Reflections on Buildings and on Writing Program Architecture

by Sandra Jamieson

Right now I am sitting in a very old stone house in Southern France. The walls are two feet thick at their narrowest point so it is cool in here, and the shutters are protecting me from the scorching afternoon sun. The pigeons are silent, as is the rest of the village where the stores still close from noon to 3:00. I’m on sabbatical and staring at these stones and the sturdy but irregular beams supporting them it seems only right to ponder my participation in a collection entitled Writing Program Architecture. I just finished a proposal to reinstate the grant that funded the course-embedded Writing Fellows Program at Drew, a program that is on hold this year for lack of funding, so Bryna and Jaimie’s proposal that WPAs learn to “consider their program in a material, logistical way outside of their own performance within it” (White-Farnham & Siegel Finer 5) is a very timely reminder. Not all is within my control as WPA, but our conversations and articles often underplay such structural constraints. I can’t wait for this book to come out because it has helped me to rethink the structures I inhabit as a WPA – my institution and my profession – just as it has helped me to think of narrative as an architecture of another sort. I wrote my chapter for the collection sitting in a wooden house in New Jersey. It describes my experience in a liberal arts college that is old by American standards, but that is predated by even the stone tiles supporting the chair I currently occupy. I am thinking of sustainability and the need to build structures that last, but that contain endless possibilities for adaptation as needs and circumstances change. Once this room held animals at night and in winter while the people lived upstairs, now it is a study; it has been a storage room, and more recently a bedroom and a living room. A fireplace was added when the barn became a house, then a wall was built to carve out a room, now there are radiators as well and a modern kitchen and bathroom occupy the rest of the downstairs. A house falls down and the stones are quickly reused for walls or additions to other buildings, sometimes mimicking parts of the building they came from and sometimes starting anew. This elaborate metaphor seems especially appropriate as I think about my two decades as a WPA at a small liberal arts college learning to innovate with the resources at hand and to accept changes that are out of my control.

In 2006 Carol Rutz wrote “it is fair to ask why anyone should care how composition instruction is delivered at liberal arts colleges” (60). Of course, the Carleton College portfolio assessment she was describing in that article provided a model that has since been adopted at colleges of all sizes and kinds, but at the time the marginalization implied in her comment described the experience of WPAs at many liberal arts colleges, most of whom did not even hold the title “WPA.” It is true that by 2006 there were quite a few small college WPA’s who, like Carol, knew we had a lot to offer, whether it was WAC-based writing programs or other models for teaching writing beyond the FYC models that dominated large schools, we knew that the size and collegiality of small schools and the philosophical roots of the liberal arts create fertile ground for new ways of knowing and writing to develop. As Jill Gladstein, Lisa Lebduska, and Dara Regaignon put it in 2009, such schools provide an “atmosphere [that] enhances the opportunities for innovations to emerge in a grassroots fashion and to spread throughout the curriculum” (15) and thence to other institutions. Yet the question Carol repeats reveals the isolation many of us felt, laboring at home as the only writing specialist amongst those with a limited understanding of or interest in our discipline and professionally in a field with an equally limited understanding of and interest in the realities and potential of small schools.

For me, that tension came to a head at the 2000 CCCC. I had been teaching in liberal arts colleges (Colgate and Drew) for over a decade by then and although I had realized the limitations of the “big school” model I inherited at Drew, I had never fully articulated my contextual unease. That year, the CCCC included a session focused on the small college. Scheduled in the smallest room possible, the session was packed with people eager to talk about the experience of doing WPA work where, as Dominic DelliCarpini so aptly put it, “everyone knows your name.” Audience members were seated on available floor space and spilling out into the hall before the session even began and we were all a little astonished to find ourselves so clearly not alone. At WPA in Charlotte that summer another session focused on the small college WPA, and Tom Amorose described our position on campus and in the profession as “the powerful, invisible middle.” I started to think seriously about what my experience might contribute to the profession, designing a Post Doc program to advance the preparation of small school WPAs, organizing a session on WPA context for the 2003 WPA conference, and publishing a description of the vertical writing program I designed for Drew (2010). But until I received the email from Bryna describing a project that would ultimately make visible “the sometimes-invisible structures of writing programs that we were unable to easily learn about through reading or in conversations” (8) it had not occurred to me that my own experience might be instructive in and of itself. I was intrigued and a little overwhelmed.

As my chapter for Writing Program Architecture got underway and I responded to the very helpful prompts Bryna and Jamie sent us, I still struggled with what might be useful, unable to separate my experience from the theoretical, ideological, and political soil from which it grew. They patiently moved me from my agricultural “growth” metaphor where I was the gardener who sometimes failed to think sustainably to the architectural “building” metaphor that structures this collection and ultimately enabled my chapter and my more healthy articulation of my position. I think this architectural model is a brilliant way to think about our work. I am convinced that their observation that “any decision made within a program is built on a structure of such elements as contracts, funding lines, and curriculum. It is these elements teased out and explained in and of themselves that constitute the architecture of writing programs” (White-Farnham & Siegel Finer 4) will help new and existing WPAs just as it helped me rethink my own experience.

In 2000 when I learned to understand my experience within the framework of the small college WPA, I became able to write and theorize in ways that deepened that experience and allowed me to expand Drew’s writing program. Now small college WPAs can join the CCCC special interest group and those at liberal arts college can attend the SLAC-WPA conference or join the listserv and the community Jill Gladstein, Lisa Lebduska, Dara Regaignon, and a host of colleagues have built through it. The survey of 55 WPAs at SLACs conducted in 2008 has been expanded to include WPAs at all institutions with results shared via a Mellon Grant-supported database (Gladstein and Fralix 2013, 2017) allowing general structural comparisons and epiphanies that are expanded and complicated by Writing Program Architecture. As I sit here thinking back to that CCCC session and the rush of recognition I felt, my hope is that every reader of this collection finds at least one chapter that speaks to them in the same way. This collection offers language (such as “Integrated Programs”) and ways to think about and explore writing programs through constituent elements of their architectures (population, funding, operations, etc.). Like these thick French stone walls I am staring at, I believe this collection offers a strong and sustaining space for generative moments and the development of new structures, directions, and programs always, as Heidi McKee reminds us, keeping “what’s best for students at the core of what we do” (40) but doing it differently depending on needs and contexts.


Amorose, Thomas. 2000. “The Powerful, Invisible Middle: The Small School WPA’s Position on Campus and in the Profession.” National Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference, Charlotte, NC, 14 July.

DelliCarpini, Domenic. 2000. “Where Everyone Knows Your Name.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Minneapolis, 14 April.

Gladstein, Jill, Lisa Lebduska, and Dara Rossman Regaignon. 2009. “Consortia as Sites of Inquiry: Steps Toward a National Portrait of Writing Program Administration.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, 32 (3): 13 – 36.

Gladstein, Jill M., and Dara Rossman Regaignon. 2012. Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Gladstein, Jill M. and Brandon Fralix. 2013, 2017. National Census of Writing.

Hanstedt, Paul, and Tom Amorose. 2004. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: The Idea of the Small School: Beginning a Discussion about Composition at Small Colleges and Universities” Composition Studies 32(2 Fall): 13–31.

Jamieson, Sandra. 2003. “When the Bridges Don’t Need To Be Built: The WPA and the Vertical Curriculum at a Small College.” National Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference, Grand Rapids, MI, July 11.

Jamieson, Sandra. 2010. “The Vertical Writing Curriculum: The Forgotten Core of Liberal Arts Education.” In Composition(s) in the New Liberal Arts, ed. Joanna Castner Post and James A. Inman, 159-184. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

McKee, Heidi. “Miami University Major in Professional Writing.” In Writing Program Architecture: Thirty Cases for Reference and Research, eds. Bryna Siegel Finer and Jamie White-Farnham, 27-41. Boulder, CO: USUP.

Rutz, Carol. 2006. “Making the Implicit Explicit: Delivering Composition at a Liberal Arts College.” In Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon, ed. Kathleen Blake Yancey, 60-71. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

White-Farnham, Jamie and Bryna Siegel Finer. “Writing Program Architecture: An Introduction with Alternative Tables of Contents.” In Writing Program Architecture: Thirty Cases for Reference and Research, eds. Bryna Siegel Finer and Jamie White-Farnham, 3-25. Boulder, CO: USUP.