Open Letter: Frank Burke to Principal Woolf and Dr. Susan Cole (17 November 2010)

17 November 2010

Dear Principal Woolf and Dr. Cole,

I am writing in conjunction with [several] colleagues’ correspondence regarding the importance of teaching writing at Queen’s. I believe that there should not only be open debate within the academic planning process about writing instruction at Queen’s, there should be an administrative commitment to making such instruction a fundamental part of the educational environment. I teach a second-year course in argumentative writing, library research, and presentation skills. The vast majority of the course is devoted to writing. I used to think that, in terms of the writing component, I needed to focus only on the students’ ability to develop a topic, theses, and arguments. Then one year quite recently, I gave a diagnostic grammar and punctuation test on the first day of class. Nothing obscure, all quite basic. The average grade was 45%: eleven answers wrong out of 20. I realized that many of our students now come to university with virtually no writing skills, even of the most rudimentary sort. They need to be taught how to use semicolons and commas, what subject-verb agreement entails, and the most basic of grammatical terms and elements. Yet we hear endlessly of the need for larger classes, for the virtualization of education, and for “self-directed learning.” Given the deficiencies in elementary and secondary education, students require more, not less, teaching; more, not fewer, contact hours with professors; and more, not less, directed learning. Nowhere is this truer than with regard to writing, where the Internet, text-messaging, and the emphasis on principally visual information have led, along with deficiencies in the educational system, to a dramatic erosion of skills.

The kinds of changes proposed up till now by the Faculty of Arts and Science and by those involved in developing the academic plan threaten to eliminate a course such as the one I am currently teaching. The intense professor-student relationship it requires will not be considered economically feasible. In fact, given the criteria that seem to be dominating administrative discussions of planning, all significant writing instruction is at risk of elimination. If Queen’s fails to pay adequate attention to writing within its learning environment, it will be undermining the principles upon which any meaningful education, postsecondary or otherwise, should be built. It will be turning out students who lack skills necessary for effective performance in the new millennium—a betrayal of its obligation both to its students and to society.

Sincerely yours,

Frank Burke, PhD
Professor, Department of Film and Media

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One Response to Open Letter: Frank Burke to Principal Woolf and Dr. Susan Cole (17 November 2010)

  1. Anne Johnson says:

    I agree completely that we must find the means to provide small group instruction in writing. To claim that this would be unaffordable leads to the question, “So what is the point of a Queen’s education?” If we are arguing that acquisition of disciplinary knowledge is more important than the development of effective communication skills, we are deluded. What is the value of expertise if it cannot be shared with colleagues and the general public?

    We all know that in a climate of populism, all things academic have come under fire. There are growing demands (increasingly shrill) that the academy “be accountable.” So we respond by adopting an industrial model of “course delivery,” while the terminology we have borrowed gradually reshapes how we think of education and our responsibility to our students and society.

    I ask “To whom are we accountable?” The answer almost doesn’t matter because regardless of who this is, accountability requires effective communication. If we are to serve our students well, we must prepare them to articulate the expertise they have developed here; if we are a functionary of the state, we must ensure that we can defend our role. A growing number of taxpayers (those formerly known as “citizens”) question the value of the Humanities. We can expect their skepticism to increase with globalization and economic uncertainty. For this reason, it is imperative that if the academy itself is to survive, we must inform the community at large about our work and its value to society and we must produce students who can secure their place in world by communicating effectively and who can reinvigorate support for the academy by articulating the value of their education to the mainstream.

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