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Serviss and Voss. Researching WPA Expertise in 21st-Century Paradigms. CCC, Feb. 2019. Posted 03/13/2109.

Serviss, Tricia, and Julia Voss. “Researching Writing Program Administration Expertise in Action: A Case Study of Collaborative Problem Solving as Transdisciplinary Practice.” College Composition and Communication 70.3 (2019): 446-75. Print.

Tricia Serviss and Julia Voss urge writing studies to recognize that “twentieth-century disciplinary paradigms” (448) have been replaced by twenty-first-century approaches to research that offer opportunities for rhetoric and composition/writing studies (RCWS) to assert the field’s disciplinarity in ways that highlight its particular expertise.

The authors draw on long-standing scholarship in RCWS to argue that the twentieth-century approach, in which “research” primarily involves building “agreed-upon content knowledge” (450), has “historically pitted RCWS’s teaching, research, and administrative mandates against one another” (446). They document efforts to develop recognition of writing studies as an academic field with intellectual weight that have led scholars to define administrative work as research or, in some cases, to suggest that RCWS practitioners engaged in cross-disciplinary work should consider “strategically downplaying” the field’s shared content (449).

In the authors’ view, conflicted views of what constitutes research in RCWS have further led writing professionals to focus on local, small-scale actions as sources for knowledge claims and to rely on “experiential narratives of WPA work” (448), strategies that the authors feel limit awareness of the transferability of WPA expertise.

Serviss and Voss cite Karen Bishop in designating the divide between research and administrative activity as a “false binary” (448). They argue that the shift in research paradigms specifically aligns with what they consider the expertise that RCWS is especially positioned to offer (449-50). They contend that new paradigms focus on activity and collaboration, the hallmarks of WPA work:

[T]wenty-first-century disciplinarity [is] characterized by a focus on wicked problems that demand the expertise of multiple disciplines, an emphasis on practical and applied research addressing real-world needs, and accountability of researchers to stakeholders. (450)

The authors cite Michael Gibbons, who claims that new research approaches must shift from benefitting only a specific discipline in order to address “the needs of society, government, or industry” and must circumvent “hyperspecialization” to allow experts from different disciplines to pool their abilities and “produce work that is greater than the sum of its parts” (471n4).

Among the concepts examined by Serviss and Voss is “new disciplinarity” in which disciplines become “communities of practice”; in such approaches, activity becomes central to a discipline’s identity (450-51). The authors further apply the precepts of “transdisciplinarity” in which the focus shifts to “how” disciplines deploy their expertise (451; emphasis original). They analyze the transdisciplinary approach of Justin K. Rademaekers, who proposes that in working together on a problem, disciplinary contributors “transcending” their disciplinary identities can create a narrow area of consensus that will enable collaboration for the problem at hand (451-52).

The example the authors present of RCWS specialists working across disciplines in problem-solving, in their view, demonstrates that disciplinarity need not be transcended and prior consensus is not necessary. They argue that their example illustrates how RCWS specialists can participate as experts in a transdisciplinary project, asserting their legitimacy in twenty-first-century research (452-53).

Serviss and Voss were two of the seven members of an interdisciplinary group with a shared concern about student writing, critical thinking, and information literacy. In addition to the two RCWS specialists, the group included faculty at different levels and professional staff expert in cross-campus learning initiatives, assessment, and quantitative measurement. One member specialized in comparative politics, another in communication, and a third in civil engineering.

This group, based at Santa Clara University, a “midsized private liberal arts university in northern California,” attended the four-day 2016 Teaching and Learning National Institute at Evergreen State College’s Washington Center for Undergraduate Education (454). During the Institute, the group developed “a three-year plan that became the SWIRL (Success in Writing, Information, and Research Literacy) Initiative.” This initiative addressed issues with student writing across campus, focusing on upper-level writing (455).

The authors report on SWIRL to highlight the “rarely documented methods of writing-program building in real time” (455), emphasizing how “activities rooted in rhetorical practices of RCWS” were integral to the team’s efforts (456).

The article recounts the roles of different disciplinary approaches in the first step of defining the problem, as members drew on different kinds of evidence, such as large-scale assessment data versus direct assessment research advanced by the RCWS faculty (457). The authors present the emphasis on problem development and an understanding of the social nature of problem “invention” as integral to the RCWS expertise contributing to the group (456). Team members had to “persuade” their colleagues of the validity and relevance of their data in order to “incrementally” arrive at a “shared understanding” from which to proceed (458).

The writers’ intent is to provide a thorough, concrete analysis of how “WPA program-building heuristics” functioned in a transdisciplinary context in which the diversity of disciplinary expertise enabled the development of a cross-campus initiative (460). A central feature of such twenty-first-century processes, the authors contend, is the way in which disciplinary difference brought a wide range of expert views into the collaborative effort without requiring team members to downplay their expertise (468).

Among the features of the collaboration drawn from WPA expertise are the use of “backward design,” that is, beginning with outcomes and working backward to determine how they can be met (472n9). WPA practices like “collaborative visual invention” (for example, the use of chalkboards to capture ideas and processes) (464), and “collaborative programmatic scaffolding and planning” (WPAs were among those recommending the use of a GANTT chart) (461, 466) were central to this effort. The authors emphasize that the choice of these tactics did not emerge from prior discussion but rather from the diverse expertise brought to bear as the team defined and worked toward its goal (461). The focus was on “a common problem” rather than “common knowledge, vocabulary, and methods” (469; emphasis original).

The authors urge more explicit research on the WPA practices that align with the twenty-first-century paradigm. Such research, they argue, can make more visible “the value of the complicated work we do” (467).

Like all research traditions, WPA scholarship needs to account not only for our work as deliverable products . . . but also the expert methods that we develop, refine, adopt, adapt, and master as we work with others on these deliverable products. (467)