Jeff Rice has some interesting posts about Writing Program Administration issues, here and here. You might be better off getting to that second link by going directly to Jeff Rice’s main index page, because the links to some snappy WPA (as in Workers Progress Administration) posters that seem to have a lot of connection with Writing Program Administration. Take a look and you’ll see.
One of the things that caught me with this talk on Jeff’s site is the postings from Nick Carbone, an all-around smart guy and good writer who works for St. Martin’s press. I like what Nick had to say on Jeff’s blog and then on his own blog, but what pleased me more was that Nick is back in the blog business in earnest! I thought he’d kind of stopped blogging….
Anyway, I try to keep a delicate balance when it comes to first year writing.
On the one hand, I kind of agree with a lot of the critiques that Jeff has of the system, of the need to order, of the influence of the “textbook business” on the process. A part of me also agrees with the critique of Sharon Crowley, who (basically) argues that first year composition is more or less a waste of time and the way that it is staffed (largely with under-paid and disempowered part-timers and/or grad students) is unethical.
On the other hand, the textbook business, while indeed a “for-profit” business, is more or less propelled by academic folks like both me and Jeff. I mean, I’ve had a textbook in the works for years, and Jeff has one out right now. There is the textbook business “out there,” but a lot of the textbook business is made of the people who critique it.
Apart from the textbook issue, I actually think first year writing courses can do a lot of good for both the students who take it and the people who teach it. With all the problems of large first year writing programs (and every Writing Program Administrator knows there are a lot of problems with even the best of programs), I still think they overall serve students well in the sense that students learn a bit more about writing, about culture, about academic life.
It seems to me the biggest problem with first year composition is actually unrealistically high expectations about what the course can accomplish, this idea that if students were to just take this one course, all of their writing “problems” will be fixed forever. That never did work, it never will work, and we as a profession need to do a better job at lowering these expectations. And that actually gets me back to what Jeff is writing about: there is a tone to a number of the textbooks for the class that they can “neatly” solve writing problems that can’t be solved. In that sense, I am not sure that the textbook business and the people writing for the textbook business are making the job of Writing Program Administrator any easier.