By Alexander Mahmou-Werndli and Erin Vieira
Travis Margoni is a member of the English faculty and the founder of a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative at Yakima Valley College, an open-admissions, primarily two-year Hispanic Serving Institution in Washington State. He has formerly worked as an instructor at the University of Utah and, during his M.A. at Oregon State, served as the GTA of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program.
Alex: Can you expand a little bit on the institutional context of Yakima Valley College, and how your role with WAC fits into it?
Travis: Yakima Valley College is right in the heart of Washington and we’re a two year college that now has roughly five bachelor’s degrees too. We’re traditionally a community college, but we’ve moved the word community out of our name as a lot of two year colleges have. We’re an HSI [Hispanic-Serving Institution] with roughly 60% Hispanic-identifying students. That number has increased a lot over the last two decades from when we were initially awarded HSI status about 20 years ago, give or take. We have around 8000 [8,139] enrolled students and the area that we serve is largely an agricultural area; a lot of the families here are involved in agriculture. There are a lot of immigrant families here, too – the community as a whole is over half Latinx as well – and a lot of our students are first-gen students from all different backgrounds.
It’s really a privilege to work at an institution like this. It’s partially why I came here after being at the University of Utah for four years; I wanted to transition into teaching two-year college and I liked the Northwest. When this opportunity came up, I was really excited to come up to an HSI and learn here and bring whatever I could to the campus.
In terms of shared governance at our college, it’s a little bit fuzzy at times… we don’t always know what our roles are as faculty in terms of campus leadership. We don’t have a faculty Senate, for example, like OSU has, so there are a lot of leadership opportunities, but the ability to do WPA work is about building relationships and taking your own initiative and plowing forward and building support for that.
Alex: On that note, could you tell us a little bit about the process for initiating the WAC initiative at YVC?
Yeah. It was a pretty informal process. I was having lunch with another former WIC GTA, Laura May, who runs our Writing Center in Grandview (one of our two campuses) … this was a few years back, and I said “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could initiate a WAC program here?” And we thought “oh we’re just dreaming,” you know, but then, over the course of a couple of years, I started to develop some relationships with my Dean, for example, and our grant manager, our Title V Director, etc, and I just made the pitch. I put the research together and I sent it to Wilma Dulin (our Title V Director) and to my dean, Kerrie Cavaness. We also had support from our Vice President, Tomás Ybarra, who’s opened up a lot of lines for equity initiatives on campus. I made sure to provide a lot of evidence to show how impactful WAC programs are and how many colleges have them, including two-year colleges – roughly half of all two year colleges have a WAC program and others are developing them right now.
I also made sure to show how WAC practices are especially impactful for an HSI, where students are marginalized by these high stakes testing and assessment measures that are frankly racist. If your disaggregated data shows disparities in demographic success right along racial lines… we could talk about how “Oh, these are inequitable,” but let’s not split hairs here, let’s not equivocate about inequitable outcomes and student learning. What we’re talking about is racism and about racist outcomes, so your assessment is either racist or its anti-racist and there’s no in between.
From there, they said “alright, we believe you, this is one of the 11 high-impact strategies for higher education promoted by AAC&U.” So I just brought the evidence in a five, six page proposal. I made sure to tie it to equitable assessment. From there, they gave me a few dollars of grant money and I started doing workshops with faculty and doing one-on-one consultations with folks. Then, you find buy in, you connect with the instructors who are using writing and you learn from them, too. I don’t have all the solutions on how writing should happen across disciplines in higher ed, but I believe in the cause, and I believe that we should be using writing. I believe that it should be responsive to, of course, the needs of a discipline, but also to what students bring; what are the assets within a discipline that students bring in terms of communication and writing, too? Let’s build from there.
Alex: You mentioned that, in pursuing these goals, you went from initial proposal to workshops with faculty – how has the WAC program grown at YVC since?
Travis: I ran about a year’s worth of workshops for faculty to introduce them to the idea of writing across the curriculum and the classroom practices involved, the assessment, all that. Then, from there, I identified folks who would be ideal for an advisory committee.
And then the pandemic hit.
So that has sort of put some things on pause, but it worked out because at the same time we’re developing a new strategic plan at our college, and we recently rewrote our mission statement. What I don’t want to see happen is trying to force a WAC program at an institution that’s not ready to do that, or with faculty members who don’t have buy-in that writing is an appropriate thing to incorporate in their curriculum. You have to build from a grassroots standpoint, see where the faculty’s interest is, what their needs are, what they’re doing in the classroom, and learn from that.
In order for a WAC program to be equitable, to be implemented in a way that’s not based in the white supremacist notions of the institution, we don’t want to be just trying to get people to write for the academy constantly. I think that the academy needs to be more responsive to the community and the assets that our students bring as writers and critical thinkers into the institution.
Right now, we’re working on an anti-racist first-year composition assessment ecology. There is a statewide grant through College Spark (and Asao Inoue, another OSU alumnus, is one of the directors of the grant) and I’m on the team to administer that grant in Washington. We’re working with seven different colleges across the state to develop an anti-racist composition assessment ecology for first-year composition. I think that’s an important thing to do before we build out and flesh out a WAC program at YVC, because writing across the curriculum all begins with first year composition. That’s such a critical entry point into the university, into higher ed and writing. Writing is critiqued in that space from all across the university and all across higher ed and is important for building the right type of writing environment that is necessary to build a WAC program.
Over the spring and over the summer, we need to increase our institutional presence with, for example, a WAC resource page or WAC website. And then, our advisory committee will help to lead us forward. We’re also going to have to do some work with our curriculum committees. I don’t know that we’re ready to do that work until the strategic plan is laid out, though. We need to have programmatic assessment happening, according to our accreditors, and before we go about assessing our programs we need to figure out what we want to assess. In the future, I see WAC as being an integral part of that.
Erin: You speak a lot towards equity; what other values guide the programmatic assessment of learning at YVC?
I’m part of our 20-30 person equity team here and we recently rewrote our mission statement with our administrative council, which was a big win for our equity team and our faculty:
Yakima Valley College cultivates equity and a culture of innovative and inclusive teaching and learning. As a federally recognized Hispanic Serving Institution residing on the traditional homelands of the Yakama Nation, Yakima Valley College serves all students holistically, supports all students’ learning goals, and fosters achievement within career and educational pathways. We strengthen our communities by providing opportunities for personal enrichment, economic mobility, and sociocultural engagement.
I think that, you know, we focus on equity, a culture of innovative inclusive teaching, and innovation in that. When we look across campus, we need some innovative teaching. Nationally, only 40% of two-year college students finish their program – whether it’s a transfer degree or a certificate in a specific area – within a six-year period of time. We’re a little bit above that at YVC relative to other two-year colleges, but still not good enough.
Our institutional research team really encourages accessing our disaggregated data regularly to know, for example: if our students who identify as Black are not being supported in classes for some reason, what does that say about our instruction? If our indigenous students are not succeeding at the same rate as other students, why is that? What is it about my instruction that is leading to some of those outcomes? These are the values I think that we’re seeing. At an HSI, there’s an additional mandate for this. Latinx students and students who are immigrants and the children of immigrants in our Valley have been marginalized from and excluded from educational opportunities historically, and YVC has a mandate as an HSI to serve those students as best we can.
Erin: You mentioned needing to create a website for WAC; what other short-term goals and benchmarks does WAC have at YVC and how would you say they align with the values you just described?
Travis: Right now the short term is to create an equitable first-year composition ecology. We’re making steps there – we have a directed self-placement model now. Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt and I wrote a chapter on this for a collection that’ll be coming out soon too. That’s a part of our move toward a more equitable learning environment and more equitable student success rates as well.
I’ve done some one-on-one consultations over this year with instructors who are using writing. But I haven’t done as many faculty forums, for example, and other activities in part because everyone’s just really spread thin.
So, in terms of institutional presence, resources for faculty are needed right now, so that faculty who are not familiar with WAC principles and practices can go to a Canvas page, see what’s going on in their own discipline, and get some ideas based on the resources there. There are faculty in STEM, for example, who occasionally email me and say “hey Travis look at this, did you see how writing is being used in this chemistry class here?” so trying to collect those resources and make sure that those are available for people is a goal.
A lot of this has been about building relationships, because I don’t have all the answers. Having worked with OSU’s WAC program and having taught business writing and tech writing over the years, for example, has helped me to learn a little bit of what the expectations are for students across campuses, across workplaces. As for our long-term goals, I’d love to see a WAC program that grows out of an anti-racist first-year composition assessment ecology and that could serve as a basis and a foundation for a WAC program that stretches across our campus. I’d also love to see our student success rates increase across campus because we’ve gotten away from the culture of high stakes testing. “You don’t need to test to assess” is my position at assessment meetings – some mixed reception on that, but I really believe it.
Erin: Most definitely. What advice would you have for aspiring faculty, say from business administration or biology, interested in developing these sorts of anti-racist assessments in their classrooms?
Travis: I would say: get away from testing and look carefully at your disaggregated data often. You know, see it as part of the fabric of your courses and your teaching. A culture of testing, I think, is really antithetical to deep learning and the kind of creative brilliance that we’re all capable of producing and experiencing. We just don’t need to test to assess, and when we teach to assessment tools that we know to be racist, we’re producing racist outcomes and we’re not encouraging deep learning and critical thinking.
I would say “think about culturally responsive pedagogy” as well. How do your students operate? What assets do they bring to your classroom, and how can you really lean into those assets for assessment and learning?
But those are big abstract concepts, I think. The most simple thing is to try to get away from a culture of testing if you can and assess in more authentic ways that really allow students to thrive and show their brilliance.
Erin: Would you be willing to share a story of success from interactions with faculty, or some faculty-led events?
Travis: I’ve had really good conversations with faculty who are interested in this. One instructor in psychology, for example, came to me about two years ago with some questions about his psych classes: “I really want to use writing and I want to have my students to create a good research paper in my class, I want them to be producing good research papers and they’re just not doing that. I give them a model of the paper, sometimes, or an example, but I still end up with papers that just aren’t very strong.” And so, we talked about different things that he could do in his class. For example, I recommended having students in groups critique and analyze model papers and sample papers. And so, he brought that into his classroom, and he started conducting peer review sessions in his class for the drafts.
Just those two things alone improved the situation – before the pandemic, I’d see him around campus, and he’d be like “Travis, that assignment’s going really great! I want to talk to you about this idea and that idea that I have about writing in psychology and sociology now.” Seeing that is really exciting because this is one of our most senior faculty. He’s been here for almost 30 years and it’s changing his classroom approach and his assessment approach and his practices of incorporating writing. Students are more engaged and they’re succeeding at higher rates. It’s really cool to see somebody who’s been here for like two decades longer than I have, to see his face light up when he’s bringing new ideas into the classroom that are helping his students, so it’s rewarding to me in that sense, too.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of having conversations and building relationships with people and saying “well, think about trying this. If you can afford a half an hour in your class one day, do this and see what comes of it. See what kind of conversations happen. Incorporate some free writing exercises, some note taking exercises, and some reflection during your class, or model student papers.”
Alex: You’ve already spoken a bit to how your experience at OSU has shaped your goals for Yakima Valley’s WAC program. Is there anything you’d like to add about your OSU experience or share from your experience at Utah that has shaped your activities at YVC?
Travis: Being a part of the WAC program at OSU and working with Vicki Tolar Burton is a learning experience that I carry with me to all of my institutions and all my classes moving forward, because I know what’s expected of students across the curriculum now. I’ve learned from faculty across the curriculum at OSU, at Utah, and now here at YVC as well. And what we do is allow students to show what they can do with their writing when they have a chance for feedback, when they have a chance for communication and open dialogue through an assessment process. And so, I got to see that firsthand working with — whether it’s sociologists or the mechanical engineering department or whoever it might be at OSU that I worked closely with over those years. It also showed me we don’t have to continue doing things the way that we do at every institution.
Alex: In an inverse way: from your work to establish Yakima Valley’s WAC initiative, have you gleaned any takeaways from more established WAC or WID programs?
Travis: One of my takeaways is that you need to have a team in place to build and maintain a strong WAC program. Right, so the relationships and the collaboration that those of us who are invested in WAC engage with — that’s all really necessary. And you have to have people — you have to have investment from across a college. If there isn’t investment from administrators, if there isn’t investment from folks in STEM, if there isn’t investment from the English department – then it’s just not going to happen, despite our good efforts. It also takes time to show the value of a WAC program. If folks aren’t familiar with it, if folks are busy and occupied by other projects on campus, which is often the case, it can be slow to try to build and maintain a WAC program. And again, I think one thing I’ve learned too is that WAC programs look and function in different ways at different sites in different campuses, and that’s okay and even necessary. There’s not a one singular approach to building, developing, or assessing a WAC program that’s going to fit for every institution. Your approach needs to be responsive to the community needs and the community assets that are available at any site.
Alex: That’s a great point and that description which, I think, really resonates with the kind of the grassroots approach you described earlier.
Travis: Right, exactly, yeah. And as an outsider – I grew up in Michigan, and here I am in central Washington – you need to go in and listen and try to understand all the points of view that come into play when we talk about writing and communication and critical thinking and learning on a campus. A little bit of intellectual humility is always necessary in higher ED.