For the third time, a Canadian writing program has received a Certificate of Excellence award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. In 2015, Writing Studies 101: Exploring Writing (WRS 101), a new first-year writing course at the University of Alberta, will join the Writing Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Office of English Language and Writing Support at the School of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto, in the list of CCCC honorees.
The award (described at www.ncte.org/cccc/awards/writingprogramcert), recognizes writing programs that use best current practices in the field, address student needs imaginatively, and treat faculty members respectfully and professionally. The course brochure for WRS101 makes abundantly evident that the course meets those criteria. It offers small classes, individual consultations, tutor-supported sections for international students, a demanding course contract, and a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. As called for by the U of A Writing Task Force (2005-2008), the course exploits “discovery writing” (a.k.a. inkshedding) to encourage students to explore ideas through writing and to reflect on their learning. Student work is evaluated through an end-of-term portfolio marked as part of a portfolio swap with other instructors to support shared standards across all sections.
Another distinctive feature is its subject matter. Based on a WAW (Writing-about-Writing) approach, the course introduces students to the discipline of Writing Studies while helping them develop both declarative and procedural knowledge in the five knowledge domains that (according to Anne Beaufort) expert writers draw on when they face challenging writing tasks in any field or profession: subject matter knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, writing process knowledge, genre knowledge, and—the overarching category—discourse community knowledge. Students read and write about topics in Writing Studies, using shared writing-to-learn to explore the material of the course. They find learning to inkshed transformative: coded student reflections reveal that, during the past 3 years, 99.1% felt they had increased their ability to use writing to help them learn.
In 2007 Betsy Sargent and David Slomp taught the first two sections of the new course; this year 25 sections are being taught. Sargent directed WRS 101 for several years, followed as of September 1, 2014 by Jonathan Gordon. The course is housed in the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Faculty of Arts and is open to students from all faculties. It’s taught by a team of dedicated instructors from a range of disciplines, all of whom have completed 30 or more hours of grad-level work on composition theory: Jon Gordon, Christina Grant, Lucinda Rasmussen, Lisa Ann Robertson, Anna Chilewska, Greg Bechtel, Rachel Prusko, Melissa Stephens, Leilei Chen, and Nancy Bray.
Clearly the course has benefitted from the care that went into researching and planning writing initiatives at the U of A, from its ongoing close collaboration with the Centre for Writers, and from its incorporation of such elements as individual tutoring, attention to second-language acquisition, a focus on real subject matter, and avoidance of simplistic assessment. Does that sound Canadian? The standard saying is that Canadian universities lack a tradition of first-year composition, but this course seems to be shaping a new tradition.