Since Tosh asks — I'm pasting beloe the version that Peggy Berkowitz
and I agreed on. She's the editor of University Affairs. She says that
she is going to "do her best" to see it appear in June as an "in my
opinion" piece. We'll see.
And Theresa, yes, I'd love to see what you had to say at CCCCs.
Opinion- marche response
Head: Who cares about writing? We do!
Deck: A writing studies professor offers a spirited reply to a
rhetorical question from an associate dean of graduate studies
by Susan Drain
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
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, online discussions or in-class responses, to give
practice in uncovering and articulating ideas. AS E.M. Forster (almost)
said, “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 podcasts.
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 scholars in writing studies 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 composition 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 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 – and over
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 teaching
assistants 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 listed below.
Thanks, Dr. Marche. Let’s talk some more.
Dr. Drain is a 3M Teaching Fellow and writing coordinator in the
department of English at Mount Saint Vincent University. She wrote this
piece on behalf of and in collaboration with members of the following
professional associations for writing studies in Canada:
Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning
Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical
Writing/Association canadienne des professeurs de rédaction technique et
Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric/Société canadienne
pour l’étude de la rhétorique
Canadian Writing Centres Association/Association canadienne des
centres de rédaction
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