How will UTM teach you to write?
It may seem like a simple question, but the answers are stirring up debate on campus. Because the Office of the Dean has identified investing in writing instruction as important, a “suite of approaches” is expected to hit UTM in fall 2013.
These approaches include enhancing the first-year transitional program utmONE, offering workshops and face-to-face appointments through the Academic Skills, hiring a dedicated faculty member to provide instruction in English as a second language, and developing an early warning system to identify students who are at risk because of the level of their writing skills.
The centrepiece of this multipronged approach to writing, called “Writing Across the Curriculum”, involves selecting a lead writing teaching assistant who undergoes extensive summer training with a writing specialist on how to teach writing skills to students and how to train disciplinary TAs to teach writing.
WAC is based on the “Writing Instruction for TAs” program implemented at St. George’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences—which is one reason why Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, a writing specialist at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre who was commissioned to come up with these approaches, believes WAC will work at UTM.
Writing Across the Curriculum
Evans-Tokaryk plans to increase the number and quality of writing assignments in all disciplines. He also proposes embedding “write to learn” and “learn to write” exercises in course material.
“By ‘write to learn’, we mean an approach that presumes that students learn course material better when they write about it,” said Evans-Tokaryk. “We’ll typically do this through multiple low-stakes (often ungraded) writing exercises, both in class and outside of class.”
Meanwhile, “learn to write” is an approach where students are taught to write the way a professional in their field would. “We model discipline-specific writing done by experts for our students,” Evans-Tokaryk said.
“One of the long-term prospects of an approach anchored in the disciplines is that you get departments to take ownership of the students’ skill development and think in more meaningful ways to integrate writing in their curriculum,” he added. “And when departments do that, faculty members do, and students benefit quite dramatically.”
But that’s not the only perspective on the issue. Guy Allen, the director and founder of the professional writing and communication program at UTM, commented, “I think WAC could be very effective, but what I don’t like about WAC is that it addresses writing issues as discipline-specific. I think there’s a need for core principles about writing to get established.”
Amir Ahmed, a PWC graduate, believes that Evans-Tokaryk’s approach to writing instruction does not take into consideration a “holistic” view of writing.
“[Learning to write] is a really long, deep process,” said Ahmed. “There’s no quick fix to becoming better writers. I think the best way to learn is to read and write a lot—immerse yourself in clear writing. […] It should have started back in high school.”
The first-year mandatory writing course: to be or not to be?
Right now, UTM doesn’t have a first-year mandatory composition course, but Alan Walks, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, believes it should. At the Dean’s Open Forum on October 22, faculty members heard Evans-Tokaryk present his recommended “suite of approaches” and the research to support them. At the forum, Walks spoke up about his belief that the university should implement the first-year mandatory composition course to complement the WAC program.
Walks said Evans-Tokaryk demonstrated at the Open Forum that first-year composition courses do not produce results on their own, at least not to the extent that people had hoped they would.
WAC can make up for the drawbacks, but “that doesn’t mean we should drop the [mandatory] writing course component,” said Walks. “If U of T were to put the resources into both the Writing Across the Disciplines approach and the composition course, we would do the best for our students.”
So why are the “write to learn” and “learn to write” approaches considered more effective than writing courses?
“The evidence suggests that discipline-specific works,” said Evans-Tokyark in an interview. “First-year composition—generic writing—does not. It’s as simple as that.”
“First-year students hate first-year composition,” he went on. “It’s not why they came to university. They came to university to study history or economics or English, or whatever. Corralling students and putting them into a first-year composition course generates resentment for writing. It generates the impression that writing skills are transferable and that there’s such single thing called ‘university writing’—which there is not.”
Walks remains convinced that a first-year mandatory writing course would effectively complement the other approaches.
“I don’t know why the administration doesn’t want to support a multipronged approach with both the Writing Across the Disciplines and the composition course,” said Walks. “I think it would be best for the students and best for the university. We would be producing better graduates and the student experience would be enhanced.”
“This is just a really long consultation process”
The way the new writing approaches are being implemented drew complaints, which arose at the Open Forum. Some faculty members protested that the process by which administration is asking for input is backwards: the administration should have asked for input before they decided to implement Evans-Tokaryk’s suggestions, not afterwards.
Allen was the first to speak up at the Open Forum about not being consulted even though he is an expert in the field of writing and a recipient of Canada’s 3M Teaching Fellowship, which recognizes exemplary teaching at the university level.
“I don’t really understand what the complaints about process are,” said Mullin. “This is just a really long consultation process.”
Evans-Tokaryk said nothing has been finalized yet.
“I’m soliciting input,” he said. “This is not being presented as a fait accompli. This is a suggested approach, and I’m willing and eager to hear all sides of the discussion so we can get this right […] and get faculty and students involved and invested in an approach that we can all agree on as the best one.”
Mullin struck a writing committee or working group to oversee the pros and cons of various writing initiatives because of the complaints about the process. The writing committee is co-chaired by Andrew Petersen, the director of the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, and Kelly Hannah-Moffat, the vice-dean, undergraduate at UTM.
Cleo Boyd, the founding director of the RGASC, was not consulted either.
“I think that everyone who’s interested and has expertise in this topic, the dean should consider consulting,” she said in an interview. “The message is, if you’re going to consult somebody, consult the experts. I think the conversation would be richer for it […] I think the worst thing that can happen is for people to fight about this. We need to debate it.”
What universities owe students
What skills can students expect to walk out of university with? Should they expect to learn how to write proficiently?
“We—faculty and administration—have a responsibility to ensure that students have the opportunity to gain these skills,” said Boyd. “The university has an obligation to the students.”
According to Allen, there “isn’t an effective shortcut to teaching writing”, and this means that a decision about resources is involved.
“I think it’s worth it,” said Allen. “I can’t imagine a better educational objective than to produce people who have a solid sense of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. If you teach someone to write a sociology or anthropology essay and the teaching is specific to the program, I mean, that’s useful, but there are few students who take anthropology at the University of Toronto who are going to study anthropology [at a higher level]. What we want is to give them skills that are adaptable and generalizable, and critical thinking [skills] and broadly-based skills of expression.”
The importance of writing skills is at the heart of Walks’ argument for offering a mandatory composition course.
“In order to be able to learn, amongst other things, one must learn how to write. To know how to write allows for a student to rapidly expand their learning in the classroom,” said Walks. “If the students don’t know how to write, then they’re playing catch-up. And much of the grade they receive has to do with their writing skills and not their analytical skills.”
Boyd stressed the importance of knowing how to communicate, regardless of the subject matter.
“I think that if the students understood how much the ability to communicate is going to mean to them when they walk out of university—it can mean a job or not a job—and they stop fighting it, real change is going to occur,” said Boyd. “It’s the students that lead the way. That’s what the real message is: the power of the student. After all, [the students] are what we’re here for.”