Associate Professor of English Literature and Director of the Writing Associates Program Jill Gladstein will serve as principal investigator on a $60,000 grant that the College recently received. The goal of the project is to create a searchable database of writing programs, a collaborative effort involving two Swarthmore students and two other institutions.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant will fund The Writing Program Administration (WPA) Data Project. The open-access database will provide quantitative data on the structures of writing programs and writing centers at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the U.S.
The database draws on a larger sample of schools and includes more aspects of programs than previous studies, says Gladstein — piquing the interest of scholars and administrators alike.
“People are already telling us how excited they are to use it with graduate courses,” says Gladstein. “Anyone who wants to know, for example, how many writing programs use portfolio assessment or how many writing centers are directed by a tenured professor can use this database as a starting place.”
“There can be folklore about what’s happening in writing programs based on what’s coming out of the large research universities,” she adds, “but we want to represent the full landscape of what’s going on.”
Gladstein and colleagues from New York University and Bloomfield College have already collected information from more than 850 schools in response to their 200+-question survey. They will use the grant funding to hire a development team to build the database.
Also integral to the project are Leo Rayfiel ’15 and Diondra Straiton ’16, who have helped with tasks such as data analysis and Web site development. It’s been a crash course in conducting and analyzing surveys, they say.
“I was able to see first-hand how certain types of questions are more or less likely to elicit a response,” says Straiton, a special major in educational studies and psychology from Brookfield, Conn., and a tutoring coordinator for the College Access Center of Delaware County. “And because different people can interpret the same question different ways, I learned how important the wording of questions can be.”
Adds Rayfiel, an Honors history major from New York, N.Y.: “Hopefully, this data will start a discussion that helps the larger community of writing program and writing center directors understand themselves in a national context.”
That discussion includes the growing importance of writing and critical thinking skills, says Gladstein.
“Sometimes people think of writing as that class you have to take freshman year and then you’re done with it,” she says. “But the collected data shows that many of today’s universities and colleges take different approaches to the goal of developing its students as writers.”
Gladstein, Straiton, and Rayfiel will also present one of just eight featured sessions at the joint International Writing Centers Association and National Council on Peer Tutoring in Writing Conference at the end of this month. They will discuss what they have gleaned from the survey data from each of their perspectives.
“Undergraduates have an important role in this conversation, since we’re the ones who actually navigate through these programs and centers,” says Rayfiel. “We also have a unique stake in whether we end up having access to effective writing instruction at our institutions.”
“I never would have imagined that I would present at a conference like this as an undergraduate,” adds Straiton. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.”