A Review of Emily J. Isaacs’ Writing at the State U: Instruction and Administration at 106 Comprehensive Universities, Part 1

By Zack K. De Piero, Penn State Abington   

Isaacs, E. J. (2018). Writing at the State U: Instruction and administration at 106 comprehensive universities. Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press.

This review of Writing at the State U is divided into two parts. Part 1 outlines the scope of Isaacs’ inquiry and details her major findings. Part 2 discusses how Writing at the State U might be used by various audiences—namely, writing program administrators and assessment practitioners—and how this text poses important considerations for the composition field.

In Writing at the State U, Emily Isaacs—a WPA turned associate dean—captures a broad snapshot of writing programs at state comprehensive universities (SCUs) by examining a wide range of variables (153 total) associated with writing program administration. Through publicly-accessible data (e.g., course descriptions for curricular focus and learning outcomes) coupled with follow-up surveys (92% response rate), Isaacs’ quantitative-oriented findings drive her comparative analysis. The resulting portrait offers considerable variation in how writing is taught, assessed, and administered at SCUs across the country, albeit with some strong correlations and emergent trends.

From a population of 383 four-year public regional universities—thereby excluding two-year, private, and non-US institutions—Isaacs examined a random sample of 106 schools, stratified by accrediting region and size, using supplementary data from the Carnegie Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics. To characterize each program, she cast a wide net, accounting for aspects like whether tenure-line faculty teach FYC to the fiscal/administrative location of the writing center (e.g., English departments, student-support centers). The following sentence should give readers a clear sense of Isaacs’ approach; in it, she reveals patterns connected to whether a particular writing program offers a writing major: “The other two FYC-related variables that associate with the presence of a writing major are the use of DSP for placement and the inclusion of instruction in primary-research methodologies when teaching research writing” (p. 154).

On face value, some variables in this study might seem isolated, but upon further inspection, their interplay often points to one of the larger goals of Isaac’s study: to determine SCU writing programs’ “writing robustness”—what might be considered a program’s explicit commitment to the best practices and principles of the discipline. To this end, one of her most intriguing variables is how she measures a particular writing program’s collective disciplinary expertise in the comp/rhet field; in search of a “proxy for knowledgeability” (p. 174), she identifies individuals who presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (Cs) between the years of 2010-2011 and traces their affiliate institutions.

Among some of her more noteworthy findings about SCU writing programs in her sample:

  • as universities get larger, they are more likely to situate FYC outside English or humanities departments, along with having faculty who are more likely to be trained in writing
  • 97% of large and very large institutions had WPAs; 60% of medium and small institutions had WPAs
  • 9% employed part-time faculty; 38.8% employed graduate students
  • 58% had faculty with speaking roles at Cs from 2010-2011
  • 8% “offer[ed] some kind of vertical program in writing—a minor or concentration most typically” (p. 125); 10.4% of these schools offered a writing major
  • 4% required 1 FYC course, 68.6% required 2, and one school didn’t require FYC (New College of Florida)
  • 8% had FYC outcomes that acknowledged “primary and secondary” research methodologies
  • 6% had FYC courses that incorporated the study of literature
  • 25% have the “recommended” average number of students in FYC classrooms (20 or less); over 50% enroll 24+ students (p. 72)
  • 2% had basic writing programs; 82.3% of these schools use a standardized test (e.g., ACT, Accuplacer) for placement.
  • 100% had writing centers or individualized tutoring

Reflecting on the overall state of SCU writing programs, Isaacs strikes a tempered middle-ground stance between historical “dark view[s]” that portray a “chaotic and insufficiently unified” field, and conversely, optimistic views that are driven, in part, by “hopeful announcements of recently arrived-at unity” (p. 31). She reminds her composition colleagues, “I suspect that it always feels like we’re in the worst of times [but] that can’t always be the case” (p. 42). In summarizing the composition field’s impact on SCU writing programs, Issacs’ forecast is, at best, partially cloudy. Though numerous SCUs have clearly taken strides towards embracing the “best practices” (p. 134) of the field, she has also detected “a small but significant number of schools” who are “seemingly caught in a time warp, serving up an arhetorical understanding of writing […] these schools also have public documents that suggest a fixed notion of writing that is rooted in the binary of correct versus incorrect” (p. 160). To address this divide, Isaacs addresses a range of questions and concerns that can be found in Part 2.

A Review of Emily J. Isaacs’ Writing at the State U: Instruction and Administration at 106 Comprehensive Universities, Part 2

By Zack K. De Piero, Penn State Abington   

Isaacs, E.J. (2018). Writing at the State U: Instruction and administration at 106 comprehensive universities. Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press.

In terms of style and methodological procedures, throughout Writing at State U, Isaacs assumes a largely “reportorial approach” (p. 29) toward her empirical investigation. Her work is informed by similar studies that are each outlined in Chapter 2, “Assessment of Writing Studies Practices”, which should appeal to readers of the Journal of Writing Assessment for its fairly expansive view of historical “state-of-the-field” scholarship concerning writing programs. Here, Isaacs summarizes the methodologies and findings from a century’s worth of studies—including Taylor (1927), Shuck (1955), Kitzhaber (early ’60’s), Wilcox (late ’60’s-early ’70’s), Larson (1994), Fulkerson (2005), and Haswell (2010). This overview lays a valuable foundation for Isaacs’ ensuing analysis of SCUs and offers an implicit rationale for her approach. Although she doesn’t foreground her own work in such terms, Isaacs appears to favor “RAD” approaches (replicable, aggregable, data-supported) to studying the seemingly endless number of dynamics in writing programs.

The intended audience of Writing at the State U are WPAs, who should find Isaacs’ digestable cross-institution data useful for providing programmatic snapshots to facilitate communication with on-campus administrative personnel (e.g., dean, provost), particularly for conversations about organizational structures. Graduate students with an interest in writing program administration, and perhaps program assessment practitioners, will also benefit by considering the array of dynamics inherent in such complex work. Although why? questions remain outside the scope of Isaacs’ self-described “bird’s-eye view” study, she often concludes sub-sections of analysis by offering follow-up qualitative inquiries worthy of pursuit or adaptation, some of which will likely pique readers’ interests:

  • Teacher education: “Are instructors who teach FYC specifically trained for teaching writing?” (p. 64)
  • Basic writing: “How is the presence of basic writing determined, and why do schools in the same state manage to vary not only on the presence of basic writing but also in whether or not they offer institutional credit or favor national objective placement instruments over in-house methods?” (pp. 81-82)
  • Writing majors/minors: “Why, then, are there so few writing majors? […] what is a writing major? […] what exactly is it at heart? What will students learn? What is its disciplinary core and what are its required components?” (pp. 155-157)
  • Writing Program Certificate of Excellence: “At present, the program provides guidelines but few requirements. Would it make sense to include a few carefully selected specific requirements?” (p. 166)

Other stand-out sections in the monograph include: “1960’s: Researchers Vary in Methodology but Unite in Leveling Sharp Criticism” (Chapter 2), “Course Standardization Through Syllabi” (Chapter 3), “Basic Writing: Placement Practices” (Chapter 3), “Programs in Writing: Concentrations, Minors, and Majors” (Chapter 5).

A subtle layer of WPA activism underscores this text; Isaacs occasionally offers suggestions that (welcomingly) broach her reportorial approach, like when she encourages writing faculty and WPAs to “interrogate what tests are used for placement and exemption” (p. 163) and “argue for the curricula we believe in” (pp. 181-182). Such insights lend an informed disciplinary perspective to this text by reinforcing what’s perhaps the composition field’s most cherished principle: writing education is best conceptualized on the local level by comp/rhet professionals. In practice, though, Isaacs acknowledges the greater interdependent structures that shape WPA work are forceful:

Increasingly, state universities and colleges are not independent actors; rather, they are locked into articulation agreements and subject to state-wide higher education councils, often highly political entities, that have an impact on such decisions as general education requirements and assessment criteria for placement and exemption. (p. 44)

One last issue merits consideration. While it isn’t taken up by Isaacs, Writing at the State U raises larger, important questions about writing programs and open-access information: What (additional) programmatic information should be shared with the public? Sample syllabi? Typical assignments? Frequently-assigned readings from the departmental canon? In the interest of furthering the field’s collective knowledge, future researchers would clearly benefit from having access to such information. These data points would lend a penetrative depth to similar “state-of-the-field” inquiries, thereby offering researchers the chance to fill out their portraits with nuanced texture.