From "Standardizing a First-Year Writing Program: Contested Sites of Influence," by Sheila Carter-Tod. WPA: Writing Program Administration, Spring 2007.

With our task before us and our goals in mind, we spend the greater part of a summer deciding on course assignment sequencing, common assignments, and themes for our two-part course sequence. We wrestle with issues such as which writing and reading assignments encourage the specific kinds of critical thinking that are part of our objectives, and we happily discuss the ways the choices that we have made might eliminate some of the "problems" we knew existed in the "ways in which specific unnamed faculty had been treating first-year writing as a literature course or as a platform for exploring some objectionable -- almost pornographic -- themes." These are all arguments that those of us attending the meetings had heard expressed by colleagues within the department and faculty outside the department. What we don't discuss are the ways in which we, in standardizing the requirements and creating five themes for all 250 sections of our first-year program, are quite possibly diminishing the positive and wide range of experiences students may have in their first-year writing sequence. We do not discuss the idea that, by limiting what may be perceived as "extremes" in the process of establishing specific standards, we might also be limiting the environments in which students may be encouraged to learn more about themselves and others through writing, though the grappling with less-than-comfortable cultural issues and issues of difference. We also do not discuss the possibility that hearsay about extremes, while possibly an issue in any course in any department, may have been taken completely out of context. Instead, we focus our attention on ways to make sure that we address the outside critiques that initially brought our courses into question -- critiques like those from some engineering faculty who have questioned how personal writing could prepare students for the reports or data interpretations that would be expected of them as part of their engineering curriculum. Others in the university have had trouble seeing reasons that students should take a writing course in the English department when other departments offered writing and public speaking in the same course. In response to these demands for convenience and economy of effort coupled with the fear of losing colleagues in the next round of budget cuts looming over us, we work on building an argument for making sure that the writing program in the English department is seen as vital to the goals and needs of the larger university.

Carter-Tod is at Virginia Tech, which is perhaps where the engineering faculty critique comes in. While the article isn't very specific about what they ended up doing with the curriculum (it does say that they have a custom textbook for first-year writing), it does say that in their curriculum, the guidelines for the assignments are broad, as in, one essay requires students to do analysis, one essay requires synthesis, and one essay requires argument. Besides that, teachers can design the assignments however they want, including choosing the readings. I would have appreciated an appendix or two consisting of a statement about the curriculum that the WPA gives to teachers, or a table of contents of their textbook. Still, very interesting stuff. You can probably tell that I share some of Carter-Tod's reservations about standardization, but I would really like to hear some critiques of the position she outlines in the quoted selection.

Edited to add: Actually, I know that one argument for standardization is that it can be helpful for new teachers, who sometimes don't know what to teach and how to teach it. For them, a set syllabus and detailed assignment descriptions can be beneficial.