Plans to implement a suite of campus-wide writing approaches at UTM this fall, called “Writing Across the Curriculum”, have been put on hold.

Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, a writing specialist at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, and Amy Mullin, UTM’s VP academic and dean, reported last year that WAC was expected to be deployed in the fall of 2013, but a series of consultations with the departments found that at least some of the faculty did not support the program and established that more discussion was needed.

“We’re still engaged in a campus-wide discussion,” said Evans-Tokaryk. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be addressed. All departments are now equally involved.”

WAC, which is based on the “Writing Instruction for TAs” program implemented at St. George’s Faculty of Arts and Science, involves training a lead writing TA who will train disciplinary TAs in all academic departments to incorporate writing instruction into certain courses chosen at the departments’ discretion.

This instruction would deal with the same course content but would replace some of the time currently occupied by other learning methods, such as discussion, during tutorials.

Evans-Tokaryk, who was commissioned by the Office of the Dean to design an initiative for writing instruction, describes the program’s foundations as “learn to write” and “write to learn”. The former presumes that writing varies according to the expectations of specific disciplines and focuses on equipping students to write for their field of study; the latter presumes that learning in any discipline is improved by the incorporation of writing exercises.

According to Evans-Tokaryk, such an approach, which integrates writing instruction throughout many courses, is superior to the dedicated first-year composition course advocated by some UTM faculty.

The other strategies in Office of the Dean’s writing reform initiative included enhancing the first-year transitional program utmONE, offering more workshops and appointments at the RGASC, hiring dedicated faculty to provide ESL instruction, and developing an early warning system to identify students whose writing skills designate them as at-risk.

All of these strategies except WAC have been implemented. However, some of its principles are “being tested”, said Evans-Tokaryk in an interview, and revealed that the RGASC provided 14 hours of training on writing pedagogy and resources this summer to 20 lecturers and TAs from various departments.

Before WAC could be implemented, the Office of the Dean sought feedback from faculty, including through the Dean’s Open Writing Forum on October 22, 2012, at which faculty complained about what was perceived as the consultation coming after the fact of the program’s approval.

Shortly after the forum, Dean Amy Mullin struck a committee to oversee the pros and cons of various writing initiatives because of the complaints about the consultation process. The writing committee is co-chaired by Andrew Petersen, the director of the RGASC, and Kelly Hannah-Moffat, the vice-dean undergraduate at UTM.

The committee asked academic departments to send faculty representatives to a three-part series of consultations to solicit input.

Shyon Baumann, the chair of the sociology department, who was one of these representatives, expressed his preference “not to do [writing instruction] this way”.

“My critique is that TAs and instructors would be forced to do double duty, whereas they would in the past have spent all their time teaching course material,” said Baumann in an interview. “I also think it’s not efficient to have each department spend a lot of time and money training TAs to become writing instructors when the TAs potentially change every year.”

He also disagrees that writing must be taught differently according to discipline instead of through a mandatory campus-wide first-year writing course. “We know better than [the students] do what skills they need in order to learn,” he said. “If we know they need it, we should provide it. I don’t know why it can be done at other  universities but not ours. There are programs out there that are not discipline-specific.”

Alan Walks, an associate professor in the Department of Geography who was also invited to the committee, voiced a similar opinion in an interview last week. “I don’t see the first-year course as a panacea, and realize that continuous engagement and learning will be required to develop writing skills over the entire degree,” said Walks.

Without such a foundation, he added, “Other initiatives will not have sufficient scope and cover enough students to have a significant impact on overall writing quality and skills.” He also expressed agreement with the principle that basic writing skills are necessary to any kind of learning.

Evans-Tokaryk said that among the testing and ongoing discussion, he “wouldn’t even call it a program right now”.

Last year, the RGASC made funding available for specific courses to pay for more TA hours in order to support a trial of intensive writing integration. The sociology department applied, and two courses were approved: “Theories in Criminology” and “The Logic of Social Inquiry”. The latter is a mandatory course in the major and specialist sociology programs.

Walks said that the geography department applied for multiple courses but only one was approved.

“Unfortunately, this course only covered a portion of our students [and] was not mandatory, and the instructor told me that some of the students purposefully dropped it as soon as they found out it was a writing-intensive course,” said Walks.

WAC “is one way to explore writing”, Petersen said in an interview last week. “Writing initiatives are based on what faculty say they need and want. We’re trying to figure out what UTM needs. The writing initiative will never be ‘done’. As we see needs met and others not met, initiatives will evolve. We see incremental changes. The underlying goal is to make the learning experience better.”

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