We need to use research to identify and implement the most effective ways to support students’ writing development.
BY ANDREA L. WILLIAMS | 03 MARCH 2022
Metaphors shape the way we see and interact with our world. Military metaphors dominate academia: cells attack and invade microbiology, and corporations devise strategies, cut budgets, deploy resources, and conquer business and financial markets. The same goes for writing: undergraduate students are “engaged” in a course and “equipped” with writing skills, graduate students enroll in “thesis boot camps” and professors “publish or perish” and can enroll in “writing retreats”. Such language is pervasive and insidious and therefore all the more destructive for constraining and distorting the way writing is understood in academia. Instead, we need a language that reflects current writing practices as well as aspirations for all that writing can be and do in college, which has more to do with scholarly conversation. and community than with combat.
Some have argued that remote work has increased the value of writing for organizations because of the “deliberation and discipline” that writing requires. But writing is much more than just a skill in academia: it is the primary means of creating and disseminating knowledge. Yet, for an activity that is at the heart of the scholarly enterprise, writing is disproportionately under-reported in universities, particularly in Canada. The invisibility and low status of writing in Canadian universities is attributable to several factors, such as the few Canadian institutions requiring a first-year writing course, the emphasis placed by most English departments on literary studies rather than on writing and rhetoric, and few universities in Canada with cross-curricular writing (WAC) programs to support the teaching of disciplinary writing.
Rather than the age-old lamentations over student writing, which are repeated in popular journalism and in committee meetings, we must use research to identify and implement the most effective ways to support the development of writing. students. My own field of rhetoric and writing has found that the development of writing is not a one-and-done matter, but involves a complex and time-consuming process. Because no single course is going to teach students everything they need to know about writing, even when there are first-year writing courses, writing should be the shared responsibility of all faculty rather than the exclusive burden of a few writing specialists who teach writing classes. or in writing centers.
If students want to learn to write well, they need to see writing not just as a way to get a good grade, but rather as faculty see writing: as an essential part of thinking about problems and knowledge creation and sharing. Cross-curricular writing programs provide instructors who are not writing experts (although they are often expert writers) with effective ways to support students’ writing development. In my faculty’s WAC (Writing-Integrated Teaching) program, instructors from all disciplines regularly assign writing-to-learn activities called “free-form writings” or “quick writings,” which are short, low-stakes, and help students to learn key concepts. , such as opportunity cost in economics or adaptation in biology; many instructors appreciate the window this writing gives them into understanding their students. Scored primarily for completion, writing-to-learn activities do not necessarily require additional time for the instructor and teaching assistant, so they can be completed even in very large classes. Such active learning strategies benefit all students, but especially traditionally underrepresented groups such as black and first-generation students, and therefore contribute to equity and diversity. With distance learning, many instructors have found that too many of these “low-stakes” assignments lead to excessive student workload and too much time. But in moderation, these activities can help students learn course content and improve their writing on more formal assignments by giving them writing practice.
Formal homework is also essential for students learning to write, and research shows that students learn best when homework comes with clear instructions on task, purpose, audience, gender, assessment criteria and copies. With guidance from cross-curricular writing programs and teaching and learning centers, instructors are increasingly implementing this research and supplementing or even replacing standardized tests, timed exams, and writing assignments at high stakes such as term papers with scaffolded assignments that provide learning objectives. and assessment criteria, incorporate practice and formative feedback, and provide examples of successful student work – practices that we know are especially helpful for students from underrepresented groups. Faculty development and teaching assistant training programs strive to improve the feedback students receive on their writing so that they are less focused on penalizing superficial errors and more focused on identifying core issues and suggesting ways for students to improve them. These comments are particularly important for multilingual students whose minor punctuation errors sometimes receive more attention than their arguments and proofs: grammar and correctness are important, but instructors are sending the wrong message if comma splices are take precedence over the argument.
Along with these improvements in the way writing is taught in classes, there has been an increase in informal writing support through events. The sponsors of these events and groups – writing specialists, librarians and faculty trainers – help to build and maintain cultures of teaching and writing at the university. “Shut Up and Write” sessions bring students and faculty together to write in silence: like Quaker meetings, the absence of speech aims to foster deeper thinking by freeing writers from outside distractions. These events are especially important for the many writers who don’t have a quiet bedroom or space to write and who benefit from social support for writing. Many graduate students are further isolated, and “dissertation boot camps” provide instruction and structured time to write alongside their peers. Faculty writing groups, formed both along and across disciplinary lines (I belong to both types of groups), are also growing in popularity, where members provide feedback on each others’ drafts.
These events and writing groups do more than increase productivity: they foster intellectual exchange and community. As such, they deserve increased recognition, support, and adoption, which is why they need names that better reflect their purpose and importance. Rather than emphasizing the lack of discussion in writing sessions, we need to emphasize the role these events play in connecting writers and building community. Reframing these events as conversations rather than commands and demands for silence would attract more participants, including those most in need of such support. Like “shut up and write,” the term “dissertation boot camp” is misleading: graduate students are neither juvenile delinquents nor new recruits who must toughen up and conform to survive; rather, they are apprentice writers who need guidance and support. These military terms may challenge the misperception of writing as a “soft skill,” but we know writing is important in college.
With the return to in-person teaching, Canadian universities have an opportunity to expand the way we think about and use writing, from an assessment tool to a way to promote equity and inclusion. through more transparent assignment instructions and low-stakes writing activities. As a unifying activity that brings together students and faculty from all disciplines, renaming and reframing writing as conversation and community rather than combat, we can better support all writers in the academy and rebuild better universities.
Andrea L. Williams is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream and Director of Writing and Rhetoric at Innis College and WIT (Writing-Integrated Teaching) in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto.