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Benedicks Changes the Conversation on Writing

Crystal Benedicks thought of her colleagues first. “It’s certainly not work that ever happens in isolation.”

The Associate Professor of English was recently named one of 10 Outstanding First-Year Student Advocates by the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. The accolade recognizes individuals on campuses nationwide who are stellar advocates involved in high-impact practices for first-year student success.

Aside from teaching composition and a wide-range of literature courses, Benedicks is a member of the College’s Teaching and Learning Committee (TLC), which fosters innovation across campus for faculty and students alike; she heads the Writing Across the Curriculum initiative (WAC), which seeks ways to inject excellent writing throughout the curriculum; and she is a leader in the Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program (WLAIP), a program for first-generation and under-represented student populations to ease the transition into and improve their entire collegiate experience.

Crystal Benedicks interacts with students.To those who know Dr. Benedicks well, it’s not surprising that she humbly attempted to defer praise for her efforts in contributing to a successful first-year experience.

“It’s an amazing honor and it took me utterly by surprise because it is something that we, as a college, come together around,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people and programs that build this and this award goes to all of the WLAIP and all of the people who are involved with the Writing Across the Curriculum program, which is all of the people who teach here.”

Dean of the College Scott Feller notes that Benedicks’ efforts as a writer and educator are essential for balancing the tremendous growth opportunities first-year students encounter against the hurdles that sometimes accompany that growth.

We are fortunate here to have faculty who are committed teachers and scholars but also leaders,” he said.  “Crystal appreciates both those aspects and her teaching and concern for students reflect best practices that all of us at Wabash can emulate.”

That blend of teaching and leadership that Benedicks has displayed since arriving on campus in 2007 have roots in her graduate school experience. While attending the City University of New York and envisioning her future in academia from oak-paneled offices, she got involved with programs that supported particularly vulnerable student populations.

Though work with those student groups was not exactly the solitary contemplation she imagined, Benedicks loved the experience and continues the work here, bolstered by the opportunities that exist for students.

Benedicks is one of 10 advocates recognized nationally.“One of the things that I loved about the identity of this college was that it gives opportunities to students in the liberal arts that ordinarily wouldn’t even be on their radar,” she said. “The great thing about working at Wabash is that if you want to do something, you can. There is plenty of support for everything.”

Luke Doughty ’18, who served as a WLAIP peer mentor with Benedicks, appreciates both her connections with and expectations for her students. He told a story of how the WLAIP students were shocked when she assigned an eight-page draft. Doughty thought an adjustment of the deadline might be in order, but Benedicks’ belief in the students and the reality that deadlines are a part of the college experience created an opportunity for success.

“At first the students felt every emotion except confidence, but by the due date, they had all accomplished something that they had never done before, that they did not think that they were capable of doing,” Doughty said. “Watching students develop confidence from paper to paper because of Dr. Benedicks’ commitment to putting them in an environment of growth affirms my belief that students become more likely to succeed in college if they become problem solvers through writing.”

Fellow English professor Jill Lamberton marvels at Benedicks’ ability to pay such close attention to many things – to faculty, to students, to texts – and to synthesize the information in ways that are transformative for nearly everyone.

Not only does she spend considerable time reading student work and conferencing with students directly, but she routinely brings students together in her office and teaches them how to talk to each other about their writing in the same way that more advanced writers do. Think of it as more direct instruction in how to read and revise through a writers’ workshop and less unstructured group work.

“Crystal puts in so much time with students because she’s genuinely interested in them and their stories,” Lamberton said. “She is interested in who they are and remembers that they will grow through their time at Wabash. So much of Crystal’s teaching is in the one-on-one work.”

No matter a student’s writing blocks or fears, Benedicks possesses a keen interest in syntax and in looking at how sentences are constructed with students so that they can rebuild sentences to more clearly express their ideas.

“I’m always impressed by how much time Crystal spends in her office with first-year writing students, both individually and in peer writing groups,” said Adriel Trott, Associate Professor of Philosophy. “She can do this because she takes first-year students’ writing seriously and with that, students having something worth saying, from the moment they arrive on campus.”

Building her syllabi for a variety of Wabash courses, Lamberton says Benedicks works to include more of those who might feel they don’t belong here.  It’s hardly surprising that Benedicks takes this work out of the classroom into direct advocacy for students.  This national accolade of her first-year student advocacy is a fitting recognition of her 12 years at Wabash.

The conversations she helped start about first-year students and their writing have changed the campus culture.

Michele Pittard, Associate Professor of Educational Studies, positively remembers the benefits of those discussions surrounding Enduring Questions (EQ), the second semester Freshman colloquium. Initially, those talks were eye-opening in how the teaching of writing is an on-going and positive process for students and faculty alike.

“When we started curricular discussions for EQ, at first I was resistant to the idea that we should include writing instruction,” Pittard says. “But her ideas are so good—things I can work into what I’m already planning for class. I’ve learned from her that writing isn’t something students master before they get here or learn in their first semester of the first-year courses; instead, it is something they are learning and we are teaching throughout their time with us.”

“She leads conversations about how and why we teach writing across a college education, and she offers strategies to colleagues who want to be better writing instructors,” said Feller. “Thanks to a decade of Dr. Benedicks’ leadership, our faculty no longer believes that first-year writing instruction is only the responsibility of high school teachers or the English department.”

Benedicks is more than happy to share the credit for this accolade.

“The particular way this college sings is when people join together to do things,” Benedicks said. “We get together in a room and create something. That’s what happened here. I have no idea why this award is going to me. This award goes to so many of the people who built so many of the programs over years.”