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If you spend a lot of time working inside a particular institution, I think it’s natural to start to believe that how it works at your institution is how it works everywhere.

This is probably largely sub- or unconscious. When you’re in the midst of your work and there’s neither time nor opportunity to pause and take a good look at what’s going on, i’s like that old joke where one fish asks another fish, “How’s the water,” and the other says, “What the hell is water?”

I’ve been on the road recently doing some speaking and seminars around Why They Can’t Write and The Writer’s Practice, and spending a day or two at another institution has given me some opportunity to contemplate the state of the higher education water.

I spend a lot of time feeling fretful about the state of public higher education, occasionally feeling close to defeated when it comes to addressing some of the systemic problems, but my two most recent trips, one to Indiana University and one to Rowan University, reminded me how, despite these problems, good and interesting work is being done on a daily basis.

At IU I was invited by John Paul Kanwit and IU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and spent the bulk of my time talking to professors outside of writing and English about teaching writing.

Of course the people who select into these experiences have already demonstrated a particular interest in learning new things that will enhance their teaching, but even so, I was impressed with the passion and curiosity the people I met bring to their work. It was a reminder of how many people inside these institutions are truly mission-driven, willing and eager to extend themselves in the service of helping students learn.

The people I met with are not phoning it in. They are not indulged, professorial dead wood.

I left Bloomington cheered.

I will admit, I was not aware of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., until I was contacted by Celeste Del Russo, the director of the Rowan Writing Center. This seems shameful given that it is now approaching 20,000 students after decades of significant growth and can claim Patti Smith as an alum back when it was named Glassboro State College[1].

The Rowan mascot is the Profs, represented by a professorial owl, and in my experience it’s an appropriate symbol for an institution dedicated to teaching well.

At Rowan I spent all my time with writing instructors and undergraduate and graduate writing tutors in the Rowan Writing Center. These are my people, and it is always fun to commune with others who carry the same obsessions as me -- how to engage students with writing in the face of systemic problems and previous student experiences aligned against that goal.

One of the most fascinating parts of visiting Rowan for me was the unusual structure of where and how writing is situated within the larger institution. Unlike everywhere I’ve worked, and the vast majority of institutions I’m familiar with, writing is not housed in English. In fact, it is its own department, Writing Arts, underneath the Ric Edelman[2] College of Communication and Creative Arts.

I was only there a short time, but it seemed immediately apparent that writing existing in its own, stand-alone department makes for significantly different swimming for the fish than when it is part of English.[3]

As part of my Rowan visit, I got to deliver one of my favorite talks about how a writing degree is perfect preparation for a changing and changeable employment landscape. An audience of writing professors and master's students is obviously receptive to such a message, but my hope is that sharing how vital my own education in writing has been to my varied career will be helpful to those just getting started.

My favorite part of the Rowan visit was spending time with the undergraduate and graduate writing tutors from the Writing Center. This is when I realize how much I miss teaching full-time.

They made me feel retroactive shame over the lack of knowledge I brought into the classroom as a TA in graduate school. Speaking to the master's students who were teaching first-year writing was speaking to colleagues, not apprentices, and I may have learned a thing or two from them.

To me, it illustrates what can be done when instructors are empowered and supported. Right after my visit, many of the graduate students were speaking at regional conference. The reason I lacked preparation for the classroom as a graduate student is because no one cared to prepare me. This is clearly not the case with the graduate students at Rowan.

As with my visit to Indiana, I left Rowan with renewed faith in the educational mission. It’s worth doing well.

How's the water?

Good, come on in.

[1]Also the actor Robert Hegyes, best known for playing Epstein in Welcome Back, Kotter.

[2]Edelman is a hugely successful investor and personal finance expert and Rowan (Glassboro) alum who along with his wife donated a large sum to the university in specific support of communication and creative arts, believing the foundation he received in those fields was fundamental to his success in business.

[3]If anyone else works in a stand-alone writing department, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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