First-Year Composition triumphs over adversity

Jackie Hoermann-Elliott
First-Year Composition director Jackie Hoermann-Elliott (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

Feb. 7, 2024 – DENTON – In fall 2019, Jackie Hoermann-Elliott was completing her first full-time year at Texas Woman's University. She had found an academic home, a mentor and an outlet for her enthusiasm for writing.

Then in the span of six months, everything changed. Her mentor died, the university shut down, and her program was struggling.

Four years later, her program has earned the highest honor her community can bestow.

TWU's First-Year Composition program has been awarded the 2023–2024 CCCC Writing Program Certificate of Excellence by the Conference on College Composition and Communication. This year saw an unprecedented number of applications, and despite the fact that CCCC (often called the "Cs") can honor up to 20 programs a year, this time it selected only three. And TWU was one of those three.

"I laughed and then I cried, within probably 15 seconds," Hoermann-Elliott said of her reaction to the news. "The first person I thought about was Katie because she was my motivation throughout this."

The award celebrates the rebuilding of the FYC program under the leadership of Hoermann-Elliott, for whom pursuit of CCCC's certificate of excellence has been a passion project, born of her belief in the critical importance of the program and the memory of FYC's previous director, Katie McWain, who died in 2019. TWU's application to CCCC was dedicated to McWain.

"I remember we were at the Cs conference," said Hoermann-Elliott. "We had just met. I was in the process of accepting this position (at TWU), and Katie said, 'Come work with me. We're going to do all these things. I really want us to apply for the writing program of certificate excellence one day.' It meant so much to her. Katie was one of my greatest mentors and I will always think of her that way.

"And then she passed away, and then COVID happened."

That was September 2019-March 2020. In the shadow of tragedy and the pandemic, 29-year-old assistant director Hoermann-Elliott was thrust into the role of FYC director.

"We just tried to survive," she said. "Coming out of that state of survival, trying to get the writing program up and thriving again, I applied for a lot of grants. We received these nice grants which really set the program up for success."

The program also benefited from belief and support from Genevieve West, chair of the Department of Language, Culture & Gender Studies and professor of English, who provided what resources LCGS's limited budget allowed.

"I'm really good at asking for resources," Hoermann-Elliott laughed. "That's one of my gifts."

There was also support from past FYC directors Gretchen Busl and Gray Scott, from College of Arts & Sciences Dean Abigail Tilton and the dean's office, and from the office of Curriculum and Strategic Initiatives, because they all understood that while FYC does not produce degree numbers, degree numbers from all over campus are dependent on writing.

With that kind of backing, momentum began to build.

"We had done some development," Hoermann-Elliott said, "and I just felt like I needed to submit this application to honor the legacy of my friend and to showcase the program coming into a place where it was strong and thriving and performing well again."

First-Year Composition staff, from left to right: Sierra Mendez, Jackie Hoermann-Elliott, Desireé Thorpe and Jennifer Conner
First-Year Composition staff, from left to right: Sierra Mendez, Jackie Hoermann-Elliott, Desireé Thorpe and Jennifer Conner (photo by Leo Gonzalez)

The application was submitted to CCCC in August 2023, signed by the entire FYC team: Hoermann-Elliott, PhD; assistant director Sierra Mendez, PhD; former assistant director Margaret Williams, PhD; PhD candidate and graduate assistant Natalie Julian; PhD candidates and program assistants Jennifer Conner and Desireé Thorpe; and FYC senior secretary Hannah Diaz. Then they settled in to await judgment.

A decision was supposed to come in November. Then December.

"Then January came around, and the person who coordinates this through the organization kept apologizing and telling us they had a lot of applications this year," Hoermann-Elliott said. "They were in extended deliberations. So then you start to worry. I felt we had a strong program and application, and the criteria were there. But how well are we meeting them in comparison to other programs that might have more money?"

Finally, in late January, word came down.

"Genevieve texted, 'Check your email!' And then a few minutes later Sierra texted, 'Aaaahhhhhhh check your email!!!!!!!!' I was on a call, and I hung up and I checked my email and I just started to cry because I was so overjoyed."

It's a poignant, triumphant story, but why is it important? Why should anyone care about a first-year composition program?

It's sort of like that really cool house down the street. Everyone talks about the layout and architectural details – all the glamorous stuff. No one ever mentions the foundation. It's necessary, yes, but boring.

Thing is, if that foundation is poorly designed or poorly constructed or poorly maintained, that house is in a world of hurt. Floors lean and walls crack and doors and windows stick, and the owner can't sell because no bank will loan money to buyers when the foundation fails inspection. And then that really cool house isn't so cool anymore.

Because of the boring bit.

Well, the boring bit that supports every degree at TWU not only passed inspection, a real hard-nosed inspector just declared TWU's foundation to be one of the finest in the nation.

If you've never heard of CCCC, you may not appreciate the magnitude of the award and why this was so important to McWain, Hoermann-Elliott and the English department. CCCC is the national professional association of college and university writing instructors. It's a massive organization, hosting an annual conference attended by more than 3,000 members, and it supports teachers who must climb one of education's most difficult mountains: teaching writing.

People hate writing. Hate is such a strong word that should be reserved for evils like racism and crimes against humanity, that sort of thing. And yet most people – young or old – would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than write. People really hate writing.

Maybe it's because there are all these rules that professional writers break all the time. Maybe because there are no absolutes. Maybe because grading is so subjective and there are no right and wrong answers. Maybe students haven't read enough to build a foundation of literary skills. Maybe they just fear being labeled as stupid.

It's a tough sentiment to overcome.

"I think the way I deal with that is having students write about things they're passionate about," Thorpe said. "I'm teaching a course that has them create for their communities. We're using all the genres in our curriculum to solve problems for their communities and changes they want to make. I found that doing that, they get more excited about writing."

"As a faculty cadre, we believe that an educated society or citizenry will transform our country in ways we need to move," Hoermann-Elliott said. "When you get into the weeds of all this, what is first-year writing supposed to be?"

One of its tasks is to break bad habits. Some students arrive to post-secondary education struggling to break the shackles of basic teaching methods, like the five-sentence paragraph, a technique used in primary and secondary education. It holds that a paragraph should consist of five sentences: introductory, supporting and concluding. But it's merely a training device, not meant as fully realized writing. Such constraints mute the music of expressive writing.

Spoiler: there is no correct length of a paragraph.

Correcting such misconceptions and developing writing, critical thinking and reasoning skills are core objectives of TWU's Composition I and II classes.

"But a lot of people transfer in, so they're starting to work on those skills and actually do the work of unlearning a lot of rudimentary instruction," Hoermann-Elliott said. "We have to teach our students that writing can happen really organically, and if we want to have authentic communication and deliver a powerful message, we can't fit it into these nice, tidy, neat boxes. What we hope is students have a transformative experience.

"We function as an administrative unit to retain students, but we're also here to help them find a sense of belonging and community, which is why we assign things like the narrative assignment or the think-piece essay, and so they can start to develop their voice and a sense of grounded confidence in what they can do as writers. My hope is that one day we'll have a writing program across curriculum because we know that faculty are doing writing at junior, senior and graduate levels. But sometimes our approach to writing instruction is spread across many different approaches. We all approach writing differently, and students have varying levels of preparation in learning to write. We want that to be sustained and for them to come back to it, because it's a muscle that we all have to work on.

"Writing skills are really important. That's why my writing program matters not just to me. It's critical. And I love it, too."

It's that dedication that fuels the First-Year Composition program.

"You can take really different approaches to how you teach writing," Hoermann-Elliott said. "David Bartholomae (a scholar in composition studies) wrote this landmark essay called 'Inventing the University.' It's a beautiful and challenging essay. He says, every time we ask a student to write, we ask him to invent the university. And I love that moment because we're asking students to balance so many different things. Their audience, their purpose in writing and their context, what they know, what they came in with, and what they're learning in class, and to have style on top of all of it coming out of the pandemic. And it's just really neat to think about how much students have to process.

"I could talk about this forever because I am who I am."

Spoken like a writer. Which Hoermann-Elliott is.

She's originally from Missouri, where she began her writing career for The Kansas City Star. She moved to Texas in 2013, earned her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas Christian University, and wrote for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Indulge, K Magazine, The Dallas Morning News and GuideLive. She writes culture pieces for The Fort Worth Weekly and education- or parenting-focused articles for Madeworthy Magazine; penned a book, Running, Thinking, Writing: Embodied Cognition in Composition; and has another book in the works.

But even more than she loves writing, she loves teaching writing. Perhaps that devotion is what CCCC recognized.

The CCCC selection committee said of TWU:

"The program does impressive work in addressing a variety of concerns and programmatic challenges in ways that both support best practices and demonstrate access to success for students. Further, the program has done an excellent job of standardizing professional development and training instructors given the unequal levels of faculty preparation across ranks—opportunities for professional development are truly impressive. Overall, the committee was impressed with the sustainability of best practices put in place as well as with the excellent job the program does of removing barriers for students and negotiating legitimate workarounds for legislative barriers."

There's nothing so sweet as a great review.

"It's a huge deal in our field," Hoermann-Elliott said. "Knowing that they had an unprecedented number of submissions, I guess we're doing okay. I'll take this for now. This year we're just going to bask in it."

Some of that basking will take place in Spokane, Wash., where FYC will be honored April 5 at the 2024 CCCC Awards Presentation.

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Page last updated 2:20 PM, February 27, 2024