Revolution Lullabye

June 25, 2013

Melzer, Using Systems Thinking to Transform Writing Programs

Melzer, Dan. “Using Systems Thinking to Transform Writing Programs.” Writing Program Administration 36.2 (Spring 2013): 75-94.

Melzer explains Critical Systems Thinking (CST) and argues that it can be used by writing program administration to target “points of leverage” within writing programs that, if adjusted, can lead to system-wide change. His article builds on Porter et al’s call for institutional critique, and shows how CST’s focus on discovering holistic patterns and relationships as well as uncovering and addressing inequalities within larger systems serves as a useful methodology for writing program administrators who need to look beyond individual actors in order to make gradual change. Melzer uses an example from his institution, when he served on a reading and writing faculty senate subcommittee, to show how following a CST approach helped that institution target the junior writing exam as a leverage poin through which to rethink the campus-wide writing program from a focus of deficiency and placement to one that more fully embraced campus-wide, vertical writing instruction.

Notable Notes

CST thinking from management, systems thinking designed in biology and engineering, educational research

Stages in Critical Systems Thinking

1. Creating a model of the system and its underlying ideologies (his example of the flowchart that represents the existing writing program model, which includes an placement test, first-year writing, remedial writing courses, a junior proficiency exam, and upper-division writing intensive courses) (82-83)

2. Recognizing ideological differences and defining an alternative model of the system (84-85) (his example shows the principles, derived from CWPA, CCCC, and NCTE, that the subcommittee wanted the new writing program to be defined by, characteristics for both students and faculty in the program.)

3. Finding points of leverage to change the system (86-87) (his example is the junior writing exam, changing the requirement from passing an exam to taking a writing-intensive course, making the writing intensive course the “centerpiece of the campus writing program” (88))

Quotable Quotes

“Work for change at the systems level rather than tinkering with an isolated course, program, or department by finding points of leverage within the system” (90).

“Embrace the idea of perpetual change” (93).

“A systems thinker’s attention is on the ways the structure of a system will construct behavior” (78)

June 12, 2013

Lawrick, Students in the First-Year ESL Program: Revisiting the Notion of ‘Traditional’ ESL

Lawrick, Elena. “Students in the First-Year ESL Program: Revisiting the Notion of ‘Traditional’ ESL.” Writing Program Administration 36.2 (Spring 2013): 27-58.

Through a study that involved surveying students who were enrolled in Purdue University’s ESL Writing Program, Lawrick argues that there is not a homogeneous profile for ESL students at American universities. Lawrick argues that writing program policies and the pedagogical practices used in the ESL writing classroom need to be updated to account for the variety of language backgrounds, English instruction, and composition instruction of ESL students.

Lawrick’s study, which is based on a nine-item questionnarie given to the students in 13 sections of Purdue University’s ESL first-year writing course, shows that most students enrolled in Purdue’s ESL program are international ESL students and that these students have had previous instruction in both English langauge and in composition in their own first languages. Often, ESL courses are designed as a first introduction to both English and composition, and Lawrick’s study shows that instructors and designers of these courses need to find better ways to account for the experiences and knowledge international ESL students bring to the course.

Lawrick’s survey also shows that many international ESL students are reluctant to take a first-year writing course designed for ESL students in their first semester because of the pressure to keep up their grades and adjust to life in the US.  Lawrick recommends delaying the first-year writing requirements for international ESL students to the second semester so that these students have a chance to adjust to their university studies before taking on the required first-year writing class.

Notable Notes

good literature view/discussion of the rise of the domestic ESL student, patterns and trends in global English

detailed data analysis of the level of English instruction and preparation in writing skills among international ESL students from different countries

Quotable Quotes

“…the ESL Writing Program has to maintain a delicate balance between the need to provide a supportive learning environment and the need to challenge students to develop their writing proficiency to a level allowing for their competent performance in content college courses” (54).

“In addition to ideological adjustments, it is essential to develop pedagogical approaches and assessment practices that provide a challenging yet supportive learning environment for international undergraduate writers by integrating – rather than denying – their previous backgrounds in English and composition” (54).

“In a U.S. FYC course, such students need to be taught how to adjust their linguistic and rhetorical repertoires to Standard American English, rather than to learn them from scratch” (50).

Halpern, The Preceptor Problem: The Effect of Undisciplined Writing on Disciplined Instructors

Halpern, Faye. “The Preceptor Problem: The Effect of ‘Undisciplined Writing’ on Disciplined Instructors.” Writing Program Administration 36.2 (Spring 2013): 10-26.

Halpern uses her experience as a preceptor (full-time instructor) in the Harvard Expository Writing Program, an independent writing program that hires instructors from across the disciplines to teach an ‘undisciplined’ approach to academic writing, to discuss the effects of programmatic philosophies on the professional development and disciplinary identity of their instructors. Much of the scholarship on independent writing programs have focused on how stand-alone programs affect the identity and working conditions/relationships of the full-time faculty; Halpern’s article provides an in-depth look at how administrative decisions like the creation of independent writing programs or the adoption of particular writing curriculum affect instructors both while they are teaching in the program and after they leave and teach or work elsewhere.

Halpern argues that there is a problem with freestanding/independent writing programs like Harvard’s or Duke’s because the transdisciplinary nature of the programs leaves instructors without a solid disciplinary identity. Halpern points out that these independent writing programs often function as happy intellectual islands, developing their own theories, terms, and language. When instructors (whose positions are really not meant to be permanent positions but rather post-doc-like instructorships) leave, they are not well-prepared to enter into the disciplinary conversations and debates that characterize most academic departments. Halpern argues that WPAs and full-time faculty at independent writing programs need to consider the professional development needs and disciplinary identities of their instructors, preparing them not just to be successful teachers in that particular environment but also at other institutions.

Notable Notes

transdisciplinarity (11) – what writing shares across disciplines instead of what makes each discipline’s writing distinct

the effect of liberation, freedom, and independence on all stakeholders

the many ways it is difficult for an instructor to move from an instructorship to a tenure-track position (16-17)

characteristic of American colleges/universities/academic departments; thinking in terms of disciplinarity (20-21)

important effect: your graduate school training and early jobs have a profound effect on how you view yourself as a teacher and and academic, where you place yourself in the field (22-23)

connection to Duke (in article), possible connection to Syracuse and the Writing Program’s effect on the professional development and identity of the instructors

list of terms used by the Harvard Expos program – creation of a discourse community (13)

Quotable Quotes

“Academic expertise usually involves learning a discipline, but that is precisely not what I learned at Expos: I learned how to move beyond my discipline” (15).

“Perhaps one of the hardest things for a program to do is to acknowledge its own partiality. I mean ‘partiality’ in two senses: programs are partial to their own methods, and their methods constitute only one approach, an approach that intersects inevitably with the work of others” (23).


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