Level 1: Involvement

Fig. 1: Visualization of roles and relationships. On the left side of the pyramid, relationships of students to writing programs are depicted; at the top of the left side of the pyramid pyramid is partnership, in the middle is membership, and at the bottom is involvement. On the right side of the pyramid are the roles played by students in writing programs, corresponding to the relationships depicted on the other side. At the top of this side of the pyramid are associates and ambassadors; in the middle, consultants and representatives; at the bottom, reviewers and critics.

Involvement is the baseline level of participation for students in a writing program. It is inevitable; no programs function without students' contribution of information and feedback, nor would they want to. Students' participation at this level is essentially community service; though it is more compulsory than voluntary, such service can offer metacognitive as well as psychological benefits. By maintaining these lines of communication, WPAs signal their respect for students' views, their valuation of students' insights, and their concern for student satisfaction.

These roles are those assumed to different degrees within the work of program creation and curricular design, assessment and evaluation, and faculty development. When WPAs are concerned with program improvement, students are asked to look back at their experience with a given component of a writing program, to evaluate its quality, and to communicate their positive and negative responses. Depending on the venues for and responses to student contributions, WPAs may position them as either critics or reviewers, a subtle but important distinction in terms of how they relate to other community members.

Students as Critics

critic: one who pronounces judgment on any thing or person (Oxford English Dictionary)

Standard evaluations and satisfaction surveys often invite students to act as critics, offering a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on teachers, texts, curricula, and so forth. In such cases, students usually remain removed from the consequences of their feedback. Without fear of reprisal, they feel comfortable raising valid concerns or venting personal complaints. Most evaluation methods presume students have left the classroom community and do not acknowledge the possibility of a program community. There is no expectation of follow-up dialogue, even if the student enrolls in another course within the program. Evaluations may, therefore, encourage students to view themselves as one-time customers to be pleased or, if not, punish their service providers.

When they act as critics, students take no risks; they are anonymous and usually remain unaware of the consequences of their judgments. They also reap no benefits beyond the satisfaction of expressing themselves. When students play critic, WPAs may receive useful information about programmatic strengths and weaknesses, or at least students' perceptions of such. On the other hand, negative critiques that are shared with upper-level administrators may damage the careers of program faculty and the ethos of the WPA who leads them.

Students as Reviewers

reviewer: a person who evaluates, examines, or assesses something, often with a view to changing it if necessary (Oxford English Dictionary)

This role of reviewer often overlaps with that of critic; in fact, the same tasks can position students in either or both roles, depending on context and method. Whereas critics offer a one-time and usually one-way comment on the quality of writing instruction or support, reviewers engage in ongoing consideration of the program's, faculty's, and their own strengths, weaknesses, and potential for growth. They are asked to see the program as a community that exists beyond their experience of it, one that relies on their participation for improvement whether they remain members or not.

The shift in position from critic to reviewer can be accomplished, or at least begun, through adjustments to standard evaluation procedures. Asking students to consider their own performance within a course can remind them of the pivotal role they play in the success or failure of their learning experiences. Such invitations may occur at different times during and after the experience in question; they may take the form of reflective writing and discussions in addition to the usual final surveys.

These options are often emphasized during pilot projects, in which students are explictly positioned as critical users testing and refining a work-in-progress. But in any context, requesting students' recommendations for improvement can encourage them to see themselves as active agents in the ongoing development of educational strategy rather than passive recipients of a program's or instructor's decisions.

By inviting students to act as reviewers, WPAs can gather more thoughtful and extensive feedback about the effectiveness of different aspects of the program; results enable them to hone strengths and identify areas in need of attention. Strategic revisions of evaluation methods may encourage students to recognize their contributions to communal educational efforts. Although there remain risks of criticism, it seems likely to be more constructive in nature for faculty and the program as a whole.

By acting as reviewers, students have the opportunity to articulate their ideas, share concerns and advice, and reflect on their learning experiences. More interactive feedback methods can further encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning and, to some degree, a program's success. Such a perspective may increase students' investment in their education and involvement in extracurricular learning opportunities. Unless they are closely connected to the writing program (as majors or tutors, for example), however, they are unlikely to witness or enjoy the results of their contributions. Closing the feedback loop by communicating resulting changes may be one way to attune students to the stakes of their contributions, to help them feel more connected to the learning communities around them.