APTF: Summary of Senate Consultation on Writing (17 February 2011)

Excerpt on Writing from “APTF Take Away from the Senate Informal Session on February 17, 2011.”

After its preliminary oral report to Senate on January 20, the Academic Planning Task Force (APTF) requested an Informal Session at Senate on February 17. Sixty minutes were allotted for senators to break into small groups to discuss Three Critical Questions that had arisen in the APTF’s early meetings.

Group 1: Writing

The group was asked what it thought of the English Department letter, and especially of its propositions that the performance or mastery of a discipline is largely coextensive with the ability to write in that discipline and that writing should therefore be taught in connection with disciplines: are there academic units for which this is not true?

Response (including members from Biology, Computing Science, Drama, Education, English, History, Math, and Mechanical Engineering) strongly confirmed the letter’s position, and there was broad and strong support for the need to improve students’ writing abilities in general. Even Math and Biology members affirmed that writing is an important disciplinary skill, and there was strong support for teaching writing in departments, in connection with specific disciplines. But one member suggested that it might be semi-centralized, such that all arts/humanities students could be taught in one writing course, all science students in another, all social science students in another.

When one member questioned whether the university should have to teach basic skills like writing, others affirmed that if students generally arrive without writing skills they need to acquire them in university.

It was suggested that poor writing skills are due to lack of reading, and that students should be required to read more.

Members affirmed the need for attention to marking practices, and for ensuring that student writing be marked by professors or well trained TAs, since poor marking can do more damage than good. A member from Mechanical engineering stressed the need for students to receive help from experts in technical writing, i.e., from those who will focus on their writing as writing, rather than on its content.

Another member doubted that a single course in writing would suffice for most university students, and suggested that writing needs to be emphasized throughout university, perhaps with instruction in “general writing” preceding instruction in discipline-specific writing.

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