In my re-emergence into the EMU scene from the world of sabbatical, I've recently had the interesting experience of serving on EMU's Retention Council. This is a group convened by the Enrollment Management division (they oversee admissions and advising) to work on retaining students. As part of the effort, EMU also has retained a retention consultant who has been doing some work with the university over the past year (apparently).
I learned about this consultant's work first hand when I was appointed to the Council (three weeks ago). Among the consultant's recommendations were items and questions directly affecting the First Year Writing Program (that's the program that I run, yes, formerly in conjunction with our much-missed colleague Heidi Estrem, soon in junction with our new colleague, John S. Dunn) that I had heard nothing about. The consultant is pushing reverting to using ACT scores for placement into 120 (a practice that we *finally* abandoned two years ago; a practice that is completely unethical and invalid because ACT/standardized test scores say nothing about students' writing abilities), and asking questions about the performance of students in English 120 that, shall we say, are not grounded in an understanding of assessment principles and practices from composition and rhetoric.
Needless to say, I am working with this consultant - and with the Retention Council - to reframe the questions being raised/concerns being articulated so that they do reflect what we know. I have sent several e-mails regarding placement to this person and have drafted a memo that, once my colleagues read it and let me know that it sounds okay (and/or I make the revisions they suggest), I will post to this very blog so that the tens of readers can get a sense of the situation.
This whole situation is pretty interesting on many levels. Some of them are institutional, and I won't go into those here for probably obvious reasons. But more broadly, this is a situation where someone who knows very little (and maybe even less than that) about writing instruction, research, placement, or assessment is coming in and asking pointed questions (that are really, if you ask me, only slightly disguised recommendations, and probably will soon be less than disguised recommendations) *about* writing instruction (etc.). I wonder: why might this person believe that it is appropriate to make these recommendations without consulting the experts the institution has hired (in whom the institution has invested time and resources) to work with these very issues? Certainly, when I raised this issue with colleagues from the Academic Affairs division at my university (the division that includes, logically enough, faculty and other instructional staff) they asked the same question. But why, more generally, would this consultant presume to proceed in the manner that this one has? Would the consultant recommend to a biologist - or even infer to them - how they should proceed with work about which s/he (the biologist) is an expert, like laboratory procedures?
The tens of readers to this list of course know the answer to this question: no, a retention consultant (or anyone else) wouldn't say to a biologist, "You've been conducting research on cell biology for years and I don't know much about it, but I'm going to recommend a procedure that you should use for your research because I think it's better." And this is but one more example of/reason why it's important that we comp/rhet people advocate for appropriate frames to surround our work. I'm in the process of doing that now, with the e-mails I've already sent and the memo that I've written. My guess is that, based on these documents and the alliances that we have built around campus, this will be a successful "adjustment." But this is work that I'm comfortable doing and know how to do because I've spent a long time thinking about how to do it, where the resources are for doing it, etc. One of the things that we in the field need to work on, I think (and "duh..." on this one) is actively developing strategies and resources so that everyone can engage in this work with some degree of comfort and acumen, too.