Mya Poe (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts) is Director of Technical Communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has a joint appointment in the Program in Writing and the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program. Her research focuses on race, genre, and writing across the curriculum. At MIT, she teaches Rhetoric of Science and works with science and engineering faculty to integrate writing and speaking instruction in undergraduate and graduate courses. Her co-authored book Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering: Case Studies From MIT (MIT Press, 2010) provides case studies of 17 MIT students as they learn to write and speak like professionals. She is currently working on an edited collection with Asao Inoue on race and racism in writing assessment. Her articles have appeared in College Composition and Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, and the Journal of Business and Technical Communication.
The Ivy Plus Writing Consortium is an organization including program directors from Ivy League, small liberal arts colleges, and other selective schools who are dedicated to sharing issues relevant to teaching writing at Ivy Plus institutions. Topics relevant to Ivy Plus members include addressing the needs of students served at Ivy Plus institutions, managing the infrastructures often at place in such institutions (e.g., many programs are run by non-tenure track, full-time directors), and teaching writing in a way that is consistent with the goals of these institutions.
Every year since the early 1990s, the members of the Ivy Plus Consortium have met at an annual meeting, sponsored by one of the participating institutions. In October 2009, the members of the Ivy Plus Writing Consortium met at Brown University to discuss issues of diversity in the writing classroom: Programmatic and Assessment Responses to Issues of Diversity in the (Writing) Classroom. The meeting featured talks by two keynote speakers—Dennis Williams, Director of the Georgetown Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (http://cmea.georgetown.edu/), and Mya Poe, Director of Technical Communication at MIT. Williams spoke about the Georgetown Community Scholars Program, a bridge program for 60 incoming students who represent a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds and are often first generation college students. Poe shared insights from contributors to her forthcoming collection of essays on race and writing assessment (co-edited with Asao Inoue), Race and Racism in Writing Assessment. In discussing examples of research from the book, she described the varied approaches that contributors took to investigating race and student writing in different contexts. By making race a focus of research on writing assessment, for example, one contributor was able to uncover how certain institutional practices led to racial tracking of students into writing classes at his college.
Following the two presentations, the Ivy Plus members met in break-out groups for discussion and then re-convened to share their ideas and suggestions. The following questions were raised by Ivy Plus members in the group discussion. In sharing the questions raised by the Ivy Plus members, we hope that other CCCC members will find that we share many of the same concerns. Such questions reveal the scope and complexity of addressing diversity at all levels of our programs, and they invite us to engage with other institutions in continuing a dialog on diversity.
In addition to the questions raised by Ivy Plus members, we also share examples of diversity initiatives in which we participate at our institutions and helpful resources, such as Ronald Ferguson’s Toward Excellence with Equity: An emerging vision for closing the achievement gap.
Writing Program Administration
- What practical steps can program directors take to address race?
- What should program directors do with the data they collect?
- How do we address issues of diversity after first year writing? How do we address bias in faculty assessments? How do we teach tutors and TAs about these issues?
- How do we raise questions of race within our institutional hierarchies?
- What kinds of issues in advising are raised by advance assessments that “pre-sort” students? What if there’s a tendency to pre-sort minority students but not legacy applicants with comparable records?
- What do we do about remediation when it comes to race? Are we providing remediation or a right to an educational future?
- How do we promote bridge programs and community scholars programs that encourage good writing practices? How do we get our institutions to recognize the outcomes of bridge programs and community scholars programs?
- Why is it that under-represented minority students are singled out for remediation when legacy applicants have equally poor SAT scores?
- How does an agenda for teaching writing intersect with the agenda for teaching race?
- How do we address student pushback to talking about race?
- How do we bring different perspectives into the classroom?
- Does reading diverse texts lead to tolerance or better understanding of diversity?
- What issues do we want to engage with when we bring in diverse reading material and writing topics into our classrooms?
- Does this generation of students bring a new attitude to diversity? What are students learning about diversity in high school? What are they prepared to do and what do they want to know?
- Because there are a range of “diversities” – by race, class, religion, gender, learning styles, etc.—should the cohering goal perhaps be to engender civility and empathy in the classroom?
- What do we talk about when we talk about diversity?
- How do we understand diversity in our students?
- How does a university view of writing promote a certain rhetorical position in regards to race?
- Why is embracing remediation so problematic, especially when some students, such as international students, seek that extra support?
- How do we make diversity a series of intellectual projects to share with undergraduates and graduate students?
Diversity Initiatives at Ivy Plus Institutions
Brown University: Excellence at Brown is a free, five-day program that orients incoming students to Brown's academic and campus culture. Offered from August 30 to September 4, the week before general Orientation, the program includes five seminars taught by distinguished Brown professors from a range of academic disciplines. Short reading assignments serve as the basis for seminar discussions, and students work one-on-one with graduate-student staff at Brown's Writing Center to learn the elements of successful academic writing across the curriculum.
Excellence at Brown provides an intense, fun, meaningful academic experience that puts students in a position to thrive at Brown. Throughout the week, students have the chance to make connections with other students in the program and to learn about Brown's campus. By the time Orientation begins, students are ready to immerse themselves in Brown's rich living and learning environment.
Dartmouth College: Dartmouth College most directly serves its population of diverse student writers in Writing 2-3, a two-term course sequence that we offer to 105 of our under-prepared writers. These writers, identified for placement largely by SAT and ACT scores, are required to undergo an online placement process that asks them to answer a few questions about their writing history and writing confidence, and to produce a writing sample based on a prompt that we give them. The instructors reading these essays recommend placement into either Writing 2-3 or Writing 5 (the writing course required of most of Dartmouth's incoming students). Placement is made without awareness of ethnicity --although students who declare themselves as ESL or bi-lingual are evaluated with these issues in mind. Once they receive our placement recommendation, students may accept or reject that placement, a policy that ensures that enrollment in Writing 2-3 is voluntary. Nevertheless, we have no shortage of volunteers--we yearly compile a waitlist of students who request the course but cannot be accommodated.
The population of Writing 2-3 is diverse -- 2.5x more diverse than the typical Dartmouth classroom. This diverse population includes international students, African-American students, Native American students, Hispanic students, and students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds working alongside European-American students. Course content often focuses, directly or indirectly, on issues of diversity. Writing, reading, critical thinking, and research instruction is rigorous, designed so that students will emerge from 2-3 on par with their peers.
To help students navigate the rigor of the course, we have an extraordinarily committed faculty, supported by a staff of graduate teaching assistants who meet with each Writing 2-3 student once a week to offer individualized writing instruction. The program, we believe, is working: not only do our students go on to succeed in their first-year seminars (the second part of Dartmouth's first-year writing requirement), but one has gone on to become a valedictorian, another has been named a salutatorian, and several others have gone on to be Presidential Scholars or to win honors for their senior theses.
Yale University: In practice, the writing program at Yale recognizes two kinds of diversity: that of international students, and that of non-European American students. Our resources for international students are better developed. We offer an interactive reading and writing session during their orientation, we have an Associate Director in the writing program who helps writing faculty work with their ESL students, and we provide specially trained tutors such that every international freshman in a writing course may request a private writing tutor. Yale also offers an orientation program for freshman who identify with African, Asian, Latino, or Native American culture. (Each group also has an Assistant Dean in Yale College who coordinates ongoing support and enrichment.) The Writing Center offers an interactive reading and writing session during this orientation, too, but we have no additional writing support directed primarily at these students. Note that we offer 4,500 tutoring sessions a year that are open to everyone. One thing we don't know is whether students in these two groups use tutoring more, less, or just as often as European-American students. We're trying to figure out a way to track this usage without introducing stereotype threat.
MIT: Following several recent research projects, the MIT WAC program has begun to investigate diversity issues across the curriculum. In one initiative, a collaborative program with universities in Mexico, we are working toward understanding how to bridge cultural and institutional differences as we shape an international WAC model.
In another year-long study of 17 students in 7 science and engineering departments, we found that nationality could play an important role in student learning, ranging from student interactions with mentors to how students interacted on teams. For example, one participant in our study was worried about openly critiquing international scientific funding since he was returning to Israel after graduation. Because funding is limited is Israel, he needed to maintain good connections with his U.S. collaborators. In another case, grant reviewers noted “errors” in the writing of a researcher who spoke English as his second language. Even though the scoring rubric included no criterion for language use, reviewers considered language fluency in their scoring practices. Such instances are worthy of further investigation in the MIT WAC program because they have important implications for the ways that we teach writing across the curriculum.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bryn Mawr College