Writing on An Integrated Writing Program: Finding Shelter from the Storm

by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In their introduction, Jamie White-Farnham and Bryna Siegel Finer offer the reader detailed insight into the guiding metaphor of Writing Program Architecture: Thirty Cases for Reference and Research. White-Farnham and Siegel Finer write:

Writing program architecture highlights the material, logistical, and rhetorical elements of a writing program, be it a first-year curriculum, a writing center, a WAC program, a writing major, or something else. Such elements include funding sources, reporting lines, WPA jurisdiction, and other practical pieces.The metaphor of architecture allows us to imagine these constituent parts of a writing program as its foundation, beams, posts, scaffolding—the institutional structures that, alongside its people, anchor a program to the ground and keep it standing.

The grounding metaphor of architecture holds particular resonance for me as a long-time teacher/scholar of Basic Writing. In the last two decades, I have borne witness to the human cost of eliminated courses and programs. The state budget might be saved, but the invisible costs of lost jobs for faculty and staff and lost opportunities for students continues to accrue.

Such loss propelled me to Arizona in 2013, when I left New York City to begin a position as co-coordinator and lecturer for the Stretch Writing Program at ASU-Tempe. I left New York City in July of that year, less than nine months after Hurricane Sandy. The aftermath of the storm remained ever-present in the city, and I found the heat of a midsummer transition to the Arizona desert very difficult to absorb.

When Shirley K. Rose, Brent Chappelow, and I wrote collaboratively on Arizona State University’s Writing Programs, Hurricane Sandy was still very much on my mind. My thoughts centered  on the experiences of students in the Stretch First-Year Writing Program, and on the structures that enabled Stretch to stay viable throughout two decades, and the storms and upheavals surrounding the inclusion of basic writing in higher education.

In teaching after Hurricane Sandy and participating in mutual aid relief work with Occupy Sandy, I learned a great deal about architecture and systemic structures that has been useful for working with Stretch. From close observation of everyday life in drastically altered circumstances, I observed not only the fragility of seemingly powerful institutions, such as the transit system, but also the generosity of communities under extreme duress. The transit system had shut down completely during the storm, and some sections of system had been damaged so severely that they remained closed for weeks and months after the storm. However, my route to school (two trains and a bus across two boroughs), remained open and running.

The first day back to school, as I boarded the bus from Queens  for the last leg of my commute to the Bronx, the bus driver put her hand over the Metrocard reader that served as the farebox. Her action was unobtrusive and also insistent. The city was still in the immediate aftermath of the storm and many people were suffering from the consequences of the wind, fire, and floods. All of us on that bus on that Monday two weeks after the storm would ride for free. In my previous experience with the MTA, that action of empathy and compassion felt unprecedented. Of everything I carried with me to Arizona, I hold closest the memory of the bus driver’s hand covering the Metrocard reader. It is a memory that I find myself unpacking time and time again.

The memory holds resonance as I consider the place of empathy and compassion and the ways in which courses like Stretch and other courses that address principles of basic writing fit, or do not fit, within larger institutional architectures. I once had the opportunity to work in a developmental writing program in another state that was housed outside of the institution’s main writing program. When legislative mandates transformed the delivery of developmental writing in that state, our program became an orphan of the storm. No other location at the institution would absorb developmental writing. Neither would the institution provide feasible alternatives for those in need of developmental writing. This exclusion especially impacted students from local economically underserved communities, for whom the program offered a conduit to higher education on the grounds of that institution’s most prestigious campus.

An Integrated Writing Program that includes Stretch as part of its architecture strives to enact “material, logistical, and rhetorical” form for institutional missions of diversity and inclusion. As I consider an imaginary drawing board for the architecture of an Integrated Writing Program, I imagine Stretch as I-beam or lintel. These supporting structures keep me mindful for the need for empathy and compassion for all of the students I teach, from the doctoral students taking the practicum for Stretch, to new students enrolled Stretch who are encountering a university writing course for the very first time.

Put another way, writing about Stretch’s place in our Writing Program’s architecture after my arrival in Arizona provided an opportunity to reflect on the systemic structures that allow Stretch to function and flourish. In this way, metaphor becomes material reality, offering relief from the hurricane, shelter from the storm, and an enduring hope for a more equitable and sustainable future.