This chapter pursues Critel’s research questions beyond composition classrooms into the writing programs that house them. Comer articulates her desire to emulate what she calls Critel’s calm kindness and the generosity with which she taught and learned, but also her determination to develop what Comer calls Critel’s firm gaze and her willingness to confront the messy realities of teaching and learning. She likes to think the former inspired the origins of this project, while the latter enabled its evolution. Prompted by her experiences as new WPA, Comer’s study examines how student participation has been integrated into writing program administration through a survey of twenty years of scholarship in WPA: Writing Program Administration. After surveying these results, the chapter categorizes and comments upon the roles students are asked to play and the relationships established between students and writing programs. Throughout, Comer’s clear-eyed evaluation of the community commonplace tempers optimistic assumptions with a healthy awareness of the practical and pedagogical complexities of student participation in WPA work.
It's my first year as director of first-year writing. At the end of a long day, a friendly upperclass student stops at my door. We talk about writing—a philosophy paper he's working on, the curriculum I'm working on. He begins to tell me about his own experiences in first-year writing, which he wishes had better prepared him for the work he now faces. When I connect his concerns to course design, he interrupts me with wry curiosity and asks, "When you guys are all sitting around talking about this stuff, do you ever think to ask us?" I feel sheepishly relieved that I can say yes; I am applying for a university grant to support a research project that would do just that.
A year later, I attend a meeting about a learning-community pilot that included a first-year writing course. The assessment committee reports on a focus group in which students expressed their glowing evaluation of the experience. Their one complaint was about the writing course; they liked the instructor and class but objected to the focus on literacy development: "They all said they'd be fine with writing about any topic other than writing." The dean is present; this is the first feedback she's heard from students about the curriculum. I am only partially comforted when the instructor points out that this is the only section in which she's encountered such resistance.
These scenes bookend my work on this chapter about student participation in writing program administration. I referred to that first conversation in my proposal for this edited collection, buoyed by optimism about the potential for students' engagement in curriculum development and assessment. The second conversation occurred as I compiled the results of this survey of scholarship with a rather more realistic view of that potential and its challenges.
In the intervening year, a university grant enabled a colleague and me to develop a research project that gathered student input (via surveys, writing samples, and focus groups) about their relationship with writing and experiences in the writing program. At times, the possibility of managing my new WPA duties, let alone complicating them with student involvement, seemed slight. And yet I had committed the program to a student-centered formative assessment, one that would go on to yield many mixed messages and plenty of learning opportunities about the risks and rewards of the endeavor.
Throughout this process, my work on this chapter has helped keep me in touch with some of that early enthusiasm—largely because it is for "Gen's book." As the other contributors would agree, this project has been constantly inspired by memories of Genevieve's patience with and faith in students and colleagues, her ability to be both critical and generous. It is in that spirit, though not with her grace, that I offer this discussion of the possibilities for student participation in the work of writing program administration.