This research project, like so many, arose from my own professional concerns as a new WPA. The word new applies in two ways: this was my first WPA position, and I was the first WPA at my institution. I had not been hired to direct first-year writing (nor had I been trained in that specialization), but it was quickly apparent that such direction was needed.
Previously, although the English department offered the required first-year writing courses, there was neither a formal program nor an administrator. The courses were taught by full-time instructors and adjuncts who rarely interacted; they shared common textbooks but no established outcomes. The resulting lack of consistency and conversation was of particular concern given our student population's linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as the fact that more than half of incoming students place into a developmental English course managed outside the English department. This situation was widely recognized as problematic. Concerned for students and encouraged by colleagues, I volunteered to assume the position of WPA.
Among the many early challenges, my own ignorance about the university and its students was significant, as was a feeling of isolation. Because there had been no program, there seemed few ready participants in its development. The upper administration and natural campus partners were enthusiastic but hands-off. Instructors seemed pleased at the prospect of support but warily, repeatedly highlighted how much they enjoyed the creative freedom afforded by the lack of established goals or policies.
Meanwhile, colleagues around campus often wanted to tell me about how unprepared our students are, how poorly they write, and how inadequately the existing courses seem to remedy these problems. These conversations, though certainly enlightening, were not the only ones I wanted to be having. For a while there, I found myself lobbing conversational balls that few caught or returned.
Except, that is, students. They were usually quite happy to tell me about their experiences in different courses, their preferences and complaints, and their perceptions of writing and writing instruction. And so student participation began to seem like one possible route to program research and development.
Research Questions and Answers
From these early ruminations arose the original driving question behind this project: How can I involve students in the process of program development? For a novice like myself, that quickly translated into the question this project actually pursues: How do WPAs invite students to participate in program administration? In this chapter, I report on the results of a literature review that answers the second question and productively complicates the first.
The assumption underlying that initial question—How can I involve students into the process of program development?—reveals my own reliance on Critel’s commonplace of community. I clearly believed I should invite students to participate in program development. Like most compositionists, I like to think of my classroom as a community; a good class is one in which students are actively engaged and demonstrate that engagement through participation. A good writing program, it followed, would also foster student participation and/as engagement. Conveniently, research quickly undermined that assumption.
Having come to rely on WPA scholarship to provide guidance for every endeavor and demystify every struggle, I was surprised when preliminary searches yielded no focused research on student involvement, at least at the undergraduate level, in WPA work. Nevertheless, I began to see evidence woven throughout scholarship about writing programs. These traces were often faint—a reference to interviews here, a comment about course evaluations there—but they hinted at common threads worth following through systematic analysis.
As this chapter demonstrates, such a focused examination reveals clear patterns of student participation in writing program administration and, by extension, indicates the need for further study. This survey reflects how the commonplace of community that permeates WPA scholarship can result in opportunities for student participation even as it raises essential questions about how and why we should pursue those options. Ultimately, I suggest, the rhetoric of participation at the writing program level demands more of the critical interrogation Genevieve Critel conducted, called for, and now inspires.
To facilitate such discussion, I offer a schema of student participation: the major roles WPAs invite students to play and the resulting relationships between students and writing programs. Though preliminary, this heuristic provides an analytic and generative tool for future research, application, and revision.
In the section that follows, I explain the parameters of this study before presenting key findings from the literature review. This overview of relevant scholarship confirms the prevalence of student participation in all categories of WPA work as outlined in Council of Writing Program Administrator's (hereafter CWPA) 1998 "Evaluating the Intellectual Work of Writing Administration." Much like that seminal document, these findings highlight significant but often overlooked labor in program administration.
The "Discussion" section shifts focus from what WPAs ask students to do to consider what these invitations ask students to be—the roles they are called on to play—and the relationships that result. I have synthesized these findings into a schema designed to help WPAs classify/clarify the roles and relationships established by different degrees of student participation: involvement, membership, and partnership. The corresponding pages consider some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of these dynamics, raising issues worthy of further research.
Finally, in the epilogue, I return to my institutional context to provide a glimpse of one program's ongoing negotiation of these issues. Precisely because these reflections are particular to my own program, they highlight the utility and flexibility of the provided heuristic for facilitating critical, context-specific explorations among program stakeholders as well as broader conversations with the field of writing program administation and the discipline of composition studies.