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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: D 5 Making Composition Matter Again: Re-Inventing Writing Programs
Reviewed by: John A. Maddux, madduxja@email.uc.edu
Posted on: April 11, 2004
Updated on: April 16, 2004

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Chair: Jonathon Cullick.

This was a collaborative session from teachers at Northern Kentucky University, a moderate size university serving students from the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati area. Participants included: John Alberti, Jonathon Cullick, Chris Wilkey, and Angela Hesson. The session was exceptionally well presented with the four presenters demonstrating a great deal of confidence and unique insight about their topics.

John Alberti presented “Reprogramming the Comp Program: Making Composition Matter Again.”

Alberti provided a history of the writing program at Northern Kentucky University from the time of its apparent “demise” in the mid-1980s to its resurrection with the hiring of a tenure-track Writing Program Administrator in 2000. Alberti discussed how the resignation of the head of the writing program in the mid-1980s led to the writing program at NKU sliding into bureaucratic repetition—that is, the program managed to exist, but without new ideas, direction, or impetus. He pointed out that because of a lack of a central administrator, the writing program experienced problems with coherence and contemporary pedagogy, creativity, and text selection and that the program collapsed toward the middle (e.g., the writing program existed, but was not necessarily serving the needs of the students, the program, or the university).

Alberti further discussed both the theoretical and practical reasons why a writing program should exist in the first place. He pointed out that the obvious reason a writing program should exist was to provide a coherent, well-defined program that would help students better prepare for writing both on the college level and in the professional world. Alberti further suggested that a coherent, professional writing program would: [1] provide for consistent pedagogy, [2] improve text selection, [3] encourage teacher and student creativity, and [4] establish a consistent writing across the curriculum approach to process. Alberti also argued that a strong writing program would benefit the university, improve the conditions for adjunct faculty, and better serve all-first year students. He added that a prerequisite to establishing a successful writing program would be to hire a tenure-track writing program administrator (WPA). He ended his presentation with the provocative question: “If literature departments cannot exist without a department chair, then how can we expect a writing program to function without a program administrator.”

John Cullick presented “Directing and Redirecting a Writing Program.”

In his presentation, John Cullick, discussed the re-establishment of an existing writing program from the perspective of a writing program administrator. He began his presentation with a brief history of his experiences at Northern Kentucky University, from the time he was hired as a tenure track writing program administrator in 2000. Following his introduction, Cullick’s main focus was on the process of redirecting (and re-inventing) a writing program, rather than simply resurrecting an existing program. He argued that any writing program that had languished for a number of years must be redirected, not resurrected. Specifically, he emphasized the role of the incoming WPA by pointing out that, that individual must: [1] investigate the climate and commitment to the writing program from administrators on the university level, as well as in the English department, [2] ask blunt questions regarding what the school is expecting and what it wants the WPA to do, [3] clarify commitment to the writing program from the college dean, the department chair, and the faculty, [4] listen, learn, and be patient, [5] do not assume the position with an existing agenda—come into the position with flexibility, [6] evaluate what already exists, [7] examine historical and archival materials, as well as syllabi, [7] determine what kind of curricular changes are needed, [8] make the program visible through the development of a program web site, newsletters, workshops, and the establishment of contacts with significant supporters within the department, and [9] develop and support faculty. Cullick ended his presentation with reiterating how critical it is for the incoming WPA to establish support from people within the English/Literature department.

Chris Wilkey presented “Composing the Study of Literature as Public Intervention.”

Chris Wilkey opened his presentation by discussing how teaching composition was critical to moving study beyond the confines of the academy and making it pertinent to the public arena. He also discussed, in length, the historical isolation of literature studies from that same public arena. He initiated his presentation with asking the question: What role should the comp program play in public affairs, in practical implementation, and in conjunction with literary studies? He discussed the historical roles played by what he defined as English studies’ traditional examination of ‘high culture’—that which signifies that part of human endeavor that serves spiritual or humanist progress by its originality and singularity—and ‘low culture,’ which springs from the ‘high’ as pop culture that signifies the part of the human endeavor that serves commercial or public progress by its utilitarian function and produces artifact. He emphasized that most English studies departments are isolated from the public arena, but that the composition classroom can teach students how to make their writing more meaningful within a variety of rhetorical contexts and provide teachers of literature with a useful theoretical stance for encouraging their students to produce writing that intervenes more effectively in public affairs. Wilkey further stated that a successful writing program should incorporate pedagogical practices, as embodied in composition’s use of cultural studies so that in both composition and literature classrooms cultural studies can encourage students to think critically about the cultural dynamics of literary texts, while sharing that knowledge with public audiences in the production, distribution, and consumption of literature.

Angela Hesson presented "Making Adjuncts Matter: The Part-Timer’s Evolving Role."

Angela Hesson, an adjunct instructor in the writing program at Northern Kentucky University, opened her presentation by providing information concerning the employment of part-time instructors in writing programs. She pointed out that adjunct instructors are generally hired for two reasons: [1] they are a necessary evil during times of economic problems, and [2] they save the university big bucks (in salary, health care, and ancillary benefits). She cited statistics that revealed that 43% of all teachers at NKU are part-time faculty (an increase of 10% since 1987), and that the number of part-time instructors in the English and Language department at NKU had doubled in the past decade.

Hesson pointed out that because of the hiring of a tenure trace WPA (and his impetus), the university administration agreed to address the needs of part-time faculty, including poor pay, poor benefits, and the issue of migrancy (the need for part-timers to migrate from job to job simply to make financial ends meet). Hesson further pointed out that although the university had provided some positive modifications to part-time instructors’ conditions (such as a 26% increase in pay over the past five years and [in some cases] health and dental care, travel funds, and faculty development]) there was still a serious lack of commitment to part-time teachers that resulted in no tuition remission, no extended contracts, an average of minimum wage payment, far too much extra paper work, the necessity for part-timers to “string together” jobs at other schools, and inadequate physical facilities (the 28 part-time faculty in the writing program at NKU share a “few” desks, and only one computer).

Hesson further pointed out that, nationally, 63% of part-time instructors have no health benefits, no retirement, and low pay. She ended her presentation with acknowledging improvement in the writing program at NKU for part-time instructors, but argued there was still a long way to go to establish equitable conditions for adjunct and other part-time teachers.

The session was moderately attended and allowed ample time for questions from the audience. A lively discussion ended the session with virtually all persons in attendance participating.

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