDE to reconsider what constitutes a writing class, where it can happen, and who the participants might be. If we only think of 15 week writing classes taught in schools, then we miss these opportunities. But a writing program can offer a suite of services, both face to face and online, to meet the writing needs of learners. We can make our writing centers available in new ways. Currently there are for-profit providers of online writing labs in the marketplace, and they make money. There is a market for this service. We can provide writing courses based on the 5 week (10 instructional hours) model that we developed with the Broad College of Business. We can leverage social software to support informal learning arrangements of people and groups interested in improving their writing. We can add value to informal learning by providing software platforms, evaluation tools, and learning support. We can do these and any number of other things as a writing program if we value engagement with lifelong learners and can articulate our value to these learners.
Values and New Models
The new economy of higher education means that writing programs and their departments cannot nickel and dime their way to solvency, let alone excellence. Viewing the economic problems that face us in terms of scarcity and focusing on “cuts” as the only solution is a sure way to do lasting damage to a writing program. In a worst case scenario, such tactics lead to programs, departments, and universities “eating their seed corn” and inflicting permanent harm. The more common result of such an approach is damage that takes a generation to repair.
This is intolerable, but it is also unnecessary.
At Michigan State University, I am arguing, the solution is in developing a new model for how we understand ourselves, for how we deliver writing instruction, and for how we understand our relationship with our college and university. That model must be based on values: what we understand our values to be as researchers and teachers, and based on that, what value we add to the student experience and to the university community.
Toward a fuller articulation of those values and that model, I have offered here the following possibilities:
• That the value of the writing program is located in the fact that it is a research program that produces research and forms of intellectual property that have market value
• That the value of the writing program is located in its ability to provide evidence-based instruction in writing
• That the value of the writing program is a function of the fact that it can be flexibly deployed to meet the needs of learners and programs when and where they need it, both in the curriculum and across the lifespan
• And that, finally, a writing program must think about where it can best impact the learning of writing on any given campus and focus its talent and resources on those key moments and places
Of course, the writing program that I have described here is not the writing program at Michigan State University, but it certainly could be. Quickly. More generally, I wonder how these pressures and possibilities reflect both local conditions and disciplinary concerns. That is, given how dramatically rhetoric and composition has changed in the last twenty years, what will rhetoric and composition become in the next twenty?