Saturday, June 14, 2014

IWAC 2014: Where did the currents take me?

I just returned from the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference at the University of Minnesota, and I have to say it was one of my best conference experiences yet. The presentations were engaging, the people were open and friendly, and Minneapolis was a great city.

During my brief two days there, I managed to sit in on 5 panels, one in which I presented, a keynote, and an incredible plenary session. In truth, it made me a little sad that I'm not a WAC WPA because I would have loved the opportunity to implement some of the ideas that were discussed at the universities where I am involved in writing pedagogy.

The Panels

Here is a brief overview of the titles of the panels that I attended:
  • Role Reversal: When Students Teach Faculty in WAC Programs - Deanna Daniels & Brandy Grabow, Kate Ronald & Lucy Manley, and Greg Skutches
  • Writing Beyond the Curriculum - Nicole Papaioannou, Dan Reis & Caroline Klidonas, and KaaVonia Hinton & Yonghee Suh
  • Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography - Anne Ruggles Gere, Naomi Silver, & Melody Pugh
  • Teaching Meaningful Writing: What Faculty Say About Writing Assignments in Their Disciplines - Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, & Neal Lerner
  • Multimodal Literacy: Writing, Reading, & Transfer - Andrea Glover, Maggie Christensen, and G. Travis Adams
I will take some time to address the larger issues in each of these panels in separate posts, but I wanted to recap some of the big questions that I've started to ask as a result of these panels and some of the discussion that followed. I picked one large question that was sparked by each.
  • Does the campus culture empower students?
  • How can on-campus organizations make use of student writers and also enhance student writing?
  • How do we frame disciplines? Should we moving toward a theory of centers rather than a theory of boundaries?
  • What makes a writing assignment meaningful?
  • Should we shift to a WRAC model (writing and reading across the curriculum)?
These questions may be brief in text, but responses are complex, and the ways in which those responses shape student learning experiences and faculty development are important.

The Plenary

The plenary session focused on creating sustainable WAC programs and was led by an A-team of scholars-- Chris Anson, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Chris Thaiss, Linda Adler-Kassner, and Bob McMaster-- who role-played how they would deal with a failing, under-resourced WAC program (a very cool divergence from the traditional plenary talk). Anson would propose scenarios, building the complexities facing the school bit by bit, and the 5 others would respond on the fly. They did not know what they would be asked beforehand.

 As some who hopes to be a WPA one day, I was really intrigued by how the scholars embodied the different thought processes, concerns, and strengths of each individual involved in a WAC initiative, ranging from department chairs to WAC directors to provosts to students. I thought, aside from having a bit of fun, they were incredibly in-tune with those that they served and incredibly empathetic. It helped me see what I might come up against should I someday be invited to try to enhance or save a WAC program.

The speakers reminded the audience that sustainability went beyond a current context and a current moment and planned for the future. The solution also had to be built within the framework of the local context with input from all stakeholders (as much as possible, that is). Top-down initiatives would feel imposing and oppressive and often fail to effectively use the strengths of the parties involved. Collaboration, where possible, is a wonderful thing.
The most important things I took away were:

  1. Understand the campus climate and be prepared to work within it, even if the aim is to change it. No model is one-size-fits-all when it comes to campus writing initiatives.
  2. Be sensitive to people's fears and frustrations. See challenges as moments for reflection, negotiation, or collaborative education.
  3. Bring joy into the work. Focus on the pleasures of learning from one another and the pleasure of writing.
What seems evident from these talks and discussions is that the people here really care about their students and their colleagues. While many people were doing serious research, it was easy to see how much of it could be put into practice and was largely aimed at contributing to a positive learning environment for everyone involved. IWAC really made me excited about the work I'm doing, the field that I intend to contribute to, and continued interactions with the people who I am privileged to call my colleagues. I'm looking forward to (fingers crossed) attending again in 2016.

I would love to hear from IWAC-attendees about their experiences at the conference and from those interested in campus writing initiatives what to make of some of these big questions and themes.

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