Amtrak was late. We were supposed to depart at 11:39am. It was 11:59 instead. Thus the journey towards Florence-Darlington Technical Colleges’s new writing center began. It has always been a journey that started late.
In a way, it actually seems fated. When I first came to FDTC in the fall of 2008, my then-department head Sylvia Holmes asked me to visit the school’s Success Center to convey the English faculty\’s complaints to its director. She supposed that my pastoral training would help me convey our disappointments gently and persuasively. Unfortunately (as she half-expected, she told me later), the Success Center director had no intention of hearing any complaints. She brought along her supervisor Carmen, and the two of them proceeded to assault every complaint tag-team fashion. “So you don’t have names and dates and times? What are we supposed to do about it? You have nothing. Anything else?” Being new to the department, I had little tribal history to back me up. I left with my tail between my legs and the distinct impression that whatever the Success Center was, it was not our partner in education.
Times have changed. Carmen is no longer associated with the Success Center; it is now under far more collegial management. Most disciplines that cause students difficulties — mathematics, biology — now have their own tutoring facility. Honestly, I have a hard time determining the Success Center’s purpose. The one difficult subject that remains without its own tutoring facility is English, but the idea that “Anyone can tutor English” is still alive and well.
To be sure, we are late establishing a writing center at Florence-Darlington Tech. FDTC is situated in the so-called “Corridor of Shame,” a region along Interstate I-95 in which education has long been devalued. It is a region too uneducated to recognized its own intellectual poverty. In the rest of the nation, people with a Master’s degree in English are a dime a dozen and generally unemployed; here we have problems finding adjuncts who have the required 18 graduate hours in English to teach our classes. It is not infrequently that we cannot offer an ENG 101 class due to a lack of instructors.
My own commitment to establishing a writing center has come late, too. In the early 1990s I served as a graduate assistant in the Angelo State University Writing Center. That was in the days when IBM still built PCs with 16-color monitors, WordPerfect was the word processor of choice, and everyone who didn’t have a Mac used a command line interface. My career since then has wound through high school English and speech, a Master of Divinity in seminary, and back to teaching in college and university, where, principally because no one else was willing to do it, I became the local specialist in technical writing. Along with that specialty came teaching the Advanced Technician Education (ATE) classes, which linked engineering, mathematics, physics, and technical writing courses in a combined problem-based learning program.
But teaching the ATE curriculum has become more difficult in recent years. The number of students graduating high school and ready for College Algebra and Physics 201 has been shrinking, making it hard for us to generate a cohort. I tried to bridge the gap by creating a common electronic workspace where students could collaborate on projects even if they weren;t in all the classes. The idea was that if one student were not in physics, he or she could be grouped with others who were, and they could combine their efforts to successfully complete their projects.
It was the fall of 2017 when it all fell apart. I had eight students in my ATE class, the minimum for a class to make, and we were dutifully on our way to completing our first project by the deadline. Then three students (my guess is that they were behind on their project) went to another instructor, and I was informed that, since these three students were not in Physics 201, they would not be doing projects. An email later that day, copied to the Engineering department head, confirmed the morning’s conversation. My class was … what? I didn’t know. I knew that my curriculum was suddenly out of my control. I knew that, had I known this at the beginning of the semester, the class would not have made. And I knew that, with the problems we had simply staffing our ENG 101 classes, I couldn’t justify teaching a class with five students just because the Engineering department wanted us to. As a matter of fact, the Engineering department couldn’t justify its own ATE class this semester because it too lacked sufficient instructors.
I took the sting of it all home with me over the weekend. My face burned with anger, in part because someone in another department was telling me how to assign my grades. And then it became clear to me that my anger was misplaced. The ATE program was dying, not because of my lack of effort, but due to our students’ poor preparation in public high schools. There was nothing I could do to change it. Every moment I spent trying to save the program would be futile, and I didn’t want to give the last decade of my career to something that would not last. On the other hand, my own department had its own struggles with the product our local high schools were turning out — poor students indeed, for the most part. Many of our non-traditional students were weak as well. But with the Completion Agenda trying to get rid of remedial classes nationwide, adding more remedial classes was not the answer. And I then I knew what I had to do. In a moment of total clarity, it became obvious.
And so, almost 10 years to the day since that first confrontation with the FDTC Success Center and its obstinance, I walked into the office of Terry Rardon, my new department head, and told her I was resigning from the ATE program at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. Instead I would be giving myself to my real strength: helping students individually with their writing. I would give myself over completely to establishing the FDTC Writing Center.
She agreed. Our Associate Vice President, Marc David, agreed. Our VPAA agreed. The word was given: let’s get some information together, let’s get our ducks in a row, and let’s get swimming.
So this morning we have set off on the train to Richmond, Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University to the Southeast Writing Center Association Conference. “We” includes my wife Mary Margaret and my 11-year-old daughter Marie Angelique, who are joining me for their first non-Christmas travel in four years. (I’m having to pay their way out of my own pocket, of course.) The days will be all work for me, and all sightseeing for them, but our nights we can spend as a family. Our AirBnB room is right next to the university and the cathedral, and it’s saving the college money, too.
When I get back with all the fresh knowledge I’ve gained from this trip, I’m prepared for a whirlwind of activity as we try to launch this new enterprise for the fall semester. We’re already late in our planning.
But not too late. At least, that’s what I hope.