by the WIC Team
Dr. Vicki Tolar Burton, Professor of English and Director of the Writing Intensive Curriculum, retires after 29 years at Oregon State University at the end of 2019. WIC Interns Matt Fuller, Alex Werndli, and Regan Breeden, and WIC GTA Marisa Yerace, sat down with Vicki to discuss her work, experiences, and legacy as a writing teacher, rhetoric scholar, and Writing Program Administrator.
On the Writing Intensive Curriculum at OSU
What drew you to WAC/WID studies?
I think I have an interdisciplinary mind, and I’ve always looked at things from multiple directions. I’ve had jobs where I was working in different environments, from labor law administration to the National Institutes of Health. I saw different kinds of discourse, and they all interested me. So Writing Across the Curriculum felt like a good fit for me from the start. This job requires rhetorical sensitivity, specifically an understanding of audience and context and an ability to persuade people to do the right thing for their students, which I also enjoy.
How have you articulated the value of the WIC program to the university community and beyond?
The WIC requirement’s purpose is to help OSU undergraduates become effective writers in their discipline. The WIC program’s purpose is to support faculty who teach WIC courses, to help them employ best practices for teaching writing in their discipline, and to help with the assessment and certification of WIC courses. The best argument for the WIC program’s value is the success of WIC faculty who feel their teaching has been improved and even transformed by taking the WIC seminar or gaining support from another aspect of WIC. These confident teachers of writing in the disciplines become the face of the program and the best argument for the program.
WIC gains value in the university through collaborations between the WIC director and staff and WIC faculty and academic units, as well as with other writing entities like the Writing Studio (formerly the Writing Center) and the Writing I and Writing II courses.
On Teaching Writing
When did you begin teaching writing? What kinds of writing have you taught?
I started teaching writing the day after I turned 22. I was in a master’s program at Duke University. Duke arranged with different school systems to employ their grad students as regular salaried high school teachers. So, I went to a really interesting high school in Westport, Connecticut, which is a bedroom community to New York—very artsy, and a lot of brilliant people live there, and their kids go to the public high school. The faculty were among the most interesting faculties I have ever taught with, because many of them had other careers in the arts and business, finance and publishing—all different fields—then they decided to be high school teachers as a second career. It was an amazing education for me. That was my start, I was teaching 10th grade English. When I got married, my then-spouse was in the Air Force, so we moved around and I was always able to get a job. If I couldn’t get a teaching job, I did something else, like labor law administration. I’ve taught 6th grade through PhD students, including community college. I’ve taught at a historically black university in Charlotte, Johnson C. Smith University. So, I’ve had a quite varied career—all this before I got my PhD at Auburn and then came to OSU.
What do you wish more people knew about teaching writing?
One thing is the value of robust revision in response to feedback. Also, I wish more teachers and students knew how to give feedback that is both specific and encouraging, that helps writers prioritize revising tasks and say, ‘Hey, I can do that. I can fix that.’ I would like to free faculty from the urge to line edit all student writing. We need to help students get the big things right first—audience, purpose, organization, accurate content—and leave correctness for a much later stage.
What do you think people struggle with most with when teaching writing?
One of the big challenges is helping students identify, understand, and practice the particular kind of writing that is valued in their field. Faculty often assume students understand this by osmosis, just because they are majors, but many don’t. Teachers need to articulate these characteristics to students. The other biggest challenge is probably giving effective feedback that leads to robust revision.
What are the qualities of a successful teacher of writing? Are these qualities the same as those of an effective writing program administrator?
I don’t think they’re necessarily the same. I think you can be a great teacher of writing and know that you’re not suited to direct a program. And, that’s good—you have other gifts. Successful writing teachers are student-centered. They’re not just delivering information under the banking model—making deposits of information in students’ heads. They have clear standards, so the students know what’s expected. They design writing assignments that require critical thinking and push students out of their default position. Successful teachers of writing are committed to the success of all levels of students, not dismissing struggling students, not overlooking middling students, not leaving the best writer on their own. Every writer can improve with the right feedback and practice.
A successful WPA has to have a larger vision of the program’s purpose and be able to keep all the parts moving in the right direction. After my grandson, 4, visited my WIC office, he told me he has an office with a big round table like mine and two computer screens. “What kind of work do you do in your office?” I asked. “I sit in a big black chair, and I spin,” he replied. So there is that part, too.
Why teach writing?
I teach writing because I believe it’s something that is important in people’s lives. Writing is a skill that people need, and I think it helps people become who they are—find themselves, find their best selves, share what they know, discover new knowledge. And if they can improve as writers and gain confidence as writers, then they can make choices in their lives and not be held back by lack of communications skills. I love teaching writing; I’ve always loved it. I like reading what students write, I like giving them feedback, I like talking to them as writers.
“Rhetoric and Composition” wasn’t always as clearly defined of a field as it is now. What led you to become a rhetoric scholar?
There were very few places, when I was getting my PhD, that had a Rhetoric and Composition PhD. I had rhetoric and composition coursework in my English doctoral studies.
Rhetoric and Composition was a clear choice. When I was teaching in Charlotte, North Carolina, I participated in faculty development based on the National Writing Project. It brought together teachers from many disciplines around teaching writing, especially as a process. I remember thinking, ‘That’s brilliant! I want to do that.’
I was drawn to more study of rhetoric because of a project that I happened into. When I was first working on my PhD, an elderly family member gave me an old book that was published in 1834. It was the spiritual journal of an 18th-century British Methodist woman who had the same name as my mother’s family. And this elderly relative said, ‘Somebody gave me this book and said this woman might be kin to us. Maybe you’d like to have the book.’ That night I looked at the first ten pages, I realized the author, Hester Rogers, was from England and I hadn’t been able to pin anybody in our family to one place in England, so I put the book away.
Then, a few months later, I had a dream. About the book. That I hadn’t read. And the dream was the book was important. And that I should read it! I sometimes have really strong dreams, so I got up in the night and–we had moved, everything was still in boxes and I had to go through boxes to find this book–but I found it. It wasn’t very long, so I just stayed up the rest of the night and read it. I didn’t say, This is the best thing I’ve ever read, but her writing style was very Jane Austen, even though she was writing pre-Jane Austen. That was kind of intriguing to me; she was obviously educated. I started trying to find out who Hester Rogers was. But this was pre-internet search, pre-Google, so I was just looking in the library at Auburn.
The first place I found her was an engraving of John Wesley’s (the founder of Methodism) deathbed scene, and she was in the room with John Wesley when he died. I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’ Not only was she in the room, she was kneeling next to his bed, she was physically the closest person to him, and she had her hands up on the bedclothes while he was dying. I thought, ‘There’s definitely rhetoric in that picture.’ So I started looking for her, just for my own satisfaction. And I started thinking of the whole project rhetorically – and historically – so I started applying my rhetorical knowledge to something I was personally interested in, and I ended up writing my dissertation as a rhetorical study of Hester Rogers’s journal and her place in early Methodism. My argument was that she was used as the model of the ‘good woman.’ There were other early Methodist women leaders who preached, but Hester Rogers did not preach, and I think they – the men – picked her because she was ‘the good woman in the pew.’ In the 19th century, the preaching women were silenced but Hester’s journal went into more than 40 American editions. The women preachers were protected by John Wesley until he died, and then the men said, ‘Ladies, you can go home now, we have plenty of men to preach.’ So the ‘Good woman’ became the woman who was teaching Sunday School, leading the women but not running the church. It took more than a century, almost two, for Methodist women to get back in the pulpit.
That’s how I got into rhetoric: because I wanted to know something, and I wanted to have a frame for looking at it, and rhetoric worked for me.
On Her Legacy and Future Plans
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at OSU?
The WIC teachers I’ve trained and supported and the OSU students across the university who have learned to write in their majors: they are my legacy.
The wonderful WIC GTAs and interns who have learned about writing program administration from working with WIC and taken that knowledge forward: they are my legacy.
A sustained and sustainable WIC program that contributes of OSU’s excellence in the land grant mission: this is my legacy.
And the undergraduates and graduate students I have taught in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, and especially the graduate students from across the university who have completed their degrees at least in part because they found my course, WR 599, Writing Workshop for Thesis and Dissertation Writers Across the University: these writers are my legacy.
I hope part of my legacy will be a contemplative one. I introduced the thesis and dissertation writers to contemplative practices that could help them with stress, focus, with balance—and with writing. Once in the airport in Portland, one of my former dissertation writers came running over and said, “I’m on my way to Sweden to give a paper. I’ve been wanting to tell you that Amy (someone also in WR 599) and I taught our whole lab how to meditate.” I love the image of an OSU lab of grad students learning to meditate together.
That’s the beauty of cross disciplinary learning. That the lab is good for more than just measuring things, it’s good for mutual support. So part of my WIC legacy of writing in the disciplines is that WIC led to teach WR599 and to all of the graduate students who have finished and defended and gone out in the world, some of whom have taught their labs to meditate.
What is next for VTB?
I plan to spend more time with my Oregon grandkids and with my East Coast grandkids. I’m going to do lots of hiking, some traveling, and, I hope, lots of writing.
Dr. Vicki Tolar Burton will be presenting at two upcoming conferences: the 71st Conference on College Composition and Communication (March 25-28, 2020, in Milwaukee, WI), and the 19th Biennial Meeting of the Rhetoric Society of America (May 21-24, 2020, in Portland, OR). She also has a chapter, “Ethical Writing in the Disciplines,” forthcoming in After Plato: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing, and an article, “Mapping Dual Credit for College Writing: Notes from the Oregon Trail,” forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, written with Jordan Terriere-Dobrioglo.