Open Letter: Twenty-two Professors of English to Principal Woolf and Dr. Susan Cole (5 November 2010)

5 November 2010

Dear Principal Woolf and Dr. Cole:

Queen’s is poised to begin writing an academic plan that will, in the words of the Principal, “set the course for Queen’s for the next decade or more.” [1] As professors in the Department of English Language and Literature, we write at this juncture to ask that you do everything in your power to ensure that this plan make sufficient provision for teaching students to write effectively in their chosen disciplines.

Our departmental response to Where Next?, submitted to the Faculty of Arts and Science in February, explains that “the kind of analytical writing we teach is not a natural or instinctive skill, but a skill requiring a lengthy learning process in which students have  opportunity to practice and in which they receive extensive supervision.”  It also observes that “literacy skills have noticeably declined in the incoming cohorts.”  We evaluate our students almost entirely on the basis of written work because performance in our discipline is largely coextensive with the ability to write effectively.  And while we speak here for our own discipline, we are aware that this is a concern we share with many others.

We are therefore concerned to find that the syntheses of academic planning recommendations produced thus far have had little or nothing to say of the importance of teaching writing to our students. [2] Writing skills are widely recognized to be essential to performance in fields from the humanities to business. [3] They are, moreover, discipline-specific; they must be taught alongside research and research methods in and by our academic departments. [4]

Although neither the Faculty of Arts and Science Response nor “Imagining the Future” says anything about teaching writing, both of them recommend expanding class sizes and virtualizing classrooms for first and second-year university students.  These recommendations overlook the need for first and second-year courses to accommodate the teaching of writing.  They could not, we believe, have figured so prominently in either report had the authors of those reports borne this necessity in mind. In a discipline such as literary study, where writing is the primary disciplinary and evaluative medium, class size must be determined not by how many students can receive lectures from a single instructor, but rather by how many students a single instructor can (a) train and supervise in the practice of writing and (b) fairly evaluate through the attentive reading of their essays and written exams. Given the intimate relation between teaching the discipline and teaching writing, given the reliance upon writing for student evaluation, and given the general decline in writing skills among students now arriving in our programs, writing is among the first things that should be taught in university. Classes must be small enough to facilitate this function.

Proper teaching of writing is well known to be central to safeguarding academic integrity.  Dr. Jim Lee, Academic Integrity Advisor to the Vice-Principal (Academic), cites “poor English-language writing skills, poorly developed critical thinking skills, and a lack of knowledge and training about proper citation practices in academic work” among the contributing factors to departures from academic integrity.[5] And “academic integrity,” he observes elsewhere, “is at the heart of the university’s mission, and the principles of AI form the basis of the academic standards and expectations to which all academic work is held, in both teaching and research.” [6] In these statements Dr. Lee is merely affirming the received wisdom on academic integrity; few themes are more prevalent in the scholarship on this subject than is the reminder that AI is best achieved not reactively, by policing infractions, but proactively, by teaching students proper research and composition methods.  As one title puts it, “Don’t Police Plagiarism: Just Teach!” [7]

For all of these reasons, we encourage you to ensure that the academic plan include a promise that the university will commit adequate resources to departments for the teaching of writing in connection with their given disciplines.

Sincerely,

Maggie Berg

George Clark

Gwynn Dujardin

Heather Evans

Elizabeth Hanson

Cathy Harland

Mark Jones

Edward Lobb

Gabrielle McIntire

Laura Murray

Margaret Pappano

Patricia Rae

Leslie Ritchie

Carolyn Smart

Scott Morgan-Straker

Sylvia Söderlind

Michael Snediker

Asha Varadharajan

Molly Wallace

Tracy Ware

Ruth Wehlau

Glenn Willmott

Department of English Language and Literature, Queen’s University

Notes.

[1] Principal’s Update to Queen’s Faculty on Academic Planning (email, 30 June 2010).

[2] Neither the Faculty of Arts and Science Response to Where Next? (posted 15 April) nor “Imagining the Future” (23 August) says anything about teaching writing.  The Response from Applied Science notes that “communication skills,” including writing, are among the “attributes” to be evaluated for CEAB accreditation (p. 21).  The School of Graduate Studies notes that it sponsors workshops on grant-writing and academic writing (p. 18).  The submission from Health Sciences emphasizes the importance of graduate-student supervision of undergraduates in functions including report-writing, but laments that this function has been compromised by “limited TA budgets” (pp. 19-20).  These statements testify to the importance of writing but do not significantly address the way in which it is to be taught.

[3] Testimonies to this fact are legion and of long standing. A 1993 survey by Olsten Corp., a placement agency, reports that “80 percent of 443 employers surveyed said their workers needed training in writing skills.”  “‘Businesses are really crying out – they need to have people who write better,’ said College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former West Virginia governor” (2004).  A 2003 survey by ACT, an American non-profit NGO based in Ohio, reports that the “writing skills that college instructors believe are most important for entering college students to have—grammar and usage skills —are considered to be least important by high school teachers,” which “may be one reason why a significant number of first-year college students need remedial help with their writing skills.”  The same study reports that 40% of American university students have to take remedial courses in writing.

[4] See Mark Richardson “Writing is Not Just a Basic Skill,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 no. 11 (2008).

[5] Jim Lee, “Cultural influences can affect academic integrity.”  Queen’s Gazette, 25 May 2009.

[6] Jim Lee, “Raising awareness about academic integrity.” Queen’s Gazette, 8 September 2008.

[7] R.M. Howard, “Don’t Police Plagiarism: Just Teach!”
 Education Digest 67(5),46-49.  This and many similar pieces are linked through the Clemson University Center for Academic Integrity website, to which Queen’s defers in its Senate Policy on Academic Integrity Procedures (approved 23 October 2008), p. 2.  Another report linked through the Clemson website, for instance, recommends “writing courses,” workshops, and support for “general academic skills” (Margaret Proctor, University of Toronto, “Deterring Plagiarism: Some Strategies,” 2002).

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One Response to Open Letter: Twenty-two Professors of English to Principal Woolf and Dr. Susan Cole (5 November 2010)

  1. Magda Lewis says:

    I write in support of the letter from colleagues in the Department of English Language and Literature. I urge caution in undertaking an academic planning exercise that would result in suggestions for programme delivery changes, such as increased class-size and/or virtualization, that would result in compromising the ability of professors to teach and of students to learn. While the need for protecting the integrity of contact time between professors and students, and a face to face format of programme delivery, is important in all learning contexts, it is critically highlighted in courses and programmes that require extensive writing as a component of what and how students learn. I offer my observation in support of the letter from my colleagues.

    Over the twenty-four years I have taught at Queen’s, I too have observed a dramatic drop in the ability of students to use proper grammatical structure and a nuanced vocabulary that can convey their ideas clearly. This leaves students to experience grave difficulty when presenting their ideas in writing. The ability to think critically is directly related to students’ ability to formulate and communicate their ideas. It is the responsibility of their professors to ensure that students leave Queen’s with the capacity to think and communicate well. My commitment to achieving this has meant that I am required to dedicate increasingly more time to working with students individually through close reading of their work. For those of us who are required to respond to students’ writing as a significant component of the teaching and learning in which we and our students are involved, the increasingly poor writing ability of many students becomes an educational issue coupled, inevitably, with work-load and implications for learning. We need continually to care about these outcomes.

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