By Christina Grant, Grant MacEwan University and University of Alberta, firstname.lastname@example.org
On one of the hottest days of the year in Toronto, July 6, 2012, I interviewed Margaret Procter, who retired the same month from her position as University of Toronto Coordinator, Writing Support. I’d had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Margaret during the Inkshed 28 conference May 29-30 in her even-then-sweltering city. When I approached conference organizer Brock MacDonald, director of the Woodsworth College Academic Writing Centre at U of T, about the idea of a “swan song” article on Margaret’s lengthy and fruitful career, he was enthusiastic. The following is the result of my telephone chat with Margaret, conducted from my home in relatively cooler Edmonton, Alberta.
In the beginning…there was an uproar!
Margaret Procter’s career in the field of writing started in “a big uproar.” Not one she caused, of course. Rather, the upheaval was prompted by a sudden, 1992 administrative decision regarding the Scarborough campus writing lab, one of nine units scattered across the broad U of T system that provided one-on-one tutoring to students. Margaret had just taken on the job of director for the writing centre at University College downtown. She had never met the other writing-centre directors.
“On August 31st that year,” Margaret relates, “the principal called the director at Scarborough and said, ‘Don’t bother coming in for work anymore. We’re going to take over what you’ve been doing by installing five Mac computers equipped with ‘Grammatik’ to check the students’ work for them.’”
As an E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence scholar who had taught English literature at the U of T since 1967, and had recently taught a few business writing and composition courses at the Mississauga campus, Margaret knew that an interactive grammar-checking technology could not replace humans in the complex art and science of writing (and thinking) instruction. So she joined many equally appalled others in a bid to reverse the move and stop the trend. Faculty members compiled petitions, and students wrote scathing articles in the student newspapers. They all saw that students needed writing support to succeed at university. “Eventually the provost formed a steering group, really a writing commission, with representation from department chairs and other powerful administrators. The writing-centre directors put together a long submission describing what they really did in their work. The steering group read it and came up with the recommendation that there should be more writing support and a coordinator to help develop it, and when that was implemented in 1994 I was chosen for the position.”
“So that was my introduction to the field,” she says, “a demonstration that it was vulnerable to misunderstandings and to people misusing their power.” Musing on the current state of writing studies across North America, she agrees that “unfortunately, it is a story that does keep repeating itself,” though “writing centres and programs have changed a lot,” having distanced themselves from “fix-it shop” approaches and gained respect as professional entities informed by theory and staffed by people well-grounded in pedagogical knowledge and techniques. Margaret is pleased that she has played a part in that evolution over the past 20 years. “It’s no longer so easy to misunderstand writing centres or writing instruction in quite that way anymore.”
Faculty and peer tutoring systems: the path not taken
Asked to share her thoughts on the alternate system of peer tutors—undergrad and graduate students skilled in English who are (ideally) trained by writing-centre directors to coach students— such as exists at the University of Alberta and in many other writing centres across North America, Margaret thinks for a moment, then responds: “I think peer tutoring is a very interesting system that I know is very valuable to the tutors and has many advantages for the students.” At some point, she explains, the U of T simply opted to “take the other path” of faculty status in writing instruction, confirming already existing appointments and focussing on providing students with “a sense of the rhetoric and the reasoning and the kinds of intellectual expectations in their disciplines.” It seemed to the group of writing-centre directors who developed U of T programs in the 1990s, she adds, “that faculty members, sessional instructors and teaching assistants, rather than other students, were more likely to have the breadth of knowledge and approach to help students with those challenges.” She also points out that individual instruction, while “still core,” is “only one part” of what the 14 current U of T writing centres do. Much of their work is “Writing-in-the-Disciplines” (WID) within specific faculties, which demands the high levels of expertise that faculty members can provide. Nonetheless, Margaret points out that some U of T units “do make good use of students as peer mentors and as leaders and facilitators in study groups. Our WID programs also depend on graduate students as TAs within their departments.”
Shifting from English to Writing
In reflecting on why she decided to shift out of traditional English instruction and into the clearly volatile field of composition or writing studies (though at the U of T the discipline is simply called “writing”) Margaret cites “practicality” as the initial factor. She had withdrawn from active instruction for about four years to raise her family; then, when she was ready to come back, “it was pretty clear that the field that was opening up was writing,” although her familiar English department “was not about to put a lot of money into it or make it a key part of what it did.” She recalls that “English was forced to offer some sort of writing courses in the 1980s,” which “it did, reluctantly. So, I got what apprenticeship training I could,” which consisted largely of “teaching from textbooks, and then talking with professors in other departments and speaking to their classes—not in a very enlightened way, I must say,” she remarks with a laugh. She adds that she benefitted greatly from the mentoring of Margot Northey in teaching business-writing courses at the Mississauga campus, and then from following Guy Allen’s methods in teaching Expressive Writing courses there. When the part time writing-centre job came up at University College in 1992 she was glad to take it, joining “about seven or eight other people in the field” and meeting more as they joined together to push back against the Scarborough crisis. Her interest in the field grew from there, and her coordinator position let her join in the expansion of writing instruction at the university that resulted from the effects of the steering group after 1993. Today, the U of T has “a whole suite of writing units that teach writing in different ways to match disciplinary needs.”
Satisfaction: the unique rewards of teaching writing
From the time she first began coaching and instructing people in writing, Margaret has revelled in its rewards. “I’ve always found it very satisfying to see individual students develop,” she says. “The results are quite immediate and far-reaching; it really affects students’ ideas about what writing is. Not just specific skills, but how it’s connected to thinking and their own identities.”
Further, she says, watching instructors glean the benefits is equally rewarding. “It’s exciting to see faculty members who join in get real satisfaction from seeing their students do much better.” One of her most recent projects was working with administrators, faculty members, and graduate TAs across the disciplines in the Faculty of Arts and Science. “Arts and Science now has lead Writing TAs in 18 different departments, who each work with instructors and other graduate students from those departments in providing writing instruction within courses.” This kind of focus on WID activities has been accelerating since 1993. As a result, faculty and TAs familiar with writing instruction methods are increasingly common at U of T. They’re “key to the well-known Engineering Communication program, for instance,” she notes. She adds that it’s satisfying to see the largest undergraduate faculty, Arts and Science on the downtown campus, finally get into the swing: “It’s the most recent faculty to make writing in the disciplines an official aim.”
The challenge of “buy-in”
I asked Margaret if instructors are always eager to embrace writing studies methodologies, and she said this varies, especially at the start. While better marks for their students or essays that are easier to read may be direct results they seek from involvement with a writing initiative, she says instructors often want to solve larger teaching problems. For example, “their students may not be learning in the ways they want them to learn, or they find that they can’t assign papers that require a lot of deep reading, or they can’t ask students to do complicated analyses of the material in their course.” Worries about plagiarism when assigning conventional, one-shot essays is another common concern, and she notes that “our attention to assignment design can help with that.”
Sometimes it takes changes in their courses, Margaret notes, to get the results they want for their students, and writing faculty serving as consultants “work with people from where they’re ready to work from, then together develop a sense of what’s possible in integrating writing into that course.” Once things get rolling, writing faculty might work with an instructor to adapt the course syllabus to include several smaller, linked or sequenced assignments “instead of one big, very high-risk research project.” They might support instructors and TAs in teaching their students “how to understand assignment expectations and also how to use feedback,” or work with them to turn a “mechanical” grading rubric that simply “adds up numbers” to one that is “more sophisticated, tailored, and helpful.” Gradually, Margaret says, “we see people becoming more and more flexible” in accepting “a variety of approaches in student work,” and also “getting more and more committed” to writing studies theory and methodologies— “and seeing beyond what we see as possibilities.
“The initiatives we’ve taken,” she points out, “have always depended on instructors coming to us.” While occasionally an enthusiastic administrator might push a reluctant instructor to work with a U of T writing specialist—a move that yields predictably mixed results— Margaret says that the preferred dynamic of “never imposing” writing studies ideas on faculty is critical to the overall success of the programs’ success and their steady, positive forward movement within the university system.
One element in place at the U of T which differs from many other North American institutions is that the writing programs are not tied to the English Department (though there exist some novel and mutually satisfying collaborations), and “there is no writing or English course that everyone has to take” as a foundational course. Further, Margaret explains, “at U of T it’s not English teachers who teach academic writing, but writing teachers. “This independent writing program status both increases the need for the writing centres generally and for their WID work specifically. “Also, in many ways it has left our hands free,” Margaret says, in term of how the centres operate. “Each unit is lucky in that it can offer individualized or group programming” as it sees fit, tailoring its services to the local needs of students and faculty. Reflecting the needs of the diverse student body, specific programs and courses for “multilingual” or “English language learners”— terms U of T prefers to “ESL” learners”— have been created, notably within the English Language Development program at Scarborough, the English Language Learning program recently established alongside the WID initiative in Arts and Science on the downtown campus, and the numerous specialized courses offered by the writing program in the School of Graduate Studies. However, the writing units as a rule “avoid labeling,” preferring to tailor each student meeting as well as group instruction to specific needs rather than assuming generalized concerns. Margaret notes that the kinds of freedoms enjoyed by the U of T writing programs “are probably unusual in Canada.”
Over the course of the two decades and more that Margaret has taught, tutored, mentored, and administered writing—one way or another— at U of T, several projects stand out in her mind as legacies she’s pleased to be leaving behind. “Certainly the website,” she says, referring to www.writing.utoronto.ca, a site she launched in 1994 as soon as she took on the Coordinator role. The site contains volumes of information on U of T writing centres and programs, ways to find various writing courses, and advice file as well as e-links for both students and faculty. Margaret has authored a number of straight-across and upbeat help files accessible through the website aimed at disciplinary faculty and TAs with little writing studies background. One is titled: “I’m grading a set of student papers. How can I comment on my students’ writing without killing myself —or them?” Now managed and developed by Jerry Plotnick, the Writing at U of T website continues to be “very useful as a tool to keep writing in public attention.”
Another source of “personal level” satisfaction for Margaret has been her work on behalf of writing instruction faculty. It was worthwhile, she comments, to have spent time working on developing decent employment policies: “We now have 25 full-time continuing faculty members teaching writing at U of T, plus another 40 or so part-time or nearly full-time sessionals.” Gaining faculty status for writing instructors simultaneously garnered increased respect for the field, ensured that students and faculty got top quality support, and built confidence and a sense of importance within the instructors as they taught alongside others. It has also buffered the writing system from cyclical financial cuts. Given “a wider scope” of responsibility and possibility than they had before, writing instructors moved from merely “helping students” to “actually teaching students,” Margaret says. They now also work to prevent some of the problems they saw students bringing to writing centres “by shaping curriculum course by course, taking part in university administration and governance, and getting involved in research and theory.”
The future: no resting on laurels
Asked if she’s happy with things as they’ve evolved over the course of her tenure, Margaret is unhesitating. “I’m excited about it. Writing is on firm ground at the U of T. A new generation of faculty now understands that writing is part of learning.” She adds, “I’m very happy seeing how many faculty members are fully on board, are leaders in all this. And I’m also happy to see how much writing instructors develop when they get involved in projects.” She quickly adds, however, that U of T`s writing leaders cannot simply “rest on their laurels.” Rather, they must “keep redefining” that hard-won writing ground. There will always be “continued resistance” to unfamiliar practices and new structures, she says, and the way ahead will contain rocky patches.
Margaret notes that administrators at the U of T and everywhere who lack writing studies experience and knowledge sometimes “haven’t really thought about writing particularly.” She chafes, for instance, against the reality that “in many statements and policies we continue to have to use the word ‘skill.’” It’s a limited and misleading description, she asserts, because it “tends to reduce writing instruction to a single entity that can be immediately grasped and then transferred,” and thus undermines the perceived legitimacy and value of writing instruction programming. “We still have work to do to help everybody understand that writing is simply part of learning,” Margaret asserts. Further, she says, people must accept that “writing develops within students over the years and is different in every discipline, so it needs to be measured and taught in different ways.”
In the practical world of universities everywhere, Margaret observes that “budget matters”—regardless of administrator sentiments— and writing centres and instruction will always be under pressure, especially when “governmental bodies are demanding outcome measurements” which “can be dangerous if taken too literally and too simplistically.”
In current writing studies literature, the field of writing studies is said to be growing exponentially. Margaret agrees that “it certainly is at the U of T and the U of A. There’s interest, all right, and a growing body of specialists. “But I wonder,” she says, “if budget pressures haven’t actually reduced the field in some cases.” As an example, she points to McGill University in Montreal where the ambitious and specialized writing programming once offered out of the education department “has kind of fallen apart; the key people there have lost that interest.” She noted in her keynote talk to CASDW in 2010 that many Canadian writing centres were under pressure to become part of student-service operations or libraries. Margaret feels, however, that “over the last 20 years things have gotten a lot stronger for writing studies in Canada generally, and I think we’ve got some really excellent programs to look at as models, and some very good research.” She cites Doug Brent’s June, 2012 CCC article on knowledge transfer entitled “Crossing Boundaries: Co-op Students Relearning to Write” as an example of “terrific” work happening in the field. She is impressed, too, that “current research is both practical and theoretical.”
In the middle of our conversation, I ask Margaret if she considers herself a writer; it’s a question I ask all my students in Writing Studies 101 at the U of A both at the start and end of the course, and it often yields an interesting set of answers. “That’s a good question,” Margaret responds, “and I have to say I’m not entirely satisfied with any answer I can give you. My own writing has been focussed so much on handouts for students, handouts for faculty, reports, administrative work, and so on, that I really can’t think of myself as a writer; certainly I’m not a creative writer. And though I’ve done some academic writing I’m not a huge producer of it.” Still, she says the label is part of her identity, and reluctantly answers that on the continuum of novice to expert she’d “have to claim expert status just because of the years of practice!”
When it comes to the importance of writing studies, Margaret sees the knowledge that writing studies scholars, instructors, and tutors offer “as a matter of access. It gives more students broader and deeper access to the kinds of disciplines they’re studying, to the life of the university, to the goals of university education.” She loves to “see the students develop as people, to see them feel that writing is part of what they can do and who they are—something they can adapt and use in various ways. It’s all very satisfying.”
Phased-in retirement an easy way out
Although Margaret left U of T officially and for good this summer, her retirement has been “phased in” for the past three years, with workloads and expectations gradually decreasing. “It feels great,” she says of the final stage. “I’m going out at a time when the most recent initiative—the one in Arts and Science—is doing extremely well. Andrea Williams has been hired to coordinate it, and she’s absolutely terrific. Leora Freedman now has a faculty appointment to lead the English Language Learning program she started, which is a big success too. It feels great to go when I can see U of T in a position of real strength in terms of its writing programs.”
Because of the smooth and gradual transitioning, she says she has come to enjoy the reality of not working so hard. “I’ve said goodbye without too many regrets to some things I used to do.” While she will continue to follow what goes on at U of T and across Canada, she doesn’t feel a need “to be involved as much anymore… or at all, perhaps.” However, she’s open to consulting and in fact is already helping advise the social science faculty at a new university in Oshawa, Ontario about integrating writing into its courses. Nonetheless, she can foresee a steady reduction in that kind of active work. “I’ll be out of touch after a while, but at the moment I feel I can still pull people together and draw their attention to resources and possibilities.” She’s also still there as the moderator of the new Inkshed website. In these ways, she says, she’ll continue to feel part of the field.
Asked if there’s anything about her old job she’ll miss, Margaret ponders a moment, then answers: “I will miss the contact with the people I’ve worked with and grown to like as people and enjoy as colleagues.” However, she expects that by staying active in social events around Toronto and keeping in touch by email she’ll maintain at least some of these connections.
Margaret has enjoyed a relatively quiet summer. This fall she’ll be travelling, starting with a month-long trip to visit a daughter who is teaching anthropology at the UK campus of Memorial University, and whose own daughter is about to start kindergarten. Retirement will also permit her to see more of her other daughter, who teaches astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, and her two children.
And so, with writing programs rolling solidly forward at U of T led by “a great cohort of colleagues in writing studies, and increasingly by a new generation of faculty—who become administrators—with writing studies experience,” Margaret feels confident that things will carry on just fine without her.
Before we say goodbye, I feel compelled—as an emerging writing studies scholar— to ask this question: “If there was a torch you’d like to see me, and others, carry forward for the field, what would it be?” She answers without hesitation: “It depends on the individual and what you are interested in.” She urges me to follow my inclinations towards multi-language learners and deaf students, noting that “the sense of commitment” that comes from deep personal interest leads to the best teaching and scholarship. Considering the question further, she concludes, “There are many torches that could be carried. The one I happened to pick up is Writing in the Disciplines. Also, I think for years we didn’t do enough for English language learners, so I`m glad Elaine Khoo and Leora Freeman have found that torch and are carrying it; we all benefit from their expertise and can join in too. ”
Despite writing studies’ precarious position on the cusp of new paradigms of writing instruction, Margaret says she’s “very hopeful about the field. It’s interesting to see it develop.” She’s keen to follow developments in the European education systems, she says, noting that they have undergone “a lot of reforms” over the last 15 years, including adopting WID, which is “bringing in research attention that I think will be valuable for us.” Indeed she believes it would be better for Canadian writing scholars to keep watch on developments throughout the world rather than merely imitate the U.S. In any case, she’s pleased with the general reduction in focus on composition courses everywhere because “there’s a lot more happening in the field that is equally interesting and valuable.”
The Toronto heat has begun to wilt my interviewee, and our allotted time has evaporated. We wish each other well and hang up, and indeed I feel my own writing studies torch glowing just a little more brightly.