by Remica L. Bingham-Risher

Since completing my profile included in the book Writing Program Architecture: Thirty Cases for Reference and Research, I am still a swirl of questions when thinking about how to teach (and champion) the importance of writing. In my personal life, writing has always been a mechanism for solving problems. It has helped me navigate how I feel, what I’ve come to understand and articulate how I’ll continue seeking out answers. So it is no surprise that writing has found its way into every part of my professional life (I earned degrees in English and Writing and Literature; I teach Craft and Literature courses; I’ve just published my third book of poems and I oversee a large faculty development program that focuses on disciplinary writing). As a writing program administrator, though, much of my job is trying to parse through the political questions that arise when helming a writing program. As such, just in the past few months I’ve been asked to speak to various constituencies about 1.) how writing affects student learning, 2.) why continuous training in writing builds more prepared and valuable professionals and 3.) what the biggest challenges are to helping students, faculty and administrators understand this import, so questions abound.

In my current role, I’ve been reminded that how we feel about writing often goes back to our foundations. What kind of scaffolding are we given as students? What tools do we walk into the university holding? How does the difference in foundations lead to different paths to building those skills? And what is the ultimate goal of degree programs that include written communication as a core outcome—to help students make a ‘perfect structure’ i.e. communicate wisely and effectively in almost any setting? If so, how do we convince students of writing’s practical value? Is it taboo to use the term “practical value” at liberal arts institutions (as I was once told by a colleague)?

With all of these questions looming, my interest in contributing to the profiles in this text was multi-fold. First, I was interested in adding a snapshot of my particular experience to the fray of others because my trajectory as a professional has been so non-typical of what many believe will be the case once graduate school is behind them. I mentor graduate students and often explain that there are many ways to use the tools of a wordsmith other than the traditional faculty tenure-track path (not a bad path by any means, but not the path for all, and not the path that has worked for me). Second, I began crafting the profile that appears in the text just a few years into my current position, where we were building my program from the ground up. To be clear: I am not the writing program at my university (as is sometimes the case and is further addressed in the book’s introduction). In fact, as I imagine might often be the case at an institution our size (~30,000 students), the issue is often how to best align the many moving parts in a student’s writing trajectory. We have several writing program administrators at Old Dominion University and each of our programs were built at different times to respond to different institutional needs, so aligning them is a challenge. Further, addressing the needs of each individual student is nearly impossible, as they’ve all come to us with divergent perceptions and foundations for their ideas about writing and whether or not they feel it is a ‘skill’ they can master. Because of all these factors, I thought it was important to create a blueprint of the program as it was early on, as a point of reference for others who might be building and for myself, as the program would undoubtedly flourish and bloom in many other directions. And, finally, I wanted to participate because I liked the idea of being in a space with others who know that writing programs, their development, success and/or failure, often leads back to the questions that were or weren’t asked before we embarked upon them or in the midst of their design.

I am a poet by heart and trade, so I am deeply invested in questioning. Audre Lorde probably explains the implication of this better than anyone in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” when she says: “As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.”

So writing, for me, is more important than a simple composition essay or recreating assignments in our classes so that students are ready for jobs in the field, though both have value. Writing (i.e. our skill to frame a situation or name, dismantle or construct it) links back to the control we might or might not have over our own lives, as communication is the key to having our say in almost every situation. As a WPA, I’ve learned that the crippling fear some have of writing often comes from past experiences. Some of our students have cracks in their infrastructure because they were once labeled as “bad writers” by someone who should have known better. No one explained to them that writing is something that can be refined over time with effort, not something innate or immovable, and many of the programs described here are working to prove that.

In this collection of voices, there’s a small glimmer into how we might help students understand that a vital part of their education comes from learning how to write and communicate well, how to translate their thoughts and ideas succinctly and clearly so that others understand and listen to them, so that–when needed–they’ll be able to tap into the luxury of not being silenced. Certainly, there is practical value to be found in this.