“Imagining the Future” without Writing (21 September 2010)

Commentary on Imagining the Future and the Town Hall Meeting of 15 September 2010

By Mark Jones

Kudos to Professor Susan Lord for two things: reminding us that a university curriculum should ideally include some instruction in writing, and asking why teaching writing is never once mentioned by the “Academic Writing Team” (AWT) in its Report of 41 pages.

If she had never asked, we would never have learned that the problem was a paper shortage. “[A]lthough it would be ideal to have also included recommendations about writing, the team only had so many pages,” AWT member Professor Jill Scott helpfully explained.

Only 41: no space for extras. As Principal Woolf confirmed, “in reality it’s impossible for the academic plan to include everything.”

The writers of the Report must be praised for using the few pages they did have to address the essentials, such as redoubling our self-evaluative functions (Imagining the Future 5-7), issuing “non-credit certificates” for student leadership (20), ramping up “student-to-student mentoring” (19), “virtual learning” (20), and the CTL (21), admitting more of those lucrative “visa students” “from the American market” (26), attracting more of those grad students who “contribute substantially to the university’s revenue” and “generate a significant net financial gain” (13), re-weighting course credits so that students can seem to have done more without actually having to be taught more (27), decimating our intolerably “vast number of degree program concentrations and combinations” (20), and, finally, “communicating the accomplishments of Queen’s personnel to the general public” (29). After all this, they barely had space to lament the “high level of complexity” of our programs (22), prove that small class-size is an unworthy goal (23), and suggest that concerns with curricular “content” amount to “input” pedagogy (19).

To demand that on top of all this the Report also recommend the teaching of writing would obviously be to demand that it “include everything.” And as Professor Scott usefully says, “We laid everything out on the table,” except those “things we didn’t think of, because it’s impossible to think of everything.”

Understood—I think—but whether the truth is that the AWT ran out of pages before it could get to “w,” or whether the truth is that it found it impossible even to think about the importance of writing in post-secondary education, both Principal Woolf’s and Professor Scott’s replies imply the same radical idea: now that we’ve all been reminded, maybe our “academic planning” can include some provision for teaching students to write.

Don’t get your hopes up. Here’s how Queen’s News Centre (20 Sept. 2010) lists the topics discussed at the 15 and 17 September Town Halls: “academic integrity, diversity and internationalization, metrics, and the continuum of learning that is teaching and research.” For all its prominence in the discussion of 15 September, just five days earlier, writing has disappeared again from the “academic planning” agenda. This is the AWT that promised it was “here to listen.” This is yet another sign that Queen’s Administration does not want academic planning: what it wants is “academic planning.” To put the academic back in our planning, more than one of us is going to have to stand up and speak as Professor Lord spoke on the 15th.

(Fact check: the word “writing” never occurs once in Imagining the Future. The word “composition” occurs only once, in the phrase “faculty composition” (6). Imagining the Future without writing: now that’s a vision statement.)

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One Response to “Imagining the Future” without Writing (21 September 2010)

  1. Daniel Moore says:

    I really appreciate the critical eye you bring to bear on “Imagining the Future,” Mark. I am still wading through that document myself looking for lose ends, fresh ideas, and oversights. Searching for the last item introduces the most frustration since overview documents like these usually give readers the impression of thoroughness before they demonstrate it. I’ve been told a number of times that it’s difficult to engage with “Imagining the Future” because it looks like it covers all its bases. (Whether or not those bases are explained, addressed, or resolved is another, but usually related, concern.) Documents like “Imagining” tend to rely on rhetorical moves that suggest inclusiveness – a list of qualities that the University should strive for, such as “integrity, diversity and internationalization, metrics” – that make us think, ‘Well, of course, anything will fit under those.’ But we need to constantly test that assumption. And by the way, “metrics” is certainly the odd one out in the list above – the only actual thing, as opposed to abstract nouns, to receive attention. What are the other things that Queen’s will prioritize in the future?

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