Spotlight on: Writing & Rhetoric at Bowdoin College with Meredith McCarroll

The Publications Committee is pleased to present the third 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 Meredith McCarroll for her contribution and invite you to look forward to next month’s feature from Scott Whiddon of Transylvania University.

Two photos of the student staff at Bowdoin College are collaged together to create a header.
The Writing Assistants of the Bowdoin College writing program.

The Quick Facts on the Bowdoin Writing Program

Describe your program in 100 words or less.

Meredith McCarroll (MM): The writing program at Bowdoin reaches across departments with our Writing Across the Curriculum First-Year Writing Seminar (FYWS), required in the first semester and taught across disciplines. Writing Assistants support all writers in our robust Writing Center with one-on-one conferences and workshops; Writing Assistants also work with Writing Project courses, providing embedded writing support throughout the semester. To support faculty, I work with colleagues in the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching to offer workshops and individual consultations.

Describe your role.

Image of Meredith McCarroll, smiling.
Dr. Meredith McCarroll of Bowdoin College

MM: As Director of Writing and Rhetoric, I work with Academic Affairs to support and build our writing curriculum. This has included revising our requirements for the FYWS and helping support faculty in the design and teaching of this required course. Additionally, I direct the Writing Center, supervising 35 undergraduates from across the disciplines. These students take a full credit course with me to engage with the work of peer tutoring in writing, informed by the areas of linguistic justice, antiracist pedagogy, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are currently piloting a set of intermediate research-based writing courses. Along with the tutor training course, I teach courses in the Department of English, where I am a lecturer. Recent courses include “Whiteness and Antiracism” (FYWS) and “Race and Memory in Southern Literature and Film” (Intermediate Seminar) and “Composition.”

The Interview

What is new and/or distinctive about your program?

MM: One distinction for Bowdoin is the diversity of our Writing Center. At a predominantly white institution like Bowdoin College, we must work especially hard to notice and eliminate implicit bias to serve our broad community. Through a series of revisions to the hiring practices, implemented in 2018, we have increased the racial diversity of our Writing Assistants enormously. The Writing Center Staff in 2017 was only 11% students of color. Our revised process yielded, over three years, a group that is closer to 60% students of color. Following were the steps implemented to remove implicit bias and aim for a racially diverse group of Writing Assistants:

  • Removal of faculty nomination and letters of support
  • Online application, during which names are removed for the first round of evaluation
  • Inclusion of questions about process and growth in addition to the opportunity to share a successful paper
  • No formal in-person interview
  • Use of affirmative action measures in round two: when assessing two otherwise equally qualified students, we positively factored in diversity (race, class, gender identity, regional of origin) to explicitly value a more diverse cohort of Writing Assistants

What are you especially proud of?

Two students wearing masks sit together at a table at Bowdoin College talking. The female student, on the left, clasps her hands and looks at the male student, on the right, who is looking at his laptop.
Students at Bowdoin College discuss a paper draft.

MM: I am especially proud of the revision to our FYWS requirements, which faculty voted into place in January of 2020. To earn that vote required careful collaborative work, active listening over a sustained time, creative re-visioning of the program, and trust-building. Faculty support of a slightly more resrestrictive program demonstrated a commitment to student learning. In our first two years with the revised guidelines, students have experienced a clearer set of learning outcomes, steadier approaches to the course, and even more robust engagement from faculty around the teaching of writing.

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

MM: Bowdoin College is a residential liberal arts college with a student population of 2,000 students. Like so many private schools and other American institutions, Bowdoin was built for wealthy white men. In the past twenty years, Bowdoin has moved to explicitly create spaces for non-white, first-generation, and low-income students. Bowdoin’s need-blind admission policy, THRIVE initiative, and newly created Vice-President of Diversity and Inclusion demonstrate a level of commitment to opening Bowdoin to a wider group of students. This is both the challenge and the opportunity. The institutional commitment toward diversity works and has changed the face of the campus. No institution can erase systems of oppression and hierarchies of injustice that make this campus a very different lived experience for our students. 

Sustained commitments enable changes to take place, though. As the Writing Center has become a more diverse space in terms of its staff, its clients have diversified as well. With a more robust cohort of Writing Assistants of color, we have been able to support programming like Black Scholars Night, which takes place at our center for Africana Studies. We are optimistic that by working to remove implicit bias in our hiring process, we are making the Writing Center a more natural extension of the community that we are working to build at Bowdoin, which is inclusive, diverse, and antiracist. 

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?

MM: One key relationship has been with the THRIVE program at Bowdoin, which focuses on supporting low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. Directed by Jessica Perez, THRIVE offers a range of programming, mentoring, and enrichment opportunities for these students. I first became involved in the program when I taught in the Summer Institute for Geoffrey Canada Scholars with colleagues from across campus. I have since served as an advisor for several students in the program, and have worked with the Thrive staff to provide scaffolded support for the students. This work has given me a clearer sense of what it is like to be an underrepresented student at Bowdoin, which has led me to focus on diversifying our writing resources.

A group of13 students and their 2 instructors pose for a photo in front of a long wall of windows.
Dr. Meredith McCarroll with her student staff.

Another crucial partnership has been with Tina Chong, Assistant Director of the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching focusing on academic mentoring and coaching. Tina supervises Baldwin Peer Mentors and works with students individually as an academic coach. When we work together, we can see students as whole people, whereas a writing director might focus on only the students’ writing challenges. A broader approach allows us to see how goal-setting or test anxiety might show up in a student’s approach to a writing assignment. This teamwork supports both programs and benefits students enormously. The structure of the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching makes collaborations like this intuitive.

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

MM: Writing Centers and the New Racism remains a favorite text for the Writing Assistant training course… and for my own sustenance. Laura Greenfield visited Bowdoin several years back, offering a workshop for faculty and Writing Assistants that helped us shift our goals in important ways. I find that I learn so much from the Writing Assistants and benefit from empowering them to guide meetings and determine topics of conversation. It keeps our work lively! 

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

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