Taking What We Know To Make A Difference

by Linda Adler-Kassner Linda Adler-Kassner

Like many other readers of this blog, I’m a writing teacher. I’m also a writing researcher, a writing program administrator, and (right now) a dean of undergraduate education, a position I think of as “administrator beyond writing.” I’m also the current chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the world’s largest organization of postsecondary writing faculty. (If you’re not a CCCC member, consider joining!)

As the chair of CCCC, I have the privilege of hearing from and working with writing teachers from across the country and around the world. Most of the time, what I hear is remarkable. Incredible curricular innovations, spectacularly creative work by faculty and students, super-human efforts to engage writing and writers in all matter of ways. I’ve heard about writing within, beyond, and around classes; writing in communities; writers producing beautiful, moving, inspiring, insightful work in all matter of ways. Sometimes, too, I hear about the challenges that writing teachers, program directors, writing center folks, and writing students face. These can include (but aren’t limited to) large classes, huge teaching loads, appalling salaries, problematic assessment processes that produce detrimental consequences for students and faculty, inadequate facilities. They can include practices that reflect implicit (or explicit) bias against different kinds of people and/or language practices, pervasive senses of stereotype threat. Because we work with language – and language is closely tied to identity and culture – what we do and the folks with whom we do those things matter.

The question for me, then, is what we can do about all of this. I’ll phrase it differently: How can we take what we know about writers, writing, and writing instruction – and use that knowledge to make a difference? To me, this question is at the core of our work as teacher-scholar-activists. The Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), along with our ‘parent’ organization, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), have spent a lot of time thinking about this question of late, and I want to highlight some of what we’ve done recently for other teacher-scholar-activists. Much of what I’m outlining here is described more fully on a site called Everyday Advocacy, which I highly recommend (and which was developed by my friend and colleague Cathy Fleischer, along with Jenna Fournel, NCTE’s Communications Director).

We know that difference-making needs to proceed strategically. By this, I mean that it needs to happen through a process that involves 5 parts. These were highlighted as part of the Taking Action Workshops at the 2016 CCCC convention, and you can find materials from those workshops here.

Identifying principles

First, we need to identify our principles. This means figuring out what we believe, what are our foundations, and what we know extending from those foundations. I’ve found the work of Marshall Ganz really helpful for this stage of the work. He refers to this as telling our “story of self.”

From this story, we can identify our passions and commitments. My story of self, for instance, has to do with being labeled a “bad student” – low grades, poor test scores – and feeling like a bad student (without the scare quotes) because of those labels. Years later, these experiences were among the reasons I chose to study what I do: How is literacy defined in different places, by whom, and with what values and ideologies attached? How is literacy assessed? What are consequences for learners (people like me, whose literacy practices led us to be labeled “bad”)?

Building alliances

Once we’ve identified our passions and commitments, we need to find out who else is invested in these and build alliances with them. I want to be clear here that this doesn’t mean finding people we agree with instantly. Especially in these tricky and troublesome times, if we seek to build connections only with those who share our views, we’re going to be in trouble. Instead, we need to learn about the interests and values of those who are invested in the same things that we are and try to make connections where we can with those others – without sacrificing our core values and principles, but with a willingness to engage from those to encounter new possibilities we perhaps hadn’t thought about previously. In a talk I gave at the CCCC’s annual convention in March 2017, I referred to a few examples of this kind of alliance building. I also should note that this kind of connecting might not always be possible.

Sometimes, individuals and organizations do have principles and values diametrically opposed to our own. That’s a reality of our times. But sometimes, it’s possible to bridge what we believe to be initial gaps. I know that we’ve all encountered instances like this, but I want to point to one I read about recently: a profile of a (student) leader on my campus , Oscar Uriel Escobar. One of the portions of this profile I most appreciated was the description of how Escobar reached out to the leaders of the College Republicans to engage in reasoned discussion with them. That’s a fantastic illustration of learning about others’ principles and values. (I’ll point out, too, that this profile was written by another UCSB student, Andrew McMaster, as part of his work in the Writing Program’s Writing and Civic Engagement minor.)


When we engage in this kind of story-changing advocacy, we also need to consider the frames that surround the issues that we want to work on – whether they’re the ones at the core of our personal principles, or those that we’re going to approach with allies. The Everyday Advocacy site provides resources to help with this; the Frameworks Institute  (also referenced by Everyday Advocacy) does, as well. Learning to identify frames and how to present what we want, not what we don’t want, is critical for taking action.

Focusing on issues

Another important part of this work is to keep our efforts focused on issues we can address, at the level or location where we can address them. Sure, I would like to be able to change everyone’s perceptions of writing and writers, nationally (or even internationally). But unfortunately, I can’t do that. What I can do, though, is work on this issue on my campus: in the writing program where I work, and in my own classroom. And I can do it in the work that I do every day.

For instance:

  • We can do this in the classroom. When we work with students to study writing – to analyze expectations of “good writing” in different locations and contexts (home lives, community sites, disciplines on campus, and so on), to consider how those definitions are associated with different cultures and identities, and to consider the implications, we’re helping students become agents of their own literacies. This can change their own stances toward literacy practices (like writing and reading) – a change in perception. Note that this doesn’t imply a particular political position (i.e., “liberal” or “conservative,” party affiliation or otherwise). Instead, it just means working with students to become more powerful, articulate advocates for their own literacies through a more robust framework for understanding literacy practices.
  • We can do it in our writing programs. We might decide that we want to take a look at the structure of the writing curriculum – at assignments, placement mechanisms, or other features or our programs. Assessments, for instance, send messages about what writing is. Some multiple choice tests, for instance, are what I think of as exceptionally reductive, sending the message that writing is about using the right “grammar” (i.e., syntax and punctuation). Others, like 2-hour timed writing samples, suggest that writing is something that is to be achieved in a short time, and should take the form of a conventional school-based formula (“compare/contrast”, “argument”, and so on). The scoring guides used for assessments also send messages about what is valued and not. Studying these, possibly changing them, can make a powerful difference about a program’s belief in equitable writing instruction and assessment. (My colleague Asao Inoue has written about this in his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment, which is available as a free download from the WAC Clearinghouse.
  • We can do it in our institutions, too. For instance, Alex Arreguin and his colleagues at Mesa Community College are working with Guided Pathways for Success, a framework that could undermine much of what we believe about learning and literacy instructions, in terrific ways. They’re drawing on threshold concepts of writing studies and The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing to work with colleagues across their institution. (There’s also a new collection on how others have used the Framework as well.)

Working with facts, evidence, and data

Of course, this also requires evidence, data, and facts (and not “alternate facts,” as one representative of the current administration suggested as the basis for some of their actions). When it comes to issues related to writers, writing, writing instruction, and so on, there are a number available. TYCA , CCCC , and NCTE have a number of position statements that address issues associated with working conditions, hiring, effective pedagogy, online instruction, dual-credit dual enrollment and other issues of policy, and more. These statements also include useful recommendations on things like class size, language practices – for instance students’ right to their own language and Ebonics training and research, online writing instruction policies and pedagogies, and more.

The National Census on Writing can also provide comparative data that often is helpful in making arguments about issues related to writing instruction.

Through all of this, when we focus on what we want, not what we don’t want, we can make our voices heard.

Making a difference!

Most important to remember through all of this work, though, is that no matter who we are, no matter what our status or position, we can make a difference. The keys are to work systematically and strategically. When we:

  • Work from our principles
  • Build alliances
  • Frame messages
  • Keep our focus on achievable issues
  • Work from evidence
  • Identify what we want, not what we don’t want

We can make a difference… small steps, but really important ones!

Linda Adler-Kassner is Professor of Writing Studies and co-interim Dean of Undergraduate Education. Her research focuses broadly on how literacy is defined, taught, and assessed by different groups (i.e., faculty, students, community members, employers), and the implications of definitions and actions for learners and learning. Most recently, this focus has led her to investigations of relationships between writing (and other forms of composed knowledge) and knowledge-making in specific sites like classrooms and workplaces. These investigations, in turn, become part of efforts associated with faculty development and literacy policy and advocacy. Adler-Kassner is author, co-author, or co-editor of nine books. The most recent, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (with Elizabeth Wardle), was given the “Outstanding Contribution to the Discipline” award by the Council of Writing Program Administrators in 2016. Other books include Reframing Writing Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning (with Peggy O’Neill) and The Activist WPA, which was awarded the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Best Book Award in 2010. She also has written many articles and book chapters on writing program administration, pedagogy, assessment, and public policy and writing instruction. Adler-Kassner is a past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and currently Associate Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).


Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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