In the second semester of our two-year grant, my colleague and I arrange for the first set of focus groups with students who recently completed their first writing course. We've recruited and trained graduate students to facilitate the sessions; we've drafted and refined prompts; we've sent out recruitment e-mails to students, instructors, and advisors. We received a handful of responses from students interested in participating—not as many as we'd hoped, but enough to proceed. We bring consent forms, recording devices, and cookies. Only one student arrives. But he and the facilitators are game, so we laugh and leave them to it. We'll do better next year.
At the end of the same semester, one of the first-year writing instructors (the one whose learning-community students objected to our writing-related curriculum in scene 2) stops me in the hall, clearly excited to share some fun news. Her class has just presented their final assignments, a collaborative multimedia text designed to address an issue of concern in a local community. One group, she says, created a set of recommendations for how campus writing programs—developmental English, the writing center, first-year writing—could do a better job. Their presentation sparked an animated debate, after which the students asked her to pass it along to "the people in charge."
When this project began, I wanted to figure out how to involve students—as many as possible, as deeply as possible—in my administrative work, with the assumption that such involvement was a good idea. It seemed an essential first step in the development of the program as well as my own identity as a WPA. I believed this study would validate that initial assumption while giving me the tools to fulfill my practical and rhetorical agendas: to learn about these students and our shared institutional context; to communicate to all stakeholders that the writing program would respect students' voices.
Both this study and our on-the-ground research have rather productively complicated that assumption and those agendas. It turns out involving students in every aspect of WPA work is neither easy nor imperative; it turns out I need to listen to colleagues as much as to students; it turns out a year is barely a blip in this learning process.
Student Participation in Context
During this blip, we've launched a two-year project to gather data about students' demographics, concerns, and perceptions of the writing program. I can say we now because the process has already resulted in a stronger community around first-year writing. This research project was designed and will be executed in partnership with the campus learning center; it is sponsored by a university grant and will involve a campus presentation of results; it involves instructors and tutors in the process of gathering and evaluating student contributions; it will inform subsequent faculty-development workshops and curricular revisions. It also involves a fair amount of student participation.
Within this context, an early stage in the program's development, we have decided to focus on the fundamentals of student participation. Through course evaluations, surveys, focus groups, and assignments, we invite students to do the following:
- provide feedback on new initiatives;
- evaluate curricular design;
- reflect on their relationship with writing;
- evaluate instructors' performances;
- share views on pedagogical strategies;
- evaluate their own performance.
These tasks position students, at different points, somewhere between involvement and membership. A custom course evaluation form encourages critics to become reviewers by asking students to consider their own performance and offer advice to future students and instructors. Surveys, evaluations, focus groups, and course assignments offer opportunities for students to try on the roles of representatives and consultants as well.
These prompts send certain messages to students about the roles we expect them to play in the writing program. An introductory survey asks students about their language backgrounds and preferences and their literacy experience and attitudes—communicating that the program cares about students as individuals and strives to serve their needs.
Another early exercise, a "Welcome to First-Year Writing" essay, asks incoming students to respond to CWPA, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project's 2011 "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing" and CWPA's 2008 "WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition" in terms of the students' individual preparation and plans. In addition to prompting, we hope, self-reflection and responsibility, this exercise helps instructors and administrators get a better understanding of where students are coming from and where they want to go. Similarly, the final collaborative assignment referenced in scene 4 above often results in insightful critiques and compliments that enrich conversations in and out of the classroom. We anticipate the eventual focus groups will do the same.
Roles and Relationships in Context
The scenes above demonstrate the early challenges and rewards of our efforts. By opening these spaces for dialogue, we hope to foster deeper involvement and a greater sense of membership among all the program stakeholders. That dynamic would be an essential foundation for any future partnership opportunities. Simply getting students and instructors to feel fully involved is an effort; because this program has only recently cohered, it does not seem ready for students to act as ambassadors or associates. We're just building partnerships among the various stakeholders in writing instruction around campus, and we're just getting to know our students, our instructors, our needs. That also means exploring the possibilities—and limitations—of student participation at the program level.
Ultimately, such participation requires mutual effort, and a lot of it. The issue of resources, as always, should not be underestimated: writing program development requires time, people, and money. It is worth noting that our project is funded by a short-term grant, not standard budgets. Moreover, as several scholars cited in this study have noted, recruitment is a significant practical and rhetorical task. Just because WPAs invite students to participate does not mean they will accept that invitation. And even when they do, they're also quite likely to stand us up. But then a few of them will turn around and demonstrate the learning outcomes and productive feedback that make it feel worthwhile.
The Rhetorical Potential of Participation
At those moments, I remain excited about the possibility of inviting students into higher degrees of participation. And each time, I remind myself that the results depend on student input as much as (or more than) program outreach. Students may participate in this process of discovery, but they will do so on their own terms. This recognition brings me back, as so often happens, to Critel's generous challenge for all of us working with student writers:
What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us, as Margaret Price recommends? Perhaps these questions seem outlandish to some readers; however, there’s no way we can know how much these changes could benefit students unless we try. (196-97)
The classroom dynamic of regular contact makes ongoing negotiations of student participation fruitful as well as crucial. As this study has shown, however, the prevalence of student participation in WPA work makes these questions just as pressing. Perhaps even more so than teachers, because points of contact are less regular and expected, WPAs must be creative in our approaches to student participation—and that might mean approaching students about participation. That gesture alone, and the potential it promises, seems a fitting tribute to Critel's legacy.
Finally, and appropriately, this study raises fundamental questions for writing program administration as a field: Is a writing program a community? If so, how is membership determined—by simple presence within its system, by genuine interest in its development, by shared commitment to its goals? Such questions, which require us to acknowledge the complicated roles and relationships of administrators and faculty as well as students, serve as good reminders that the commonplace of community merits continual reflection. In that endeavor, as in so many conversations, our community can continue to benefit from Gen's too-brief participation in the field of composition and rhetoric.