Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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“Going Public: A Writing Program in Revision”
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College
Session E.24:
“Difference, Democracy, and Dissent: Exploring Local and Material Practices at Community Colleges”
CCCC, 20 March 2003, New York

The idea for this session came to us as we talked about John Lovas’ keynote address in Chicago last year.  Wendy, Brian, and I had done 4Cs presentations about our work and about our place, as 2-year-college instructors, in the field, and we were excited to hear Lovas say some of the very things we had been trying to get at.  Among other things, Lovas asked scholars in the discipline to include community colleges in their studies.  He identified and denounced the practice of making generalizations about first-year composition based on research done strictly in and about universities; “you cannot represent a field,” he said, “if you ignore half of it” (276).  He called for more collaboration between composition faculty at two- and four-year institutions and for more reporting on the work that takes place on community college campuses.  (We will be doing some reporting and collaborating here today.) 

In the course of his discussion, Lovas noted that the larger community that is the discipline of composition is made up of smaller communities—“little togethers,” he called them.  He said, “The university folk seek their own; the community college people gather separately; the small liberal arts colleges ask for their own space…” (266). 

Community.  Just before that convention, I had been reading Joseph Harris’ article, “Beyond Community: From the Social to the Material.”  As I was listening to Lovas’ address, I was thinking of Harris’ ideas.  In this article, Harris writes, as he does elsewhere, about the meaning of the term community—about our tendency to use it to mean “big happy family” (that’s my translation).  We need to be critical, he says, of the term and of what we do with it.  And we need to examine the material conditions of the students with whom we work: we must not require them to “become us,” or to participate happily in “the community,” in order to write, talk, and otherwise interact in comp classes.  Writes Harris, “Our job is not to initiate students into a discrete world we think of ourselves as already inhabiting—to induct them, that is, as members of our disciplines and professions—but rather to help them find ways to use the texts, practices, and ideas we have to offer in discussing issues that matter to them” (5).  Harris asks us to consider using the term “public” as an alternative for “community,” in order to broaden our views and practices as teachers of writing. 

With a turn of phrase, I too would like to ask us to “go public.”  I am here to talk with you about “community” and community college teaching.  I will first focus on the material/local: reporting on and then analyzing some revisions we at Whatcom have made to our composition program.  In this context, I will then follow Harris’ lead and ask us to rethink the term “community,” this time as it relates to the field and its relationship to community college composition. 

So first, the local, and a report on some changes to our program.  I teach at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, 90 miles north of Seattle.  I have tenure, along with seven other faculty in our English Department of 35 instructors.  When I started, part-time, in 1989, we were definitely old school: our curriculum focused pretty exclusively on mechanics and structure.  I was somewhat skeptical of the approach but unsure of myself; and tired of waiting tables at the breakfast joint downtown.  When I received a full-time position in 1994, one of my interview questions was about grading: “Now, Sherri, if you were reading a paper that had three comma splices, two fragments, and some pronoun shifting, but was otherwise strong, what grade would it get?”  The correct answer, I suspected, was “C,” or maybe “D.”  I somehow managed to avoid the question. 

Now of course you know what’s coming in this story.  We changed the curriculum.  Two of the full-time faculty to be hired soon after I was, Jeff Klausman and Brian Patterson, had strong comp backgrounds and insisted, politely, that we update our curriculum.  They began to bring me and others up to speed on research in the field. 

I’ll focus here on our revisions to one course, English 100.  Despite the 100 designation, it was, at the time, considered to be below college level, the course that helped under-prepared students get ready for first-year comp (our 101).  In the old version of 100, students used the rhetorical modes and took standardized grammar quizzes.  They submitted their writing to a panel of English-teacher readers, who determined whether or not they were ready for 101.  The focus of the course was on essay structure and mechanical correctness.  The problem was that many essays “didn’t really say anything.” 

Here, briefly, are some of our revisions to course.  With Brian and Jeff coordinating our work, we began to think of English 100 as the first in a two-quarter first-year composition class, as “Introduction to Academic Writing”—this thinking was based on the stretch model used at other schools.  We revised the objectives and evaluation criteria, pulling the emphasis off of punctuation and onto thinking, as so many others have done.  To support those whose writing did not meet the new criteria, we implemented a two-credit course, to be taken along with English 101.  We changed the makeup of the reading panel, including in it students and faculty from across the disciplines.  These revisions to English 100 have, of course, led to many others.  Our program, courses, and approaches continue to evolve. 

Still sticking with the local, I’d now like to analyze some of the implications of these changes.  To do so, I’ll examine some of the views and needs of the principal players in this story: students, faculty, and theorists. 

First, the students: Like so many community college students, those with whom we work have incredibly diverse backgrounds and abilities.  In his keynote address last year, Lovas noted that, because we accept everyone who applies, “two-year colleges have a much larger proportion [than universities] of students who are both ill prepared and uncertain of their purposes” (275).  The majority of Whatcom students are working on the transfer degree, heading to one of the state’s four-year schools.  The students I know have made it clear that they want whatever information I can give them about how to improve their chances of getting into and succeeding in a university.  They want to present themselves and their ideas effectively. 

The changes we have made to writing instruction at Whatcom have required a shift in thinking for many of these students.  To go with the new program, they have to believe that people really aren’t going to be evaluating them based on the surface details of their writing.  They have to believe they’re not going to be viewed as less capable as a result of  “errors” in their writing.  And too many of them have had experiences that make it hard to believe such a thing. 

Let me illustrate with a brief story of my own.  I’m a first-generation college student, the only one in my family to get a BA.  During my first semester in graduate school, the professor of my Introduction to Graduate Studies course regularly made hostile remarks about the things some of us (I) did not know about the English language.  He wanted to know how I could have made it to graduate school not knowing the difference between principle with an le and principal with an al.  I have a much healthier perspective on his lectures now; then, I felt ashamed and humiliated, out of place. 

As we have made changes to the program at Whatcom, we have attempted to keep in mind students’ material conditions and their views—and stories like this one.  And while we have not done this part as well as we could have, we have taken some steps to ensure student involvement in the revision process.  We have included students in our English 100 reading panel and discussions: they are helping to evaluate student writing and to formulate evaluation criteria.  We have included students as classroom assistants in the two-credit course that supplements English 101.  We talk with Writing Center peer tutors about their observations as they work with writers across the disciplines.  We hope that these and other actions are laying the foundation for more student involvement in the planning and implementing of writing instruction at our college. 

The second group I’d like to discuss is the faculty.  Whatcom faculty have had to shift their thinking, too, and this has been perhaps the biggest challenge.  Brian and I both discovered, early in the process, partly through our own debates, that it was going to be important to take into consideration the views and experiences of the other faculty as we tried to make changes.  Not everyone was wanting to “update.”  We were all teaching English composition at Whatcom, and we had all been making assumptions about what students would need when they moved on to four-year programs and other opportunities.  The assumptions of some of us changed, as we learned more about current composition theory.  The assumptions of others of us did not change, or not as much. 

I myself had mixed emotions about the revisions, especially at first.  Attitudes like my grad school professor’s are perhaps not as common now as they were in the mid-80s, when I knew him, but this experience and others like it made it somewhat difficult for me to refocus my attention as a teacher of college writing.  Even though I’d been wanting to make these kinds of moves, I knew all too well what might await students who “make mistakes” in their writing.  Other faculty and I have had to believe that the changes to our program would benefit, rather than hinder, students.  We are getting there. 

Now to the third category of characters in this story: the theorists.  And then we’ll look again at the concept of “community.”  We at Whatcom have read a lot of theory over the past few years.  Most recently, Brian and I have been particularly interested in Patricia Dunn’s views on using multiple literacies in the writing classroom and Diana George’s ideas about visual literacy.  The most exciting thing about our study is that we can often so easily and directly apply it.  I move from the reading of a journal article to an English 101 classroom or to a conference in the Writing Center: there is no great divide between theory and practice in my work.  As a response to Joseph Harris’ call to focus our work on topics that matter to students, I have this quarter been able to use a popular culture focus for the first time in English 101; and the issue of public discourse has taken on new meaning for all of us in that classroom.  In response to others’ work with service learning, I’m incorporating an option to do some volunteer work in the community.  In response to David Coogan’s discussion of the centripetal and centrifugal aspects of the writing process and Donna Qualley’s views on reflexivity, the students and I are posting our writing to the web and using each other’s writings to more fully develop our understanding of academic and public dialogue and to work on idea generation, development, and voice. 

Not all of my colleagues are doing this kind of work, and part of the reason for the difference is our material conditions.  I am full-time, and half of my load is as Writing Center Director.  There is always way too much to do, but I am not buried under the pile of papers so many of my colleagues are.  I have the luxury of being a community college instructor with time and resources. 

The changes we have made to one program might not seem to matter much to the larger discipline.  They have come late and slowly, in comparison.  You might even feel some impatience as you hear about our reading panel or ridiculously high ratio of part- to full-time faculty or our too recent focus on mechanics and rhetorical modes.  However, we too are part of the group, the public?, that is teaching—and taking—first year composition.  We instructors and students at community colleges are part of the academic public and have some valuable contributions to make. 

As I have read and reread Harris’ article, I have continually thought, as I so often do when reading theory, about community college composition and those teaching and taking it.  Let me return to this line from the article:  “Our job is not to initiate students into a discrete world we think of ourselves as already inhabiting . . . but rather to help them find ways to use the texts, practices, and ideas we have to offer in discussing issues that matter to them” (5).  As we talk about the relationship between community college and university English faculty and instruction, I would ask you to take a similar view of community.  The “community” I’m talking about now is the one Lovas was addressing in his keynote: the group of scholars and teachers of writing.  As a community college instructor, I am and am not a part of that “discrete world we think of ourselves as already inhabiting”: the world of the C’s or of composition scholarship.  I am in that I read the journals and present at the conventions.  I am not in that each time I start to speak, and listen, and read, I am aware that my own material conditions and experiences—and, in some cases, my views—are dramatically different from those of so many others who are actively participating in this discipline. 

I ask that when those of you at universities view my own work and that of the students I know, and the work of the faculty and students at community colleges near you, you think of us all as being part of a larger public that is taking and teaching first-year composition rather than a community of people with similar views and approaches.  I ask that (to bend Harris’ quote a bit here) you join us at the two-year colleges as we attempt to “find ways to use the texts, practices, and ideas [the field] has to offer in discussing the issues that matter most to [us]” (5).

Works Cited

Harris, Joseph. “Beyond Community: From the Social to the Material.”  Journal of Basic Writing 20.2 (2001): 3-15.

Lovas, John. “All Good Writing Develops at the Edge of Risk.”  College Composition and Communication 54 (2002): 264-288.


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA