APTF: Summary of Consultative Town-Hall Meeting on Writing (9 March 2011)

As posted by the Academic Planning Task Force (APTF), 9 March 2011. See also the APTF’s Questions on Writing.

Senate Academic Planning Task Force
Response to Consultative Town-Hall Meeting on Writing
Ellis Hall, March 7, 2011, 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Summary of discussion by Mark Jones (English):

In preparation for its consultation on the teaching of writing, the APTF posted suggested readings and questions and invited community members to attend a town-hall meeting on March 7 and/or to advise and respond online. About 25 students, staff, and faculty attended the town-hall, where support for the proposition that Queen’s should teach all students to write was strong and unanimous. As one respondent put it, maybe Queen’s could aspire to be “the University that produces writers.”

Other specific advice included the following:

  • Ruth Wehlau: Students are best taught writing in connection with their disciplines, since seeing the connection with the discipline motivates learning. Students need practice in writing above all; so even where the resources to mark student writing are wanting, it can still be useful to assign quantities of writing and mark some lightly, some more intensively. Editing and re-writing should be emphasized as well. Part of the problem with student writing may be the decline in language study; somehow the study of languages should be encouraged.
  • Magda Lewis: Many of our students (and indeed professional journalists) need help with the most basic elements of composition; we must emphasize the importance of how well content is expressed, and must teach grammar and other basics; we must teach writing both in general and in relation to disciplines.
  • Jennifer Hosek: The Academic Plan’s recommendations for practical measures will need to take into account the advice of professional experts concerning the most effective ways of teaching writing. Students need to read more in order to write well. Global comments are more useful than a lot of detailed commentary. A lower-level writing and critical- thinking course is necessary; disciplinary writing can be addressed as a component in disciplinary seminars.
  • Lori Vos: The pedagogical literature indicates that 1-on-1 consultations are the most effective ways of teaching writing; the Writing Centre at Queen’s offers these as well as several courses in writing of various kinds. All of these are open to students across the campus. Writing instruction should be collaborative between the Writing Centre and departments; the Writing Centre can train TAs and advise instructors on how to teach writing and how to integrate writing assignments in their curricula; departments and professors need to be more aware of the Writing Centre so they can collaborate better. “Write to learn” experts hold that students learn material best if they have to write it. The Writing Centre will host a Forum in collaboration with the Faculty of Applied Science (Friday, 25 March, 3-5 p.m.)
  • Susan Cole: Good writing starts with lots of reading; writing problems ensue from too little reading. If students read more in general, they would have fewer general difficulties in writing; reading more in their chosen disciplines would likewise help them learn to write within those disciplines.
  • Sylvia Soderlind: Writing needs to be taught in a discipline-specific way, though the practice in FAS of having students declare concentrations only in year 2 poses a problem. Beyond teaching students in discipline X to write in that discipline, it would be useful if a general writing course taught students to understand how and why writing practices differ according to discipline. This would not only help them write in appropriate ways but would advance their understanding of how the disciplines themselves work.
  • Iain Reeve: Courses that involve staged assignments, editing, and re-drafting, can be exceptionally valuable.
  • Eril Berkok, student: Strongly in favour of improving writing instruction, both general and discipline-specific; especially with science and technical students, we need to be critical of the assumption that the only skills worth teaching are those that conduce to success in the job market.
  • Mary Louise Adams: Being deeply interdisciplinary, Kinesiology has both science and humanities students and sometimes has to stress to the science students that it aims to produce all of its students as writers. This is something Queen’s could strive for: to become “the University you go to, to be produced as a writer.” It could be a distinctive and attractive banner for Queen’s, and would significantly motivate students to take seriously the centrality of writing to their education.
  • [unidentified], undergraduate, English and History: Mastery of writing is important to disciplinary development. Getting intensive 1-on-1 commentary and going through editing and revision processes are very important for students learning to write. Students should not have to rely on “having a good ear” to know whether their writing is right or wrong; they need more technical understanding, which they could get through instruction in grammar or in foreign languages.
  • Frank Burke: There is a great deal of expertise on teaching writing on campus, both in the Writing Centre and elsewhere; academic planners making recommendations on these issues should consult in some way with these experts about learning strategies etc. It is most valuable to be able to spend 20 minutes with a student on a composition so you can advise on both writing and disciplinary methodology and on how to make those work together. This holds even in interdisciplinary teaching, since interdisciplines develop their own specific methodologies. Conferring with every student for 20 minutes on every assignment is labour-intensive and requires resources, but it’s essential work that needs to be done.
  • Max Marcus, Politics and English student: There’s some consensus among students that the real goal of a degree is to learn how to think. But I have not had specific advice on writing since grade 9; the rest I had to learn at Queen’s through inference. I never went to the Writing Centre, but never felt prompted by what was on the syllabus to go there. The Writing Centre is considered by students to be remedial, not because it is, but because it is not integrated in the curricula. Writing courses should be required only if that’s the only way of incorporating these skills—but it’s not clear why writing can’t be integrated into other courses; it should be 25% of everything you’re talking about in other courses.
  • Lori Vos: The Writing Centre offers six writing courses for credit, and one non-credit graduate thesis-writing course; all of these give students intensive feedback on their writing and have significant grammar components. The Writing Centre also hosts discussions involving faculty from various dept to talk about conventions in writing in different disciplines. The Writing Centre’s basic essay-writing course attracts students from across campus, and teaches several kinds of essay, preparation and outlining, etc.
  • Emily Hill: There is little connection between how students evaluate courses and how much attention the professors have given to writing; students don’t indicate greater satisfaction in courses where the professors attend closely to writing. If they did, it might motivate professors to take greater pains.
  • Morgan Campbell, 4th year Politics: Many students don’t know they are bad writers; a professor such as Prof. MacDonald, who evaluates students not just on content but also on how they write, is rare. That kind of feedback can make a tremendous difference. Students should ideally be given opportunities to rewrite and resubmit. If some professors emphasize writing and others don’t, students find it easier to avoid writing- intensive courses. Making writing or writing-intensive courses pass/fail would make it less intimidating for students to take them.
  • Patrick Allen, undergraduate in Economics / Biology: There are many courses where students write, but not many where they get adequate feedback or advice on how to improve their writing. This seems to be a resource issue. Many papers are marked by TAs, and the TAs aren’t always available to discuss the responses.

Further Reflections by Peter Taylor (Math&Stats):

I enjoyed the discussion greatly. The turnout was small but passionate so most folks had a chance to say something. Many great points made by both faculty and students.

One piece of the discussion focused on how close was the connection between writing and reading and critical thinking. Indeed, our first Pillar, which we have called fundamental academic literacy, embraces reading and writing with discipline-specific comprehension, as well as inquiry, investigation, problem-solving, and critical thinking, and for me these all interact in an essential manner. I believe that many of our students suffer from a serious lack of these fundamental skills, and without them, they are crippled as learners. Queen’s would do well to focus substantial time and energy onto this broad aspect of literacy.

A closely related point that was made was that the writing centre and the centre for teaching and learning exist somehow on the fringes of the curriculum. Why are they not at the heart of the academic process? In view of the idea above, I would meld them into a centre of “academic literacy” which would incorporate all the aspects mentioned above and would be truly located at the heart of the academy.

Of course a third point that was raised had to do with the resource shortfall and the problem that proper feedback and assessment of a student’s writing takes significant instructor time. There’s much truth in that but it was also noted that perhaps not so much detailed marking was needed as was supposed. I have always felt that a student ought to be able to make pretty good judgments of the quality of his or her work, far better than might be supposed. The key of course lies in studying the works of the masters, and for writing this requires considerable reading of “good” literature, indeed critical reading and even modeling and emulating as a way getting inside the mind and the technique of the artist. Thus one of the problems our students have with writing is that most of them have read little and what they have read is often of limited scope and power.

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