Panel 4: Philosophies of Teaching University Writing

What is it that I really do? — Aubrey

This was one of our best-attended panel discussions this year, with a good crowd of people from a variety of disciplines joining us at noonhour on November 17th, 2014 — and lots of lively discussion. Perhaps the broad, impractical sweep of the panel topic was part of what drew people to the conversation? I’m no philosopher, but the idea of a teaching philosophy has always sounded to me attractively and richly thoughtful, and it felt right to start the new year of discussions off with something rather grand.

Plus, as I confessed to the group when opening the conversation, the question of how we might approach university writing is one of my personal obsessions these days. It starts, for me, with the presumptuously broad question,

What is a university?

And it heads for the consequent question,

What, then, is “university writing”?

We hear from U.S.-based textbooks and talk of admissions tests and high school preparation of something called “college writing,” and I’ve read with interest some of the essays in Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg’s collection, What Is “College-Level” Writing? When surveyed about what they want to get from their foundation-level writing courses and what they think such courses should be all about, Mount Royal students often mention an introduction to what they call “university-level writing.” And my colleagues and I who teach those foundation-level courses think a lot about preparing students to write effectively in their university coursework, among other things.

My obsession with questions about “university writing” is fueled by new rhetorical genre theory, the theory of what writing is, why we write, and how to think about teaching writing that I have found most compelling over the past five or seven years. (See Deborah Dean’s book Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being for one very accessible, teaching-focused introduction to the theory.) This theory emphasizes that writing, like any other social action, is a motivated response to constraints or opportunities we perceive in a given rhetorical situation–a way of taking action in a given social and rhetorical context, a way of getting something done. That is, we really only write because we’re trying to achieve some context-specific, context-compelled (or context-inspired) action. We write reports because our bosses want to know what we’ve learned and what we advise. We write thank you notes because we’ve received a gift from someone whom we ought to treat with some old-fashioned formality, and convention suggests that this is a nice way of acknowledging the gift. We write Facebook posts because we want to compose an identity for ourselves and stay visible and relevant in a particular social network. …All of these are “genres” of writing, or types of social action, that are prompted by and influenced by the particular social contexts in which we want or need to act at the moment.

…So, then, according to this theory, university writing is some type of writing that’s specific to the particular social and rhetorical context that is a university.

What is a university? What is university writing?

Le_Penseur_at_Columbia_University by InSapphoWeTrust CC licenced for reuse
“Le Penseur at Columbia University” by InSapphoWeTrust (Creative Commons Licensed for non-commercial re-use and sharing)

…I was very curious to see what this wonderful panel of thinkers would have to say about their approach to and experience of university writing.

First up was Audrey, a colleague who has done wonderful research on disciplinary writing and thinks carefully about the practice of teaching writing within academic disciplines: she has taught writing in science and geology programs and currently teaches business writing courses. It was wonderful to start the panel with her perspective because, immediately, her perspective punctured the stretched umbrella of so-called university writing, reminding us about the particularity of disciplinary writing practices and the ways that professional writing practices, like those taught in Audrey’s business writing courses, respond to contexts well outside the academic boundaries of a university.

There’s now lots of research out there on writing in a variety of disciplines, Audrey reminded us, and the research points out that disciplinary practices are unique, socially determined by context, and mediated by texts: writing is different in each of the disciplinary contexts she’s taught in.

She offered us some beautifully-distilled “principles” of disciplinary writing instruction, derived from research and her practice:

1) writing instruction should value and engage with the disciplinary or professional community’s unique genres and rhetorical practices. To teach those genres and practices, we ought to investigate (for ourselves, and with our students) the texts produced by the community–noticing, for instance, that “persuasion works in a particular way,” in a business context. (It works much differently, I imagine, than persuasion in a literary studies context say! –SB). We can do this investigative work by way of ethnographic research into the community’s practices or through analyzing their texts.

2) writing is part of, should go along with, real participation in a disciplinary community. Our students are situated in various overlapping communities at once, of course–participating simultaneously, for example, in several different disciplines, in university communities, in personal and professional communities outside the uni. We might see students as “legitimate peripheral participants” (a term from genre pedagogy research) in some of these communities, and invite them to write as participants. …But we do need to ask, what’s realistic for a given student? What communities can we realistically expect them to see a way to joining, by writing?

* And, finally but very importantly, writing-in-a-discipline instruction benefits from strong partnerships with members of the disciplinary community. Particularly when we’re teaching students to write in genres and communities we’re not part of ourselves, we need to — and can effectively! — enlist the help of participating members of those communities to help understand their practices.

Next up was Aubrey, a colleague of mine from the Department of English who has recently won an award for teaching excellence. He teaches literature courses as well as composition, so his teaching context is so different than Audrey’s that the contrast between their concerns and approaches exploded my question about “university writing” even further. It was wonderful!

Aubrey thought back for us over his experience teaching composition within everything from English lit classes to “writing skills for engineering students” courses at a variety of institutions, and recounted his reflection on his own philosophy and practice: “what is it that I really do?,” he asked.

He’s come to think of teaching university writing, he said, as being all about the conversation: about starting a critical conversation with students, and engaging them in that. So there’s a balance that needs to be struck, he finds, between teaching the correct use of commas and teaching critical thinking—and the conventions, and the patterns of dialogue, that go along with thoughtfully joining a critical conversation.

What he finds, Aubrey reflected, is that encouraging critical thinking and an entrance into the conversation seems to be about developing good citizens, critical thinkers with their own habits of mind. It seems to be about developing ethics and ethical thinking–qualities that seem appropriate to strive for, in university teaching!

All of this, he has found, requires creating a safe, welcoming atmosphere in the classroom. Ultimately what we hope for, Audrey remarked, is that students begin writing more than just their opinion—that they come into a well informed opinion.

Following Aubrey in the panel was another English Department colleague, Kit — a specialist in Canadian literature and culture, and someone who (in collaboration with another English colleague, Kenna) has developed a version of our foundation-level “Critical Reading and Writing” course that focuses on reading and questioning “the university.”

I had thought to invite Kit because he has done some important thinking about what a university is — not only in his class, with his students, but in giving invited lectures about the history and philosophy of this institution. In 2013 he gave a talk titled, “Disciplining Knowledge: What is University?” and I was curious to see what he’d bring to this panel.

Kit prompted response immediately, when he opened his talk, but explaining that he wanted to start by thinking playfully through one word that seems to crop up everywhere in students’ writing: “relatable.” A general laugh of recognition rolled around the room, and one audience member piped up laughingly, saying of “relatable,” —“it should die!”

Kit remarked that the word seems to be used in student work as a shortcut to critical opinion: if something is relatable, it is good. …End of story? And he wondered whether, if students evaluate texts, films, things on the basis of their relation to themselves, on how “relatable” they are, could we see this as—perhaps—a xenophobia? A couched, unconscious one? A fear of the other? An unconscious fear that what is other is bad?

We can see “relatable” as a problem for teachers of university writing, for teaching generally, he offered, if we think of education as a process of introducing someone to something other than themselves. It becomes a problem if we think of the university as one of the “others” to which students struggle to relate. An assessment of “relatability,” then, ought to be just the beginning of learning, the beginning of analysis… and we might hope to prompt students past their initial fear of whatever is so far other to themselves.

One response to this problem of the impulse to fixate on what is “relatable,” Kit offered, is to work, in educating students, to introduce them to the opposite of a xenophobic response, to a posture that is a welcome of the other. This is theorized elsewhere as allophilia, as an opposite to prejudice. His own approach to teaching university writing, in his “Critical Reading and Writing” course, has been to teach texts about universities, and hence to try to lead students into comfort and conversation with the university — leading them to welcome this unknown.

Our final panelist was Karim, a philosopher himself, and chair of the Department of General Education (the liberal arts core program through which Mount Royal’s foundation-level writing courses are offered). Like each of the other three panelists, Karim took us exploding off in yet another direction. By now, the idea of an identifiable rhetorical situation for “university writing” had been thoroughly pulverized. What we were experiencing in its place, I suppose, was the sometimes cacophonous plurality of an actual university: no universals to be found, but a universe of approaches, focuses, and concerns.

Karim introduced us to an idea — that “the limits of my world are the limits of my language”— and a set of experiences that informed his sense that one comes into university-level thought through reading. In particular, he remembered for us the experience of reading a particular novel alongside Wittgenstein…

And he pointed to a debate playing out in recent media: a claim that “it’s a waste of time,” to teach writing (teach them, instead, to tell a story, says the argument), and the frequently offered counter-claim that there is great value to writing and the teaching of it…

Karim wanted to frame his thoughts about the question of university writing, not by saying that writing and teaching prose isn’t important, but rather by pointing out what he feels his students primarily lack: reading. They read lots of things, he acknowledged, but doesn’t seem to be generally the richly complicated, extended, thoughtful stuff that we might hope.

So his approach to teaching writing, as he described it, tends to be through teaching reading, for starters: his students read the text, they read it aloud in class, they reflect together on its meaning, they write about the argument. And he purposefully teaches texts that have no relation to their lives at all (distinctly un-relatable texts), or he tries to. These readings offer models of the type of writing his students might aspire to produce, and a wide enough variety of such models that eventually the students learn that they cannot just mimic one writer but have to find their own voice and their own argument—a voice that is different to, but competent to engage, and equal to engaging, the model.

Whew. Another divergent, challenging, thought-provoking panel. Some through-lines I observed in its explosion of perspectives included the following:

– university writing is difficult (and difficult to teach);

– it is immensely varied, and is demanded of students from a multitude of different disciplinary contexts;

– it is thoughtful and informed;

– it is about being in conversation with texts, ideas, other thinkers—about being equal to that conversation;

– it demands that students move past who they think they are and where they think they are into new relations with others, with the university, with ideas, with models.

Questions from the floor:

Are there more practical suggestions for how to get students reading and writing?

Is it possible to teach a generic good writing that will be of use to students across disciplines?

Ought we to be focusing more on teaching reading?

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One thought on “Panel 4: Philosophies of Teaching University Writing

  1. In my experience — having been a student in university quite recently as well as a teacher in high school and junior high school — teaching strong writing is not about developing familiarity with writing for a certain discipline or school or level or course. It’s more than anything about writing for a certain person. And in business, we show our workers examples of reports that we’re looking for, or we have templates and models that we share. I don’t think that kind of sharing of exemplars happens enough in schools. Part of it is an issue of privacy, as student work is protected religiously. But for students to see what a “A-level” paper looks like and to see what a great poem, essay, report or story has been like in the past is quick and natural way to get the same quality from our students. It has the danger of creating imitators, but that’s how we all started our lives, after all. And mimesis should not stop at the higher levels. Give your students an example of what you like to read, and your students will know how high to jump, and roughly what way to jump.

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