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.