Review of Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs

By Alexis Piper, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Ruecker, T., Shepherd, D., Estrem, H., & Brunk-Chavez, B. (Eds.). (2017). Retention, persistence, and writing programs. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Amidst the buzz of “growth mindset,” “grit,” “social resilience” and the like, it seems a kairotic moment for a conversation about how writing programs can contribute to student persistence and university retention efforts. Thus, the stage is set for Todd Ruecker, Dawn Shepherd, Heidi Estrem, and Beth Brunk-Chavez’s Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs, which brings the ubiquitous conversations about student success to writing programs and writing teachers.

Part one of the book overviews how writing programs can participate in larger discussions of retention. The contributors explore a variety of themes, including: how WPAs can use their knowledge and experience to shape broader discussions of persistence and retention (Malenczyk); how collaboration between different university spheres can aid student retention and persistence efforts (Holmes and Busser); the possibilities and pitfalls of using big data to develop and assess retention efforts (Scott); the need for compensated professional development opportunities for faculty invested in retention and persistence (Giordano, Hassel, Heinert, and Phillips); the crucial role that first-year writing courses play in long-term academic success (Garrett, Bridgewater, and Feinstein); and how complex socio-economic, familial, and cultural factors negatively affect students’ persistence and retention (Webb-Sunderhaus).

Part two, which outlines high-impact practices writing teachers can implement to cultivate student retention and persistence, opens with a chapter by Pegeen Reichert Powell, whose early work on retention serves as a through-line for the entire book. Powell offers “kairotic classrooms” and Derrida’s conception of “absolute hospitality” as ways to redesign writing programs for student success. Part two goes on to explores how different universities encourage retention and persistence, including: CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program) at the Washington State University (Buyserie, Plemons, and Ericsson), the PlusOne program at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (Chemishanova and Snead), and the Stretch Program at the Arizona State University’s (Snyder). In addition, supplemental instruction at a two-year campus (Harris), learning communities at a predominantly Hispanic-serving institution (Wolff Murphy and Hartlaub), and an undergraduate mentorship program at Northern Illinois University (Day, Gipson, and Parker) are all offered as ways to increase student persistence, engagement, learning, and retention. From an assessment point of view, it is worthwhile to consider how students are placed in courses and the aforementioned programs in the first place, and the bearing this placement has on student success.

Marc Scott’s contribution, “Big Data and Writing Program Retention Assessment,” is the most explicit connection to assessment in the collection and draws from recent trends emphasizing context, inquiry, and assessment’s intersections with race and socio-economic status. The chapter argues “that the most useful way for WPAs to consider Big Data in the context of graduation and retention rates is through the lens of current assessment scholarship” (p. 57). Besides Scott’s work, those interested in assessment can use the book as a source of invention for their own work, including, for example, research into the overlaps and disconnects between writing disposition, persistence, resistance, and success. Additionally, investigating how current assessment theory could help writing teachers and WPAs more concretely gauge students’ obstacles, persistence, and potential for retention are other possibilities for future work.

For me, the most memorable moment in the book comes when Reichert Powell suggests that “some students should leave… and it is not [our] business to prevent them from leaving” (p. 135). This emphasizes cultivating life-long persistence rather than retaining students for monetary reasons while also pointing out there are some things we can do to help students persist and “succeed”—and there are many factors beyond our control. Keeping limitations and possibilities in mind is one way we can both persist and resist in our professions—particularly when the stakes are so high, when the obstacles are often increasingly daunting for all, and when we are increasingly asked to do so much, as Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs rightly points out.

Review of Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity

By Sarah Klotz, University of Southern California

Poe, M., Inoue, A. B., & Elliot, N. (2018). Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/assessment/

In this collection, Poe, Inoue, and Elliot bring together scholars from a wide spectrum of approaches for a comprehensive look into writing assessment for social justice aims. The book is divided into four sections: historiography, admission and placement, outcomes design, and teacher research. The editors provide structural support to make their ambitious project accessible to readers through an introduction to each chapter that summarizes the research problem, research question, literature review, methodology, conclusions, qualifications, and directions for further study. Poe, Inoue, and Elliot also include 18 assertions on writing assessment with commentary and an action canvas, which centers praxis as a primary concern of the volume. The strength of the book is its methodological scope. The editors make clear that the social justice imperative for writing assessment will take innovative, collaborative, and mixed-methods approaches to bring about the advancement of opportunity for students historically underserved in college writing contexts.

This resource is appropriate for both newcomers and advanced scholars in writing assessment, as the text encourages engagement through a single chapter or a cover-to-cover reading for those looking for a critique of writing assessment as a tool of injustice as well as ideas for action. In the introduction, the editors call for two key turns: the shift from elementalist reasoning to an ecological framework (p. 5) and the reorientation of validity studies toward justice (p. 16). While elementalist reasoning is never fully defined, I take the authors to mean assessment approaches that view translingual practices within deficit frameworks while emphasizing college writing as a set of discrete skills (i.e. correctness and knowledge of conventions) that will serve students in academic and professional settings (p. 19). In essence, elementalist stands in opposition to ecological. In the chapters that follow, these re-orientations become clear and actionable. The chapter authors demonstrate their unwillingness to balk in the face of entrenched systems of power even as they catalog the enormity of the structural changes required to reorient writing assessment towards social justice.

The volume emphasizes historiography and grounds the concerns of contemporary writing programs within a long history of oppressive writing assessment. The first section addresses assessment in the colonial context of the Philippines (Harms) as well as how notions of monolingual purity in the United States pathologize immigrant writers (Hammond). By opening with historiography, the editors provide an implicit schema for their emergent theory of socially just assessment. It becomes clear that, when our field relies on empirical notions of validity, we fail to account for how eugenics, anti-Black racism, and colonization inform and structure empirical methods. Later sections, particularly those that work with the more quantitative orientations of assessment studies, do not always return to these histories of Euro-American colonization and anti-Black racism. If there is one shortcoming that I would note in the volume, it is that the sections on admission and placement and outcomes design do not always achieve the ambitious goal of overlaying critical theory, historiography, and validity.

Another intervention that the volume undertakes is to provide specific examples of how critical methods inform writing assessment. The essay that most exemplifies the approaches that the editors demand is “The Violence of Assessment: Writing Assessment, Social (In)Justice, and the Role of Validation” (Chapter 7). Lederman and Warwick argue that validity studies have been increasingly concerned with the social consequences of assessment, but the empirical methodology underpinning validity and validation will not challenge existing paradigms without deep engagement with “feminist, queer, postcolonial, anti-racist traditions which actively seek to problematize historical power-relations” (p. 246). Other essays that are attuned to bridging critical identity studies with assessment methodologies are Chapter 8, on pervasive anti-Black racism in predominantly White institutions; Chapter 10, on the challenges of justice-oriented writing assessment at a tribal college with a predominantly Euro-American faculty; and Chapter 11, on attending to the emotional and physical safety of LGBTQ writers in writing centers and other assessment contexts.

While the task ahead for scholars and teachers of writing is monumental, this volume delineates theoretical and structural approaches with great promise to bring about the democratic aims of our writing programs through a reorientation to social justice in all of our assessment ecologies.