FROM SILOS TO SYNERGIES: INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXTS FOR WRITING FELLOWS
Montclair State University
Spigelman and Grobman describe the Writing Center (WC) as an “obvious parent” of classroom-based writing tutoring, with WAC as the implied other parent (5). Such a lineage produces writing fellows (WFs) able to work with their peers “on location,” to borrow Spigelman and Grobman’s title. This elegant family tree assumes—and requires—shared parenting beyond the birth of the WF program, but unfortunately, even at small colleges the parents too frequently live apart, occupying different spaces with little interaction and sometimes a little territoriality. WFs raised in isolation by one or the other develop in very different ways. WC tutor training doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the group work of embedded tutoring (Nicolas), WAC training may be too genre-focused (Russell and Yañez; Gladstein) and, like SI, is more concerned with content than with writing (Hafer). But a more significant difference is in the relationship of WFs to faculty, which reflects the divergent ideologies of WAC and WCs. In the WC student-centered model, the WF works primarily with students and their writing, supporting the faculty member and occasionally attending class; in the WAC writing-centered model, WFs work with students on their writing, but also with faculty as they develop those writing assignments, playing an essential role in student and faculty development. Such differences may place WFs trained in WAC theory and those with WC training “at odds” with each other (Martins and Wolf).
Some newer WF programs have adopted one WF model without realizing that there are other, possibly more appropriate, options—a situation revealed in several sessions at the 2014 IWAC conference. In other cases, WAC and WCs occupy separate locations where they have developed parallel WF programs with little or no connection, sometimes unaware that similar work is being done elsewhere on campus. This situation developed at our small liberal arts college because of a staffing reshuffle, causing confusion, competition for scarce resources, and duplication of labor. Our realization of how counter-productive our silos had become formed the impetus for this article. Little happens in isolation at small schools, and the experience and intermingling of WAC and WC fellows helped us fully realize the limits of single parenthood and the potential benefits—indeed, necessity—of cross-training. We hope our interwoven narratives will provide a cautionary tale and a model for how to collaboratively incorporate WFs into a vertical writing curriculum.
Drew University, located 25 miles west of New York City in New Jersey, includes a liberal arts college enrolling 1,600 undergraduates with an average SAT-verbal score of 550, a Methodist Theological Seminary, and the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. When the College revised its General Education program in 2008, almost unanimous support was given to a vertical writing curriculum featuring traditional first-year writing (FYW) taught by writing faculty, at least two elective WAC courses, and a required writing in the major course or sequence. First-year students also take an open topics College Seminar taught by faculty from across the curriculum, all of whom are assigned a peer mentor trained to facilitate students’ transition to college, but explicitly not to work on writing. The hiring of a WAC Director and the various WF programs she initiated supported this new curriculum.
In 2012, the WAC Director, who had also become the director of the University WC, was promoted to Associate Dean. First-year services, including FYW, were consolidated under her. The previous Director of Composition, Sandra Jamieson, became Director of WAC, and two Postdoctoral Fellows, one of them Jennifer Holly-Wells, became coordinators of FYW. The Assistant Director of the WC, Maya Sanyal, took over administration of the Center and training of tutors. Additionally, the WC space also became home to peer-based subject tutoring, with the two ultimately moving into an Academic Commons in Fall 2014.
Such reorganizations are not uncommon at small colleges (see Gladstein and Regainon) and generally lead to new partnerships and possibilities, but not always without casualties. In our case, what was lost in the splitting of WAC from the WC was the unified WFs program imagined by the previous director, Melissa Nicolas, who had also acquired two grants to fund it. A grant from Verizon supported WFs for FYW courses for transfer and IESL students, and a grant from the Edward W. and Stella C. Van Houten Memorial Fund supported a WAC WFs program. The WC continued to administer the former, which was already in place, and the WAC Director took over the latter, developing it from a funded proposal to an established program. Each of those two WF programs evolved with their new directors, but each also reached the limit of what it could be in isolation. The three separate threads of our narratives trace this evolution, and then intersect to become a story of new collaborations and ultimately of communal parenting.
The Role of the Writing Center: Maya Sanyal
I became the Assistant Director of the Drew WC in 2010, and was responsible for center management—hiring and payroll, scheduling, marketing, and supervision of tutors. I am a long-time adjunct instructor at Drew, teaching both FYW and graduate level IESL Theological students. In my new role, I developed and began teaching a FYW course for college-level IESL students. Then, the Director became Associate Dean, and I found myself also responsible for the WC budget and payroll management and supervisor to the Verizon-funded WFs placed in IESL and Transfer Seminar courses.
Structurally, the FYW-WFs provided opportunities for the students in the class to benefit from their peers’ knowledge and student success practices in the context of college-level academic writing and critical thinking, without being bound by a disciplinary context. FYW-WFs attended and participated in classes weekly, were assigned to small groups of students (3-4) with whom they engaged in regular meetings, and were initially paid through the Verizon grant for class, small-group time, and training sessions. In their work both in class and in small groups, FYW-WFs drew from WC theory and practice: listening; helping student writers learn to think about higher-order issues of structure and organization before grammar & mechanics; discussing what the students’ writing and reading processes were; encouraging students to become aware of, and articulate, what they already knew (particularly important in the IESL world of non-English language facility being seen as a deficit); and, in keeping with Steven North’s classic dictum, helping students become better writers, rather than focusing on better writing (“The Idea of a Writing Center” 441).
I developed training sessions for the FYW-WFs based on the philosophy that WC tutors and WC-trained WFs are located in the empowering (albeit challenging) place of effectively developing what Meg Woolbright (drawing on Nancy Schniedewind’s work) has argued to be significant for feminist modes of learning: “an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust, and community; shared leadership; a cooperative structure; the integration of cognitive and affective learning; and action” (“The Politics of Tutoring” 17-18). In managing the FYW-WF program in general, and the WFs in my IESL courses, I operated on the principle that the triadic structure of learner-mentor-instructor (students, WFs, and myself) would present an excellent learning opportunity for everyone in the classroom. My teaching and training modules draw on the philosophy that in the relationships of trust, collaboration, and intercultural growth that almost necessarily happen in (well-run) small groups of Writing students and WFs, all students involved—international and domestic—find opportunities to become educators for each other. This approach stems from my strong belief in the feminist approach of building non-hierarchical models of learning and challenging the ‘teacher’-as-omniscient belief often prevalent in non-U.S. educational systems.
As it turned out, this collaborative, non-hierarchical model of shared learning/shared responsibility worked well in my classes and in the WC; however, when Jennifer and Sandra approached me I realized, as they will explain below, that it did not transfer easily to other contexts or relationships and did not provide the tools necessary for WF work across contexts. I collaborated with Jennifer to articulate our vision of the role WFs would play in her FY IESL and Transfer Seminar classes and to develop materials for weekly training sessions. I also co-taught the WC tutor-training course with Sandra, revising it into a combined WC tutor/WFs course and, in the process, creating a shared pool of tutors/Fellows/resources and a collaborative model of Writing support that would spread across the entire Writing program.
First-Year Writing Fellows: Jennifer Holly-Wells
In my position as Co-Director of FYW at Drew, I worked with WFs in several different kinds of FYW and WAC courses. My background is also in WC work, and I believe that WFs represent a commitment to the development of leadership in the university. Students in classes with WFs are presented with strong academic role models who work with everyone in the class, not just the “weaker” writers, helping students realize that we all benefit from feedback on writing. I am convinced that the experience of being a WF is also transformational for Fellows. As a result of their work, WFs start growing into leaders who have more confidence in their own abilities to communicate both in speaking and in writing. Jim Ottery, Jean Petrolle, Derek John Boczkowski, and Steve Mogge note that WFs also have the opportunity to “affect procedure and pedagogy” through the feedback they provide to instructors (63), and Fellows with whom I worked were always honest about the writing process and the responses of the students in my classes, informing me when they were doing well or when they were overwhelmed. In my third semester working with WC-trained WFs, they also inadvertently helped me to understand the difficult terrain WFs occupy: several faculty reported to me that one of the WFs working with my living-learning community FYW course was misinforming students of program-wide requirements. I realized that this could have been avoided if I had approached my role in the faculty-WF relationship more as a participant than as a dispatcher, and I began exploring how we might train embedded WFs to work differently, balancing the knowledge they bring to the course with the expectations of faculty.
Recognizing the limits of my solo approach, I asked Maya to partner with me to do additional training for the three WFs assigned to my next class, a writing-emphasis College Seminar for spring semester transfer students. Nicolas calls for “tutor trainers . . . to define and explain the roles we ask our students to play and . . . to create training scenarios that more closely align what we ask students to do both theoretically and practically” (114), advice we took to heart. Maya and I ran mock group sessions, led discussions about professional expectations and behaviors, and provided space for Fellows to give each other advice about handling the workload. This helped us frame their relationship with the students, who at small schools are likely to also be friends, suitemates, teammates, classmates, lab partners, or at least acquaintances of the WFs.
This training worked well for the WFs in both my transfer course and my IESL course the following year. Students in my courses with WFs were more comfortable at Drew in comparison to those in Seminars I had previously taught; like those studied by Ottery et al., these Fellows “play[ed] a crucial social role . . . giving the students a social foothold in a bewildering mass of new information and personalities that comprise their first-year experience” (65). College can be particularly confusing for transfer and international students, who often report feeling “behind” the students they perceive as “normal,” and the WFs became a lifeline for these students, offering them assistance with their writing and with managing their lives as college students. Because the transfer seminar was a topics-based WI course, I gave the WFs leeway to work with content as well as writing, trying to find what Gladstein refers to as the “gray spaces” that would permit them to “use their knowledge of both the content and writing pedagogy to help empower [the] students” (6). I emphasized that WFs were specialists who assisted students both inside and outside the classroom in small groups, and that weekly attendance was mandatory. Students in these courses simply accepted that other students were in charge of a part of their learning.
WFs in WAC and FYW contexts will differ in their relationship to the course. I realized that FYW-WFs need to understand which concepts and skills I value as the professor, so I devoted training sessions to helping them understand my grading rubric and we debated, for example, the characteristics of an adequate thesis versus those of a good thesis. While WFs should be able to discuss content with students in FYW, their primary concern should be the writing. Since FYW students feel at ease asking questions of and learning from the experience of their FYW-WF, articulating the centrality of the writing focus ensures that students and FYW-WF do not get distracted by other concerns. Using the rubric reinforced those priorities.
WAC Writing Fellows: Sandra Jamieson
As new WAC Director returning from a year-long sabbatical, I became responsible for developing and implementing the new WAC Fellows program, and adopted a structure that in most ways mirrors the one Melissa and Maya developed for FYW-IESL. WAC-WFs are embedded in sophomore/junior-level Writing Intensive and Writing in the Majors courses and attend class once a week, facilitating peer response workshops and writing groups in and out of class, and also working with some students individually. The grant pays for six hours a week (which includes time in and outside the classroom, and regular meetings with faculty and with me). But the WAC model also differs in one very significant way: the WFs meet with faculty as they plan their classes and writing assignments and provide suggestions and feedback based on their knowledge of WAC theory and practice. In many ways, this relationship is the most important facet of the program.
Faculty from across the curriculum are often committed to incorporating writing instruction into their classes, but are unsure of their ability to do so. Having trained WFs attending class and working with their assignments can alleviate faculty members’ concerns; after experiencing the class from the student perspective, WAC-WFs can offer feedback and suggestions grounded in writing theory and practice. By sharing program philosophy, they also help to create a more coherent writing culture campus wide. If participating faculty ask Fellows to focus mostly on grammar, mechanics, and editing, they do so; however, they also raise possibilities for alternative writing pedagogy, and emphasize the value of prewriting and drafting. And they can help faculty develop ways to respond to student writing that facilitate meaningful revision. It is here, as Jennifer has described, that WAC Fellows differ from WC tutors and WC-trained FYW Fellows.
Although I initially imagined WFs receiving traditional WC training, several of my colleagues requested to work with strong writers who had taken the course in question, so in the pilot program about half of the WFs were not trained WC tutors. I held weekly meetings focusing on specific skills necessary for embedded tutoring, including facilitating small groups, balancing content knowledge and writing skills, working with faculty, and general professionalism. We also reviewed genre theory, discussed the significance of disciplinary differences and conventions, worked on the concept of learning as a conversation, and talked about information literacy and citation practices. Participating faculty liked this model, so I continued it when I rolled out the full program. WFs have developed short “self-help” videos on aspects of writing identified as important by the faculty they work with—a more hierarchical model than in WC tutoring, yet one that meets the needs of faculty and students. They also maintain a “Best Practices for WAC Faculty” guide, giving credit to faculty whose practices they find particularly effective and providing a base for discussion when they work with faculty and in WAC faculty development workshops.
Yet some of the WFs trained as WC tutors felt uncomfortable sharing their expertise with faculty, while those not trained as tutors said students were reluctant to meet them in the Writing Center. When pressed, the WAC fellows reported that they didn’t work with WC tutors or with each other on their own papers, and WC tutors in classes with WAC-WFs did not ask for their help, even when they were struggling to enter a new discourse community. We had failed to create the kind of community among the fellows that would lead them to value each other’s and their own authority and expertise. Somehow, the close relationship between WC tutors and WFs assigned to FYW on the one hand and my focus on WAC training and faculty development on the other had allowed the essential “everyone is a learner” philosophy Maya describes to fall by the wayside. And this may have been the biggest casualty of the divided programs. As we planned the course we co-taught, Maya and I worked to restore this sense of community and the balance between focusing on the student as writer and on specific pieces of writing, work that we realize will need to be ongoing.
From Silos to Synergies
We had all in different ways recognized the importance of cross-training. Maya and Jennifer were already co-training the WFs assigned to FYW, so it made sense for Maya and Sandra to co-teach the “Theory and Practice of Writing Center Tutoring” course and reshape it for both WC tutors and WFs. Each of us proposed items for the reading list, and as that list grew we realized we were combining what could be two courses. We trimmed as much as we could, and the students valiantly read, discussed, wrote about, and made sense of it all, admitting that there was too much reading but unable to identify what to cut. We were impressed by the insights our students brought to the readings as they considered the various contexts within which writers, tutors, and WFs work. We also learned from each other as we read the materials each had provided from her own part of the field. Our understanding of the similarities and differences of our two programs sharpened when we found ourselves noting during class discussion that specific responses would be appropriate in an embedded class, but not in the Writing Center, or vice versa. What seemed as if it should be two courses because, as Jennifer discovered, different contexts require different kinds of WFs, ended up much more beneficial as one, and we hope that co-training will create a stronger sense of community and help-seeking among the tutors and fellows. Sandra is requiring that WAC-Fellows register for a one-credit independent study the semester after the course, and Maya will continue to work with the IESL instructors to cross-train WFs for FYW. We have returned, enthusiastically, to the co-parenting model.
A Synergistic Writing Curriculum
Following assessment of our GenEd program, we are exploring a new model of FYW common at other SLACS: interdisciplinary writing seminars (Gladstein and Ragainon). Drew faculty initially selected the FYW model to ensure students gained a firm grounding in general academic writing skills in their first year as a foundation for discipline-based writing in later years. With FYW taught by writing specialists, the topics-based write-to-learn seminars to which they were linked could focus on critical and creative thinking and academic advising. Arguments supporting disciplinary status for Writing Studies seem to support such a split based on separate expertise, and often complicate WAC conversations. However, a vertical WAC curriculum guided by a liberal arts philosophy argues for combining writing-to-learn and learning-to-write in topics-based introductory seminars taught by experienced and appropriately trained faculty from across the curriculum. And, as our writing-intensive courses show, faculty members in those courses will be more successful with the support of WFs, so the new Writing Seminars will each be assigned a WC-trained WF along with a peer mentor. Co-trained WAC-WFs will continue to work with WAC courses, building on a strong emphasis on writing and writing support established in the first year and helping to infuse writing throughout the curriculum. Faculty development around the new seminar will also facilitate increased WAC faculty development.
Cross training of WFs to work with first-year writers and WAC faculty will provide them with the flexibility they need to participate in a vertical program. And if we plan vertically and scaffold learning, our co-parented WFs will ensure transfer of knowledge by repeating key terms, strategies, and beliefs across courses and contexts. In other words, our WFs will become true ambassadors for the values and pedagogies of our writing program. The initial fracturing of the WF program allowed us to realize the different roles WFs can play, and the new co-parenting is producing WFs with the flexibility to work in FYW, IESL, and WAC courses. As we contemplate our new curriculum, we believe it is the presence of WFs that will make it work.
The model of shared parenting implied by Spigelman and Grobman ultimately reduces conflict between programs and confusion about the role and limits of WFs. It also increases the WF’s flexibility and ability to think critically between approaches and traditions, making possible the kind of vertical curriculum we instituted and now hope to perfect. Not incidentally, it also reduces administrative workload, strengthens program coherency, increases faculty support for the program, and facilitates skills transfer. Of course we expect to encounter some challenges as we move forward, but our experience tells us that working together will be the most productive way to accomplish our program learning goals and to model the collaborative skills we try to instill in our students. Collaboration is not easy, and working alone can seem—and be—more efficient and more desirable in many ways, but we need to demonstrate the cross-contextual work we demand of our WFs, and that includes creative problem-solving across programs. We firmly believe that in order to be effective educators and role models to students who are or will be members of an international, multicultural, global citizenry, we must move beyond a world of territory and silos and inhabit, very intentionally, a spirit of collaboration and synergy at all levels of our work.
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