More Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) Coming to Community Colleges?

Typically, community colleges’ English departments have writing program administrators (WPAs), although they are not commonly called such. A “WPA,” according to “The Portland Resolution” adopted by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) and published in 1992, may have these kinds of responsibilities, among others:

  • hiring and evaluating writing/English part- and full-time professors,
  • developing and scheduling writing/English curriculum,
  • coordinating pre-transfer level writing/English courses,
  • assessing writing/English courses,
  • coordinating pedagogy and syllabi at the writing/English course-level,
  • and implementing various support services to improve student writing, e.g., a writing center or writing-across-the-disciplines program.

Because this describes what English department chairs and curriculum coordinators, among others, do at community colleges, we may consider that WPAs are working at community colleges.

But, because California community colleges are accredited by ACCJC (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges), WPA positions may be increasing in general at community colleges. To be specific, as of June 2014, ACCJC requires all community college programs to include (and access) written communication in their learning outcomes (“Accreditation Standards” 6). Ironically, even while California four-year universities are addressing this same level of accountability created by its accreditor WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) (“Core Competency FAQs” 1), California community colleges seriously question whether ACCJC should be their accreditor as recently reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education (“California’s Community Colleges Can’t Live with Accreditor, Can’t Live without It,” “California’s Community Colleges Seek a New Accreditor,” “Why California Is Trying to Ditch Its Community-College Accreditor”).

This article provides the background for the written communication requirement, speculates on how this requirement may affect community college WPAs, and addresses the problematic nature of ACCJC’s ability to accredit four-year degree programs at California community colleges.

Background. In 2013 Handbook of Accreditation, WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) asked senior colleges and universities “to describe how the curriculum addresses each of the five core competencies, explain their learning outcomes in relation to those core competencies, and demonstrate, through evidence of student performance, the extent to which those outcomes are achieved” (“Core Competency FAQs” 1). Specifically, WASC encouraged major degree programs to assess the five core competencies—(1) written and (2) oral communication, (3) quantitative reasoning, (4) informational literacy, and (5) critical thinking. According to WASC, “[b]ecause most students take major courses right to the end of their studies, there are advantages in embedding core competencies into the assessment of the major or professional field” (“Core Competency FAQs” 2-3).

So what does all this have to do with California community colleges accredited by Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)?

A year later, ACCJC published Accreditation Standards (Adopted June 2014); and therein, under the heading, “Standard II: Student Learning Programs and Support Services, A. Instructional Programs,” (see point 11), community colleges are encouraged to include “in all of [their] programs, student learning outcomes, appropriate to the program level, in [written and oral] communication competency, information competency, quantitative competency, analytic inquiry skills, ethical reasoning, the ability to engage diverse perspectives, and other program-specific learning outcomes” (6). This leads to the question, how might assessing the core competencies, specifically written communication, in all a community college’s programs affect the work of WPAs there? Possible answers unfold first by defining who community-college WPAs are and second by suggesting how they may be affected by community colleges’ assessing written communication-across-the-curriculum.

Community Colleges’ WPAs. In 2014, Heather Ostman’s book – Writing Program Administration and the Community College – offered a definitive and comprehensive description of who WPAs are at community colleges. In general, like their counter-parts at universities, they know composition pedagogy and understand “relevant positions statements” written by national English organizations: NCTE, CCCC, and MLA (103). In addition, community college WPAs, like university WPAs, are typically responsible for curriculum development, faculty hiring, program development, textbook evaluation, writing-across-the-curriculum, faculty evaluation, class schedules, placement, course articulation, assessment, and/or  English advisement (103-149). But, community-college WPAs are unlike university WPAs in significant ways as well.

For example, community-college WPAs’ responsibilities typically are not reflected in job titles such as these: dean, chair, assistant chair, professor, director, coordinator, lead faculty, or adjunct (Ostman 10, 100-149; Taylor 216-133). Also, in general and unlike their university counterparts, community-college WPAs typically teach students who possess diverse cultural, language, and socio-economic backgrounds as is appropriate and vital to the community college mission (Ostman 13-56). Furthermore, community-college WPAs are English faculty members who, as a group, possess diverse educational backgrounds and professional training, more so than their university counterparts (Ostman 103-105). Also, in contrast to typical university WPAs, community college WPAs are concentrated in English departments whose curriculum is predominately defined by transferable writing courses but also may include developmental and ESL courses; these same community college English departments may also may include writing centers or student support services (Ostman 3-11, 57-149).

But perhaps what most distinguishes community-college WPAs from their university counter-parts is that, first, their writing courses provide a “service” to other institutions (Ostman 9) and second, a community college WPA’s responsibilities and decisions are shared among peers (Ostman 98-100).

Regarding the first point, because of the WASC core competencies—including the written communication competency—ACCJC expects, expects its accredited community colleges to “certify[y] that the expected learning outcomes for transferred courses are comparable to the learning outcomes of its own courses,” i.e., community colleges’ learning outcomes need to be equivalent to those for similar courses at the universities (Accreditation Standards (Adopted June 2014) 6). Theoretically then, this strategy means that community college students are prepared to write in university courses.

Regarding the second important characteristic of community-college WPAs—that they value and promote a shared decision-making process and typically solicit input from their colleagues or a committee (Osterman 98-99)—this suggests that possibly, given the ACCJC accreditation requirement in written communication, WPA work will increase in departments other than English.

Considering extensive survey data collected from community college English professors, Tim Taylor describes this collective decision-making process as “decentered” (129). Based on the data, he concludes that a community-college English professor expects the community-college WPA to be a “fellow practitioner who can provide direction for a writing program while honoring, respecting, and productively critiquing diverse approaches to teaching writing” (132). In contrast, also according to Taylor, university WPAs have a “centered” approach to WPA work given that their WPA title often includes having subordinates who may carry out WPA decisions, for example the Composition Director who supervises graduate and/or teaching assistants or the Writing Center Director who supervises tutors and/or staff (129).

In short, the ACCJC focus on written communication may become an impetus for California community colleges to re-define WPA work as more collegial and less hierarchical, as compared to university WPA work.

Changing Community College WPAs. In her 2014 book, Ostman suggests that community-college WPAs are in a “new era” (150-179). In this new era, we are involved in re-shaping developmental studies (156-162) and integrating new media into learning outcomes (164-167). Also, still according to Ostman, we—community-college WPAs—“can not avoid engaging in disciplinary discussions about multiple literacies and multimodal composing practices” (169) and have “to take into account not just what constitutes ‘college-level writing,” but also what constitutes ‘good writing’” (170). So how exactly will this new era manifest itself?

Ostman suggests (and predicts), we will continue to evolve our composition pedagogy to promote multimodal composition and multiple literacies (173-174), re-define our program level assessment (174-177), and become more engaged in the politics that affect writing curriculum and pedagogy (167-173, 177-179). And while doing so, we may become more like our university counterparts: we may be increasing our participation research/assessment at the community college, our integration of scholarship into WPA decisions, and our involvement with other institutions of higher education. In a 2013 CCC article, not only do scholars, Holly Hassel and Joanne Baird Giordano, argue that community college English faculty are evolving or should evolve in these ways, they also suggest, as does Ostman (167-187), that writing at the community college should occupy a greater place in composition and English studies at the national level.

So while fulfilling this expanded scope of responsibilities, will we, community-college WPAs, become more like our university counterparts? Possibly. Or possibly we will affect change independent of, or in collaboration with, universities—create new versions of centered and decentered WPA work.

Down to earth, the ACCJC’s focus on written communication may mean that we, as community-college WPAs—mainly English professors—find ourselves responding more to requests from programs embedding and assessing written communication into their learning outcomes. Subsequently, we/English professors/WPAs may find ourselves advocating for additional compensation and/or resources for accepting these new responsibilities. Or, we may find ourselves advocating to re-organize existing writing programs to better facilitate new initiatives; and again, we request additional resources to support our efforts. The ACCJC mandate on written communication may be understood as an opportunity, in other words. It may not only affect our relations with universities but also affect our relations with area high schools. By sharing resources, we may both create less of a need for developmental or non-transferrable writing courses as well as increase our students’ preparation for writing at universities. In other words, community-college WPAs may be forging new relationships within English departments as well as across the community college campus, perhaps in part because of the ACCJC mandate and perhaps because we continue to explore the centered-decentered continuum in WPA work in general.

ACCJC’s Role. In November and December of 2015, at the state and federal levels, criticism of ACCJC’s legitimacy as an accreditor reached a critical level so that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, that oversees all accrediting agencies in the country, decided to limit ACCJC’s ability to accredit California community colleges’ four- year programs to just six more months (“Why California Is Trying to Ditch Its Community-College Accreditor”). The Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Brice Harris, while “condemning the accreditor [asks] that the commission be allowed to continue to accredit the colleges that have already been approved for bachelor’s degrees” (“California’s Community Colleges Can’t Live with Accreditor, Can’t Live without It,” “California’s Community Colleges Seek a New Accreditor,” “Why California Is Trying to Ditch Its Community-College Accreditor”). In other words, Harris wants accreditation to continue longer than six months for the 11 four-year degree programs at community colleges that are already accredited by ACCJC. Valid accreditation is necessary for, among other reasons, community colleges to be able to offer federal student aid to students in the four-year programs.

So, on one level, as long as ACCJC’s accredits California community colleges, the work for WPAs at the colleges may increase due to complying with the standard that all community college programs need to teach and access written communication. On another level, given that WASC requires the same standard of four-year universities, this situation may suggest shared equitable between two- and four-year institutions in higher education in California. However, if ACCJC is not the accreditor for four-year degree programs taught at California community colleges, then will the study of writing at community colleges be less than preparatory for what’s expected at our four-year universities? Will the mandate to better develop written communication across the curriculum be less strong?

 

 

rich-mCurrently, Richard N. Matzen, Jr. is a professor in the Writing Department at Woodbury University. There, he founded the writing center and first-year composition program as well as served as writing program director or department chair for ten years. He has published articles and chapters in peer review venues and founded and leads the Critical Transition Consortium, an alliance between select Los Angeles universities and community colleges that creates an annual conference to support part-time, community college and university English professors who teach first-year composition courses.

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