Watson Session G7: In, Around, Up, Over, and Through: Negotiating the Obstacle Courses of First-Year Writing


Panelists: Bump Halbritter, Julie Lindquist, Ronisha Browdy

Among so many conversations highlighting this year’s Watson conference theme of mobility, this panel provided an important space for us to pause and ask questions. More specifically, grounded in conversations about Michigan State University’s First-Year Writing Program, this panel provided an opportunity for attendees to engage in tough and invaluable conversations about the place, importance, and sustainability of first-year writing.

Halbritter & Lindquist introduce MSU’s FYW Program

Halbritter & Lindquist introduce MSU’s FYW Program

Halbritter and Lindquist began this discussion by presenting emerging and ongoing developments in MSU’s FYW program, a program they describe as situated in the lived experiences of students. Working as the current and previous MSU FYW directors, Halbritter and Lindquist shared questions, opportunities, and dilemmas they faced (and addressed) when working to make their writing program as student-centered and accessible as possible. In particular, Halbritter and Lindquist framed their discussion around questions of access and inclusivity in writing program administration, including:

  • What does it mean to assess learning?
  • How do you assess experience-based learning at a program-wide scale?
  • How do we invite students to tell stories and make arguments in composition? What is in it for them?

Through this discussion, Halbritter and Lindquist referenced their goals of sustaining a FYW program that engages students from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, creating new spaces that welcome both success and failure in the process of learning. By highlighting the value of experience and embedding opportunities for preflection, reflection, and storytelling, Halbritter and Lindquist continue to encourage student-centered writing pedagogies that facilitate learning for both students and faculty in FYW. The key remains with crafting new spaces for the discovery of ideas through a “course of action” that is both purposeful and flexible, allowing students (and faculty) to practice informed reflection (what Halbritter and Lindquist call preflection) not only after, but throughout their learning experience in FYW. In this way, FYW becomes a shared space for inquiry grounded in the histories, experiences, and questions of the people engaging in this practice together.

Following Halbritter and Lindquist’s discussion of strategies to encourage inclusivity and access in FYW, Ronisha Browdy introduced her role as a mentor to students in both MSU’s First-Year Writing Program (where she has worked as the Graduate Coordinator for 2 years) and in Daughters of the Collective, a  community-based organization that strives to positively impact the lives of 6th-8th grade Black girls in Lansing and Detroit.

Browdy discusses Inclusivity in Academic Mentoring Spaces

Browdy discusses Inclusivity in Academic Mentoring Spaces

Drawing on the work of Patricia Collins (1986), Browdy employed a Black feminist standpoint to articulate how she (and other women/people of color) often function as the “outsider within” academic institutions, especially in predominantly white institutions that have historically excluded and marginalized the experiences of people of color.

“I felt like an outcast and oddball in every situation,” Browdy explained when describing her initial experiences coming into the FYW coordinator position in charge of facilitating meeting with new graduate teaching assistants. Acknowledging the incredible added-pressure that is often imposed upon people of color in academic spaces, Browdy continued, “My biggest worry was that I would have no visible impact on this program. That I would not affect any positive change, particularly for graduate students of color who have felt that their needs and concerns as persons of color teaching at a predominantly White institution were not always heard or recognized within the program.”

Although Browdy’s position as the FYW coordinator gave her some agency and influence in the program, Browdy continued to explain that her title did not and could not automatically change her marginalized position within the University, asking:

“I had access to writing program administration, but did I truly have a voice? Did I have power?”

In order to find answers (or at least find strength to continue asking these questions), Browdy physically “mobilized” herself by moving into a different mentoring space. This is where she began working with Daughters of the Collective, mentoring young Black women through “diverse and interactive educational experiences.“ Although it would seem as though I would be completely at home in the DOC,” Browdy explained, her position as a Black woman from a middle-class background in a graduate program still positioned her as an “outsider within” this community of young Black women who were still figuring out their academic and professional paths. In turn, it was by putting her two roles as a mentor, both in FYW and in the DOC, in conversation that Browdy understood what it means to build community within the University, leveraging resources to make work visible and valuable across difference. Although Browdy emphasizes the fact that she (and other POC) will always be “an outsider within” the University, she remains “motivated and hopeful because this work must be done.”

As a person, and in particular a woman of color, who benefited from many of the initiatives in MSU’s FYW program (including the inaugural support group for students of color supported and initiated by Ronisha Browdy), I was incredibly grateful to catch up and see new directions, questions, and spaces being discussed in this panel. This discussion made me hopeful about future directions for FYW, both at MSU and in the field more broadly.

About Author

Laura Gonzales

Laura Gonzales is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Texas, El Paso. Her research focuses on highlighting the benefits of linguistic diversity in professional and academic spaces.

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