By Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt
As I begin my year as CCCC Past Chair, the last year of my term in the CCCC officer’s rotation, I find myself increasingly reflective about the organization and my time in it. This is my third time serving on the CCCC Executive Committee, having previously served in ex officio roles in conjunction with my elected TYCA positions. This extended period of involvement in CCCC (and TYCA and NCTE) leadership has provided me with many opportunities as a teacher, scholar, and activist. It has also given me a unique perspective, most particularly in the policy and advocacy realm, which I believe is integral to our work as teachers and makes tangible our work as scholars.
I have long been attracted to education policy, likely due, at least in part, to my personal history as an educator. I began my career teaching in public schools at the middle school and high school levels and spent the majority of my career teaching at the two-year college, educational spaces that are both at the heart of democracy and the center of public critique and policy reform efforts. My leadership work in NCTE/CCCC/TYCA paralleled the organization’s formalized effort to extend its role beyond professional development and into policy work, to, as former NCTE Executive Director Kent Williamson put it, find its “external voice” (qtd. in Risolo 24). Kent believed such a shift was necessary to engage current members, attract new members, and deepen the organization’s influence by protecting and expanding literacy educators’ decision-making spaces (Risolo 24), and I, then and now, embrace the organization’s vision of serving its members through policy advocacy.
During this period (beginning in 2006), I had several opportunities to engage in developing NCTE’s federal policy recommendations as a member of the NCTE EC Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee and to participate in NCTE’s annual Policy Advocacy Day, now the Advocacy and Leadership Summit, in Washington, D.C. As a member of NCTE, TYCA, and CCCC Executive Committees, I collaborated with my EC colleagues to create 2020 vision statements for each respective group, all of which included language related to advancing public understanding of our work and advocating for the conditions needed to do our work effectively. Later, I presided over the approval of CCCC’s new mission statement, developed under the direction of Linda Adler-Kassner, a statement which defines advocacy as one of the core tenets of our work. I had the opportunity to serve on and, later, charge taskforces with the development of position statements representing important issues to our members–statements members could use to advocate in their local contexts. I also served two years as Washington State’s Higher Education Policy Analyst as part of NCTE’s inaugural Policy Analysis Initiative, providing regular updates on state policies and trends that may impact teaching and learning, especially as related to writing studies. All of these activities reflect the organization’s commitment to advocacy work.
In 2014-2015, I was appointed as the first (and only) CCCC Policy Fellow, a position designed to connect CCCC expertise to NCTE’s legislative efforts and relay relevant national policies and trends back to CCCC leadership and members. At that time, the Department of Education under President Obama had recently introduced the College Scorecard (or PIRS, Postsecondary Institution Rating System), a system intended to tie federal funding to institutional performance as rated by series of “value” metrics, mostly centered on economic and credential-based outcomes. This proposed rating system provoked much concern from a range of higher education groups, including our own, and became a priority for CCCC during my term of service as Policy Fellow. I attended a hearing and met with representatives of allied groups in DC, participated in several online public forums and informational webinars, and conducted research and wrote reports and responses to internal and external audiences. At the same time, I led a CCCC task force charged with developing an “alternative scorecard” for composition studies. By the time the task force developed its initial draft for CCCC EC feedback, the rating system portion of the College Scorecard was abandoned in favor of a consumer tool, also problematic (see Toth, Sullivan, and Calhoon-Dillahunt, “A Dubious Method” in TETYC), rendering our “alternative scorecard” obsolete. (Admittedly, the task force struggled with audience and purpose throughout its truncated process: Who would use–or even consider–this “alternative scorecard” and for what? How would it be used? Key questions to consider when trying to communicate with or influence public audiences!)
My experience as CCCC Policy Fellow, while positive and interesting, reinforced several lessons about organizational policy advocacy work: (1) that, as a non-profit disciplinary organization, NCTE/CCCC is not nimble enough to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-shifting dynamics of federal policymaking, (2) that the organization is also not large enough, broad enough, or monied enough to wield great influence on federal education legislation, especially given that federal higher education policies do not directly address our area of expertise, literacy education, and (3) that the national trends and federal legislation that impact literacy education most often manifest themselves in state and local policies.
This does not mean there is not a space for organizational policy advocacy at the federal level. In fact, under the direction of NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE has made some important strategy shifts in its policy advocacy work in recent years, both in forming alliances with groups who share our values and interests (e.g., its collaboration with 87 civil rights group this fall in sponsoring full-page newspaper ads in NYT and Pittsburg Gazette expressing solidarity with victims of gun violence) and, more importantly, in positioning the organization as a resource to federal policymakers, as a “trusted public voice” on matters related to literacy and writing in educational contexts (“About CCCC”). This position is proving productive as increasingly lawmakers are turning to NCTE and its constituencies for information and feedback, including a request for a definition of writing instruction, developed by NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA leaders, to inform the statutory language proposed in last year’s proposed Higher Education Act (HEA) Reauthorization. NCTE also provides regular “Action Alerts” on its website, with information about legislative issues that may impact members and steps for how to take action, often by writing or calling their respective senators and representatives.
However, the organization’s greatest power in the public sphere is rooted in its members, most especially its members’ expertise. NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA members have long produced and shared the knowledge that grounds our discipline and shapes our practice through publications, collaborative spaces (e.g, conventions and conferences), and sponsorship and recognition of research. As I argued in my Chair’s Address (see “Returning to Our Roots,” CCCC, Dec. 2018), CCCC’s (and TYCA’s) particular area of expertise is first-year writing, the whole of it–all iterations (including dual credit courses and AP tests); its support courses, resources, and programs; the courses and programs it supports (including graduate programs); and related assessments. First-year writing is also the space where we have expertise of value to policymakers and other public audiences. CCCC and TYCA members have already had some success influencing national policy in relation to first-year writing; for instance, Les Perelman is credited with bringing down the robo-scored SAT essay exam (Weiss), and Peter Adams and his County of Baltimore Community College colleagues developed a new approach to developmental writing, ALP, that has since been adopted as a best practice by higher educational reform groups (see “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates”).
But we have not consistently used our expertise toward achieving CCCC’s 2022 Vision of becoming “the leading voice in public discussions about what it means to be an effective writer and to deliver quality writing instruction” (“About CCCC”). Despite our expertise and our rhetorical skill, we have yet to change the public narrative about what writing is, how it develops, and why it matters. That is where, as an organization, NCTE/CCCC/TYCA can help. It can support its members’ advocacy work by providing the resources and support members need to affect change in their local contexts.
NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA have long contributed to member’s advocacy efforts through the development of position statements on a range of pedagogical, professional, ethical, and policy issues. CCCC has a process for regularly updating its position statements and guidelines for creating statements that can be used effectively with external audiences. In recent years, CCCC has made a concerted effort to provide professional development opportunities and resources for members interested in advocacy and activism work. For example, at the CCCC 2016 convention, Linda Adler-Kassner featured a series of “Taking Action” workshops–”Naming and Narrowing,” “Building Alliances,” “Framing Messages,” “Influencing Policy,” and “Making Action Plan–to help attendees develop strategies for taking action. She later referenced these principles in her April 2017 Teacher-Scholar-Activist blog post, “Taking What We Know to Make a Difference.” In recognition that the role of teachers is changing to include policy and advocacy work, Cathy Fleischer developed the Everyday Advocacy website as a toolkit for literacy educators at all levels. In response to CCCC members’ growing concerns with working conditions, CCCC appointed Holly Hassel to serve as its inaugural Labor Liaison in 2017, and she has developed a collection of resources and serves as a contact for members dealing with labor-related issues.
Most recently, the CCCC Strategic Action Task Force, chaired by Steve Parks, has unveiled its “Strategic Action Toolkit,” a comprehensive collection of resources designed to “allow graduate students, adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, and program administrators to speak effectively to the public on the value of their pedagogical, curricular, and civic work.” Task Force members John Duffy, Eli Goldblatt, Laura Gonzalez, Megan Faver Hartline, Alexandria Hildalgo, Veronica House, Darin Jensen, Seth Kahn, Paula Mathieu, Jessica Pauszek, Donnie Sackey, Stephanie Wheeler, and Megan Opperman lent their intellect, experience, and labor to developing a robust website of resources, including interviews, informational videos, and links. According to the site’s “About” page, “[t]he goal was to support faculty and administrators who actively work towards the success of all students across heritages, genders, classes, and legal status.” The site is organized around the concepts of building (getting started), expanding (networks of support), responding (changing the public narrative), and mentoring (connecting with experienced volunteers). In addition, the “Now” section of the website features case studies, which will be updated periodically, of members taking action in their local contexts. The first “Now” case study features responses to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally,” and there is a link provided to suggest other events and local actions.
The role of the NCTE/CCCC/TYCA, then, is to create a community of advocacy: infrastructure, expertise, resources, and networks that support members’ efforts. Change is, after all, a collective responsibility, so our professional organization can and should play a critical role in promoting and sustaining such a community. Additionally, because advocacy and activism are crucial elements of the work we do, of being a professional in this field, they are critical parts of professional development, which has long been at the heart of the organization’s mission.
As I begin transitioning out of my leadership roles in the organization, I reflect on the many ways NCTE/CCCC/TYCA have provided me with an advocacy community to support my work in context. Reading recent scholarship, attending conference presentations, conversing with folks who are doing work I am interested in, and keeping abreast of state and national trends and policies have been the primary instigators of change in my own classroom and in my college’s writing program–from piloting labor contracts in my developmental classes (thanks, Asao Inoue!) to implementing an ALP program in our department (grounded in CBCC’s initial work, but shaped by the work of many others) to overhauling our college’s writing placement (informed by TYCA’s white paper, CCCC’s position statements, myriad scholarly presentations and articles related to placement reform, multiple discussions with TYCA and CCCC colleagues, and the various reform movements centered of placement and developmental education). These local changes are making a difference for me, my colleagues, and, most importantly, students. These changes have required me to embrace all aspects of my professional identity–teacher, scholar, and activist–and have been enabled by the community of advocacy I have in my professional organization.
Where are your spheres of influence? What problems can you convert into possibilities? How can we, your professional community, help?
“About CCCC.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, NCTE, 1998-2018, https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc-about/
Adams, Peter, et al. “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 28, no. 2, 2009, pp. 50 – 69.
Calhoon-Dillahunt, Carolyn. “2018 CCCC Chair’s Address: Returning to Our Roots: Creating the Conditions and Capacity for Change” College Composition & Communication, vol. 70, no. 2, 2018, pp. 273 – 293.
Risolo, Donna. “The Paradox of Power.” The Language Arts Journal of Michigan, vol. 26, iss. 2, 2011, pp. 23 – 28. ScholarWorks@GVSU, https://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1796.
Toth, Christie, Patrick Sullivan, et al. “A Dubious Method of Improving Educational Outcomes: Accountability and the Two-Year College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 4, 2016, pp. 391–410.
Weiss, Joanna. “The Man Who Killed the SAT.” Boston Globe 14 Mar. 2014, https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/03/13/the-man-who-killed-sat-essay/L9v3dbPXewKq8oAvOUqONM/story.html.
Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt teaches writing at Yakima Valley College, a two-year college in Washington State. She has been a member of NCTE for more than two decades and has had the privilege of serving the organization in a variety of capacities and is a former TYCA Chair and a former CCCC Chair. She has authored or co-authored several articles in TETYC and CCC, including the forthcoming “Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activism: Reconstructing the Disciplinary Matrix of Writing Studies” with Christie Toth and Patrick Sullivan, part of a CCC special issue. Her particular teaching, scholarly, and advocacy interests lie in developmental and first-year writing and the related areas of placement and assessment. Believing in the transformative potential of educational spaces for students and communities alike, she is now actively embracing her college’s “equity agenda” and looks forward to presenting her college’s preliminary work at CCCC 2019 . . . and perhaps discussing it in a future Teacher-Scholar-Activist blog post!