Composing Community: the Evolution and Adaptation of CSUCI’s Composition Program

I joined CSUCI’s innovative first year composition program in the fall of 2005, just two years after the campus began welcoming first year students. Our students were taught by six full-time faculty committed to doing things differently. That included never offering remedial writing courses and working as a team to develop curriculum and assess the writing of all students in our program. In that semester, we taught fourteen sections of first year composition serving about 360 students. Our whole campus was in startup mode, and our program was no exception.

Leap forward to the spring 2019 semester, with a team comprised of twelve full-time faculty teaching forty sections of first year composition serving nearly 800 students. As we’ve scaled up, we’ve retained the foundational elements of our program, including our team scoring of student writing, while integrating new practices to remain successful and sustainable. While our program’s expectations for student writing and research have become increasingly demanding, 92% of first year students pass our classes with a grade of C- or higher even though just 62% of them were deemed ready for college writing by traditional measures.

Teaching and Learning Innovations has been instrumental in our journey of evolution and adaptation. We used to haul hundreds of folders to our portfolio scoring sessions, creating a daunting visual for passersby. Now students submit their work electronically through Google Classroom. This move has been transformative, both logistically and pedagogically, especially as we’ve doubled in size and added upper division writing portfolios to our team scoring sessions.

This semester, we are also teaching several first year composition courses in a blended modality. Classes meet face to face for 75 minutes a week and then connect asynchronously online (by way of such platforms as Canvas, CI Docs, VoiceThread, and or during instructor conferences either face to face or via Zoom. This enables us to make effective use of classroom space while capitalizing on the best aspects of face to face and online learning environments. It also provides our team more time for ongoing professional development activities to further improve our teaching and learn from one another. (One of our amazing composition faculty, Rachael Jordan, shared her insights on this conversion in a recent blog post.)

Some of our adaptations have been less technical in nature but equally significant, retaining the integrity of our program while responding to the demands of a growing campus.

Since our program’s inception, students have had the choice of a one semester college writing class (English 105) or our two semester Stretch Composition sequence that begins with a three-unit elective (English 102) and then leads students into a corresponding college writing course with their same instructor and classmates (English 103). Traditionally, most students have chosen Stretch and thrived in that pathway. As we’ve grown and offered more sections, we’ve also struggled to reach capacity in some English 103 classes due in part to attrition from fall to spring. In spring of 2018, we had 73 vacant seats across 22 sections of English 103 (putting us at just 83% capacity).

We realized we could fill those seats by replacing English 103 with English 105. These classes were identical in content and expectations, with the exception that students in English 103 had the advantage of a semester’s preparation in English 102. Students who choose our Stretch sequence continue to enjoy the perks of that pathway as they move from English 102 to English 105, while students who need English 105 are able to enroll in courses that previously would remain unfilled. Students who took English 102 become the experts in English 105, mentoring students who are new to the cohort while benefiting from the addition of new voices in the class.

With this adaptation, we are at 99% capacity in English 105, with 795 students enrolled across 40 sections.While we continue to offer stand alone sections of English 105 in both fall and spring, integrating English 105 into our Stretch sequence has allowed us to retain our cohort model while enabling all students to complete their writing requirement in their first year. Given the visions laid out by Graduation Initiative 2025 and CSUCI’s Strategic Initiatives, this is a major breakthrough that will make a measurable difference for students.

While our campus and our program are no longer in startup mode, we are still called to evolve and adapt to increasingly complex exigencies. For our composition program, community is at the core of these adaptations. Our faculty work together to identify and explore challenges and opportunities in the fields of composition and rhetoric and in the realms of digital teaching and learning. (We also spend a lot of time together eating and talking, but that is the subject of a separate blog post.)

A running joke in our team is that we should never find ourselves in the position of arguing, “But we’ve always done it this way.” To be honest, the joke began when that phrase was in fact uttered at my very first composition faculty meeting when the program was just two years old. The fact that we all immediately found the phrase hilariously ludicrous signaled that I was in the right place. I still am.

Dedicated to the pioneering members of our composition team, past and present, and especially to the one who set it all in motion, Bob Mayberry.

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