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.

Review of Reclaiming Accountability: Improving Writing Programs through Large-Scale Assessments

By Nicholas J. Learned, Howard Community College

Sharer, W., Morse, T. A., Eble, M. F., & Banks, W. P. (Eds.). (2016). Reclaiming accountability: Improving writing programs through large-scale assessments. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

Where some see challenges, others see opportunity; in Reclaiming Accountability: Improving Writing Programs through Large-Scale Assessments, Wendy Sharer, Tracy Ann Morse, Michelle F. Eble, and William P. Banks (2016) encourage writing faculty to greet accreditation and large-scale assessment not as impositions threatening to unseat their pedagogical commitments but as “kairotic moments” (p. 65) through which they might develop, define, and achieve programmatic goals. With their collection, the editors thus hope to serve readers in three ways: by offering insight into “the goals and limits of large-scale writing assessment from both the perspective of the accrediting bodies that require it and the writing instructors and WPAs who design, implement, and, ideally, benefit from it” (p. 3); by helping them “consider the strengths and weaknesses of assessment-driven initiatives” (p. 3); and by providing examples of how they might “use ongoing accreditation and assessment imperatives to cultivate productive campus-wide conversations that increase faculty members’ ability to meet students’ writing and learning needs” (p. 4).

To these ends, Sharer and colleagues organize their collection around three areas, the first of which aims to provide readers with the background and context they will need to navigate the rhetorical situations of assessment and accreditation. In Parts Two and Three, contributors hope to provide strategies for using assessment to “enhance curricula and add programmatic support” (Sharer et al., p. 65) while also providing the kinds of concrete examples colleagues outside of writing studies often find most persuasive.

In Part One, contributors Cindy Moore, Peggy O’Neill, and Angela Crow (Chapter 1) caution that the increasing reliance on big data means WPAs must take active roles in assessment processes to preserve the agency of writing teachers (p. 31). Echoing Moore and colleagues, Shirley K. Rose (Chapter 3) encourages readers to see accreditors as “partners with writing program faculty and administrators in providing a social good by making the work of higher education both visible and legible to those it serves” (pp. 52-53).

Part Two shows how assessment offers opportunities for program and curriculum development, providing readers with a “toolkit” for enlisting faculty in the processes of determining outcomes, designing curricular options, measuring the impact of curricular changes, and “discussing strategies for improving student learning where assessment demonstrates a need” (Sharer et al., p. 65). David Weed, Tulora Roeckers, and Melanie Burdick (Chapter 6) offer advice on balancing standardization with instructor autonomy, and Malkiel Choseed (Chapter 7) hopes to show that assessment, “if done thoughtfully, [can be] one tool for making institutions a better place for students and faculty by increasing real student learning” (130). Jonathan Elmore and Teresa Van Sickle (Chapter 4) show how assessment results can be leveraged to garner institutional support for Writing Centers, Online Writing Labs, and Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives. While others, such as Jessica Parker and Jane Chapman Vigil (Chapter 5), and Karen Nulton and Rebecca Ingalls (Chapter 9), see value in the assessment process itself, finding that “participating in accreditation-driven assessment can actually foster relationships and help colleagues uncover shared values and goals” (Nulton & Ingalls, p. 145). Together, these contributors provide concrete strategies for using assessment to accomplish programmatic goals.

Part Three focuses on faculty development, demonstrating how assessment “can [provide] the impetus for renewed, reinvigorated university-wide conversations [about how faculty] can help students develop as writers” (Sharer et al., p. 211). Polina Chemishanova and Cynthia Miecznikowski (Chapter 11), Linda Adler-Kassner and Lorna Gonzalez (Chapter 12), and Angela Green, Iris Saltiel, and Kyle Christiansen (Chapter 15) all provide chapters showing how they used large-scale assessment to argue for increased faculty development. And Joyce Neff and Remica Bingham-Risher (Chapter 14) demonstrate how faculty development can be improved through Faculty Learning Outcomes assessment. Collectively, these contributors show outcomes assessment can improve the development of teachers as well as students.

Since it is not the editors’ intention, readers won’t find much critical discussion of the sometimes-deleterious pressures exerted by accreditation and assessment mandates. Additionally, the editors and contributors acknowledge that, given the contextual nature of writing instruction, the strategies provided would likely have to be adapted somewhat to work well in other institutional contexts.

However, pragmatic readers will likely find value in this pivot from merely appeasing administrators and accreditors to taking active, collaborative roles in assessment. Further, many of the chapters are accompanied by comprehensive appendices readers can draw from for useful examples of assessment reports, rubrics, outcomes and objectives, and course evaluations. Through this collection, Sharer and colleagues show that with accountability comes access to the levers of institutional action, a valuable observation for those who wish to realize assessment-driven growth or who have been thrust into the high-stakes—but also, as the contributors emphasize, potentially high-reward—crucible of assessment.

Looking ahead in 2018

Dear readers,

In 2017, the JWA Reading List published three reviews under the leadership of David Bedsole and Bruce Bowles, Jr. Justin Vaught’s take on The problem with education technology (Fink & Brown, 2016) drew our attention to conversations around mechanized assessment and socioeconomic disparity; Julie Cook’s review of A rhetoric of reflection (Yancey, 2016) highlighted questions central to the work of teacher-scholar-practitioners: “What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we relate that knowledge? How do we observe its use? How do we assess it?”; and Heather Falconer’s recent review of Assessing and improving student writing in college (Walvoord, 2014) focused on writing inclusion and programmatic approaches to assessment.

In 2018, we invite authors at all levels of experience to submit brief reviews of current writing assessment scholarship in addition to reviews focused on practical applications of assessment theory—how do foundational texts in the field work in practice? We also encourage potential authors to contact us to discuss ideas for reviews.  Submission guidelines are here.   

We are delighted to serve as the new JWA Readling List editors, and to welcome Gita DasBender and Skyler Meeks as they begin their two-year term as Editorial Assistants.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Jessica Nastal-Dema and Ti Macklin

A Review of Barbara E. Walvoord’s Assessing and improving student writing in college

By Heather M. Falconer, Northeastern University

Walvoord, B.E. (2014). Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barbara E. Walvoord’s (2014) Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms provides a contemporary and pragmatic approach to writing program administration in higher education. Without attempting to standardize Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID), Walvoord works to simplify the institutionalization of WAC/WID by offering a resource to administrators, departments, and faculty alike.

Readers should be aware that this text is not intended for newcomers to the field – it is a resource for those who are already familiar with and wish to formalize WAC/WID initiatives. It is also not meant to be read cover-to cover, as Walvoord anticipates readers will focus only on chapters relevant to them. As such, the content has been distilled into subsections of 150 words or less, with extensive bibliographic resources for further exploration. This approach makes for both quick reading and an effective reminder of best practices in WAC/WID implementation.

Chapter One provides an important orientation to all readers as it establishes basic principles and clarifies terminology. Walvoord reminds readers what “we mean by ‘writing’,” noting that it goes far beyond considerations of grammar and punctuation, is situated rhetorically, and “is enmeshed with critical thinking, information literacy, problem solving, qualitative reasoning, and other skills” (p. 1). The chapter reminds readers of the various ways good writing can be defined and assessed, and lays the groundwork to ensure instructors, program directors, and administrators share a language of writing and assessment.

Rather than transition to the classroom, where WAC/WID efforts are most actualized, Walvoord focuses Chapter Two on the concerns relevant to those working at the institutional level, as well as those concerned with general education as a whole. The chapter devotes space to the exigence for WAC/WID program implementation and assessment, and includes a discussion of the data administrators collect in the early stages of program development (with particular attention to accreditation needs).

Chapter Three identifies concerns relevant at the department and program levels. Notably, Walvoord uses examples from departments other than English, where writing programs tend to be housed. In this way, she makes clear how the integration and assessment of writing is relevant and important across disciplines. This chapter emphasizes individual departments are as much stake-holders in the program as anyone else and demonstrates how articulating the specifics of disciplinary conventions will “help your students become proficient at writing in your discipline” (p. 51).

Finally, Chapter Four addresses the needs and interests of individual instructors, providing guidance “for faculty who want to assign more student writing or to work more effectively with student writing, in classes, in any discipline,” or at any degree level (p. 59). Like the previous chapters, Walvoord guides instructors to start first with observation: “observe your own classroom in reasonably systemic ways…to gather useful information that can help your teaching be more effective and more time-efficient” (p. 61). She directs instructors to consider the student writing itself, as well as to talk with students about their experiences with the course and assignments. This analysis calls for scrutiny of how both students and instructors engage with writing. Drawing on best practices and scholarly research, Walvoord directs instructors to ways they can improve their existing writing assignments, as well as incorporate writing into their course effectively and purposefully without increasing workload.

Overall, the text foregrounds programmatic structure over the actual assessment of writing, and relies heavily on its extensive bibliographies to direct readers to actual writing assessment practices and rubrics. Though Chapter Four, which is targeted toward classroom instructors, does address writing inclusion and approaches to assessment more tangibly, its placement at the end of the text has the consequence of making it an afterthought rather than a focus. Similarly, the pick-and-choose nature of the chapters can leave readers feeling disjointed and the guidance offered brief. Despite these challenges, Walvoord’s text remains a valuable resource for the implementation of WAC/WID programs once stakeholder buy-in has been achieved.

Would you like to write a review for the JWA Reading List?

We’re looking for scholars who would like to write shorter reviews of important pieces about writing assessment.  Here are the submission guidelines for the JWA Reading List:

The Journal of Writing Assessment welcomes submissions for the Reading List. Submissions should be 500-750 words in length. The purpose of the Reading List is to highlight the importance of publications for practitioners in writing assessment. Reviews should include an overview of the main points of the publication, an overview of the methodologies, identification of controversies and then a brief discussion of the relevance of this publication for the field of writing assessment.

Authors should follow the style guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, especially for reference lists and text citation of sources.

Currently, submissions to JWA’s Reading List are reviewed by the editors.

JWA Reading List submissions can be sent via our webpage at http://journalofwritingassessment.org/submit.php or as an email attachment to journalofwritingassessment@gmail.com.

Share this information with others!

Part III: A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s A Rhetoric of Reflection

Part III: Implicit Implications for Assessment

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP.

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the third installment of a three-part review (see Part 1: A Comprehensive Review; Part 2: Explicit Implications for Assessment)

To conclude my review of A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR), this last installment focuses on chapters that, while important to the work of assessment, were less explicit in their approach. The question underscoring the chapters reviewed here, however, is an important one that directly informs the work of assessment: Do we know what we value?

In Chapter 6, Bruce Horner complicates Freire’s (1970) “banking” approach to writing agency and demonstrates with great complexity that action-reflection (choice-driven) is limited not only in scope but also in reach if “norms” for writing are unacknowledged as having differences according to choice. Situating English as a lingua franca with a concentration on translation, iteration, and reiteration, Horner distinguishes all language practices as always containing differences and situates choice as an always existing rhetorical activity. His depiction of choice for what is commonly seen as normal practice is equally applicable to the process and work of assessment.

Acknowledging the tensions that exist between the process of reflective learning and the product of an ePortfolio, Christina Russell McDonald (Chapter XX) relates Virginia Military Institute’s implementation of a process-centered, social reflective pedagogy. McDonald’s chapter will be of interest to those who value social reflection and will resonate with those who are interested in knowing “why the educational, theoretical, and pedagogical underpinnings of ePortfolios” often lack “transparency, especially to the primary audiences for which they [are] intended” (p. 203).

Naomi Silver also considers the affordances of digital spaces in Chapter 9. Of interest for classroom pedagogy, Silver’s work introduces digital genres (revision histories, screencasts, blogs) that promote scaffolding and reinforce reflection as a dialogic process. Similar to Taczak and Roberson (Chapter 3), recursive reflection is the curriculum; however, Silver promotes the “seamless integration,” of reflection through genres that do not explicitly call for one to reflect (i.e. blog posts), thus preventing “reflection burnout” (pp. 173-174). While I found Silver’s chapter to be worth consideration for classroom practice, it is worth noting that the students discussed in her work are enrolled in the course as part of a writing minor and that there will likely be motivational differences for this student demographic and that of first-year writing students taking a required course to meet general educational requirements. In contrast, Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson (Chapter 3) present an interlocking pedagogy that promotes transfer through recursive reflection, where reflection is situated as the framework for transfer. Unlike Silver (Chapter 9), Taczak and Robertson’s model stresses the need for explicitness in reflection as the curriculum for transfer.

In Chapter 2, Anne Beaufort speaks to issues of agreement within writing studies. In common Beaufort fashion, she provides a relatable application of her work on transfer and its integration into the classroom context, making the chapter a rich resource for experienced and novice teachers. Beaufort also relates the importance of remembering our history as a field in developing an understanding of what we know about reflection, learning, and transfer—it is a history informed, revised, and repurposed by several disciplines. While it is important to continue viewing the study of reflection as an interdisciplinary activity, it is also necessary for writing studies to develop a shared understanding of what core concepts are important for the work of reflection and transfer.

That shared understanding may come from inter-disciplinary conversations, like the ones Pamela Flash discusses in Chapter 11. As part of a writing-enrichment program, Flash asked multiple disciplines to articulate what it is that those in the community believe to be “good” writing. The dialogue and meetings that followed this question created a “productively disruptive” discussion fostered by a social and recursive reflection—“generating, implementing, and assessing multiple iterations of comprehensive documents”—used as a tool to “divert resistance” and move toward an understanding of tacit, paradigmatic assumptions (Brookfield, 1995, as cited in Flash, p. 247, p. 232). Hers is a fascinating—and relevant—study of institutional activity systems, drawing heavily upon activity theory. Those interested in WAC and LAC will find Flash’s work to be informative, and it is likely her work will be of most benefit to departments and programs involved in local assessments, as they ask, “What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we relate that knowledge? How do we observe its use? How do we assess it?” It is for this reason that I can think of no better work to end this review on. While there are chapters in ROR that are more consequential to practice, to reflective studies, and to assessment, Flash’s work, though largely implicit, holds each answerable to the other in a pragmatic manner. 


Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.
Source: jwa

Part II: A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s A Rhetoric of Reflection

Explicit Implications for Assessment 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP. 

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the second installment of a three-part review (see Part 1: A Comprehensive Review; Part 3: Implicit Implications for Assessment

A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR) has much to contribute to the discussion of writing assessment. While the authors’ approaches are diverse, two questions remain primary through their work with reflection: 1) Do we assess what we think we are assessing? and 2) Do we value what we say we value? 

Like others in ROR (Beaufort, Sommers, Robertson & Taczak), Michael Neal (Chapter 4) builds from his previous work on reflection and assessment with the reflective cover letter. Neal notes an interesting phenomenon resulting from the large-scale adoption of portfolio reflective letters in educational contexts: “the relationship between reflection and assessment […] became so closely related they were often used interchangeably and thus are difficult to distinguish” (p. 69). Here, Neal critiques Edward M. White’s (2005) Phase 2 model for portfolio assessment: Assessing reflection alone is only assessing the argument and not the evidence for the argument. As a faculty member who has often been in the thick of programmatic assessment, and who has felt pressures alongside colleagues tasked with evaluating a large number of end-of-semester portfolios, I found Neal’s issues with the Phase 2 model relatable and relevant as they echoed concerns often voiced and felt by faculty. Those of us who are conflicted when assessing portfolios because either the reflection appears disingenuous or disconnected from other portfolio materials will appreciate Neal’s chapter. 

In Chapter 13, Jeff Sommers addresses The Writer’s Memo, which he first presented in 1984. For Sommers, evaluations of student work in The Writer’s Memo raise questions for motivation and reflective experiences. The Writer’s Memo is a space to describe and analyze, but in Sommers’ evaluation the genre does not support a metacognitive articulation of learning. By adding an end-of-semester reflection, Sommers’ response integrates an end-of-semester reflection for methodological reflection to account for the limits of a Writer’s Memo; like Neal (ROR), Sommers’ work brings attention to the implications of genre selection for reflective practice. 

Doug Hesse’s work in Chapter 14 complicates the dynamics of a familiar genre. Using reflection as the frame for deconstructing essays in creative nonfiction, Hesse makes an interesting case for the reflective activity inherent in the genre. As Hesse notes, “the line between reflection and interpretation is dusty” (p. 292). For Sommers (Chapter 13) the Writer’s Memo invites description and analysis—interpretation. For Hesse, “Essays give the act of interpretation explicit attention through reflection” (p. 291). In a time where the art of a well-crafted essay has often lost its luster for students who only hear the words “five-paragraph” with the mention of the word “essay,” and where critical reading and critical reflection are not just buzzwords or good practice but also prudent for civic engagement, I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter. 

Kevin Roozen (Chapter XX) takes up Odell, Goswami and Herrington’s (1983) focus on methodology as a vehicle for making implicit assumptions explicit. Using reflective interviews to develop a methodology that fosters constructive reflection (Yancey, 1998), Roozen’s chapter resists simple constructions of a writer or researcher identity. Like Roozen and Sommers (Chapter 13), Elizabeth Clark (Chapter 8) adopts a reflective, integrative method and pedagogy for reflection. Of interest to WAC and LAC assessment, Clark builds from Carol Rodger’s (2002) dimensions of reflection to reinforce student-centered learning, space for ambiguity, and time for recursive reflection that supports LAC. 

In Chapter 5, Cathy Leaker and Heather Ostman revisit their previous findings on the portfolio-based “rhetorical-reflective transfer” model for Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) (2010). Differently than Roozen (Chapter XX), Leaker and Ostman suggest assimilation is of value in academic contexts concerning the rhetoric of reflection. In Chapter 7, Asao B. Inoue and Tyler Richmond also address epistemic tensions in their preliminary study of four female Hmong students who struggle to negotiate both individual and communal identities within and beyond the classroom as observed through the students’ reflective letters. Inoue and Richmond propose this observation could affirm reflection, and what is valued in the assessment of reflections, as a racialized discourse—one that privileges “whiteness” and interpellates the Other. Though the study and sample was too small to be conclusive, Inoue and Richmond’s work and insights align with current observations in the field, giving much to consider especially for local assessment. Both chapters, I would argue, challenge current understandings of what is of value—and at stake—in the assessment of reflection. 


Odell, L., Goswami, D., Herrington, A. (1983). “The-Discourse-Based Interview: A Procedure for Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers in Nonacademic Settings.” In Research on Writing: Principles and Methods, ed. Peter Mosenthal, Lynne Tamor, and Sean Walmsley, 221-36. New York: Longman. 

Sommers, J. (1984). “Listening to Our Students: The Student-Teacher Memo.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 11(1): 29-34. 

White, E. M. (2005). “The Scoring of Writing Portfolios: Phase 2.” College Composition and Communication, 56(4): 581-600. 

Yancey, K. B. (Eds.) (1998). Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State UP.
Source: jwa

A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s A Rhetoric of Reflection

Part I: A Comprehensive Review

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP.

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the first installment of a three-part review (see Part 2: Explicit Implications for Assessment; Part 3: Implicit Implications for Assessment)

A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR) is an important, critical, and timely text that offers much to consider for those interested in the assessment of writing, critical thinking, Learning Across the Curriculum (LAC), Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), and Teaching for Transfer (TFT). As important as what might be assessed is where one might find the text applicable for assessment considerations: in classrooms, programs, departments, and institutions, at both local and national levels.

Edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, the collection of 17 essays offers a multi-faceted approach to reflection that “fosters an explicitness about learning and supports all of us in articulating and claiming what we know [emphasis added]” (Yancey, p. 11). As an “epistemological practice” and subject of study, reflection, as Yancey observes, “is considerably more complex than the literature has suggested” (p. 303). For the purposes of my reviews (see post 2 and post 3), I will largely focus on what ROR offers to understand the concept of reflection, its applications for writing studies, and implications for writing assessment. The text has much to offer across disciplines, as reflection is increasingly becoming integral for many fields of study and, likewise, as our current understanding of reflection is informed by interdisciplinary approaches to its study. However, ROR is also not “an introduction to” reflection. Those new to reflection, writing studies, the classroom, or assessment will likely benefit most from Yancey’s introduction, Anne Beaufort’s contribution in Chapter 2, and the authors’ dialogic reference lists.

Readers will find the current scholarship on reflection does not provide neat answers. While this collection in no way shies away from ambiguity or conflict, and more precisely positions its work as a sophisticated model of meaning-making through problem-posing, perhaps the most significant contribution comes through in its main area of agreement across texts. As Yancey articulates, this collection demonstrates that reflection is rhetorical: It is a product and a process where “a primary function … is to make a kind [emphasis added] of meaning” (p. 18).

Fittingly, Yancey authors the final chapter of ROR but in no way provides closure. Rather, she identifies “a way forward” by coalescing even the disjointed parts of ROR to suggest areas we still need to know more about (p. 318). She thus leaves readers with a series of critical questions to consider, noting “we don’t have all the answers” (p. 320). Understanding reflection as an epistemological practice and subject of study, Yancey’s closing questions are necessary and act as a preamble to inquiries likely to follow the scholarship of ROR. Although the title of Yancey’s closing chapter is “Defining Reflection: The Rhetorical Nature and Qualities of Reflection,” reflection, in its current state, is defined though its characteristics; it is describable but not definable. As a subject of study, this collection demonstrates that while there are recognizable qualities within its process and practice, there are also “competing values in reflection (Yancey, p. 319). In turn, the second and third installments of my review address how contributors’ work speaks to and revises each other.
Source: jwa

Part II: A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part two of a two-part review.

Recently, I provided a summary of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology). Here, I move from that general review into a critique of Fink and Brown’s assertions. Specifically, I examine weaknesses in their generalizations about the educational workforce and their focus on expedient solutions; however, I also recognize the potential they’ve created for further advancement of the topic.

In my earlier post, I mentioned Fink and Brown’s central claim: that prioritization of labor-saving devices in education results in institutional propagation of socioeconomic disparity. The first half of this argument is logical: If mastery of durable dispositions is linked to student-instructor interaction and teacher labor, then those who have the means to afford more individualized education will continue to be privileged by mechanized assessment. By increasing the chances of obtaining further education and attractive employment, such imbalanced academic achievement heightens the odds that those students will repeat the cycle and provide their own children with similar educational advantages. However, the authors’ decision to levy significant guilt for this cycle upon teachers (themselves included) is expedient and simplistic. Their claim that “Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering, and we can’t blame that on the machine […] We made it what it is” (pp. 28-29) ignores the financial, geographic, familial, and market factors which force educators to acquiesce to the implementation of sub-standard pedagogy.

The negative features of our educational system extend far beyond the situations of individual teachers. Many of the educators Fink and Brown cast as responsible for large-scale reform are likely more concerned with finding, and retaining, jobs. Their tacit consent to the application of inadequate praxis is not born of blindness or ineptitude, but of necessity: Societal and political trends toward slashed budgets and devaluation of education have left them with no other option. Fink and Brown insist upon speaking for these teachers, admitting that “we have continued to […] teach in thoroughly mechanizable ways – without recognizing what we were doing” and “we’ve already made education robotic” (p. 27). Assigning a single voice to “we” teachers ignores this group’s unique backgrounds and innovative pedagogies (both of which hold real potential for combating mechanization). Granted, a short book such as this requires some simplification, but in generalizing teachers as a scapegoat for such a complex issue, Fink and Brown do more harm than good.

As the authors work toward proposing a solution, The Problem with Education Technology addresses a common villain in the composition classroom: the perfunctory paper (pp. 23-26). Fink and Brown contend that papers are ineffective at teaching skills such as argumentation, use of evidence, and rhetorically effective writing (p. 26). Instead, like standardized examinations, these assignments emphasize only the basic dispositions mentioned above, further mechanizing the writing process. This transition is meant to reinforce Fink and Brown’s accusation that teachers are at fault for this progression in assessment, not technology. Specifically, the authors claim companies such as ETS, Pearson, and Vantage did not create the academic battlefield we now face; they just capitalized on an extant situation for which educators are responsible (pp. 26-27). Here, Fink and Brown have the opportunity to parse the differences between liability for current issues and responsibility for their gradual repair, but instead they conflate the two while brushing aside educational realities which force teachers to consent to destructive practices. For example, the authors choose not to explore concepts like negative washback, a phenomenon in which teachers modify curricula to align with and address testing requirements. Such a discussion would likely reveal that these teachers, rather than dictate destructive assessment practices, instead respond to them as best they can. By glossing over such nuanced situations, the authors create a simplistic paradigm that allows them to mop up constrictive, biased policies with a generic call to action.

This problematic strategy is what enables such a small book to endeavor to solve such broad and seemingly-permanent problems. Having accused teachers of creating and perpetuating these issues, Fink and Brown next attack from two fronts. First, they insist the move toward standardization can be disrupted by teachers willing to divert extra effort and time toward crafting intricate assignments with unique rhetorical challenges (p. 31). They offer multiple alternatives to the stereotypical “write a paper” prompt, including asking students to compose and send emails to friends and family, and challenging students to edit Wikipedia in a manner that avoids removal by the website’s editing Bots (pp. 29-32). However, such solutions are like a Band-Aid for a broken bone: They don’t address the larger issue of institutional reliance on assessment systems, which, whether technologically enabled or still reliant on human labor, are mechanized beyond the point of detriment to students. Confronted by the need for systemic change, Fink and Brown introduce their second call to action. They propose that teachers, parents, and students must organize, not in an alignment against all educational technology, nor in panels and presentations at academic events, nor in ephemeral statements and signatures, but in “hordes” and “networks” bursting with people aligned by a common agenda (pp. 35-37). The authors close by noting the majority of educators support their cause, an encouraging sentiment; however, their claim that “the problem is ours to solve” is both daunting and, as I have already noted, unnecessarily troubling for teachers with more immediate personal concerns.

Fink and Brown’s presentation is engaging, but also riddled with complications. The Problem with Educational Technology provides introductory material necessary for readers seeking to engage in scholarly conversation about mechanized assessment, and its minimal length and informality allow for rapid consumption with high retention. However, its final call to action is concerning, as it strays perilously close to claiming that the end justifies the means: “We may not like [our allies…] but we’ll work together anyway” (p. 37). This book is useful in generating awareness about a major educational issue and in its efforts to simplify and contextualize complex arguments within writing assessment for the uninitiated reader, but those same simplifications weaken its overall effects. Despite its shortcomings, The Problem with Education Technology proves itself worthwhile by informing readers about an imminent threat to both teacher and student well-being and by helping ignite critical conversations about the role of united advocacy in finding an effective solution.

Source: jwa