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)


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