Writing in the Changing Post-Secondary Environment

Theresa Hyland, Huron University College, University of Western Ontario, thyland@huron.uwo.ca

At the Inkshed meeting on May 31, 2011, I made comments inspired by an article by Patrick Deane and Pierre Zundel in the December 2010 issue of University Affairs, It’s Time to Transform Undergraduate Education.” The authors characterize the changing landscape of undergraduate education at the institutional level and argue that we have to come to terms with these institutional changes to “reorient ourselves to our goals [through a] . . . radical re-conceptualizing of the teaching and learning process, where the goal becomes ‘helping students learn’ rather than ‘teaching’.”

Three movements in higher education in Canada today require us as writing instructors and writing service providers to reconceptualize our practices.

The first is the globalization of the university environment. This takes several forms, including an increase in the population of international students on our campuses and the attempt, in existing and new courses, to help our Canadian students understand the implications and consequences of living in a globalized world. Internationalization raises several questions for us as providers of writing services. How can we redesign our writing services to better serve the increased international population? What kinds of research initiatives can we participate in to help us understand and serve this population better? How do our services and courses help Canadian students participate in this globalized world?

A second change is the introduction of new programs of study. Communications and media studies programmes have introduced the study of different film genres, TV, cartoons, and comic books , as well as the study of how communication is changing with current technology (i.e. twitter, blogs, text messaging). There is also a trend towards interdisciplinary programs that are theme-based rather than discipline-based (i.e. Social Justice; War studies; Global Studies). At the same time, a new genre of courses is emerging that includes community-based learning and experiential learning alongside text-based learning. These often require reflective journal writing during the course, and end-of-term projects that synthesize the learning done through theory-based reading and practical community work. These writing projects increasingly bear little resemblance to the library-based, research essay format usually taught in writing classes. How can writing services better serve students who are writing in these formats? How does one teach or respond to reflective writing on experience? What are the expectations of different disciplines for this kind of writing? What kind of research can we do to illuminate these issues and determine best practices?

The final issue is budget cuts that result in the hiring of part-time instructors instead of full-time tenure-track faculty, and larger class sizes.  Part-time instructors often teach three to five courses at different institutions during one term. Many are inexperienced and don’t have the time or commitment to one institution to develop teaching practices that help optimize students’ learning. More large classes require different assignments and marking strategies to help instructors deal with the larger workload. How can our services help these instructors in their disciplinary practice? Is there a danger of writing services being closed down as a “nice to have” service rather than a “need to have”?

In the article in University Affairs, Deane and Zundel quote Kuhn’s call for a “Profound escape from inherited paradigms” to deal with these changes. So, what does all of this mean for disciplinary writing? What are the generic skills students need to develop for different types of writing in terms of evidence-gathering, the creation of claims, and participation in new genres? Is our standard practice in providing appointments or in the construction of credit writing classes adequate to deal with these changes?

My talk at CASDW in 2011, just before the Inkshed meeting, had indicated some of the implications of globalization for the way we run the Writing Centre at Huron College, for research in writing, and ultimately for curriculum change. Our new multilingual writing tutors, who function both in English and Japanese or Chinese, are fully integrated into our team at the Writing Centre. Our Multilingual Learners’ Handbook has just seen its first print run and has been distributed widely at the college. That publication has made me rethink some of the issues handled in our general handbook, and has created the basis for a new edition of that text. December will see me in China doing some research into how writing is taught at Beijing Language and Culture University; at the same time, a colleague from Dongbei University of Finance and Economics has been shadowing me in both my advanced writing course for native speakers and my beginners’ and intermediate courses for international students. This colleague has also spent a couple of hours each week in the Writing Centre speaking with and shadowing Grace Howell, my senior Writing Tutor, as she tutors students. The premise of this collaborative study is to help both the Chinese universities and our own university to modify practices to better meet the needs of the students. Finally, as interdisciplinary studies become more commonplace in our university communities, we have begun a dialogue with faculty about their expectations for writing and how these are evolving as they experiment with new forms of writing. I’ve found that the faculty members welcome these discussions as much as I do.

I see many examples of changes at the course level that address these changing conditions. For example, a new course at UWO is described as offering “a basic understanding of the principles of ‘visual rhetoric and argumentation.’” Faculty members, including part-time teachers, increasingly seek out consultations with writing centres to design appropriately- pitched writing assignments and workshops to help students complete those assignments. On the CASDW listserv, Roger Graves and others have discussed group writing appointments where students collaborate with each other in the presence of a tutor to produce or improve their assignments.

In exploring the changing conditions of our workplace, and in telling you about the new initiatives in writing that I have come across, I merely wish to begin a dialogue within our association about where our future lies both as an organization and as a profession. So, I’ll turn the discussion over to you. What new initiatives are you exploring? What are the opportunities, or barriers that you have discovered in implementing these initiatives?

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