To Include is To Excel: Supporting Diverse Writers
In the first three years of the To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty, staff members, and students have developed more than 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re highlighting these projects in this series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.
Several years ago, faculty members in St. Olaf College’s Writing Program set out to examine the effectiveness of two introductory-level courses: Introduction to Academic Writing and Critical Skills in Composition.
Their multi-year assessment enhanced their understanding of how writing curriculum and support serve underrepresented students. As a direct result, they have shifted their approaches to evaluating student writing in order to be more inclusive — and are encouraging colleagues across campus to do the same.
Associate Director of Writing, Speaking, and Academic Support and Assistant Professor of Writing Bridget Draxler ’05 and Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Writing Program Diane LeBlanc share what they learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what they hope the community takes away from it:
What led you to develop this project?
Our project began with a simple question that we were asking ourselves and that colleagues at the college posed to us occasionally: Are students in Writing 107: Introduction to Academic Writing and Writing 110: Critical Skills in Composition learning what we intend in these courses? We had just begun to design an assessment project to answer that question when To Include is To Excel extended a call for proposals related to equity and inclusion in the curriculum. Because Writing 107 and Writing 110 serve students from underrepresented groups, including recent immigrants, refugees, first-generation and low-income students, and students from racial and linguistic minority communities, we recognized an opportune moment to commit to our project. Our assessment experience combined with support from To Include is To Excel enabled us to to develop a study with several parts, known as multiple measure assessment. We assessed student learning with a variety of evidence and involved students as participants and researchers.
What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Our project combined three types of information: data that the college collects, such as student grades and academic habit surveys, responses from group interviews with students and writing tutors, and scores and reflections from faculty/staff scoring workshops. Grade analysis revealed that students who succeed in Writing 107 and Writing 110 performed well as writers in later courses, but this affirmation alone didn’t tell us why or how students succeed, or the impact of these preparation courses. Faculty and staff direct assessment of student writing also was limited, as we assessed student writing (the product) but could not measure students’ dynamic learning (the process). In contrast, interview summaries revealed three patterns. While taking Writing 107 and Writing 110, and in subsequent courses, students sought writing and research help more often, they felt greater agency when responding to feedback about their writing, and they transferred habits and skills necessary to succeed in other writing courses.
Our research reinforced our understanding that writing is central to students’ St. Olaf education. They view their growing identities as writers as deeply connected to a larger developing sense of self. In addition, we learned that the kind of writing instruction and evaluation students receive powerfully shapes their sense of belonging at the college. Our ability as professors to teach rhetorically rather than prescriptively — that is, to see writing not as simplistically right or wrong, but as attuned to the interconnected forces of writer, reader, topic, and context — allows us to more inclusively affirm and welcome the voices of all our students into the scholarly conversation.
We learned that the kind of writing instruction and evaluation students receive powerfully shapes their sense of belonging at the college. Our ability as professors to teach rhetorically rather than prescriptively — that is, to see writing not as simplistically right or wrong, but as attuned to the interconnected forces of writer, reader, topic, and context — allows us to more inclusively affirm and welcome the voices of all our students into the scholarly conversation.
More concretely, in direct response to project results, we have shifted our approaches to evaluating student writing. As we became increasingly troubled by writing rubrics that inevitably privilege certain standards of writing over others, we are experimenting with labor-based grading, modeled on work by rhetoric and composition scholar Asao Inoue. This approach to responding to student writing prioritizes students’ process and growth instead of a single standard of writing.
Our research has affirmed that Writing 107 and Writing 110 are meeting the course goals of equipping students with the writing practices, habits of mind, and confidence to succeed as writers at St. Olaf. Moreso, though, we are both energized by the ways in which our research has shown that these courses go beyond simply introducing students to the conventions of college-level writing. More importantly, students gain the strategies and confidence to advocate for their voices as writers.
What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?Our project uncovered deep variations in the ways that faculty respond to and evaluate student writing at St. Olaf. Faculty and staff who participated in our workshops seemed aware of language and writing as sites of inequity, but they were unsure how their individual assessment practices contributed to or had potential to change larger systemic inequity. We are heartened by the ways in which our colleagues are thoughtfully questioning feedback and grades that over-emphasize errors and affirming writing that represents students’ diverse identities, experiences, and voices. At the same time, students feel ongoing pressure to meet writing standards defined by a dominant language and culture. We hope that our project results continue to inform assignments, feedback, and future assessment to reflect a more inclusive understanding of whose writing is valued in our community.
We hope that our project results continue to inform assignments, feedback, and future assessment to reflect a more inclusive understanding of whose writing is valued in our community.
How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
We hope that colleagues who teach and support St. Olaf’s new General Education curriculum will apply what we’ve learned about inclusive writing instruction to the ways all students experience writing instruction at St. Olaf. We plan to draw from our research to create opportunities where faculty and writing tutors can assess their own bias and learn to respond to variations in student writing and language in Writing and Rhetoric and First-Year Seminar, the two new First-Year Experience courses. This transformation includes recognizing world Englishes and redefining critical ability in ways that decenter white, upper-middle class educational and social experiences. We hope the community supports and participates in these opportunities as part of the college’s larger commitment to anti-racism.
Where does your work go from here?
We co-presented results at two conferences, where colleagues from across the country offered feedback and insights about inclusive teaching, equitable practices in writing classes, and anti-racist assessment. Bridget has written an article on teaching archival research and protest art in Writing 110 for a forthcoming special issue of Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments about social justice. Diane’s essay “Rodeo, Football, and Writing,” forthcoming in Writing on the Edge, draws from her experience as a first-generation, female graduate student and early-career teacher to propose a theory of practice-based writing for first-generation athletes and students of color. In addition, we’re both active in professional organizations for writing centers and writing programs, through which we lead and participate in ongoing conversations about writing assessment. As we pilot labor-based grading in Writing 110, and as we develop models for teaching the new First-Year Experience courses, we are noting from the outset the types of assessment that will measure equity as fundamental to student learning at St. Olaf.