ISP100: A soon-to-be mandatory course that develops essential academic skills
Professor Jonathan Vroom shares how building academic writing and reading skills is key for students’ successes across all disciplines.

Being a university student requires us to read academic writing and engage with it in assignments. Many academic texts are written by experts in the discipline. As a result, they may use advanced language unfamiliar to students. To get past this, students must develop academic reading and writing skills to help them decipher complex language. These skills can be attained in the class ISP100: Writing For University And Beyond. ISP100 is currently a mandatory course for students wishing to enter a wide range of disciplines from the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. However, Jonathan Vroom believes that soon all University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) students will be required to complete ISP100.

The Medium spoke to Jonathan Vroom, an assistant professor in the teaching stream of the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy. He currently teaches ISP100 and works as a writing specialist at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre. When asked why a writing course should be mandatory across such a wide variety of disciplines, Professor Vroom explains that “Writing is an essential part of higher education. It is how we communicate findings, [and] how scholars talk to each other through publishing findings and writing. Writing is [also] an essential part of all fields.” That is, through ISP100, students, including those from seemingly quantitative disciplines, can better tailor their communication skills to their courses. For example, Professor Vroom says that explaining coding decisions and proof writing in math and computer science involves accurate communication of students’ work.

One big strength of ISP100 is that it familiarizes students with how academic arguments are crafted. A concept taught as part of Ontario’s secondary education is the “hamburger” paragraph model, which includes an introduction (comprised of a thesis with three points), three paragraphs explaining each point, and a conclusion restating the main points. However, Professor Vroom maintains that this format is “not the way academics talk to each other” and that “any reading or publication you have to read in a course, none of them are written in the five-paragraph essay.” The expectation in university is that students will contribute to scholarly debates and engage with previous viewpoints in a way that is simply too “complicated and sophisticated” to work in the hamburger format. Professor Vroom explains that “in high school, there are good reasons to do this since it’s a great way of teaching students to unpack a point. But in university settings, a big thing we teach students is to move away from this format to do more sophisticated things.”

Professor Vroom shares that one core part of ISP100 is the idea that academic writing is like a conversation; it uses the “They say I say” model. Making an argument is analogous to joining into a pre-existing conversation. A core component of articles is the hero’s narrative, which introduces a new topic not yet discussed. Professor Vroom gives an example of the hockey world juniors by saying: “After Canada won gold you have multiple conversations with different perspectives about it. A hero’s narrative in this case would be mentioning a player that isn’t being discussed but is deserving of it.” 

ISP100 teaches students how to construct their own academic arguments. Doing so involves developing a strong thesis statement—a common struggle for any student. Professor Vroom states that “The wrong way to go about writing [a thesis] is getting the conversational nature of academic writing backwards,” inverting the model to “I say they say.” Students may think of the thesis first and then look for research supporting it. Professor Vroom claims “that’s not even ‘I say, they say’ that’s ‘I say and here’s some voices that might back up what I say.’” When crafting a thesis, he urges students to “Start with what the research says, find an interesting topic and find what scholars are saying about it, and the thesis should come in response to that.” For example, this could be in the form of saying you agree with this scholar on this sociological problem because of this reason or another.  

To engage with research properly, students must learn how to work through it by understanding the various communication methods academics use in their writing. Various aspects of research articles are discussed throughout ISP100, such as metadiscourse and hedging. Professor Vroom describes metadiscourse as “the language we use” and “a way of guiding the reader through the piece.” Since he argues that “essays are not just information dumps that list multiple facts, but they say something about them,” the metadiscourse language is used to show the reader what they are trying to say and how to understand the different voices in the conversation. Hedging is the language used to restrain from certainty and the “strength [with which] they believe something.” Scholarly debates often don’t have a clear-cut answer, so they use this language to indicate the difference between correlation and causation. For example, instead of saying that smoking causes cancer, they’ll say, “There’s a strong link between smoking and cancer.” Understanding these basic elements of academic texts will help students better understand them and succeed in university assignments. 

Professor Vroom’s final message to students is that “The university has invested a whole lot of money and resources into making this new writing studies department a requirement and if you think that it is a nuisance or totally unrelated to what you do, you are definitely wrong.” This is because the need for proper communication remains a constant throughout all disciplines—something ISP100 can help with. Professor Vroom’s own students from political science to sociology all note how ISP100 concepts helped them do better on their assignments as it made them realise how “knowledge works in a university context.” 

Staff Writer (Volume 49 & 50) — Yusuf is in his fourth year completing a double major in English and Cinema Studies and a minor in History of Religions. He first joined The Medium in 2022 when he sought to get involved in the on-campus community. He has developed strong writing skills throughout the experience and enjoys learning about new topics he wouldn’t know about otherwise. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.


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