A Conversation with Dr. Nancy Lester: Looking back at WAC at MEC
By Jennifer Griffith with WAC Staff, March 2007
In a self-evaluative and reflective process that will culminate in this May’s WAC conference (and a presentation to the College community the week beforehand), WAC@MEC is taking stock of its history in terms of successes and failures. In doing so, we decided to review our current strategies with the previous WAC Coordinator, Dr. Nancy Lester. When, in 1999, CUNY mandated the institution of Writing Across the Curriculum programs throughout the colleges, Dr. Lester was a logical choice for the Coordinator at MEC, as she had the essential knowledge, publications, and experience to lead the endeavor. She served as WAC Coordinator until Fall, 2005, and brought Dr. Noreen Hosier on board as Co-Coordinator. Lester was replaced two years ago, and her expertise and vision in carrying out WAC’s mission have come perilously close to being lost along with her efforts to strengthen and foster support from faculty at MEC. The threat of possibly losing institutional gains in the midst of a programmatic transition has stirred us to ask Lester questions that would help retain some of that institutional memory and WAC’s growth at MEC. For the past two years WAC@MEC has been working with faculty members primarily at the departmental level. We asked Lester why she and Hosier worked individually (vs. departmentally) to help faculty with teaching issues, and what she saw as the advantages or disadvantages of each approach. Did she work individually because she had found it to be more successful?
“We didn’t only work individually,” she responded. “We made a lot of attempts to work with departments,” for the first 3 years, but then gradually things fragmented and resulted in working mainly with individuals. But partly it was a choice. “The most successful transformation happened when people wanted to change,” Lester said.
WAC@MEC has sought to designate formal Writing Intensive courses in the curriculum to raise our CPE preparedness and to expand faculty development institutionally. Current WAC Coordinator Dr. Steven Nardi believes that tackling the problem at the department level will address the CUNY-wide mandate to increase Writing Intensive courses across the curriculum. We asked Lester about her experience with Writing Intensive courses. Could she speak about their usefulness?
“The most successful transformation happened when people wanted to change.”
Lester responded that the notion of designated Writing Intensive courses tends to limit writing in the College. The main drawback, she says, is that WI designation isolates some courses as writing courses and others as non-writing courses, giving the message to both students and faculty that writing should be used in certain disciplines, and certain courses, but not in others. Of course, WAC philosophy is grounded in the idea that writing is a mode of learning and should be used in EVERY course, thus the “across the curriculum” in its name. Lester noted that, at least one other CUNY campus professional development was productive for those faculty members who did develop WI courses, but it has never taken on institutional level commitment: as a whole, the departments at that campus do not participate in WI course development.
Furthermore, in order that WI courses be successful, adjuncts and faculty need some background in the principles of WAC to understand the purposes of, say, high and low stakes writing, or essays vs. standardized tests. Lester emphasizes that you “can’t assess writing appropriately if you don’t know its purpose.” Hence, if the adjuncts fail to understand the purposes of these writing assignments, they cannot successfully implement a good WI course. For instance, learning logs are used to invite students to respond in writing to a particular discussion or text. In Lester’s classes they are considered high stakes in their contribution to students’ learning (not normally a characteristic of high stakes writing, which speaks more to the form and audience of the writing than to its value in learning).
Lester believes that teachers who favor covering content—as is privileged in most instructional pedagogies—lack the understanding that sustainable learning takes place when students must write their responses to texts, not cram information in for a test. The latter kind of learning is short-term: students will have all but forgotten the material by the next week. Moreover, faculty members need to know how to read students’ writing, looking for the “aha!” moments that indicate students’ learning. Many college-level teachers are not educated in pedagogy, leading most to look simply for the “right” answers, not for how these “right” answers might reveal the learning that students show in their writing.
WAC@MEC currently has been working with faculty to develop models of core WI courses within departments. The model course guides contain sample syllabi, methods of instruction and assessment, and samples of student writing, all assembled in a binder that can be made available for teachers who want to expand their pedagogical strategies or get an idea of how the course can be taught effectively. But, Lester argues, just having
"I find ’covering the curriculum’ an impoverished metaphor for learning, as it creates the image in my mind of putting a cover over what's to be studied, rather than opening up what is to be learned.”
a WI binder doesn’t guarantee a good course. The syllabus goes through a human being—the teacher—and is “interpreted” in, or confined to whatever that person can teach.
Ultimately, Lester argues, writing fellows must “get into the room” with faculty to effect change. "Syllabi have nothing to do with learning." The kind of teaching that fosters learning, and what WAC calls “writing to learn,” is something writing fellows can offer assistance with to faculty members. Teachers can look at the writing of their students beyond issues of “correctness,” and Lester believes her success stems from this approach. “I listen and pay attention,” she says. Students need to have the sense that their thoughts and concerns mean something, that someone remembers what was said and comes back to it. Lester has recently agreed to serve on the Writing Intensive Council, a newly formed body that will certainly debate the effectiveness of WI courses, but could also find ways of bringing writing as a learning strategy into more classrooms [See article, page 2].
As part of her accomplishments, Lester worked with writing fellows to produce the article, “Writing Across the Curriculum: A College Snapshot," (published in Urban Education). The article reflects widespread faculty cooperation at MEC, with students and faculty from across the departments working together. Lester and Hosier also worked with fellows in 2004-05 to produce a film in which MEC teachers describe how they use writing as a way of learning in their classes. Lester says that the most disappointing failure has been that not enough people have been involved with WAC. She stresses, though, that those who feel that they want to expand, or those who have discomfort about aspects of their teaching, can benefit from WAC principles and philosophy. The risk they take in leaving the “content coverage” style, for instance, is minimal: "I find ’covering the curriculum’ an impoverished metaphor for learning, as it creates the image in my mind of putting a cover over what's to be studied, rather than opening up what is to be learned. Rather than trying to "cover" every issue in a subject area, or every topic in a textbook, a more powerful approach is to explore and study fewer issues/topics but to do so in more depth and with more critique and reflection.” The kind of learning that stays around, Lester says, goes “deep and wide. This kind of learning is longer lasting and can serve as a sound foundation when and if it is necessary to learn more.”