Peter Christie, “A fear of stories” does a disservice to our university (1 November 2012)

As published in the Kingston Whig-Standard, 1 November 2012:

A few years back, American Scientist magazine published an essay urging people whose job it is to explain the world—scientists, in this case—to stop being afraid of stories: narrative is often distrusted as the stuff of fiction and fairy-tales, writes American Scholar Roald Hoffman, but it is indispensable to both the work of discovery and the job of making facts make sense to others. “In the act of explaining something,” he argues, “we shape a story.”

The essay would make good bedtime reading for those at the helm of Queen’s University:  in their recent dismantling of the university’s Writing Centre, Queen’s administrators are diminishing the one place on campus where, for the past quarter century, students of every discipline have come to learn that “explaining something” is about more than just-the-facts-ma’am.

Since 1986, the Queen’s Writing Centre has been successfully teaching students the essential value of a structural, narrative understanding of writing and learning.  Small and chronically under-resourced, the centre nevertheless provided thousands of one-on-one tutorials each year as well as scores of discipline-specific workshops and seminars, and a number of classroom and online credit courses. It published two editions of its popular handbook for writers, and it became, in the words of the 2012 Queen’s University Academic Plan, “the university’s most important academic resource for teaching writing.

The Queen’s University Academic Plan is new and important.  It is the first of its kind in the university’s 171-year history, and Principal Daniel Woolf calls it a milestone “vital to Queen’s future.”  The plan is also unequivocal about the importance of the Writing Centre and the need to enhance it:  “Writing both general and discipline-specific, stands at the culmination of  any project or investigation, as we must have a way of setting down and sharing our thoughts and conclusions.”

But the Plan apparently made no impression on Queen’s administrators.  They used last spring’s retirement of the Writing Centre’s long-time idrector as opportunity to leave the centre without its lone academic faculty member.  Then without notice or consultation with the Writing Centre staff, they set about to break the place apart.

The running of the centre’s tutorials and its courses was divided.  Student Affairs—rather than an academic department—now serves up tutorials as it does cafeteria food and residence beds, offering them as a student service outside of the usual business of learning.  Most of the centre’s classroom courses, meanwhile, have been cancelled.  Plans for much-needed new ones (a writing-for-the-sciences course, for example) have been shelved.

Lest anyone should recognize this crude evisceration for what it is, the university (with Orwellian grandiosity) gave the centre and other related services a new title:  “Student Success.”

The name, of course, doesn’t change much:  Student pleas for more hours with expert tutors remain unanswered.  Pay for the centre’s highly qualified staff is now less (in inflation-corrected dollars) than it was a generation ago in 1994—and frozen that way, thanks to the recent, bleakly cynical insistence of the administration, for the next four years.

Valued, long-time tutors have left since the clumsy transformation began.  (One of them—an acclaimed novelist, journalist, book editor, and Queen’s teaching award winner—was pivotal to the centre’s excellence.)   Many others, including several with PhDs and other graduate degrees, may be weighing their options.

All of it suggests those making decisions at Queen’s are out of touch with what the Writing Centre is and does.  In truth, the centre’s image as a den of pinch-faced grammarians is sometimes hard to dispel.  There’s a real temptation to avoid acknowledging the vital importance of the centre teaching students how to develop an structure an argument, how to order facts to give them meaning, and how to put research findings into a comprehensible context.

That temptation—call it a fear of stories—needs rethinking.  The job of the university is tot explain the world, and the Writing Centre trains students to understand why narrative is so essential to explanation and to learning and discovery.  The centre—its tutorials and courses functioning as an academic whole—needs to be more prominent in a student’s university life, not less.

The Queen’s University Academic Plan recognizes this.  The university administrators would do well to read the new Queen’s vision document more carefully and to follow its lead.

Queen’s has done a couple of things right in recently naming a talented, long-time Writing Centre staff as the centre’s leader and in planning to expand its volunteer undergraduate peer tutor program.  But the core of the centre’s success is its expert tutorials and classroom courses together.  These need to be resurrected as academic features of the student experience at Queen’s.  They need more resources, a higher profile and more thoughtful consideration.

At the very least, university administrators need to take the time to understand why a little place that teaches narrative skill—how to tell a story—is so critical to what the university is trying to achieve.

Science writer Peter Christie has been a part-time tutor at the Queen’s University Writing Centre since 2004.

This entry was posted in Academic Plan (implementation), Teaching of Writing, Writing Centre. Bookmark the permalink.

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