The New Normal: Writing Center Relationships and the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP)

Jeanette Morris
Jenna Miller

Many universities who are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) have created and implemented a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The QEP is essentially an experiment; the institution selects a topic for which additional support is needed, and creates a five-year plan for how to best address and improve this specific concern. While QEP topics run the gamut from advising to experiential learning to traveling abroad, Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) selected academic writing in the freshman composition series for our first QEP. ECSU is an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) located in northeastern North Carolina with a population of about 1,000 students. ECSU titled the QEP Think! Write! Revolutionize: Writing New Paths to Discovery. This QEP focused on improving freshman writing through the development of a new curriculum, assessment process, and a student-centered QEP Writing Studio. The creation of the QEP Writing Studio was a crucial component of ECSU’s Quality Enhancement Plan; the mission of this space was to provide academic support for student writers taking one of the freshman composition courses (GE 102 and GE 103). While the process of crafting and executing the QEP started with a large committee of faculty and administrators who were identified to fulfill various roles and help to share in the work of the QEP, ECSU soonexperienced a period of tremendous upheaval and leadership changes. One potentional side effect of all this transition is that the number of consistently engaged individuals who were actively doing the work of the QEP began to dwindle over the years. This begs the question, how do you ensure that students are receiving a consistent experience in the freshman composition series while completing the myriad of different tasks that must be completed for QEP, when only two full-time faculty remain to lead the QEP? While we always had a great working relationship as colleagues, we quickly learned a new appreciation for each other and the individuals on campus who were willing to help us with this endeavor.

During Fall 2012, the first semester of full-implementation of the QEP, there were seven QEP-dedicated faculty and staff who were engaged in the day-to-day management of the QEP. As stated above, by Spring 2016, the last semester of QEP implementation, that number dwindled to only the two of us. While we still had other faculty teaching the courses that were directly impacted by the QEP, we were left to manage the day-to-day operations of the QEP Writing Studio, as well as the curriculum, organize and oversee the QEP assessment, data collection, resource development, student engagement activities such as workshops, support the faculty teaching the freshman composition series, and train the peer tutors supporting these students. From Fall 2012 to Spring 2016, the time frame ECSU’s QEP was implemented, we experienced the leadership of four different chancellors, three provosts, three department chairs, four QEP Executive Directors, two QEP Writing Studio Directors, and numerous new faculty teaching the freshman composition courses. With frequent administrative shifts, it was critical to maintain a consistent QEP experience for students, tutors, and faculty over this four-year period. As a result of this significant amount of transition, the majority of ECSU’s administrators had a limited frame of reference for the QEP, and had not been part of the institution during the QEP’s formation or early implementation. QEPs are exciting and legacy-building, but they are also massive projects that can be extremely difficult and unwieldy. Our experience showed that it was very difficult for new faculty and leadership to “buy in” to the QEP and feel invested in it when they had not been part of its development. The irony is that as QEP Executive Director and QEP Writing Studio Director, we too had inherited these positions from individuals who had been instrumental in the creation of the QEP, but were no longer working at the institution.

We felt and embraced the weight of the challenging opportunity to continue the university’s plan for the QEP Writing Studio that is expressed by a former QEP Executive Director, Dr. Vandana Gaskar, before the writing studio begain providing academic writing support. She expressed the purpose of the QEP Writing Studio to be a comfortable, hospitable, inviting location where faculty and peer tutors could “help students think about their own writing and become stronger writers” by providing “that one-one experience” in an environment that would “provide that welcoming space where they could function as a community” of writers (“Vikings Wake Up! – Vandana Gavaskar – Episode 4 – (10-5-11)”).

It is incredibly easy to feel overwhelmed by circumstances such as these, but being able to problem-solve together, and knowing that there was at least one other person who understood exactly what was at stake, was so tremendously helpful to both of us. While we typically found allies in the other faculty who were teaching these courses (we were also teaching sections of these courses), we also encountered faculty who were extremely resistant to the idea of participating in the QEP. We consistently had discussions about concerns over academic freedom because of the common syllabi and assignments. Again, this was a specific choice made by the committee who wrote the QEP. It became something we inherited when we took over these positions, and ultimately had to defend throughout the course of the QEP. These discussions were frequently uncomfortable, and while we tried to ensure that faculty were able to voice their opinions, there was little we could do about this because of the way our QEP was structured. We consistently tried to cultivate good working relationships with all faculty, but in some circumstances we found that a few faculty remained somewhat resentful of the additional responsibilities that came with the implementation of the QEP. This made our jobs harder, but we did our best to focus on the tasks at hand rather than the lack of support and engagement we frequently encountered.

It’s also important to note that while we did encounter these issues, the vast majority of faculty were supportive of the QEP and did their utmost to fulfill their QEP obligations. While the QEP tested these faculty relationships, in many instances they were made stronger through a consistent and honest series of discussions and debates. In fact, in response to our request for statements from faculty who participated in the QEP as part of our research for the QEP Impact Report and a QEP Update presentation to share at the university’s 2016 Spring & Faculty Institute, Dr. Mary-Lynn Chambers explained:

Over the last five years, I have discovered the value of a team approach regarding unity that promotes student agency.  When there is a shared understanding regarding the expectations across the classes, then there is a greater overall security that the education that one student is receiving is of the same high standard no matter which instructor they have for their composition class.  Furthermore, the consistent requirement of testing for assessment purposes also helps instill certain training and teaching moments that will prepare the students for those testing occasions.  So, as we move toward the conclusion of the five year QEP initiative, I am thankful for the consistency and unity that is shared by the QEP faculty for the benefit of the composition student.

As we consider Chambers’ reflection, we cannot ignore her expressed appreciation for the “consistency and unity” that the common writing curriculum and writing center – both direct products of the QEP – provided for the “benefit of the composition student” at ECSU. While the merits of unity – if manifested through willing or reluctant participation – could be examined further, and perhaps, should be examined further as university-wide initiatives are considered for implementation and assessment, we were thankful to know that the impacts of the QEP that we observed in the data, our classrooms, and the writing center, were given voice by Chambers and others.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to attend several SACSCOC Annual Meetings and QEP Summer Institutes over the years, and from talking with other individuals in QEP leadership roles at their institutions, we learned that it was quite common for QEP Directors and QEP leadership to change hands multiple times. However, at ECSU, these changes coincided with a drastic drop in enrollment. In Fall 2012, the student population at ECSU was at about 2,800 students. By Spring 2016, the number of students had dropped to about 1,300. The QEP document was written with the growth of the university and an increase in enrollment in mind. It simply was not possible for those drafting the QEP to predict this outcome. This decrease in enrollment also affected the budgets of various departments on campus. While ECSU always ensured that the QEP was funded, “do more with less” became an important QEP motto. When all of these factors are compounded, it creates a great potential for discord and strain among those continuing the work of the QEP. For there to be success within this pressure-cooker scenario, the working relationships must contain professionalism, dedication, and a respect for the person with whom one is working. As the two individuals leading the QEP, this experience bonded us in a way we couldn’t have anticipated. To do this kind of work effectively, it is crucial to have a colleague upon whom you can rely. Because of the curriculum, assessment, and Writing Studio portions, we have often described our QEP as having multiple parts that are constantly in motion. This shared experience quickly taught us the importance of being not just a good colleague, but a strong teammate as well. With the many additional responsibilities that we were assigned (teaching, committees, advising, etc.), we would often try to set aside at least one hour each day to talk about upcoming tasks or deadlines. While this was not possible everyday, it did help us feel that our ongoing work was more manageable and less overwhelming than it may otherwise have seemed.

What is reflected by the experience of our QEP’s transformation and improvement of the first-year composition series and academic support for writers is the significance of assessment supporting data-informed approaches to teaching and supporting our students as learners. While faculty, staff, and administrators were already invested in the success of our students, the data that we collected and reviewed presented opportunities to strategically consider and implement changes with the intention of continuously improving our instruction and academic writing support. Also, assessment allowed us to tell our stories beyond anecdotes, concentrating our focus and boiling down our positions and requests for continued support with the benefits of data, which clearly made our story-telling more impactful and effective when advocating for continued financial support for peer tutors, software, or instructional technology. For example, in Spring 2016, Academic Affairs asked us to present at a faculty institute, which all faculty were required to attend. This was such a pleasant surprise. Many faculty outside of our department (Language, Literature, and Communication) had sent their students to us for tutoring or to attend one of the academic workshops we hosted, but they were unaware of the specific details and the tremendous amount of work that went into supporting and assessing the freshman composition series. Looking back, we both wish that we had had more opportunities like this to share the data we had collected with the university in a more formal way. Overall, we received tremendously positive feedback from the faculty who attended our presentation, and we both found it to be both energizing and helpful to see the data and the process through the eyes of others.

What we didn’t have in our writing program or writing center before the QEP was clear, documented data to help us tell our stories of students’ successes and needs. Before our QEP, we had no systemic relationship or experience with our Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning (OIERP); however, the QEP changed that. As we sought to document our student writers’ learning and utilization of the writing center, we grew increasingly familiar with our OIERP staff. In fact, we would have been entirely unable to communicate the story of our writing center’s effectiveness and areas for improvement without the aid of our OIERP colleagues, who helped us crunch the numbers, identify the gaps in performance, and create graphic visualizations of the data that we gathered each semester. As a result, we found that starting our conversations or storytelling moments with data representations created more interest and context for our qualitative data and more casual discussions about the needs of the writing center. As teachers of writing and rhetoric, we were fully aware of the importance of recognizing the expectations and needs of our audience. We respected our audience’s needs – especially considering the fact that our conversations would need to support our requests for continued and/or increased financial support – and built our ethos with that audience, which proved effective in maintaining a respectful and productive working relationship that mutually sought to support our students as academic writers and retain them in order to assist their continuation of degree attainment.

The QEP used digitized course-embedded authentic assessments supported by common curriculum, essay assignments, and workshops for faculty and students. The instructional component of the QEP assessed student learning through the use of Blackboard-delivered Grammar Pre- and Post-Tests in the two QEP courses – GE 102: Composition & Grammar and GE 103: Composition & Vocabulary. Essay Pre- and Post-Tests are assessed using Blackboard Outcomes, which randomly distributed student essays to the freshmen composition faculty who volunteer to serve as essay raters. The GE 102 and GE 103 rubrics were electronically embedded into Blackboard Outcomes and used for the assessment ratings. Guided by the QEP document, QEP Essay Raters and the QEP Assessment Team evaluated and assessed data to compare it with the initially projected targets of 75% and 80% success rates in the areas being evaluated in GE 102 and GE 103 respectively. Through this process, we grew to rely tremendously on two individuals in the Office of Distance Education. They consistently deployed the electronic assessments, oversaw the collection, and provided troubleshooting support as needed. Prior to QEP, we communicated directly with them very little – perhaps only if we were having trouble accessing Blackboard or one of the other electronic platforms that we use at ECSU. However, as a result of working so closely for so many years, we were able to cultivate an excellent working relationship. As new add-ons or software became available that they thought might be helpful to students, particularly those participating in the QEP, they would frequently contact us to ask about thoughts. In several cases, because of this relationship, they were able to offer students additional online resources that we had no knowledge of. This, of course, also benefitted faculty who were not teaching the QEP courses, but were able to encourage their students to take advantage of these resources.

We also sought to receive stories about the writing center and our QEP by conducting surveys to collect data – representing stakeholders’ stories – about our writing center’s practices and impact. Survey data collected during the final year of the QEP revealed that faculty, staff, and administrators positively viewed the writing center’s impact on student learning of academic writing skills and the overall student learning environment. A cumulative 72% satisfaction rating with the QEP did not occur because of student-performance alone on Pre- and Post-test assessments. The perception and the message of the first-year writing program translated into an understanding of the daily work, investment, and support of our student writers. Face-to-face tutoring sessions, workshops, online tutoring sessions, access to computer technology for writing and conducting research were recognized as benefits to our students.

We must also not overlook the importance of our undergraduate peer tutors in the overall satisfaction of faculty, staff, and students. Over the years we have been fortunate to hire and train many incredibly hardworking tutors and work-study students, who remain instrumental in making the QEP Writing Studio more than just an academic support center; they are adept at putting the students they work with at ease, and the tutors consistently learn from each other, therein creating their own community of learners. From the first semester of the QEP, it was tremendously important to us that we hire students with a variety of majors and interests. Presently, our tutors are majoring in disciplines such as Biology, Aviation Science, and Pharmaceutical Science. This is often surprising to students who visit the writing center to receive feedback on their work. This diversity in academic pursuits demonstrates to our students that they do not have to pursue a degree in English in order to be strong writers and critical thinkers, and they can see firsthand that quality academic writing emerges from all fields.

Furthermore, many of our tutors have shared with us that they felt tutoring in the QEP Writing Studio helped with their own personal development. One of our former tutors stated: “In my opinion, tutoring students doesn’t just help the students out who are getting tutored; it helps the tutor out as well. It helps the tutor out by teaching them one of the most important aspects in life, and that would be gaining leadership skills. Obtaining leadership skills will enable a person to grow and succeed in life.” Another tutor reported that “I have learned to remain professional in stressful circumstances. As a tutor, you are constantly faced with different personalities, and a range of writing skills. Maintaining your professionalism in these circumstances is important. Also, remaining positive is essential to any workplace. A positive attitude can improve student development.” We have had the opportunity to witness firsthand the importance of maintaining positive working relationships between tutors and the students who visit the QEP Writing Studio. We hope also to model that professional behavior for our tutors as well.

While we’ve discussed how the QEP helped to build relationships in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and the Office of Distance Education, the QEP also strengthened the relationship with ECSU’s G.R. Little Library. In Fall 2014, several members of the library’s staff applied for and were awarded an LSTA grant, which allowed them to renovate one of the rooms in the library and offered funds for tutoring. We staffed that location with tutors from the QEP Writing Studio by allowing them to work several of their allotted hours in this location. This naturally meant that we were working closely with library staff and we were able to share our experiences and concerns. While continued funding for tutoring in this location has not been consistent since the grant elapsed, it also facilitated our involvement in the University Library Committee, which allowed us to further engage with other faculty members from a variety of different disciplines who are members of that committee, and further develop our relationship with the Director of Library Services.

Just as the QEP created a culture of assessment on our campus, the growth of the QEP Writing Studio also led to a greater awareness of the benefits of tutoring among faculty, staff, and students. Our campus was undergoing a transformation by documenting more strategically and consistently in order to aid our efforts to impact and improve student learning and the overall student experience. In concert with increased attention to gathering and documenting our data as a university, the new QEP Writing Studio and the first-year writing program were being assessed for the first time by experienced faculty members in the Department of Language, Literature, & Communication. It was an exciting time, full of energetic discussions, norming sessions, collaboration, as well as the benefits of increased and delighted attention by administrators that yielded funding and increased support. This work of creating and assessing a writing center was dynamic as it was viewed as a necessary component of the institution’s accreditation toolkit and an incentivizing academic support resource that could help retain enrolled students and entice prospective students. While we employed numerous strategies to ensure this consistency, sharing our stories and lessons learned while maintaining an open dialogue was essential for the success of the QEP Writing Studio. In this way, our QEP narratives took on an importance beyond providing mere context or information; these narratives were necessary to keep the QEP as we knew it alive and thriving as the enthusiasm for this university initiative began to wane amongst such tremendous on-campus change. As the former QEP Executive Director and current QEP Writing Studio Director, we were very conscious of the importance of promoting the QEP’s success stories while also being honest about our opportunities for improvement. Our ongoing dialog with the community – whether via invited formal presentations, unit updates at administrator meetings, email announcements to the entire campus community, and every day “water-cooler” updates with faculty and staff – had an impact that aligned with student engagement. We had to be generous and inviting with our time and attention to share our story – successes, challenges, and opportunities for partnerships – daily. Our efforts resulted in increased engagement by faculty and students, especially with workshop attendance and walk-in appointments for tutoring in courses beyond the first-year composition courses.

References

ECSU Elizabeth City State University. “New Logo and Tagline!” YouTube. YouTube, 10 August 2017. Web. 11 August 2017.

Miller, Jenna and Jeanette Morris. “QEP In Review: Lessons Learned.” Elizabeth City State University. Elizabeth City, NC. 6 May 2016. Lecture with PowerPoint.

“Vikings Wake Up – Vandana Gavascar – Episode 4 – (10-15-11).” Elizabeth City State University. YouTube. YouTube, 14 December 14 2011. Web. 04 December 2017.

 

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