By Olivia Rowland, WIC GTA
Vicki Tolar Burton was the WIC Director until 2019, having directed the program for almost 30 years. In addition to making WIC into a sustainable and flourishing program, Vicki was a faculty member in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. In the following interview, she discusses the early history of the WIC program, how it has changed over time, and what factors make it successful.
Olivia Rowland (OR): How did you originally get interested in WAC [Writing Across the Curriculum]?
Vicki Tolar Burton (VTB): My interest in Writing Across the Curriculum grew out of the various types of work I did as a student and in my twenties. I became interested in workplace writing and in how students could prepare for being writers in their field of work.
In one job, I was a Labor Law Administration Advisor with the U. S. Department of Labor in Washington, DC. Union members—miners, auto workers, etc.—would write to the Labor Department and describe problems with their unions. I would research similar cases and write back with information about how that problem had been handled under the law. The challenge was to send accurate information that was understandable. Often the lawyer reviewing my letters would change the language to confusing legalese. This is where I became fascinated by the complexity of writing for audiences and the importance of effective writing in the real world.
OR: When you came to OSU, what was the status of the WIC program at that time?
VTB: The WIC requirement was approved by the Faculty Senate as part of the new Baccalaureate Core in 1989-1990. The class of 1994 would be the first class required to have a WIC course. The WIC requirement had been well designed by a faculty group led by Lisa Ede. They secured funding for a half-time director and early training sessions for faculty and brought national experts on teaching writing to campus to work with faculty. Two other internal directors followed Lisa in 1990-92.
In 1993, I was hired in a national search to direct the program. One strength of the young program was that a writing intensive course was required of students in every major, to be taught by faculty in their major. It was my good fortune to guide faculty in discovering the best ways to teach their majors to write in the discipline. When I arrived, many departments had their WIC courses in place, but others did not.
OR: What was your role in establishing the program?
VTB: When I arrived, I learned that there were faculty in multiple colleges committed to teaching their majors to write in the language and genres of their discipline. My role was to help the departments that did not yet have their WIC courses get those courses designed and approved, and then to train as many WIC faculty as possible in the best practices of teaching writing in the disciplines. Every department met the challenge of the spring 1994 deadline.
OR: I imagine that requirement would push people to get things moving!
VTB: That’s right. My first invitation from a department to work with them was Animal Science. They invited me to go to the coast with them for a retreat to revise their WIC writing assignments. All the breeding courses in Animal Science were WIC courses, so there was a poultry WIC, a swine WIC; there was mare and foal WIC, which was one of my favorite ones. It only met in the barn, so all the writing was done in the barn. I went to the coast with them, where they worked hard on their assignments, getting feedback from me and from their peers. For me as the new director, this was an inspiring start with dedicated faculty. I have loved working at a land-grant institution because I relish the real-world-ness of the things our students study, like working with animals.
OR: How did WIC change over your time as director?
VTB: When I came, the university had 13,000 students. So it’s more than doubled in enrollment. And that’s huge, because if we must have WIC seats for every undergraduate student who’s going to graduate from OSU, in every major, it’s a challenge for departments to keep generating more seats. I admire and appreciate the effort that some of the fast-growing majors have made to be nimble and adapt quickly and keep offering their students robust training in writing.
Also, we’ve had many, many new majors added, and each one must offer a WIC course. I found it exciting to work with faculty developing WIC courses in new majors, which are often on the cutting edge of research in their field. I learned so much!
The course approval system has also radically changed. When I came, many professors didn’t have computers. All of the Bacc Core course approval, including WIC, was on paper, and it went from person to person through campus mail. So, you can imagine how long that took for a course to work its way through to approval. Now everything is electronic, and proposals move quickly (most of the time) through review and approval.
Another big change was around 2006 to 2010, with the push for explicit learning outcomes in every course. I worked with WIC faculty volunteers who got together and turned what had been WIC guidelines—sort of a bulleted list of things that you had to have to be a WIC course—into learning outcomes to be met and assessed in each writing intensive course.
Another change, over time, is that we’ve seen, in WIC classes, more collaboration and team projects. WIC has a requirement for 2000 words of revised individual writing, so that can be challenging for course design. Many heated discussions have ensued, but national research and feedback from the workplace suggests that it is important that students not graduate from college never having written and polished a fully developed document in their field.
OR: You mentioned that some of the changes in WIC were in response to the university. I’m curious if there were any changes in WIC that were in response to, or connected to, larger changes in WAC as well?
VTB: I believe that every WAC program is local. So, I tried to stay informed, I went to conferences, I read the articles. I tried to keep WIC updated with current research. But the structure of the program was strong, and we didn’t have to do the kind of complete redo that some places did. Really, it’s remarkable that the program has been so sustainable, and I think it’s because that first group of folks just did a great job with designing it. It doesn’t just rely on the goodwill of faculty in the disciplines to take time from their own research, and take time from their own content, to teach their majors to write. Here, it’s a university-wide effort.
OR: You also mentioned that a lot of the changes in WIC were challenges as well. Were there any other big challenges you faced?
VTB: For the first almost 10 years I was here I did everything by myself on a .5 FTE. I was also tenure-line faculty in English. A WIC challenge was that when the university is growing, there are more and more faculty to train, courses to approve. I was doing everything. I didn’t have help for the seminar; I didn’t have help in reviewing courses or consulting with faculty.
One of the biggest and best WIC changes was getting a GTA and getting that funded. Having a WIC GTA was wonderful, because I wasn’t alone. I had someone to talk with about the program and someone to help with the work, help with the newsletter, help with the course reviews. It quickly became clear that being the WIC GTA was a good experience for the grad students who were doing it, and it gave me an opportunity to mentor folks in writing program administration and writing in the disciplines.
OR: Moving on from challenges, what would you consider to be your biggest accomplishments or successes?
VTB: I think sustaining the program, strengthening a sustainable program. Again, it was the structure, the design, and I came in and just had that. As a result of that strength, I think our program came to be seen in the university as a model for other new programs. I would frequently hear people say, “Well, we just want to follow the WIC model.” What does that mean? It means faculty collaborate to get a structure set up ahead of time. You have financial support; you’re not trying to do it for free. You hire someone with expertise. And the program has a purpose that is vital to the education of students. These are the key things that make it possible for someone to direct the program.
I think it’s an accomplishment that we trained hundreds and hundreds of faculty in research-based approaches to teaching writing in the disciplines. That’s big.
Another big accomplishment would be our collaboration with the Writing Center on the film Writing Across Borders, in which we invited OSU international students to talk about how they learned to write in their own countries and discuss challenges they have faced as writers at OSU. I met with the leadership team of every college at OSU and gave each unit chair or head a copy of the DVD for their faculty. Only one refused to accept it. The film has also had national impact. We gave away copies of the DVD at national conferences, and 10 years later there were still graduate students from other universities coming up to me at conferences saying, “Oh, I saw you in Writing Across Borders!” Writing Across Borders won an international documentary film award, thanks to the brilliant artistry of Writing Center coordinator Wayne Robertson, who wrote and directed the film.
Finally, WIC has been responsible as a program for developing a culture of writing at Oregon State. We work hard to develop strong writing in the disciplines, to celebrate writing, to support writing. And we use the language of a “culture of writing,” for example, in our awards. Every OSU undergraduate has to do the hard work of writing and revising; they are part of a culture of writing.
OR: How did the Culture of Writing Awards get started? Where did the idea come from?
VTB: I just thought of it. “What if we recognized the best writing in each major at OSU?”
One of my firm beliefs, and I think this is one of the reasons the program is successful, is as much as possible, make WIC grassroots: in the departments, in the majors, in the faculty of the colleges. Not something that’s done from above. Not something that’s done to the faculty by the administration or the English department. It’s done with them, in support of them.
Thus, the experts in the majors, the faculty in the majors, identify and recognize their top writers for that year. In lots of ways, it is up to each unit how that happens. I think there’s so much value in empowering the faculty to make those kind of choices and to take pride in recognizing their own students.
OR: Where do you think WIC and/or WAC are headed in the future?
VTB: I don’t have much to say about this one, because I made a decision when I decided to retire that the future belongs to the people doing the work, and that I was not going to try to shape things. I have a few thoughts. But I’m not in the environment. I’m still interested, and I follow things, but I don’t know what’s best for WIC or OSU in the present moment.
The current WIC Director, Sarah Perrault, has done a great job of taking WIC training online. For years, we had only in-person training, which has a kind of immediacy and collegiality that faculty really value. But I think with the way the university is changing, with Covid, and with so many online courses and people teaching online courses who aren’t in Corvallis, there must be opportunities online. That’s a direction that I see WIC going, and I’m glad that Sarah has the expertise to do that.
Another trend that I think could take off, but is administered in a different way than our program, is the idea of a vertical structure of writing in the disciplines. So, every major has not only a WIC course, but they’ve got all of these other writing courses down the line. That takes a level of administration that might be hard at OSU, unless just a few majors did it. It’s very labor-intensive. But it’s interesting, and it’s ideal if some majors would do it voluntarily. Many in the field of WAC believe it’s the next step to getting everybody prepared to be communicators in their major fields.
OR: Do you see any connections between your feminist scholarship and your WIC work?
VTB: Yes. I’m so glad you asked. One quality of feminist scholarship is valuing narratives. I see every WIC course as having its own narrative; the faculty member develops it with a narrative in mind. Because of my feminist work, I think I was open to seeing things as not, “How are you going to fit into this structure?” but “What’s the story of this course?”
My feminist work also sensitized me to issues of equality, diversity, gender, and race—especially in majors where women and other marginalized groups are underrepresented, because writing can make students feel vulnerable.
One thing I did occasionally—not very often, maybe two or three times in the almost 30 years I was director—was to call out inequitable writing assignments. I would not approve them. I would work with the faculty member to revise the assignment so that it was fairer to all students.
In one instance, a faculty member refused to change an assignment that could humiliate women in his class. I wouldn’t say he designed it to humiliate women, but that was a likely outcome. It was an engineering class, with two women and a hundred men, and the two women were international students. His setup was that students would analyze a case study, and then in the next class meeting, the case study would have to be acted out in class. This case study required two women to act out “a cat fight” in the workplace in front of the class, using cursing and distasteful labeling. The professor justified the assignment by saying that such things really happen in industry. And besides, he reported, “The class loved it.” Which is to say the male students loved it. I reported his refusal to change the abusive assignment to Affirmative Action.
It was also important not to allow myself, other women, or any WIC faculty to be bullied. My feminist approach to teaching and to the workplace gave me a sense and an ability to recognize bullying and to resist it on my own behalf and on behalf of others.
The good news is that there are champions of diversity and equity, as well as champions of writing, across the OSU campus, and I met many of them among the hundreds of WIC faculty I worked with over the years. The exceptions may be memorable because they were few and difficult, but the generosity and goodwill of the WIC faculty forms my main memory.