WPA Assessing and Dreaming

I had another good day of teaching. I know that the secret of teaching writing and enjoying it lies in discovering writing topics that you know your students will enjoy writing about and you will enjoy reading–and not grading. It’s really very simple. I can imagine all the counter arguments–the ones about the importance of academic discourse and everything being an argument and so on. I’m just wondering tonight how the postsecondary structure has trained people to make them believe these arguments–when really, they should know better. They should think about about the wonder of writing, the way in which we find out who we are by writing about it.

My subject for this post is really something else (if I were an idiot writer, I would say, but I digress). It’s about assessment.

First, a plug: Norbert Elliot, Ed White, and I just finished our final changes on the Galleys for a book on program assessment that we wrote. It will be out in March.  Here’s the link:

Very Like a Whale

I have recently imagined a new frame for assessment–too late to get in that book. Here’s the dream:

Let’s imagine you are a new WPA.

You inadvertently stumbled on a new and effective paradigm of teaching writing. Your mantra was transfer of affect. One of your Student Learning Priorities was Self-Directed Learning. You imagined that students would continue to work on their self-sponsored writing if in their classes they enjoyed–like really enjoyed–their writing experiences. You imagined that their positive attitudes would carry over (transfer) into less inviting writing situations. They might even keep writing on the sly.

Most of your faculty seem to be taken up by this idea. Like you, they want to enjoy teaching writing. They don’t think writing should be painful.

So after a few meetings, you and your teachers decide that affect, a positive attitude toward writing, should be the primary objective of writing instruction in the program .

You’re teaching a class in the second semester and you ask your students to write about their histories as writers, their in-class and out-of-class experiences, including their experiences in the first semester writing class of your university.

So they write and when you read their essays, you find they are very explicit about their previous experiences, including their first semester writing experiences.

You are of course happy when they write about their wonderful teachers and writing experiences in Engl 101 (asking them not to use names). You pay attention to why they did–or didn’t–like their 101 (and other) writing classes. As they explain which classes were good, you compare the teaching practices they liked to your own; likewise, when they explain which classes sucked and why they sucked, you compare the suck factor to your own practices.

You realize that there might be an authentic assessment model here. Instead of assessing a writing program by having students perform, you have them inform. Rather than have them submit portfolios or what-have-you with school-writing, you ask for serious communication. You ask them to write and explain, sometimes in painful detail, what they learned or didn’t learn about writing in their previous classes and how these classes affected their attitudes toward writing and themselves as writers. And then you read their essays and through their eyes, you see yourself.

And then as a writing program director, you imagine this as a common practice: teachers self-assessing by reading about themselves through the lens of other teachers. If they’re good teachers, they’ll take their students’ analyses seriously–not without caution–but seriously. As a WPA, you might even be able to get them together to write about and discuss what they have learned through this self-assessment practice.

If you’re a real dreamer, you might even imagine ways of institutionalizing this self-assessment practice and follow-up teaching/writing groups. You imagine ways of tracking changes in student attitude/reports over the years–and in teachers reporting an increase in the pleasure they take in teaching and reading what their students write. You go to bed, happy.

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