Reimagining the PhD

How We Communicate Our Values

On Transfer Students and Writing's Function Beyond Integration into UW
Black and white images of Rebecca Taylor and Joe Wilson.

The experiences of students such as Andy exemplify how hurdles like the WSA reinscribe a myth of linearity in the transition of literacies acquired at community colleges to new writing situations at universities, projecting the appearance of a unidirectional relationship between first-year writing courses and their uptake in students’ future academic careers.

As former English instructors in overseas contexts ranging from Indonesia to Kazakhstan, both of us have cultivated experiences working with multilingual students who want to leverage their diverse linguistic repertoires to engage new publics. This shared investment has motivated our collaborative work at multiple points in our graduate program, including through our current Mellon Collaborative Fellowship for Reaching New Publics. We both also teach composition courses at UW specifically tailored for multilingual students, and this year, we have enjoyed the privilege of teaching the uniquely positioned studio courses (English 115) designed to center topics in TESOL and translation studies with the goal of helping students revise and rethink their current writing. These elective, 2-credit courses are advertised by students’ advisors, the Myplan catalogue, and the English Department’s website to attract international as well as resident multilingual writers. Students who take the class often report their gratitude for the opportunity to share community with other students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. 

This sense of transnational community keeps both of us excited to return to these courses as instructors, especially given the isolating context of the global pandemic. This year, however, both of us were surprised to find a new kind of student self-select to join these communities: students well beyond their first year of study, many of whom had already earned their required composition (C) course credit. These transfer students enrolled in ENGL 115 despite a catalog description that specifically articulated the course as intended for first-year students concomitantly enrolled in a first-year writing course. Moreover, they had little experience using a language other than English, despite 115’s advertising as specifically for “international and multilingual” students. 

We of course reiterated the translational and linguistic aspects of the class from the first week of the quarter, yet these transfer students expressed interest in remaining enrolled. As instructors, we both agreed that the transfer students would benefit from the course topics if they were willing to use the studio to address their writing occurring in other courses. We even witnessed many of our multilingual students gain greater confidence in their writing and linguistic abilities by working collaboratively with the transfer students. Previously insecure in their academic English usage, multilingual students in the studio gained confidence by engaging as peers with these local transfer students. Still, we couldn’t help but wonder what might motivate this latter group of students to initially enroll, even as we were encouraged by their growth as writers and participation in conversations about antiracist, translational praxis. In a course that continues to fly under the radar of many advisors and multilingual students alike, what had brought these students to us in 115?  

A closer look at the academic backgrounds of these students and the writing requirements for their aspirational majors on campus offers an explanation. An aspiring finance major for example, who we’ll call Andy in this post, gestured us toward the writing requirements for the Foster School of Business. Andy had transferred to UW from a Washington state community college this year, and while accepted to the university, he still faced several hurdles before matriculating into the Foster School. He described one of those hurdles as his academic writing ability. Similar to a handful of other majors on campus, the Foster School requires a “Writing Skills Assessment,” or quantitatively assessed writing sample. This writing sample is fed through a decontextualized rubric that claims to measure students’ ability to generate “good writing” through metrics ranging from “argument” to “correctness.” This rubric is decontextualized insofar as it occludes the linguistic and disciplinary values the Foster Business School has designed this assessment to gatekeep: English discourse cultivated in largely White corporate spaces through genres such as business memos and executive summaries neither taught in first-year composition courses nor by course offerings of the business school prior to admission. As instructors who regularly work alongside multilingual students in our courses, we were not unfamiliar with this admissions hurdle—and importantly, the problematic ways it calcifies linguistic prejudice masked as academic literacy. It is not uncommon for us to find a multilingual student in our office hours painfully lamenting the need to quickly rid their English of “errors,” judged by standards of academic writing steeped in Whiteness and tacitly sedimented by disciplinary expectations. 

Students like Andy pointed out that this issue is not only specific to multilingual students. Transfer students are regularly told that their first-year writing courses should have “cleaned up” their English. Rather than positioning writing as a lifelong process and working to help socialize new business majors into new academic and professional practices, the Writing Skills Assessment (WSA) indicates to transfer students such as Andy (who has taken the WSA twice) that their writing education is something that should have been finished at some point in the past. In a desperate attempt to meet these high stakes language and writing assessments, Andy enrolled in English 115, hoping that he could learn alongside multilingual students how to “clean up” his writing in order to gain access to an academic and professional community: one that unfortunately projects that good writing is stable and quantifiably measurable. 

Nearly two decades of scholarship from the disciplines of Rhetoric and Composition, Applied and Sociolinguistics, and New Literacy Studies have proven that a singular notion of “good writing” does not exist, and that writing cannot be decontextualized from audience and genre. Moreover, translingual orientations to composition studies as well as work in critical applied linguistics (CAL) have demonstrated how linguistic prejudice is tied to racial prejudice. The experiences of students such as Andy exemplify how hurdles like the WSA reinscribe a myth of linearity in the transition of literacies acquired at community colleges to new writing situations at universities, projecting the appearance of a unidirectional relationship between first-year writing courses and their uptake in students’ future academic careers. In our research through the Mellon Collaborative Fellowship, we have uncovered how this vertical assumption of writing instruction places considerable pressure on community college teachers to, if not “teach to a test,” dedicate much of their writing courses to preparing students for “good writing” that can pass standardized assessments and disciplinary expectations—expectations that many of the activist-oriented instructors we have interviewed at Seattle Central College unequivocally reject.

Transfer students such as Andy clearly feel this pressure as well. Caught in the liminal space between the community college and his academic program of choice, Andy sought out a studio course that he assumed might help him bridge the gap between the two. His initial goals for the course, as indicated by his responses to an early English 115 “needs assessment” assignment, recapitulated the very language of the Foster School: to “improve transitions,” create a “good argument,” and showcase  “consistent grammar,” skills that he felt he had not mastered to the degree necessary for admission to his desired program. 

While the assumption that first-year writing courses can and should help students reach some mythical standard of “good writing” is perpetuated through myriad admissions criteria, other innovative, cross-institutional work at UW has begun to tackle this assumption head-on. We are excited, for example, by programs such as the Interdisciplinary Honors Program’s Calderwood Seminars for Public Writing: courses that solicit faculty from across disciplines to engage students in writing for broader publics. The faculty for these seminars provide specific, nuanced, and diverse disciplinary and personal approaches to writing for public genres while illuminating ways to intentionally and rhetorically adapt their writing across genres and modalities.

Still, experiences such as Andy’s testify to the need to rethink how the cultivation of writing skills is communicated to students beyond first-year writing courses through assessments such as the WSA, especially in relation to those students who have satisfied their C credits at other institutions. What transformations need to occur so that the labor of community college writing instructors is viewed not in service of decontextualized admissions requirements, but as a valuable contribution to students’ learning about disciplinary conventions and audiences? How might research institutions and community colleges embrace linguistic diversity as a necessary component of realizing broader efforts for diversity on our campuses? And how might we support transfer students such as Andy who might learn new disciplinary practices after admission to the university to realize their aspirations? To answer these questions would require more than expanding access to 2-credit studio courses. It would require faculty across campus to reconsider their assumptions about writing through collaborative initiatives with the English Department to review writing practices and associations, expand or more effectively advertise upper-level writing (W) courses already available on campus, and review and revise both admissions and pedagogical practices to center, rather than occlude and discriminate against, linguistic diversity. Finally, it would require an understanding of writing development as lifelong praxis.

For those of us in English and related departments, this would also entail taking more time to learn about community college instructors' visions for supporting literacy development at their institutions beyond preparing students for integration into standardized writing practices at research institutions, from the business major to the English major. Our conversations with faculty at Seattle Central College during our Mellon Collaborative Fellowship have been invaluable in this regard, and we look forward to extending them beyond the duration of our fellowship term.

Rebecca Taylor and Joe Wilson are both Doctoral Students in the Department of English, as well as 2020-2021 Collaborative Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics. 


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