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Storytelling as Advocacy in Higher Education

Jim Webber discusses storytelling as advocacy in higher edThe following piece was submitted by Jim Webber, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. He studies public discourse about literacy education and teaches academic, public, and professional writing. He is also one of NCTE’s Higher Ed Policy Analysts. 

In November 2013, I posted here about how the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) has embraced Complete College America’s (CCA) call to eliminate “remediation,” which has meant removing basic writing from  the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. CCA argues that basic writing takes a lot of time and money but doesn’t offer an acceptable return on investment.

I’d like to share a small example of my advocacy on this issue. While reading about the CCA in 2013, I brought their 2012 report (Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere) to a capstone class for writing majors. We discussed the report’s economic framing of a public issue because students were preparing to write for local and state public audiences about issues they were studying. I was thinking of the CCA report as a genre exercise for my students.

During class, though, one student shifted this discussion. He said, “Well, I kind of disagree with them, because I took English 098 (UNR’s basic writing course), and now I’m a writing major, and I’m preparing for professional work involving writing.” The moment resonated because it sounded like it could “chang[e] stories about writing and writers” (Linda Adler-Kassner, The Activist WPA). That student’s experience is the kind that NCTE highlights: it “tell[s] people how legislative policies trickle down to the communities where they live and where they send their children to school.”

After this class, I began asking students to describe their experiences with basic writing, and I found more examples of a similar pathway through 098 to a major in writing.

These conversations suggested a new focus for me, which is to listen to my students’ experiences so that I can tell stories to policy actors. These stories make an old argument—that basic writing is not waste and futility—but in a specific context that illustrates the public value of literacy educators’ professional judgment.

My next step is to craft these stories to share them with the audiences who’ve adopted the CCA’s policies: the NSHE Chancellor’s Office and the Nevada Governor’s Office. These offices are not seeking my input on CCA, but as the process of implementation begins, I anticipate new discussions will arise. My aim is to reopen discussion to consider local and specific effects of these policies.