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.