The writing program administrator on any campus exists in a liminal space between students and faculty, among graduate assistants, contingent faculty, and full professors, and within the boundaries of the faculty and administration. Balancing the needs of these sometimes competing stakeholders requires a spirit of collaboration, transparent decision-making, robust assessment, focus on student success, and a dedication to social justice.
Collaboration can foster productive working relationships. The most senior faculty, graduate assistants, and contingent faculty should be engaged in the management of the first-year writing program. A first-year composition committee collaborating with a WPA and comprised of representatives from each teaching level should help shape programmatic goals, find ways to implement administrative initiatives, and represent the interests of writing faculty and students across campus. To this point, as Coordinator of the Showcase of Student Writing at Northern Illinois University, I found that long-time instructors were reluctant to ask their students to take part or attend the Showcase, despite the program’s transference of writing and rhetorical skills. Working with the WPA and the Office of Student Engagement, I found a way to pay them small stipends to participate as judges. After attending the Showcase, these same instructors gushed about the enthusiasm our students had for their research projects. More importantly, nearly all of them entered their students in the Showcase the following year. This experience exemplifies my approach to being a WPA because it brought together administrators and instructors for the benefit and enrichment of our students.
Transparency in decision-making is essential for instructor buy-in. Whenever possible, decisions about scheduling, programmatic outcomes, and assessment should be open and clear to all stakeholders. For instance, Christian Brothers University’s general education assessment reports are shared with all writing faculty. In fact, before the report is submitted to the curriculum committee, every faculty member provides feedback and suggests programmatic concerns or improvements. We have productive conversations about the ways our program aligns with CWPA Outcomes and how we can improve our writing instruction. At the same time, transparency should come from the top, and I invite administrators to present changes to our faculty at department meetings. Finally, whether policy changes come from the faculty or from the administration, each group should have a clear way to provide feedback to the other, such as inviting administrators to meetings or encouraging faculty to write reports that demonstrate why a change will or will not work.
Assessment is an important tool for communicating the writing program’s story to the administration and to its instructors. Systematic assessment processes or procedures help programs discover their strengths and weaknesses. When a program has a collaborative and transparent leadership, assessment becomes a conversation in which the faculty devises ways to improve their teaching and better support students. For example, CBU’s programmatic assessment results mirror national trends finding that our students excel at grammar but struggle with critical reading and writing skills. I led faculty discussions to revise and refine our assessment tool to better document the ways our students struggle, so that we can better teach these important skills. Moreover, these findings have helped us partner with academic services across campus and support student writers.
Student-Success beyond the classroom is an essential role of first-year composition. At a large state university, composition can be one of the few first-year courses in which teachers know their students. When coupled with the confessional potential of the writing curriculum, first-year composition is uniquely positioned to help students in crisis. Even at smaller colleges and universities, the first-year is a crucible for students who may fail for the first time in their lives. For example, CBU’s contingent faculty training and handbook outline clear ways for all of our faculty to support students. We provide a list and contact information for resources across campus. We also partner with the writing center and library to help students get the help they need. As an administrator, I want to advocate for our students at all levels of the university and find ways for them to succeed. This means partnering with other programs across campus in areas such as tutoring, retention, and counseling services.
Social Justice for faculty, staff, students and the community is an important role for a writing program administrator. Working at a university with a student population in which over 40% are students of color, I have come to understand the powerful position first-year composition can play in their success. Together with engaged faculty, a WPA can be a powerful force for social justice on a college campus by encouraging curriculum that addresses issues of diversity, globalization, and cultural competencies. For example, when evaluating course syllabi and prompts, I encourage faculty to add readings and assignments that require students to grapple with the complexities associated with race and class in Memphis because first-year writing should help students develop their voice and enrich and diversify their perspectives. In the best programs, instructors encourage students to share their work in publications, readings, and showcases to help demonstrate to students, parents, and the campus community that composition and rhetoric are socially situated support meaningful civic engagement.