Today's guest blogger is Mark Blaauw-Hara, a Professor of English and the Writing Program Coordinator at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, where he has taught for seventeen years. His interests include transfer theory, threshold concepts, developmental education, student retention, and adult learning pedagogy. See more of Mark's biography at the end of this post.
Not a lot is being said about how the writing-about-writing approach might play out at a community college, so in this post I hope to provide a window into the experiences of using Writing about Writing at a two-year school.
For the past year, we’ve been scaling up the use of a writing-about-writing curriculum at my school (a rural Midwestern community college, where I teach English and coordinate the writing program). We started in F15, when a part-time faculty member with an MFA in poetry looked through the three textbook options I’d provided and settled on Wardle and Downs’s Writing about Writing. She liked the book’s focus on writing as a subject matter, not just a skill, which, she said, meshed well with how she had learned to approach writing in her MFA.
She ended up being thrilled with it. The reading was challenging, she said, but the book inspired better discussions about writing than she’d ever experienced. Encouraged, one of our full-time faculty adopted the book for S16 and had a similar experience: the book supported a deeper level of engagement with writing, more thoughtful discussions, and more interesting papers. Three more of our faculty—including me—tried it over the summer in face-to-face and online sections and were equally impressed.
As a department, we decided to make Writing about Writing the default text for our FYW sequence, which meant that new instructors (and those who didn’t submit their book adoptions on time) would have to use the text. We developed sample syllabi, including sequences of readings and assignment prompts, and advocated for the book’s widespread adoption during departmental meetings. This semester, about half of our writing instructors have been using the text.
To be fair, the book can be challenging for both teachers and students. Its organization is quite different from that of most other FYW texts, and frankly, the readings can be challenging to instructors without a background in rhetoric and composition. Much of the concern about the book that has been voiced in department meetings is tied to the idea that the book assumes a certain familiarity with scholarship in rhet/comp—a familiarity that many two-year college English faculty do not have. But out of our first five instructors who used the book, only two had degrees in rhet/comp: one had a MFA, one had a MA in lit, and one had a MA in English education. To us, that indicated that the book would work for teachers of different backgrounds.
Additional concerns about writing-about-writing pedagogy have centered on the fact that many students at the two-year college are academically unprepared. Around 60% of our incoming students end up placed in developmental coursework, a number that is common at community colleges across the country. Over the past few years, our writing program has brought an accelerated-learning program (based on the national ALP model begun by the Community College of Baltimore County) to full scale, and we retired the lowest level of developmental writing. This means that every incoming student takes our college-level writing sequence right off the bat; those who place into developmental writing have an additional co-requisite course that is designed to support their success in the college-level writing course, but all students work through exactly the same curriculum. Some instructors were still concerned that even with co-requisite support the material in Writing about Writingwould be too difficult for our developmental students.
Time will tell how these concerns play out. However, those of us teaching in ALP have been pleased so far. Certainly, my developmental-level students have needed some extra support with the readings, but our co-requisite course structure allows time for just such support. And they have grabbed hold of the concepts in the readings and responded better than most of the courses I’ve taught in the past. This reinforces the contention that while some students may be “pre-college” in their writing or reading skills, they are still adults who respond well to weighty ideas. Many books that are written for a developmental audience feature readings that tend to be simplistic; I have found that developmental writers are eager to discuss big ideas. This may seem obvious—again, we are talking about adult learners, after all—but many developmental courses are not very intellectually challenging and focus instead on skill-building. To be sure, developmental writers can improve their skills, but they need a rich intellectual environment in which to do so.
Mark Blaauw-Hara earned his Doctorate in English from Old Dominion University, with specializations in writing-program administration and pedagogy. His dissertation focused on supporting military veterans in their transition to the community college. He received his Master’s in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University, and his Bachelor’s from Michigan State University. Mark currently serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, he is the Reviews Co-editor for Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and he is a manuscript peer-reviewer for the Journal of Veterans Studies. Mark’s writing has appeared in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Teaching English in the Two-Year College,Community College Week, and Writing Center Journal, and is forthcoming in Composition Forum and the edited collection WPA Transitions.