Seeing Ourselves a New Way: Answering the Census Questions and Next Steps

Holy cats and kittens…we found surprises in the National Census of Writing, and the information has just begun to have an impact on my small, rural community college campus in Washington State. We currently have just over 2,000 annualized FTEs and are geographically isolated, half way between Seattle and Portland. As such, we are the only institution of higher education in our area. Contact with other English and composition departments has most often been through friends in the profession and memberships in professional organizations like TYCA, 4Cs, and NCTE.  We have had a sense of how our work and campus correspond with other small, rural community colleges, but not much verifiable information. We’ve been adrift on the sea of “probably, we think.”

Our first challenge was to figure out how to answer the questions presented by the Census. We hadn’t tried to place ourselves in a larger structure, which seems to reflect assumptions about substantially larger programs and institutions. We had talked around questions like, “are there schools like us?” but we had not tried to work the answers out in a broader context.

The composition load can be daunting on my campus, with each professor teaching up to three five credit composition courses with 24 students in each section. We are constantly running to keep up with the ongoing flow of work. Who has time to contextualize our….. program? Situation? Department? These larger questions are often brushed aside in order to attend to the practical needs of up to seventy-two composition students each fall quarter, (repeat for winter quarter and spring quarter). When we saw the Census data, we recognized that we are a two-year “Associate’s: Public Rural-serving” institution, according to Carnegie units.  Who knew?

We now have a way to “see” ourselves in this broader context. And we are continuing the conversation the Census questions started. We now have a jumping off point and a focus for exploring our choices. We have begun mining the Census data for comparisons and conversations because the data is easily accessible and quickly available. These questions include:

  • What is our structure? And how did we get here? Is there a purpose to our structure that facilitates the best instruction for students and support for faculty? If not, what can we adjust?
  • Can we even put ourselves into a form that allows us to compare with other institutions / programs? Are we unique due to our size and geographic location? Are there parallels to other community colleges that we can consider as we evaluate ourselves?
  • What are the structures other rural public community colleges use? What might we borrow? What should we continue because it serves our campus and the context in which our students exist?
  • Do we have a writing program?

These conversations are more fraught than our colleagues at larger institutions might realize.  For example, that last question would seem to have a simple answer. Do we have a writing program? Yes, and no.

Nearly every student who completes a certificate or degree takes one, if not two college-level composition courses. They may also take several pre-college composition courses, or a program-specific workforce composition course. These courses are administered through three different areas: college preparation, workforce education, or academic transfer. These courses are taught at multiple locations: including main campus, our branch campus in Morton, WA (40 miles to the east of main campus), the Chehalis Tribal Center (16 miles north and west of main campus), and two corrections sites, one outside of Rochester, WA (25 miles from main campus) and the second outside of Shelton, WA (45 miles north and west of main campus). Courses are offered in face-to-face, hybrid and online modalities.  

The college transfer level courses are taught through the English department. The workforce specific courses are taught through the English department as well as the business department. Pre-college courses are taught through the pre-college department. The faculty teaching composition are supervised by five different deans and bureaucratically organized under three different department chairs.

Writing instruction is happening in multiple programs. But do we have a writing program?

Nowhere in the official college is there a flow chart box called “Writing Program.” We do not have a person who is called a writing program director.

We are the Schrödinger's cat of writing programs.

We struggled to answer the question as presented in the National Census questionnaire. Of course we are a writing program. We have curriculum review, we have outcomes, we have course outlines, we have professional training, and we have students in writing classes. We talk about how to best implement pedagogical changes. We document changes in students’ progress through our courses. We work with other composition professionals. We gambol and stretch and learn and struggle to empower our students so that they may move on to their next goals as prepared as possible to use writing proficiently and strategically. 

However, we do all these things through multiple lenses and structures. We are not using an institutional wide writing program to coordinate our actions. So is our fractured structure a way to move most expediently to our goals? Would our structure be enhanced by having an explicit writing program that crossed all disciplines and campus hierarchies? What might we lose by changing to a monolithic program? How would it be administered? And would having a single writing program silence those who need writing instruction to occur in particular ways with students who need a finer grained skill set? Who would we be marginalizing? What ways would a single program both provide institutional power and limit the flexibility of the current organization? And lastly, how might this be financed and staffed (re: how the heck do we pay for a director or a partial director when we are all hands on deck to cover the courses we need to teach)?

The National Writing Census has opened a space for us to have these conversations. It has also provided us with a resource that shows us that there are other institutions of higher education that look a lot like us, and we can learn from their responses to the Census. We are connected in ways that we had not realized. We are a larger “we” than only our campuses, and that is powerful.