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Sustainability and Then Some: Writing Programs in Institutional Structure

January 17, 2018
Powerhouse Energy Campus of Colorado State University - aerial view at a new building completed in 2014 and historic Fort Collins Municipal Power Plant. Powerhouse Energy Campus of Colorado State University - aerial view at a new building completed in 2014 and historic Fort Collins Municipal Power Plant. © marekuliasz/

How are writing programs situated as part of the architecture of their institutions?

Over time, sustainability has become a motivating concept in higher education. Rooted in the environmentalism movement, its use in higher education “officially” began in 2006 with the publication of the American College & Universities Presidents’ Climate Commitment, though Derek Owens predicted in his 2001 book Composition and Sustainability that “sustainability—as a metaphor, a design problem, a cultural imperative, and a social and ecological necessity—[would] become one of the new paradigms shaping much of our work as teachers and scholars” (Owens 1). With the abundance of scholarship in ecocomposition and environmental rhetoric currently extant, we think it’s safe to say that his prediction came true.

Since the 2006 climate commitment, examples abound of college and university campuses “going green” and making well-publicized and highly marketed efforts to shrink their carbon footprints (e.g., LEED-certification initiatives at Elon University, Colorado State University, and the University of Michigan). Yet sustainability has also been used as a metaphor to inspire changes to governance, curriculum, and pedagogy.

University administrations have explored how the concept might inform more than their schools’ physical plants, with mixed results. In his 2015 CWPA plenary address, the theme of which was sustainability, Seth Kahn warned WPAs not to forget that sustainability is, at its core, about people and “focuses on life-sustaining inter-relations among all the members of an ecosystem” (Kahn 115). In her plenary address at the same conference, Beth Bouquet said, “I bristle at the mission creep of the term sustainability” in describing her university’s strategic plan (Boquet 104). This plan essentially defines sustainability in terms of maintaining a business model to support various revenue streams, neglecting the needs and voices of students and faculty (Boquet 97).

We agree that sustainability may have become a trope and is often used, as Kahn claims, as “greenwashing,” because it “sounds more reasonable, more technocratic, than environmentalism and is, therefore, both more palatable and more vulnerable to cooptation” (Kahn 113). Yet as WPAs we are concerned not just about how our programs work in practice at the moment and not just in whether they continue to exist, but how they become part of the structure of our universities to the degree that they become inseparable from the university foundation.

One way to move away from the trope of sustainability is to think more about how writing programs—their people and environments, in combination with practical considerations such as funding sources, reporting lines, research, and curriculum—are situated as part of the architecture of their institutions. While sustainability is a term that can be easily co-opted or flipped against a writing program by an administration (e.g., “This program is no longer sustainable”), when we consider a program as built into the structure of an institution, it is much harder to dismantle: “The metaphor of architecture allows [WPAs] to imagine the constituent parts of a writing program as its foundation, beams, posts, scaffolding—the institutional structures that, alongside its people, anchor a program to the ground and keep it standing” (Finer 4).

Sustainability functions as a motivating concept for writing program administrators partly because it is a virtuous metaphor to apply. We want to think of our programs as “meeting today’s needs without jeopardizing the well-being of future generations” (Owens 1), and working toward that goal is often “what sustains us across time in doing the work our institutions call on us to do” (Boquet 93). An architectural metaphor allows us to position our programs as sustainable and then some—as indispensable. When editing our collection Writing Program Architecture: Thirty Cases for Reference and Research, we asked contributors to provide “a primary document(s) that has been of major importance to the development or sustainability of the program” (16). What we ended up with, we now realize, are not documents “on which [the contributors’ programs] are depending for their sustainability,” but instead evidence of how the programs are built into the structures of their institutions.

In the current financial climate of American education, writing program administrators are increasingly focused on measures to shore up their program architecture by completing self-studies, documenting assessment data, and writing grants. Shevaun Watson writes, “This is the rhetorical and logistical work of an architect, the creative and material labor of a designer, the interpersonal and emotional labor of a planner, the everyday work of a WPA.” Such measures are necessary in places where state funding has been reduced, tuition and hiring freezes persist over years, and political leaders openly express their doubts about the very purposes of higher education. They serve as evidence not only of sustainability but of integration into the structure of the institution.

Despite this somewhat grim climate, we see reason for optimism. Shifting the metaphor from sustainability to architecture allows WPAs to shift focus from funding or politics to relationship-building across campus and, most importantly, with students. Arguably, a space in which relationships can be developed for and with students is the most important structure a WPA can build. While institutional structures might demand the most attention from WPAs, ultimately what holds up our programs is a commitment to the students we serve. Emily Cosgrove, director of the Wallace Community College Center for Writing and Writing Instruction (CWWI), explains how staff in their program aim to create “a culture of writing on campus . . . sustainable programs where students feel welcomed, encouraged, and empowered by their writing and opportunities to engage in writing with others” (Finer and White-Farnham 2017, 369–70).

Despite policy, politics, and the ever-changing climate of higher education, WPAs do our best work when we are working toward building space to empower student writers. The culture that Cosgrove refers to is a sustainability goal worth striving to achieve, or perhaps more aptly, an architectural element we must build into the structure of higher education. Susan Naomi Bernstein writes that the “opportunity to reflect on the systemic structures that allow [our writing program] to function and flourish […] keep me mindful for the need for empathy and compassion for all of the students I teach.” She further explains, “metaphor becomes material reality, offering relief from the hurricane, shelter from the storm, and an enduring hope for a more equitable and sustainable future.” An architectural metaphor moves us toward a place and time where writing programs are not only sustained, but are a material, integral, and indispensable part of the foundations of our universities.



“Background.” n.d. Second Nature. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. n.d. “Writing on an Integrated Writing Program: Finding Shelter from the Storm.” Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Boquet, Elizabeth. 2015. “What Remains and What Sustains: Companions in Mission, Colleagues in Action, WPAs for Life.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 39, no. 1 (Fall): 94–108. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

"Campus Initiatives: Buildings.” n.d. Elon University. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Cosgrove, Emily. n.d. “Wallace Community College Center for Writing and Writing Instruction.” Writing Program Architecture. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Finer, Bryna Siegel, and Jamie White-Farnham, eds. 2017. Writing Program Architecture. Logan: Utah State University Press.

“Green Buildings.” n.d. Colorado State University. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018. https://green.colostate.e

“Green Campus.” n.d. University of Michigan. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Kahn, Seth. 2015. “Towards an Ecology of Sustainable Labor in Writing Programs (and Other Places).” WPA: Writing Program Administration 39, no. 1 (Fall): 109–21. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Owens, Derek. 2001. Composition and Sustainability. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Watson, Shevaun. n.d. “Betwixt and Between.” Writing Program Architecture. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Weissman, Neil B. n.d. “Sustainability and Liberal Education: Partners by Nature.” Association of American Colleges & Universities. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Bryna Siegel Finer is an associate professor, director of Liberal Studies English, and the founding director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she has also coordinated the first-year writing placement program. Her scholarship has been published in Rhetoric Review, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, the Journal of Teaching Writing, the Journal of Pedagogic Development, and Praxis, among others. With Jamie White-Farnham and Cathryn Molloy, she is currently preparing an edited collection on the rhetorics of women’s health activism.

Jamie White-Farnham is associate professor and writing coordinator in the Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin–Superior. Her research is split between feminist rhetorical studies and the scholarship of teaching and learning with a focus on writing program administration. Her work has been published in Community Literacy Journal, College English, Rhetoric Review, and Peitho.


University Press of Colorado University of Alaska Press Utah State University Press University of Wyoming Press