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Composition Forum 29, Spring 2014

Review of Gladstein and Regaignon, Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges

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Mark C. Long

Gladstein, Jill M., and Dara Rossman Regaignon. Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2012. 271 pp.

Let’s say you design a ninety-seven-question survey to find out what writing programs are like at over one hundred private small liberal arts institutions in the United States—from Agnes Scott, a women's college in metropolitan Atlanta, to Wofford College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And, let’s say you follow up the survey by gathering supplemental data to clarify responses—reviewing college catalogs, web sites, and other site documents—and conducting individual and focus group interviews. What might you find?

Jill M. Gladstein and Dara Rossman Regaignon’s Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges affirms what one might suspect: that small, liberal arts institutions value writing and the teaching of writing. Faculty members in small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) across the disciplines teach writing, and they see themselves as teachers of writing. Ninety-six schools in the sample have first-year writing requirements (98). Thirty-eight of the sampled schools have a first-year composition requirement (98). And forty-five schools in the sample have first-year writing seminars (101). SLACs, moreover, given their primary commitment to undergraduate education, are twice as likely to have writing across the curriculum (WAC) programs than the national norm (7). This orientation has led to a near universal prevalence of writing centers in the SLAC.

The longstanding commitment to writing in small liberal arts institutions is a product of their common size and shared genealogy. Gladstein and Regaignon cite the 1828 Yale Report’s conclusion that the residential undergraduate college, the study of Greek and Latin, and writing and rhetoric should remain the defining features of institutions of higher education in the United States (6). In fact, small colleges remained committed to this mission during the second half of the nineteenth century when the landscape of higher education in the United States was transformed by the emergence of land grant universities and research-oriented institutions. And this historical commitment to the use of language and rhetoric—and to close interaction between faculty and students—remains the central organizing principle of the twenty-first century liberal arts college.

To describe this common ethos, Gladstein and Regaignon turn to the 1977 book Marxism and Literature, in which Raymond Williams describes this ethos as “structures of feeling,” or the “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs” (qtd. in Gladstein and Regaignon 132: 7). Williams’ concept of “structures of feeling” accounts for the “emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics” of institutional cultures rooted in their local histories and committed to a less bureaucratic approach to pedagogy, curriculum, and program design (qtd. in Gladstein and Regaignon 132: 7).

Gladstein and Regaignon’s project began with a simple but compelling question: “What, exactly, does writing program administration at private small liberal arts colleges look like?” (xv). But that question raised a more complex methodological question: “How do you find out what writing programs at small colleges look like?” (23). Gladstein and Regaignon develop a descriptive method for identifying the role of writing, as well as an opportunity to theorize what this description might mean for the field of writing studies (23). Their “grounded theory” and “mixed methods analysis” offer a model for further scholarship on the culture of writing at particular institutional sites.

Gladstein and Regaignon’s research builds on the work of Gretchen Flesher Moon, Patricia Donahue, Thomas Amorose, Paul Hanstedt, and others who established the Small College Special Interest Group in the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC); those who contributed to a special issue of Composition Studies (2004) focused on the SLAC, edited by Handstedt and Amorose; and contributors to the book Local Histories (2007), edited by Moon and Donahue. This line of inquiry is significant: it affirms that the distinctive values, history, and material conditions in the twenty-first century small college do not necessarily align with the normative histories and values of the larger university-based writing program.

The study draws on a sample of one hundred private small liberal arts colleges distributed geographically across the United States and having enrollments ranging from 592 to 3,966 students (26). The colleges that comprise the study are members of the Annapolis Group, a consortium of over 130 leading national liberal arts colleges across the United States that “promotes the value of a liberal arts education while providing a forum for member institutions to collaborate, shape the dialog on higher education at a national level, and develop new ways—both individually and collectively—to serve the public good.” The sample includes seven women’s colleges and three men’s colleges as well as two historically black colleges (26). The primary instrument is a ninety-seven-question survey that sought information in six primary areas: administrative structure; writing requirements, including first-year writing and WAC; writing centers; faculty development; assessment; and identification and support for diversely prepared learners (27). Gladstein and Regaignon report that “in the end, 109 schools responded to the survey, yielding an 80% return rate,” and “eighty-nine of the one hundred schools in the final data set answered questions beyond the original survey via e-mail, over the phone, or in person” (29). The data includes both the explicit sites of writing (such as the Writing Center or the Director of Writing) and implicit or embedded sites of writing (writing requirements within programs or administrative roles that include the oversight of writing).

Gladstein and Regaignon’s “grounded theory” and “mixed methods analysis” weave together survey, interview, and focus group data, site document analysis, and institutional history to map the sites of writing at small colleges today. Their findings include diffuse administrative structures that support writing and complex configurations of leadership. Examining the leadership configuration of an institution’s writing program, they conclude, “is a key step in understanding not just the local culture of writing but also the material conditions that shape it” (64). These configurations range from program directors (of first-year writing, WAC, or Writing in the Disciplines [WID]) to more centralized models at twenty-nine schools that consolidate all of the writing initiatives in a single Writing Program Administrator or WPA.

Of course, describing the administrative and leadership configurations does not explain the status of Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) or Writing Center Directors (WCDs)—what these leaders actually do, as well as their authority and influence on a given campus. Indeed, as Gladstein and Regaignon explain, in the SLAC “the status of WPA positions and the responsibilities they encompass are tied together in messy and complex ways” (69). Their approach to these complexities is to examine existing scholarship on the WPA and WCD alongside the complex and specific programmatic configurations they find among the institutions in their sample. Gladstein and Regaignon conclude, “fully understanding the relationship between the culture of writing and the leadership configuration is essential to supporting, developing, or changing that culture” (66).

The subsequent parts of Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges are divided into a discussion of issues associated with “curriculum-centered writing instruction” (writing requirements, staffing first-year writing, and leadership configurations) and “student-centered writing instruction” (writing centers, supporting diversely prepared writers). In small colleges, the curriculum-centered and student-centered sites for writing can remain distinct, overlap, or reflect tensions in the evolving cultures of writing in the small college. Gladstein and Regaignon analyze these sites using the previously noted distinction between explicit and embedded writing instruction—“a distinction that is particularly important to understanding writing instruction at small colleges” (96). It is notable, too, that in nearly all of the schools in the sample the culture of writing is in transition as faculties explore ways to build verticality into the writing curriculum, from first-year courses to senior capstones.

In their chapter on staffing first-year writing, Gladstein and Regaignon remind their readers that the small colleges in the Annapolis Group sample include some of the wealthiest institutions in the country. As a result, the questions about staffing in these schools are more often than not focused on intellectual expertise rather than labor conditions (121). In fact, all but “two of the seventy-seven schools that provided class size data comply with the CCCC guideline of keeping class sizes below twenty, and 44% meet the ideal of fifteen or smaller” (122). As Gladstein and Regaignon note, “These figures contrast sharply with national norms” (122).

It is also striking how few faculty at small colleges who teach first-year writing are specialists in the field of rhetoric and composition. “Only 27% of the sections of first-year composition and only 9% of the sections of first-year seminars are taught by writing specialists,” according to Gladstein and Regaignon’s findings (126-27). This shared ownership of writing reflects the institutional commitment to undergraduate education at the same time it presents distinct challenges and opportunities for faculty development initiatives around writing. For example, keeping faculty involved in the teaching of writing, and recruiting as well as training and supporting new faculty in effective writing pedagogy, requires leadership and institutional commitment. Moreover, the tension between program needs and the needs of a general studies curriculum will inevitably lead to challenges when determining equitable faculty workloads.

The final chapters focus on writing centers, supporting diversely prepared writers, and assessment. Gladstein and Regaignon begin their chapter on writing centers by showing how the guiding metaphor of writing center scholarship does not necessarily apply to the small school. For both philosophical and material reasons, at small institutions, “margins and center simply cannot be terribly far apart” (157). In their discussion of diversely prepared writers, in addition, small and mostly selective schools are less likely to systematically identify students with special needs and too often place the responsibility of working with these students on peer tutors. Finally, in their chapter on assessment, Gladstein and Regaignon note that the distinctive structures of feeling of small colleges—“their size, the immediacy and pervasiveness of faculty governance, not to mention a penchant for individual experimentation”—make these institutions potentially generative sites for creative assessment (202).

Of course the enduring values of small colleges can also create disincentives to change as well. As a faculty member and former chair at a public liberal arts college, I know first-hand how conditions for teaching and learning evolve as leadership and staffing structures change. On the one hand, intimacy and community can foster a collective commitment to improving working conditions for teaching and learning. On the other hand, a less-centralized and more diffuse culture of writing is susceptible to less flexible educational values of the faculty across the college who teach writing. Indeed, sustaining a vibrant culture of writing in a small school requires recognizing as well as continually re-examining the material and historical conditions that make new opportunities possible. For the struggle of existing values and emergent conditions will continue to challenge small institutions and their faculties as they strive to deepen or reaffirm their commitment to writing instruction. Any descriptive account of leadership configurations simply cannot capture these complex structural and interpersonal dynamics in particular institutional cultures.

Nevertheless, Gladstein and Regaignon’s “grounded theory” convincingly answers an important set of questions. In what ways are small liberal arts college writing programs distinctive? What can we learn from the configurations of leadership and authority in these schools? And what can these programs offer other institutions seeking to address the ever-present challenges of developing student writers? If a reader is framing these kinds of questions, Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges will offer answers, as well as inspiration, for further research projects on writing program administration.

Works Cited

Annapolis Group. The Annapolis Group, 2014. Web. 7 January 2014. <>.

Donahue, Patricia, and Gretchen Flesher Moon, eds. Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007. Print.

Hanstedt, Paul, and Tom Amorose, eds. Composition in the Small College. Spec. issue of Composition Studies 32.2 (2004): 1-168. Print.

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