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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Christine Alfano

As you might expect from our astonishingly dedicated associate director, Christine Alfano says she is “totally absorbed by wpa [writing program administration] work.” But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t continue to teach and write in ever-evolving and inspiring ways. Indeed, the three–her program leadership, pedagogy, and scholarship–interanimate, all contributing to her recent historic promotion to Senior Lecturer. 

Reflecting on her writing career, Christine notes she hasn’t published individually in some time as most of her published scholarship in rhetoric and writing is collaborative. In an acknowledgment of her often overwhelming administrative responsibilities, she says her co-authors have to be patient with her as she’s “always late.” But their shared curiosity drives the writing forward to publication and acclaim. As she put it, her projects always start with the simple desire to learn more and to work with her fellow PWR lecturers. “Our colleagues are so brilliant,” she said to me.

Former PWR lecturer Alyssa O’Brien was an important early collaborator. An innovative teacher and researcher, Alyssa was skilled at thinking creatively in the classroom and then translating those lived experiences into opportunities for jumping into broader disciplinary conversations.  “We’re already doing [this new thing in the classroom or program], let’s turn it into an article,” Christine remembers Alyssa often saying. For example, she and Christine developed the Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Project (2005-2011) at Stanford, a grant-funded project that connected students from across the world via videoconferencing for small group work designed to help them learn the rhetorical concepts of audience, context, medium, message, and argument across a range of cultural settings. They collaborated closely with Anders Erikkson and Eva Magnusson from Örebro University, as well as colleagues from University of Sydney, the National University of Singapore, and the American University in Cairo.  Christine and Alyssa turned their work on the CCR Project into several articles, including one co-authored with Eva Magnusson titled “Improving cross-cultural communication through collaborative technologies,” which appeared in a 2007 volume titled Persuasive Technology. Vestiges of the old CCR website still exist as a Wordpress blog.

Christine’s most important collaboration with Alyssa resulted in the highly successful textbook series Envision in Depth, which, when it first appeared in 2006, was innovative in its close attention to visual as well as written and spoken rhetoric. Although it hasn’t been updated since 2016, Envision is still in print, and Christine and Alyssa over the years produced four editions of the “big book,” which includes readings, and five editions of the “small book.” The textbook emerged “completely” out of her teaching in PWR, Christine says, and has been adopted principally in big state schools and community colleges. Christine loves writing textbooks and that endeavor has largely filled any spare capacity she has for writing outside of teaching and program leadership. 

That said, a trio of recent collaborative articles showcase how Christine’s deep involvement with all aspects of PWR dovetails with her love for investigating, testing, and communicating new writing pedagogy. Together with Rusty Carpenter and former PWR lecturer Sohui Lee, Christine published an article in 2013 on multimodal composing processes in the writing center, "Invention in two parts," which appeared in the volume Cases on Higher Education Spaces: Innovation, Collaboration, and Technology. And with former PWR lecturer Ashley Newby and our colleagues Jennifer Johnson and Meg Formato, Christine contributed to an article on the new research writing curriculum developed for the Leland Scholars Program, VPUE’s summer bridge program for incoming first-gen and low-income first-year students. Christine emphasized how much she learned from her colleagues developing the research protocol for this article and loved conducting the interviews with the students, which she found fascinating. Ultimately, the article argues for the importance of creating space for students’ identities as researchers and writers to support their belonging at Stanford. It documents in highly useful ways a culturally sustaining pedagogy that taps students’ navigational capital, appearing in the MLA’s wonderful 2023 volume Beyond Fitting In: Rethinking First-Generation Writing and Literacy Education, edited by Kelly Ritter. 

Lastly, together with Emily Polk and Jenne Stonaker, Christine has a new article forthcoming in a special issue of Across the Disciplines on the significance of the ePortfolio in the Notation in Science Communication. For this project, Christine felt like she was “starting from 0,” an overstatement, perhaps, as she knew everything about how students enroll and proceed through and ultimately graduate from the Notation, as well as why they should pursue it. But she felt less familiar with the recent scholarship on ePortfolios. So in her typically intrepid fashion, Christine volunteered to write the literature review. That research and thinking combined with analyses of final NSC ePortfolio reflective cover letters demonstrates that ePortfolios, in the words of the article authors, “create a unique moment for STEM students to gain a deeper understanding of their discipline, their place in it, and how sharing their knowledge in different ways would foster a kind of agency for them directly connected to their identities as effective science communicators.” These last two articles were particularly impactful to me because they vividly describe crucial features of PWR pedagogy and the ways it’s both informed by and positively impacts our students’ voices.

So much of Christine’s day is dedicated to logistics and putting out fires, to thinking about systems and staffing and enrollment. She has little luxury to stop and read. But because she’s always willing to recognize where she needs to learn as she navigates administrative decisions, her reading is strategic. All her research–which may include looking at other programs around the country–feeds back into curricular design, staffing, and helping students navigate these programs. For example, she read a lot to write a grant together with other PWR lecturers for the PWR 1 Studio for Multilingual Writers, a companion course for the first-year requirement, which is still going strong five years on and has also given rise to the PWR 1 Workshop

And, of course, continuing to research and write helps her connect with her students, too. As Christine put it, “you’re there with your students in the classroom,” sharing in their struggles to define a research motive, defend a claim, and articulate significance. She likes to tell them about her most-cited paper, a reevaluation of Grendel’s mother, which she published in Comitatus as a second-year PhD student at Stanford when she wasn’t much older than they are.

It turns out our indefatigable colleague, who manages to bake cookies for her students and colleagues on top of all her other responsibilities, also loves dead languages. In her Comitatus paper, she read Grendel through a 19th-century lens, the period she ultimately specialized in, as she was inspired by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic to center the monster’s unruly mother in her new reading of the ancient epic. Like her students, I was tickled to learn that Christine sadly missed a call from the producers of the 2007 movie version of Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie who wanted to learn more about her interpretation of this otherwise neglected character. 

Though most of us know Christine first as a generous source of pedagogical expertise–countless PWR assignment sheets owe their structure and insight to Christine’s–as I learned in chatting with her, she is also a creative scholar who pursues her ideas with a tenacious faith in the writing process and a commitment to making significant contributions to the global writing studies community. 


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