Spotlight on: The Davidson Writing Program with Van Hillard

The Publications Committee is pleased to present the second entry in a monthly series on SLAC writing programs. The goal of this series, and of the blog in general, is to make more visible the practices and experiences of those working in WPA roles at SLACs so that we might understand the SLAC WPA community more fully as we learn from one another. We thank Van Hillard of Davidson College for his contribution and invite you to look forward to next month’s feature from Laurie-Ann Britt-Smith of the College of the Holy Cross.


The Quick Facts on the Davidson Writing Program

Describe your program in 100 words or less.

Van Hillard (VH): Davidson College’s Writing Program offers a universally required course for first-year writers, several upper-division courses in critical public writing, and support for writing across the College. Our first-year course, taught by a six-person core faculty and forty colleagues in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts, focuses on the production and reception of discourse that responds to the work of others and engages in deliberative argument using forms of reasoning valued by its interlocutors. Each section of the course focuses on an unresolved issue of interest both to scholars and to the wide educated public.

Describe your role.

VH: In my role as director of Davidson’s Writing Program, I support both core and affiliated faculty who teach our first-year and advanced writing courses. As a Professor of Rhetoric, I teach courses on ancient rhetoric and nineteenth-century U.S. discourses that argued for versions of democratic life. I am in my final year before retirement.


The Interview

What is new and/or distinctive about your program?

Image of Van Hillard, director of the Davidson College Writing Program.
Dr. Van Hillard of Davidson College

VH: Our program’s first-year course (Writing 101: Writing in the Liberal Arts) introduces students to practices associated with what we call “intellectual writing,” a term intended to describe both the wide variety of academic discourses and smart writing in the public sphere, the sort of writing found in second-tier publications (such as the New Yorker, New Republic, and The Nation) and in long-form journalism and essayistic blogs. For us, intellectual writing has several salient features: (1) it uses discourse as an opportunity to respond to what others have said, with intertextuality appearing as one of its salient features; (2) it understands disagreement as an expected and productive ground from which fresh arguments will emerge for consideration; and (3) it qualifies its findings and claims as contingent positions that may evolve in the light of new evidence, further consideration, and future analyses.

What is most distinctive, however, is our program’s interest in the socio-rhetorical event typically called deliberation, a set of practices commonly associated with the maintenance of democratic life, where disagreement is understood as inevitable in human affairs, with individuals and groups reckoning with their differences in discursive events designed to clarify positions, to bring formative assumptions to the surface, and to grapple with principled contrasting positions by way of speaking and writing. A colleague in Political Science and I recently became co-principal investigators on the “Deliberative Citizenship Initiative,” supported by a generous grant from the Duke Foundation. The grant allows us to introduce members of the Davidson community to deliberative practices and makes it possible for us to bring deliberative techniques into the first-year writing classroom, where twelve students learn to productively discuss the issues that animate their own writing.

Each of our forty sections of first-year writing is organized around what we call a “big question” that touches on an issue of interest to scholars and the wide public. Big questions come in many flavors. One course may be organized around a weighty question (“Is democracy still viable in the United States?”), while another may pose a question more narrowly rhetorical (“How has China been represented to the American public, and what are the strengths and limits of such representations?”), and yet another might be shaped as a philosophical issue (“How might we distinguish vicious or willful ignorance from other forms of unknowing?).

For instance, if a course was organized around this last question, students would first analyze an array of public discourses (news reports, blogs, opinion pieces) concerned with the contemporary proliferation of untruths.  In the next assignment, they would respond to a substantive analysis of the production and dissemination of “the big lie,” likely written by a journalist or other professional writer. Next, they might contrast two scholarly arguments focused on the intersection of epistemology and ethics, noting how scholarly discourse differs from other public writing they’ve previously encountered. Finally, students would return to the treatment of willful ignorance offered to the wide public and argue for how the issue might better or differently be approached. Such an excursion across realms of public rhetoric—from everyday discourse to scholarly argument—helps first-year students to situate the role of the academy and the responsibilities of scholarship in civic and social life, a key interest of liberal arts education.

What are you especially proud of?

VH: I take great pride in the commitment to teaching writing evinced by Davidson faculty across the College, colleagues who take the course seriously and design challenging opportunities for students to deploy rhetorical techniques in smart ways. At Davidson, we like to say that “writing is everyone’s business,” a motto confirmed by the fact that first-year writing is taught by folks from all areas of study. Last year, three Physics professors who regularly teach Writing 101 composed an essay on the value of teaching writing in science, an essay that appeared in a recent volume of the American Journal of Physics. That’s commitment!

What sorts of challenges does working within a SLAC present for your program? What sorts of opportunities does it offer?

VH: Having spent much of my professional life directing a Writing Program at an R1 institution, I clearly see the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college, where undergraduate education is the sole object of attention.  In my experience, that singular fact changes so much about how and why we teach writing. First, rhetorical experience of one kind or another, including but not limited to producing academic discourse, is bound up with the general mission of small liberal arts institutions in this country, many of which began as sites to prepare students for professional lives as clergy, lawyers, and educators, where robust argument was valued.

More relevant to our contemporary moment, the small liberal arts’ interest in what we might think of as civic education (found in such code terms as leadership, service, and community) pairs nicely with the classical notion of rhetoric as a primary vehicle for promoting civic attention and involvement. Now more than ever, young adults can benefit from embracing the skills associated with deliberation, careful reasoning, judicious analysis, and creative problem-solving, both as a corrective to the bullying, bargaining, and bluster of the political sphere, but also—dare we say?—as sensibilities necessary for carrying out democratic living. It is entirely too much to claim first-year writing’s salvific potential, but surely fair to assert that the small liberal arts college holds somewhere in its DNA a resolute attention to strong reading, smart writing, and critical thought, each figured as components of a cosmopolitan social self.

As you’ve developed your program, what has been your most productive collaboration with another group or office on your campus—and how have you built that relationship?

VH: In SLAC writing programs, collaboration is the name of the game. Partly because most free-standing programs are positioned between all other departments and the dean’s or VPAA’s office, we are structurally conditioned to join forces with others and depend on their cooperation daily. If we depend on colleagues outside our Programs (as we do at Davidson), the writing program becomes, in effect, a site that models the kind of radical cooperation typically found in interdisciplinary programs, with their fluid trade-offs in expertise and the search for a common language that transcends any single area of study. Perhaps it is not so much interdisciplinarity that animates writing program work, but rather transdisciplinarity, which turns out to be an ambitious arrangement, especially for often-siloed academics. At schools like ours, writing programs provide a counterbalance to the tendency toward disciplinary insulation so common in big universities, but quite detrimental to small liberal arts colleges.

Aside from the many colleagues across the College with whom I envision and design courses, it has been my colleagues in Philosophy who have most generously and patiently engaged with my blue sky thinking about the place of teaching written argument in a liberal arts curriculum. When I came to Davidson in 2008, I saw that my office was smack dab in the middle of the Philosophy department’s suite of offices. Knowing about Plato’s skepticism of rhetoric, I worried about that architecture. But soon I recognized our commonalities, especially evident in the ways that critical thinking and ethical considerations show up in our courses. Our first-year writing courses often pose the questions: “What difference does it make if you put it this or this other way? What choices are available for representing the phenomenon, and what are the contextual strengths or limits of those choices?” Philosophers, some linguists, and rhetoricians are drawn to these semiotics, so we share a strong sense of how language matters.

What specific readings, activities, or practices would you recommend to directors who may be working with programs similar to yours?

VH: My academic parents (two very different professionals) were Ann Berthoff and William Coles who forty plus years ago helped me to understand writing instruction as art of helping students make purposeful representational choices that inflect one’s own and others’ understanding of the world. As Jim Berlin’s first doctoral student, I learned that writing instruction’s deep history can profitably be approached through a political lens, aware of power differentials that determine who in our country is given the opportunity to credential themselves as intellectual persons, and who typically is not. To help disassociate elitism from intellectual life, I recommend Jacques Ranciére’s Proletarian Nights, a history of the intellectual life of nineteenth-century French laborers. While reading it, I often thought of the promise of a more egalitarian rhetorical education, which small liberal arts colleges have a key role in reaching and teaching towards.

Questions curated by the SLAC-WPA Executive Board and the Publications Committee.

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