More on slow numbers

At Western, courses started last Monday, and though we don’t have the ten-day numbers yet, I’m still thinking about declining enrollment in my department, particularly our composition program, and my WPA presentation about it, which I’m slowly expanding into an article. (Yay, sabbatical.) At the conference, I heard about several other schools in similar situations, including Northern Illinois. And every community college faculty member I encountered spoke of huge increases. For example, Eileen Ferretti at Kingsborough CC noted they’ve seen a 40% jump in enrollment over the last year. They’re having trouble finding room for classes. These are just two stories, preliminary evidence that the changes we are seeing at Western are not unique to us. The conversations I’ve had confirm my thinking: it will be very hard to reverse this trend by enacting new requirements, changing transfer rules, or otherwise trying to force students back into courses. All of those actions amount to trying to preserve our monopoly on composition. I don’t think we can continue thinking only in terms of protecting that monopoly (weak as it is). We have to strengthen other parts of our program, and find ways to become more flexible.

As usual, I turn to computing for inspiration: what about Agile? There’s a strong parallel between many writing programs and traditional software development methods Agile position itself against. Both are focused on single products which take years to develop and change infrequently. Both are organized in a “waterfall” pattern, with clear delineation between stages, and linear progression: programs are designed, coded, debugged, and shipped; in composition, students are tested, placed, and sequenced. Both traditional development and traditional composition assume, perhaps unwittingly, that customers will keep coming backā€”and have to keep coming back.

I think we can adapt Agile’s core values to build a new philosophy for writing programs. What would it mean, like the Agile folks, for writing programs to favor the left side of these oppositions?

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: focus less on the processes and tools of our composition course sequences, and their assumed knowledge transfer to upper division courses, and more on evaluation of student writing capacity and engagement. Increase attention to individuals, and seek more interaction with other parts of the university.
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation: be more willing to experiment, sacrificing formality for innovation. Break out of course- and track-oriented thinking when possible. Seek curricular structures which allow for changes which don’t require a lot of paperwork. Provide documentation with form and content consistent with other principles here, but never at the cost of production.
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: here “customer” can be read broadly, both as students (yes, I know that raises eyebrows) and other educational institutions. In the first case: do we turn often enough to students (directly and indirectly) when determining requirements, tracking them through programs, and understanding their progress? In the second case: how do we approach working with community colleges? High schools considering dual enrollment? Other areas of the university?
  4. Responding to change over following a plan: might be the most difficult to disrupt since universities love their strategic plans (especially WIU; “Higher Values in Higher Education” is locked down as the main feature on the WIU web site). For me, the approach should be allowing change to feed back to revisions in the plan. Management should also ensure the freedom to respond exists, avoiding micromanagement or imposition of interpretations of plans in a manner which crushes individual ability to respond to (or even anticipate) change.

Certainly, we can map some things already happening in writing programs onto these broad ideas: WAC hopes to build university-wide relationships; portfolio assessments ask students to think about writing over long time spans, etc. But the point here isn’t to find correlations between existing practices and Agile; that may be interesting, but it’s more evaluative than generative. Rather, I want to conceptualize approaches and practices better fitted to what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of our programs today–not last year’s, or those from five years ago.

I’ll post another update once those 10-day numbers come out.

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