Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Writing Program Evaluation (abridged)

Here's the writing program evaluation, abridged into 8 pages. If you didn't have time to read it before, at least read this version. We encourage you all to read the full version as well.


Rebecca Moore Howard, Syracuse University\
Paul Sawyer, Cornell University
21 January 2008


We were invited to visit Harpur College in December 2007 as consultants to the writing program. That visit, along with our subsequent communications with faculty and administrators and our perusal of a variety of documents provided by the College, leads us to several recommendations aimed at providing outstanding writing instruction, practice, and mentoring for Binghamton students:

Recommendation 1: Assure a manageable, equitable teaching load for graduate instructors.

Recommendation 2: Provide training and support for graduate instructors.

Recommendation 3: Create a University Writing Program (UWP).

Recommendation 4: Establish tenure-line administrative positions and an advisory board for the UWP.

Recommendation 5: Require two composition courses of all students.

Recommendation 6: Staff composition courses with a diverse group of graduate instructors, administrators of the UWP, full-time faculty, and post-docs.

Recommendation 7: Require one or two additional writing courses in a student's major.

Recommendation 8: Provide appropriate support for writers whose home language is not English.

Recommendation 9: Establish a developmental writing course.

Recommendation 10: Provide necessary resources for the Writing Center and EOP writing instruction.


Binghamton University has enormous potential for fulfilling its social and educational mission. With the highest average SAT scores in the SUNY system, the University's 11,500 undergraduates are a bright and diverse group. Many are first-generation students, many are from working-class and immigrant families, and many are from abroad. (One survey noted that in 1995, 29% of freshmen were from bilingual homes and 15% were non-native speakers.) This profile bears out Dean Laremont's view that Binghamton can play the role for New Yorkers in the twenty-first century that City College did in the twentieth. Harpur College, the flagship institution within the University, will be at the heart this challenge, since its two-year General Education program lays the foundation for students' work in all the colleges, including their training in writing. Our conversations with students and faculty confirmed this sense of possibility, and our conversations with administrators revealed a strong commitment to strengthening the writing program in bold, significant ways.

Given the nature of the Binghamton student body, any program development must frame the generic model of its clientele not as privileged, U.S.-born, fluent speakers of English (with scattered groups that differ from this norm), but as first-generation college students, international students, and students whose home language is not standard English, a consideration that gives the University's writing program a central importance. It hardly needs to be emphasized that academic writing is the most fundamental skill for success in college and in the professions and also the one most difficult for students from marginalized or previously excluded groups to master. This fact does not mean Binghamton faces what is often called a writing "problem" in relation to these groups, but rather that it has an opportunity to strengthen the current program so that it will serve the needs of all its students.

Writing is presently being taught in a variety of ways at Binghamton University, which means the university has in place a diverse structure for a university-wide culture of valuing, supporting, and teaching writing. For example, the English department, which has the largest number of majors in the College (between eight and nine hundred), has the potential to provide a variety of writing experiences to a large segment of the undergraduate population. Kelly Kinney, the new director of composition, has gained the trust of the Department because of her commitment and her flexible style; in fact, our own recommendations for the composition program agree in large part with hers. Again, all the literature on student retention shows that small, supportive communities are crucial to helping first-generation students adjust to academic life. Binghamton has made shrewd use of its physical layout to create residential college environments in five of the dormitories—an arrangement that combines classes, tutors, faculty offices, and living space. Most important, Binghamton has the resource of a lively student body, as we discovered to our pleasure in our interviews with undergraduates.

But as many people recognize, while the University grew over the past two decades, resources did not keep pace; as a result, Binghamton is now severely underserving its students in the teaching of writing. Requirements have fallen by the wayside and the bulk of the teaching is done by an untrained, exploited group of graduate students. We survey some of these problems below.


The Undergraduate Writing Requirement

[. . .]

Our meetings with undergraduates underscored this picture of structural neglect. The six upper-classmen were clearly unusually bright and engaged, standing as collective evidence of the overall positive academic environment at Binghamton, but they were scathing in their comments on their writing instruction. Criticism, of course, is to be expected of bright undergrads, yet we were struck by the unanimity and consistency of their complaints. All agreed that they had had little or no instruction in writing (as opposed to page requirements) in their courses, including the "C" and "W" requirements, and all wished they had had a comprehensive and rigorous course in the elements of writing.

A counterpart of this neglect is the excessive reliance on graduate student labor. The English department teaches the majority of the “C” courses, but with only thirty faculty members, the department must teach large courses simply to serve its hundreds of majors. This leaves little time for grading essays or offering writing seminars. Not surprisingly, of the 66 sections offered last fall by the English department, 65% were taught by graduate instructors, 30% by adjuncts (most of whom are presently graduate students in the English department), and 5% by full-time faculty. Functionally, "C" courses in the English department are taught almost entirely by graduate students. Nor does the department as a whole show much interest in the theory and practice of teaching writing, even though a Rhetoric concentration is officially on the books. Composition specialists have described a history of being marginalized or ignored by colleagues in literature. The department prefers administrative control of composition because of an understandable desire to support its graduate students. Yet for the past several years, there has been no teacher training course for graduate students. (Fortunately, such a course will be re-instated in spring 2008.)

Intensive Teaching of Writing

Despite the existence of several fine programs and the work of some heroic individuals, Harpur College’s resources for intensive writing courses—a service needed by more and more of the student body—are, if anything, even more inadequate than the resources for teaching the general population.

[. . .]

Of the 600 EOP students, about 135-140 students attend a five-and-a-half-week session in the summer of their freshman year. Depending on assessment test results, the students are placed in writing courses arranged in three groups of difficulty; ESL classes are capped at nineteen, the higher levels at 20-21. The courses are staffed by eight graduate instructors and eight undergraduate TA’s. During the regular academic year, many EOP students live in the Discovery Center, where there are tutoring facilities, linked courses, and a living-learning environment that function as a continuation of the summer program. As noted above, the holistic academic and social environment works well to retain students at risk for early failure at college. (One freshman we interviewed from Dickinson Hall said his friendship base had simply expanded during his transition from Queens to Binghamton.) In addition to these locations, the Campos/Robeson Tutorial Center, located near the Deans’ office and administered by Linda Lisman, provides a supportive space where about 250 students a semester receive peer tutoring in various subjects from a staff of fifty.

Once again, resources for this important work are inadequate. ESL classes need to be very small to be effective; nineteen per course is too many, and the stipend paid to graduate student instructors--$2000 per course—is an exploitative rate. Kim Allen-Gleed, the Associate Director of Student Support Services, is also the summer Rhetoric Coordinator. No writing professional teaches in the summer program or oversees it. During the year, Allen-Gleed contributes uncompensated time to act as the EOP academic advisor during the regular year. In that capacity, she only encounters students in academic trouble; there appear to be no other ways of tracking the progress of EOP students after the pre-freshman summer. Of the fifty tutors in the Campos/Robeson Center, only four do walk-in writing instruction; Linda Lisman, who recruits and supervises a staff of sixty, works half time and has no academic rank. Still, in the words of a colleague, she does “a fantastic job.”

In former years, EOP students qualified for a series of Rhetoric courses that acted as “first step” writing courses; but according to the EOP academic advisor, the English Department decided the courses were no longer necessary and replaced them with the regular offerings of English 112 and 115. According to Linda Lisman, many EOP students are closed out of these courses because of limited space. What this means is that although not all 600 EOP students need developmental writing courses (many are in the program because of low math scores), the many who do need them are dumped into the general population after a short summer program, where they are not guaranteed a place.

These resource deficits, as we have said, appear to have resulted from the institution’s rapid growth; it’s less clear why the English Department allowed both their graduate training course and the “first step” rhetoric courses (the only developmental writing courses offered in Harpur College) to expire. These are only two reasons why the teaching of writing needs to be moved out of the English Department as soon as possible, as we recommend below.

Recommendations for Immediate Action

We begin with two recommendations that should go into effect immediately:

Recommendation 1: Assure a manageable, equitable teaching
load for graduate instructors.

The course teaching load of English graduate instructors increased several years ago from two per year to four per year without an increase in compensation. We were also told that graduate students are sometimes invited to teach a third course in a given semester; we met one who is currently doing this as a "stopgap" measure (in the words of the DGS) and who has about fifty students in his third course. Not surprisingly, Binghamton graduate students accept such offers, for financial reasons. Also not surprisingly, Binghamton graduate students in English are taking a long time to finish their degree.

The three-course load is unconscionable for any reason. Even the two-course load (which amounts in practice to forty writing students per semester) is excessive, since no one can effectively teach that many writing students, and no graduate students can give adequate time to their studies under such a schedule.

Harpur College should immediately declare an across-the-board policy that no graduate instructor teaches an overload. Moreover, the regular teaching load of graduate students should be sufficiently reduced that they are able to complete their degrees within the period for which they are funded. At Cornell, graduate instructors' teaching load is 1-1; at Syracuse, 2-1. Only with equitable treatment of its graduate students can Binghamton join the ranks of distinguished graduate programs, where it deserves to be.

Recommendation 2: Provide training and support for graduate instructors.

The English department has not been offering formal training in teaching to its graduate instructors. Fortunately, Kelly Kinney has received permission to institute such a course for new teachers in spring 2008 (though it does not cover current Graduate instructors), and the course has the support of the Department and most graduate instructors.

An instructor's own high level of literacy does not necessarily translate into good writing pedagogy. Responsible teachers who lack appropriate training may spend an excessive proportion of their time in class preparation and paper grading. Harpur College should continue to require and guarantee an adequate training course of all its graduate writing instructors. Departments (primarily but not exclusively the English Department) must ensure that this course is part of, rather than an addition to, the coursework for the graduate instructors' degree.

The college should also provide ongoing mentoring to these instructors, in the form of staff meetings and classroom observations. The mentors will then be in the position to write teaching letters when the graduate students enter the academic job market.


Our general recommendations concern the structure of a University Writing Program; additional staffing of a UWP; undergraduate writing requirements; writing instruction for ESL and other special needs students; and structural support for those who administer and teach writing.

Recommendation 3: Create a University Writing Program (UWP).

The new University Writing Program should be independent of the English department, answerable to the Dean, and staffed by ladder faculty. Three models are available for the freestanding writing program. First, it can be a program whose tenurable faculty have appointments in academic departments (usually but not necessarily English). Among neighboring universities, Cornell follows this model. Or the program may itself grant tenure to its ladder faculty; Syracuse follows this model. A third option is for the program not only to grant tenure to its ladder faculty but also to have departmental status; Colgate follows this model, and Syracuse may soon do so, as well.

[. . .]

Composition studies is a growing academic discipline whose PhDs are much in demand nationwide. Hiring and retaining expert composition administrators and faculty requires the development of graduate and advanced undergraduate writing and rhetoric instruction. Although our charge does not include English department policy, we strongly advise that department to offer Rhetoric and Composition as a graduate specialization. We also recommend revitalizing the undergraduate advanced rhetoric and composition courses, with an undergraduate major in rhetoric and composition. As Binghamton University develops first-year writing courses, upper-level undergraduate courses in writing and rhetoric, and graduate courses in the theory and practice of composition and rhetoric, it develops a community of people—undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty—who self-describe as writers and who are engaged in understanding the role of writing, rhetoric, and literacy in twenty-first-century global cultures and communities. Writing is not only a skill needed by undergraduate students; it is also an intellectual field of inquiry around which the discipline of composition and rhetoric is establishing a growing presence in U.S. colleges and universities.

The UWP should work in close collaboration with an advisory panel of faculty chosen from several fields. Such connections will keep composition instruction responsive to the writing that students are doing in other courses, and will conversely help faculty across the disciplines understand what their students are learning in their composition courses and what additional instruction or mentoring students might need in disciplinary courses.

[. . .]

In both composition courses, enrollment should never exceed 20 and should ideally be set at a lower number. Some time ago, the professional organizations of English studies formulated guidelines for class enrollment and teaching load for composition studies; these guidelines continue to shape responsible practice in writing programs. Both the Association of Departments of English and the National Council of Teachers of English emphasize that class size should never exceed 20; the ADE recommends 15 as the ideal.

The syllabi of all required writing courses should take instruction in composition seriously, requiring page minimums and emphasizing the process of writing and the value of revision. The curriculum and pedagogy for these courses should adopt or adapt the learning outcomes recommended by the national Council of Writing Program Administrators .

Because writing is best learned in an intellectual context, these courses should not be decontextualized writing skill courses but should instead be "themed" or "content-based" courses. Experienced teachers should, in consultation with UWP administrators, develop composition courses whose materials cohere with the instructors' own disciplinary or personal interests. Topics of such syllabi might range from genetic diversity to Chinese literature in translation. At both Syracuse and Cornell, a shared syllabus is available for first-time teachers. At Cornell the English Department offers several multi-section courses, supervised by faculty course leaders, with titles like “Cultural Studies” and “The Mystery in the Story.” At Syracuse the shared syllabus addresses issues of cultural diversity. All course syllabi should be reviewed by UWP administrators, and ongoing faculty development should assure that the composition courses are using the theme to provide materials for student writing, not to be the focus of the course in itself. The UWP will need to work with the university registrar to assure that when students sign up for composition courses, they know what the theme of the chosen section will be. (Cornell uses a ballot system, whereby students list five choices in order of preference and are then placed into available courses by computer. In this way certain courses are encouraged each year by “natural selection,” a process that also trains instructors to draft lucid and appealing descriptions.)

[. . .]

Finally, we recommend that the UWP appoint a fixed number of post-docs with distinguished records of achievement in academic graduate programs for no more than two or three years, with a teaching load of no more than four courses a year. This will attract high-quality post-docs because they will be able to continue their research while acquiring pedagogical experience, making them attractive as eventual candidates for tenure-track positions. As appropriate, post-docs may receive course release for pedagogical projects, such as surveys of writing or designs for special programs. The hiring of post-docs should be a collaboration of UWP directors and the departments that represent the disciplines in which post-doc candidates have trained.

[. . .]

Recommendation 9: Establish a developmental writing course.

Students whose placement tests indicate they are not ready for college composition instruction should have the option of a preparatory course (usually labeled a "basic" or "developmental" writing course). Some universities do not offer this instruction themselves but instead partner with a local community college whose developmental writing courses transfer into the university. Others (including Syracuse) offer developmental writing through their writing centers: professional tutors conduct one-on-one credit-bearing tutorials that accompany regular composition instruction, so that developmental writers take the regular courses but get extra help while doing so. Most universities offer their own developmental writing as part of their writing program. Developmental writing courses necessarily have a lower enrollment cap than do regular composition courses; 12-15 students is standard.

[. . .]

Whether the UWP will allow exemptions from the writing requirement, and if so, how many. Exemptions at other universities are made on the basis of AP credit, CLEP credit, ACT or SAT test scores, or placement testing. We recommend that placement testing be used only for placement in the most appropriate starting course but that it not be used to waive the composition requirement. We also recommend against the substitution of CLEP credit or ACT or SAT test scores for the composition requirement; AP credit is a more accurate measure. We recommend that in no case should both composition courses be waived. We note that as the new program is phased in, Harpur College will have difficulty offering enough sections of composition. During this transitional period, higher-than-normal exemptions from the composition requirement may be necessary; this option will always be preferable to continuing the exploitation of graduate students.