A Happy Shambles

I had figured my new job would involve a fair bit of repairing an old or damaged system. After all, the WPA person here had a degree in literature, taught women's lit courses and published in women's lit; the director of the state Writing Project: an Americanist; director of the writing center: former grad student.... There is a minor in professional writing, but that is administered and taught largely by a wonderful colleague whose degree is in professional and technical writing. She has her hands full there, but outside of us two, there are no other faculty or staff with specialties in writing.

Much of this I knew when I accepted the job. I liked the potential and the room to grow. Where others may have blanched, I saw challenge. So, during the first three weeks here, I have scheduled meetings with the WPA person, the Department Chair, the Director of the Writing Center, a retiring specialist in writing (by way of a minor), and the Dean of the college. So far from what I have learned, the administration realizes its predicament. Certainly, the President of the university wants to replicate the atmosphere he was used to at Iowa State. My chair is behind me and as far as WPA and Writing Center folks, I am enthusiastic about their creativity and open attitude.

In my meetings, I have been using the phrase "initiating a conversation about writing" at this university and I think this is apt. From what I can tell, until fairly recently administration did not take writing seriously and/or relied on a basic skills theory of writing. At one point, what was supposed to be an entrance exam assessing student writing skills had a 50% rate of student failure. Another 50% failed it after taking it a second time. The 25% who could not pass the exam often had to take FYC as a remedial course and/or during one of their final years as an undergraduate. Currently, everyone has to take FYC, even though it still is taught mainly by adjuncts, a few graduate students, and some full-time faculty. However, FYC is still considered remedial by a large segment of the university community. So, there is one thing that needs to be discussed.

Part of this conversation is deeper, though. During orientation lunch, I brazenly (perhaps too brazenly) discussed how rhetoric was the foundation of a liberal undergraduate education, even the foundation of the scientific method. There was some silence at the table, but some curiosity, too, before the Provost interrupted and began her speech. Thankfully, I was off the hook. However, it seems that the conversation about writing here is still fairly shallow: its a basic skill that students ought to have been taught in high school or community college. Then they get upset when students can't write. Worse, they lump all these students together: second language writers with minority writers working against hegemony with less privileged economic class writers with those who just don't know the material. No wonder the administration has that desperate look in their eyes.

I am listening, happily, amidst the shambles.


k8 said...

A little brazenness can be good. As long as it is tempered with listening to others, which I know you do, life is good. And, you certainly want to make sure that you do have ideas and know about this stuff. To co-op the obnoxious shoe company slogan, Just Say It!

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..