Thanks to everyone. If it weren't the end of term, I could write a
small dissertation on the challenges and pleasures of writing about
writing with a bunch of writing people. But it's the end of term, and
that's probably 'nuff said.
Here is the latest attempt to write a coherent intelligent and
confessedly incomplete response to the UA piece. It incorporates some
but not all of the wiki editings, and some of the comments I've received
publicly and privately through the list serv. I am grateful for every
bit of advice and the generosity with which it was offered. The last
paragraphs are new, and I have accepted the suggestion that I sign it as
myself but "on behalf of and in collaboration with members of..."
I have asked UA about a deadline for such a response. I haven't had an
answer yet, but I'm guessing it will be "soon."
So please take a look, make sure that there's nothing there to embarrass
us, and let me know as soon as you can. I'm also posting it to the
Those of us in the field of Writing Studies are delighted to find a
positive response to the question “Who cares about writing, anyway?”
(University Affairs, April 2008) We are more used to complaints about
our students’ deficiencies, and faint hopes that someone somewhere (the
schools? the writing centre? the English department? divine
intervention?) will rid the university of the plague of error, the
distraction of disorganization, the scourge of non-standard usage, oh,
and while we’re at it, could we solve the problem of plagiarism, too?
So it’s a pleasure to read Sunny Marche on the need for commitment to
writing in our universities, and not only because his writing has energy
and style. (Love the anaphora in the first paragraph! Great use of
rhetorical questions. Excellent personal details to make the
generalizations vivid.) There’s also so much with which we concur.
• Writing matters for most professions.
• Writing matters even in a digital age.
• Writing is not an all-or-nothing mysterious gift – it
can be taught and it can be learned.
• University faculty are all writers.
But University faculty are not all scholars of Writing Studies. And
just as we wouldn’t dream of teaching marketing, even though we know
something about marketing because we are consumers, so we in Writing
Studies would like to clarify some points in Sunny Marche’s piece.
These clarifications will help make our ongoing conversations with
colleagues like Sunny more productive.
“Writing” is an inadequate label for the complex of processes that we
understand. The one word is used to include everything from recognizing
the first glimmer of an idea, through the hard slog of researching and
assembling evidence and drafting to the shaping that we call revision
and the fine-tuning we call editing. It’s not one thing, it’s not a
simple thing, and it’s not a mere adjunct to other disciplines. A
discipline is defined, after all, not by its subject matter alone, but
by the characteristic processes of both thinking and writing by which
knowledge is constructed and communicated in that field. So hurrah for
marketing professors who care about how writing is used in the study of
marketing, and for math professors, who see that writing can be used to
solve problems, even those usually expressed in symbols.
That brings us to our second point of clarification. If we agree (and
we do) that writing needs practice and that writing matters in every
discipline, then we agree that writing across the curriculum is a good
way to ensure that students do get writing practice and do see that
writing matters in all their courses. That doesn’t mean that writing
for the purposes of evaluation must be assigned across the curriculum:
no, writing must be used to serve the purposes of learning across the
curriculum. When we encourage writing across the curriculum, we also
encourage critical thinking and knowledge sharing. Among the best
practices of writing across the curriculum are the use of journals and
reflection pieces, on-line discussions or in-class responses, to give
practice in uncovering and articulating ideas. “How do our students
know what they think till they see what they say?” And they are less
likely to be thinking if their only writing in a course is taking
lecture notes – and even less if they are downloading webnotes or
A related clarification has to do with writing in the disciplines as
opposed to writing across the curriculum. Writing differs from
discipline to discipline, because writing is so connected to thinking.
Sociology handles evidence differently from, say, history, and in every
discipline various writing genres and conventions have been developed to
suit the intellectual needs of the discipline. These are some of the
issues that writing scholars concern themselves with – both to theorize
what they mean for knowledge production itself, and to address their
pedagogical implications. This scholarship makes us well suited to and
very interested in collaborating with historians and sociologists, both
expert and novice, to apply our findings. It is also how we know that
requiring a “writing” course – whether it’s first-year comp or English
1000 or a designated writing intensive course – does not fully meet the
needs of students who are expected to become expert practitioners in
their disciplines. Sociologists and historians (and marketing profs and
chemists and...) do know how writing works in their disciplines. They
also know how long it took for them to learn how to do it. The
commitment to writing therefore needs to be not only across the
curriculum but also in the disciplines.
But English is my second language, one sociologist says. And I don’t do
grammar, says the historian. Well, says the writing scholar, paying
attention solely to surface correctness is not what we mean when we say
writing needs to be learned in the discipline as part of the discipline.
Explicit knowledge of grammar, we know, does not readily translate into
effective writing. In fact, what are often called “grammar problems”
are the symptoms, not the cause, of ineffective writing. And when
students understand what they are supposed to be doing intellectually
when they’re writing – how the discourse works and sounds – many of the
surface problems disappear.
Finally, we have to agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Marche’s view that
greater support and training is desirable for the TAs upon whom the
burden of dealing with “the writing problem” is often placed. Teaching
and learning centres increasingly offer training courses for TAs;
building on the scholarship of Writing Studies would strengthen those
courses. Even the TAs in physics, statistics and finance (who, Dr.
Marche fears, might not be motivated to provide help on the writing
front) would come to understand that “providing help on the writing
front” really means teaching the discipline. In fact, all faculty could
benefit from greater support for and more dialogue with one another
about teaching and learning to write. And the scholarship is there.
Though their work and expertise is too often unrecognized or housed on
the institutional periphery, in writing centres, extra-departmental
programs, and the like, there are on every campus members of one or
other of the Canadian professional organizations in Writing Studies
Thanks, Dr. Marche. Let’s talk some more.
Susan Drain is Writing Co-ordinator in the Department of English at
Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax. She wrote this piece on behalf
of and in collaboration with members of the following professional
associations for Writing Studies in Canada.
CASLL Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning
CATTW/ACPRTS Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical
Writing/Association canadienne des professeurs de rédaction technique et
CSSR/SCER Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric/Société canadienne
pour l’étude de la rhétorique
CWCA/ACCR Canadian Writing Centres Association/Association canadienne
des centres de rédaction
Susan Drain, PhD
Department of English
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, NS Canada B3M 2J6
902 457 6220
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