Rolling the Rock: A Slightly Curmudgeonly Look at Writing Studies in Calgary and the World

by Doug Brent, University of Calgary,

In 2009, I was invited to be part of a panel on the current state of writing studies in Canada. As I surveyed this state from my vantage point in Calgary, I found it difficult not to adopt a somewhat curmudgeonly demeanour, a demeanour that I confess has not improved much in the three intervening years. In this article, I will try to distil the reasons for that demeanour, and to offer some observations on possible remedies.

Surveying the country more broadly, but selectively – I have no wish to misrepresent this somewhat personal set of observations as any kind of robust sample – I am struck by the unusually sharp rises and declines of noble experiments in Writing in the Disciplines and related endeavours. Writing centres persist and often thrive, I suspect partly because they don’t cost very much relative to the size of the problem they address, and also because they are widely perceived as remedial. This perception, despite our repeated attempts to dispel it, seems to function paradoxically as a sort of protective colouration. The “problem” of poor student writing is widely recognized by frustrated faculty members in all disciplines, and as long as writing centres seem to offer a relatively inexpensive means of remedying those problems, even on an ad hoc basis, they are tolerated and even allowed to thrive. However, bolder programs that attempt to address writing on a more system-wide basis seem to have much shorter life spans.

In 1991, for instance, Laurence Steven wrote an eloquent article for Textual Studies in Canada about the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Laurentian. That article, evocatively titled “The grain of sand in the oyster,” detailed the ways in which a writing competence test at Laurentian had functioned as a sufficient irritant to push the institution as a whole to create a reasonably high-functioning WAC program, complete with faculty seminars on incorporating writing into courses and an array of designated Writing Intensive courses across the disciplines. The program was far from perfect, but I took sufficient heart from it that I was very cautious in my attempts to snuff out the University of Calgary’s old-school writing test in the hope that it too might spawn some form of pearl. I’ll return to the U of C shortly; here I just want to observe that the WI initiative at Laurentian has now vanished, blown away by shifts in the political wind. An enviable number of rhetoric-focussed courses still exist within the English Department, only a few of which are first-year fix-it courses, but penetration beyond the walls of that one department appears to have evaporated.

Closer to the present, most of us are familiar with the breathtakingly bold and far-reaching (and well-funded) Writing Intensive program at Simon Fraser that Wendy Strachan describes in her recent book, Writing-intensive: Becoming W-faculty in a new writing curriculum (reviewed and summarized by Margaret Procter and Theresa Hyland in a recent issue of Inkshed). Unfortunately, the last chapter of Wendy’s book describes the progressive dismantling of much of the infrastructure that supported this program, including the Centre for Writing-Intensive Learning that was to have been its administrative hub. The program still exists, and a glance at the SFU academic calendar provides evidence of an impressive list of writing-intensive courses. However, here too we can see some early cracks in the structure that can be traced to a failure of nerve at the upper administrative level.

Despite the continued existence of robust programs here and there across the land – I invite people involved in such programs to discuss their achievements in future issues of this newsletter – the record of writing studies in Canada is spotty to say the least. In the rest of this article, I will discuss a case study that I know from the inside, the repeated failures of Writing Across the Curriculum to gain traction at the University of Calgary. I will allow myself the luxury of a bit of lamentation, but I hope I won’t take this to excess. Sometimes you can learn even more from failures than from successes.  I hope to use this particular history of failures as a lens through which to view the entire problem of professionalizing a discipline that often stubbornly resists professionalization, or even characterization as a discipline, in a country that seems to be, on the whole, writing-averse.

Here, then, is a selective review of the history of writing at the University of Calgary.

1992. Since 1976, the university has been dealing with the “problem” of writing primarily by means of a writing competence requirement and test. One of the ways of meeting the requirement is to take a first year English course. By 1992, the English department, which has offered an infinitely expanding number of sections of first-year comp for many years, finally decides it’s had enough and cancels the course. They cite a lack of expertise and a belief that writing is best taught across the disciplines. They will teach people to write English papers, History can teach people to write History papers, and Physics can teach people to write Physics lab reports.

A teachable moment, as we say in the trade, The U of C is ripe for a Writing Across the Curriculum conversion.

The University of Calgary commissions a study on whether it is possible to find enough sections of writing-intensive courses that already exist to realize a primitive form of a writing-intensive requirement without putting extra money into it. (“No new expenditures” has long ago replaced “Mo Shùile Togam Suas” as the official motto of the University of Calgary.) Surprise – the answer is “no.” While the committee does identify a goodly number of courses that fit their rough-and-ready guidelines for writing intensive courses, they are generally taught in small sections and there are far too few seats available to meet anticipated demand. The teachable moment goes away.

Moral – professionalizing any discipline takes money. Our discipline is more resistant than most because teaching and responding to writing is labour intensive. As we all know, doing it right means doing it across the entire curriculum. Our very interdisciplinarity is our undoing because it makes what we do expensive.

1999. The University of Calgary undertakes an ambitious curriculum review process across the entire campus. Sets of core competencies and required general features of course design are proposed and vigorously debated. They will form the underpinnings of a revitalization that will affect every discipline on campus.

I write a detailed, deeply researched, and, may I say, eloquent proposal for writing to have a central place in these plans. Nothing much comes of it. Upon inquiry, the committee eventually states that it lost the proposal. I have wisely saved a copy on my hard drive, and send it again. It appears as an appendix to the master document but in no way informs that document. Nothing comes of it.

Moral – professionalizing a discipline, even at a major teachable moment, takes visibility. The literature that the Curriculum Review Committee was reading was the Education literature on curriculum features which does not include any particular emphasis on writing as a feature. The fact that we have our own rich literature – a sure sign of incipient professionalization – is our undoing because it is not highly visible to others.

A richly ironic anecdote underscores this invisibility. A while ago I was reading Anne Herrington’s edited collection of essays on WAC, borrowed from the U of C library. Part way through I found an Air Canada boarding pass that someone had used as a bookmark. The name on it was mine, and the date was fifteen years earlier. When I checked the date stamps in the back, I found that no-one else had signed that book out in those fifteen years other than me and me. I guess WAC really isn’t much of a topic of conversation at the University of Calgary.

2003-2009.  Over several years, aided by transfusions of money from a variety of sources, the Faculty of Communication and Culture hires four new people with expertise in and commitment to rhetoric and writing. One of them even gets to teach a grad course on the subject, once.  I write a cautiously optimistic chapter for Graves and Graves’ book, called “Same roots, different soil,” on the advantages of locating writing in a Communications Studies program rather than in a more traditional home such as an English department.

Over the next few years, a budget cut takes two of these people, who of course are not replaced at all.  A third resigns for unconnected personal reasons. The Dean, no friend of rhetoric, replaces her with a person who teaches for a totally different program. A fourth retires and, despite passionate pleas by the Division Head (not me this time), the Dean replaces her, not with a rhetorician, but with a person in Media Studies. The Division Head eventually resigns his administrative position. I have been rethinking the optimistic tone of my chapter in Graves and Graves.

Moral – Rhetoric is, perhaps more than any other field, immensely dependent on the good will of people in positions of power. When the tide turns because the people in those positions of power do not personally believe in it, the enterprise founders. Our unhealthy dependence on champions is our undoing.

2010. The Writing Centre, which for decades has been housed in the Faculty of Communication and Culture and run by a succession of people with full academic appointments, is hijacked by force and incorporated into the new Student Success Centre. The current Director, Jo-Anne Andre, wants no part of this de-professionalization and remains behind with the Faculty. To do her at least a little credit, the Associate Provost in charge of the hijacking advertises for a new Director with a background in writing and rhetoric. However, since the position is administrative rather than academic, and comes with no ties to any academic unit, no-one in our field will touch it. The Writing Centre continues to be run by people with some training and interest in educational administration but no training or interest in writing.

Shortly thereafter, the Associate Provost digs out a report that Jo-Anne and I wrote recommending that the Effective Writing Test, now over thirty years old, be abandoned in favour of some form of Writing Across the Curriculum program. The report has been gathering dust since 2004, but now it serves a political purpose. Part 1, abandoning the test, is implemented, for some of the right reasons (it can’t be shown to be doing its job) and some of the wrong reasons (it’s a huge administrative nuisance).

Since this grain of sand has persisted as sand and has shown no signs of growing a pearl in all those years, I give the plan two cheers. (See my article “Dangerous partnerships” in the Writing Across the Curriculum Journal for what I now think of the “grain of sand in the oyster” strategy.) I don’t even protest when Part 2, the idea of a WAC program, goes nowhere. In fact, I actively campaign against mounting such a program unless the university is prepared to make a substantial administrative and financial commitment, which of course it isn’t. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be arguing against a WAC program, but by this time I have seen so many false starts that I can’t bear to witness another one. (I also voted strategically in the recent provincial election, for the first time in my life voting for the Progressive Conservatives solely to keep the farther-right Wildrose party from gaining ground. It’s funny what age does to a person.)

What are we to make of this Jeremiad? Does it simply show that the University of Calgary offers particularly infertile soil, or can we learn something about how writing may be able to make some professional gains even in unpromising environments. I think that there are some guardedly positive lessons to be learned if we want to avoid endless repetitions of similar sad stories.

First, we need to get less expensive. As long as we are seen as solvers of a system-wide “problem,” we simply cost too much to survive the next change in administrative direction or economic fortunes.  We need to be no more expensive to run than a department in comparable disciplines such as History or Geography. These departments teach History students or Geography students. They are not expected to fix the inferior historical or geographical abilities of an entire institution. Similarly, we need to see research and teaching in our discipline as our core business, not just as an add-on to a business of fixing everybody everywhere.

This sounds like another classic lament about being marginalized and seen as the night cleaners of the academy.  However, that’s not my point right now. My point is that this position, whether it devalues us or not, simply costs too much. Maybe we should emulate theoretical astrophysics instead. No-one ever asks a theoretical astrophysicist to justify dozens or hundreds of sections of service courses which, however cheaply taught, never seem to earn their way. They only ask to justify a few sections of courses aimed at people interested in theoretical astrophysics. This seems much easier than justifying a writing program.

In short, professionalizing writing depends on just plain not worrying about our place in mass curricular movements. That has served rhetoric well at certain times and places. It seems to be working at SFU, at least for the moment and despite some sizable speed bumps. It continues to work at many institutions in the US where our profession was largely born out of a need to solve a crisis brought on by open admissions. But depending on that level of desperation is like an epidemiologist hoping for a mass pandemic so that she can get recognition for curing it.  When asked to do the laundry for the entire institution, we need to resist the flattery and the short-term money, and do what the U of C English department did – tell the administration to take a running jump.

This inversion of thinking might also reduce our dependence on champions. To be really professional, we need to become accepted for our own sake, as a research institution that does not always need someone to look after it from above.

Unfortunately, while I can’t see another good way out of the interconnected traps I have outlined above, I have a lot of trouble believing my own advice. I got into this line of work because I hoped to make a difference in individual students’ lives by teaching them an important life skill. The service industry mentality is a trap, but it’s also what gets me out of bed in the morning. My students and I are hopeless co-dependents. Helping a damaged writer become a passable or even exceptional writer is just not something I’m prepared to give up.

Likewise, the university and the writing program are co-dependents. The university needs us. Why else would they keep reinventing writing programs after having strangled the previous one?  And we need them and their needy students in order to fulfill the purpose that got us into this job in the first place.

I haven’t entirely come through on my promise to extract some positive lessons from a litany of negative experiences. But I hope I’ve been able to come across as doing more than simply lamenting the fact that the rock keeps rolling to the bottom of the hill just when we think we might have pushed it some of the way to the top. Part of the reason I am still in the game is that some time ago I decided that each academic unit needs to do whatever it feels prepared to do for the cause, given the unique circumstances of each time and place, and not worry about what the institution as whole is or is not doing. We can do what we do without changing the attitudes of an entire institution, and occasionally we can take advantage of striking turns of events to build programs such as the one at SFU without fretting about what will happen to it when the administration loses interest or money gets tight.

Perhaps the best we can do with our absurd position is to take Camus’ advice and imagine Sisyphus as being happy at his work.


Brent, D. (2005). Dangerous partnerships: How competence testing can sabotage WAC.  Writing Across the Curriculum Journal, 16, 78-88.

Brent, D. (2006). Same roots, different soil: Rhetoric in a communications studies program.  In R. Graves & H. Graves (Ed.), Writing centres, writing seminars, writing culture: Writing instruction in Anglo-Canadian universities (pp. 175-198). Inkshed Publications.

Hyland, T. (2009). Review of the book Writing intensive: Becoming w-faculty in a new writing curriculum, by W. Strachan. Inkshed 25.2, 11-13.

Procter, M. (2009). Review of the book Writing intensive: Becoming w-faculty in a new writing curriculum, by W. Strachan. Inkshed 25.2, 5-10.

Steven, L. (1991). The grain of sand in the oyster: Competency testing as a catalyst for attitude change at the university. Textual Studies in Canada 1, 115-144.

Strachan, W. (2008). Writing intensive: Becoming w-faculty in a new writing curriculum. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2008.

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