World Writing Programs: Big Picture, Two Canadian Snapshots

by Margaret Procter, University of Toronto

In 2009, Chris Thaiss and his colleagues at UC Davis published a useful statistical report about WAC programs in the US and Canada, based on an online survey of writing program administrators. Now this edited collection, Writing Programs Worldwide: Profiles of Academic Writing in Many Places  (free online from the WAC Clearinghouse), offers more information and analysis on a larger scale, based on a broad international survey that collected answers from 350 respondents in 54 countres.

Thaiss’ first chapter outlines a list of key questions from the survey and summarizes the answers received:

  • What do students write? (90% of the respondents confirm that undergraduates write a lot in a range of genres, and nearly all note that graduate students write theses in fairly standard forms.)
  • Who at the institution cares about student growth through writing? (Half the respondents suspect they may be the only ones, but the other half mention a range of administrative and collegial interest.)
  • Has there been cross-disciplinary curriculum planning? (Negative answers dominate, but 25% describe some collaborative efforts.)
  • What kinds of theory and models are in use? (Genre and process approaches get 10% each, but otherwise there is no clear pattern; people use whatever means they can to address huge challenges.)

The other 41 short chapters take up these issues in profiling a selection of programs from 23 different countries. The variety of social and economic circumstances is striking, and so are the aims and achievements, ranging from Cape Town (replacing a culture of remediation with one of critical access to dominant forms), Copenhagen (mandatory 30-hour courses for thesis supervisors) and CUNY (creative use of graduate students as Writing Fellows), to Xi’an (the first writing centre in China). A substantial number of Western European universities describe rapid change and growth, often focussed on graduate thesis-writing; South American universities outline both innovations and frustrations in developing discipline-based instruction; writing units in other countries also struggle with their positioning in institutional structures (especially as “academic support” and ESL services in the UK and Australia) and misunderstandings about the nature of their intellectual work (all too common everywhere). Research and theory are important to many of these units, and they are used well to illuminate local circumstances, though these profiles don’t attempt the depth of Bazerman’s 2010 collection, Traditions of Writing Research.

The two Canadian chapters make a nice contrast in themselves, as well as providing thoughtful contributions to the analysis of shared issues. Chapter 10 (Graves and Graves) outlines the new Writing Studies program at the University of Alberta, showing how specific courses inventively match local needs; Chapter 11 (Turner and Kearns) describes the established department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg, with its commitment to a specialized degree program. These chapters both seem to have been written in 2010 and lack the most recent news on graduate programs,  but they make a good start at describing what is distinctive about writing instruction in Canada.

It would be very useful to have a collection of profiles like this to depict the range of Canadian programs in all their variety. How would you answer the four questions above? What else would you say to define your program? What would it all add up to?

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