Keeping our feet on the ground about writing

Writing instruction is the administration’s pet project lately, but a good solution is hard to find


I’m writing about writing initiatives. I know, I know. “Aren’t you going to talk about David Gilmour?” But it feels kind of like taking the bait, and besides, there’s already so much written about it, from students having second thoughts about his course to the chairs of our and St. George’s English departments throwing him under the bus to commentators stepping back in astonishment at how quickly it exploded. If you want my opinion, Rachel Bulatovich’s September 27 article for the Globe and Mail isn’t a bad approximation. Anyway, I’d rather write about something more local.

Writing Across the Curriculum was conceived as part of a wider plan to improve student writing at UTM, instruction for which is very scarce at present. There are some writing assignments in every discipline, and some disciplines are considered “writing-intensive”, which means that there are a lot of writing assignments, but not necessarily that there’s any instruction for them beyond the reinforcement that comes from grades. Currently, students in particular need of remedial help can go to an academic skills centre in the library.

There are two obvious routes to go to remedy this. One is making this remedial, or rather introductory, writing instruction mandatory so as to make it available to more students. WAC, on the other hand, is based on the integration of writing instruction into the curriculum. It involves replacing certain exercises and study tools with writing exercises on the assumption that we learn more effectively through writing. The exercises are usually carried out in tutorial by a TA who has been trained by a lead writing TA who has been trained in turn by the academic skills centre.

At the moment, Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, who originally proposed WAC after he was commissioned to come up with a strategy for writing instruction, says it’s not even a program yet. This is because its implementation, originally scheduled for this fall, has faced opposition, especially by faculty. The writing instruction also differs from department to department on the assumption that those who write for one field will write differently from those who write for another, which sounds pretty reasonable (although less so than Evans-Tokaryk’s blanket quote for an article last year that “generic writing doesn’t work”). This has been the source of some of the dissent, some of which came from Guy Allen, the director of UTM’s professional writing and communication program, which operates on the idea that certain good writing habits are universally applicable. Besides, not all the anthopology students, as Allen points out, will go into anthropology, so will the ones who don’t be left with non-transferable skills?

The other areas of dissent mostly involve questions of resources. In any case, the consultation, described by some faculty as uninclusive and by Dean Amy Mullin (prophetically) as “just really long”, is still going on.

As for me, I’m sceptical about the whole question of writing instruction. The first question that makes me furrow my brow is the effectiveness one, the “write to learn” side of WAC. As an FSG leader in linguistics last year with the academic skills centre, I was often assured that if we elicited dicussion from the students, learning could take place. By contrast, Tokaryk told me and Ms. Ho, our news editor, in an interview that some discussion would be replaced with writing exercises. Is everyone on the same page?

But I find “learn to write” the more dubious goal. That the average student’s writing could be improved is, for me as an editor, not in question. But that the university is capable of effecting it (or even has such a mandate) is. At the Dean’s Open Writing Forum last year, associate geography professor Alan Walks suggested that passing a third-year writing course be a prerequisite for going into third year. I can’t imagine such a course being much better than the fairly useless literacy tests in high school, at least not on the scale it would involve.

There are certainly gaps to be filled. As a student of linguistics, which is more science than humanities—whatever the course timetable says—I’ve had only one professor who’s really tried to fill the gaping void that is research essays in the program. Outside of her courses I haven’t had to write much for linguistics, and her assignments threw us off balance (one involved a handout that warned against the oh-so-tempting opening line “Since the dawn of time, people have wondered where language came from”). The experience was extremely valuable, but unless many more profs reallocate their time and curriculum space, it’ll remain a curiosity. And even if half of those classes had tutorials, I’m not sure I’d entrust my writing instruction to a chunk of time repurposed as an exercise given by a TA with a few hours of training.

Writing instruction seems to have only recently become the Office of the Dean’s pet project, and between the resistance WAC has met and a sneaking suspicion that the whole ideal of a fully writing-competent student body is impracticable, I think the delays are more signs of a quiet death.