Writing Program 40th Anniversary Profile: Peggy Woods
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
This profile is the third and final in the Writing Program’s 40th anniversary series highlighting faculty members instrumental in beginning the WP at UMass Amherst. Each profile provides a unique perspective on how the program has grown since the beginning. We appreciate each one of them for sharing their thoughts and time with us!
Peggy Woods, former Writing Program Associate for Teacher Training
The Writing Program began its legacy of providing excellent writing instruction to UMass Amherst undergraduates in 1982. Since then, the program has changed along with the shifts in the university, the field of Writing Studies, and broader national and international scholarly movements. However, a commitment to student-centered writing instruction has remained consistent. To find out more about the evolution of the program since 1982, we spoke with previous administrators in the program. Peggy Woods, Writing Program Associate Director for Teacher Training from 1999 to 2022 shares her experiences.
How would you describe the Writing Program during your time working in it? Can you tell me about one moment that stands out?
One big moment was in the beginning when I started. Peter Elbow was the Director, and he was the director for one year, and then Marcia Curtis became the Director. We were short staffed, so it felt like for me one of the best parts was that we were just this group of people really committed to first-year writing trying to make the best experience for the undergraduates and the graduate students together.
I just remember that we would come in every day and just work like maniacs, you know. But the good thing, too, was that this was when we started a lot of different initiatives. During that time, we created the first course reader, we started the experimental workshops, and different things like that. To me that marks that moment when the Writing Program was just a group of people who were so committed. The mission was so central. We were trying to provide the best experience teaching writing to undergraduates, and I think that carried through.
There were two other key moments. For me, working with the Resource Staff (Teaching Associates who assist in new teacher training) was always really a delight because I felt like they grew so much. When I started, the Resource Staff weren't very involved in Orientation, which was always the biggest new teacher training event. They came the last day for lunch. Then over the years, having them become more involved and working with them was always such a good moment for me that helped our mission, but also helped with the teacher training, too.
A second moment was the Celebration of Writing. That was always such a great moment because that's where we all came together and had a big showcase on campus. It was an all-day affair, and it grew over time. One year twelve classes were involved. They used to do special projects with print books, posters, or all kinds of things, so it was an all-day celebration of readings and displays. When we started the Best Text Contest we had the awards ceremony for that. So, all of those things were a really good way to showcase student writing.
Over the course of its 40 years, how do you think the program has changed?
I think one thing that's really changed is the reading. When I started, Charlie Moran was very adamant about the role of reading in the program, and I think we still have this focus. But Charlie also believed, you know, the student's work is the center of the class. When I started there was no outside reading because the students were supposed to be reading their own work and reading each other's work and that was the center of a class. That's why we used to make magazines for every unit. We would print them and bring them in and have a publication day, and the students would read them.
It was Peter Elbow, actually, who started the course reader. He called it the Text Wrestling Unit (see the first 2001 entry in the WP 40th Anniversary Timeline), and students would read one work by a published writer. So that was good because I think that was needed in the curriculum. I think Charlie was advocating for getting students away from reading only published authors, but then it swung back to recognizing, well, they need to do both, read published authors and one another’s work.
What do you see as the contributions of a Writing Program like ours to a university and to society more broadly?
I think that’s a really great thing about UMass Amherst. Here we have a program that is not connected to the English Department. Writing is central to education and to what makes a good citizen. So here is a program with a sole focus on writing, which elevates writing to a field of study and a discipline and something that should be studied and can be taught. There is this idea that writing is the course content. Also, UMass Amherst’s two-part general education writing requirement elevates writing on campus. It helps prepare students to broaden their notion about what writing is.
Where do you see the field of Writing Studies and writing instruction going in the next 40 years?
I think something good that is happening in the program now—and it was the pandemic that pushed us there—is to think about writing and the audience in a further, broader way. Taking up more multimodal writing will be important. If our program is about helping students understand rhetorical modes, what will the essay look like in the future? How do we adapt writing to our students and what the students' needs are in the next forty years? What kind of writing will grab the attention of their audience? I think that is the direction writing will and should move.