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Watching experts write

By PEGGY BERKOWITZ | DEC 03 2007

Writing is one of the crucial skills that academics need to perfect, no matter what field they’re in. But it’s a skill that scholars, and everyone else, mostly learn through instruction, then trial and error. Dalhousie University’s school of graduate studies is trying to add a modicum of observation to the process.

On Jan. 26, for the second time in two years, the Dalhousie graduate school will chain about a half-dozen seasoned researchers to their desks (metaphorically speaking) to take part in W.H.I.P.S. – “Write Here In Plain Sight” – a daylong public writing workshop for the benefit of students and other members of the university community.

The workshop is the brainchild of Sunny Marche, Dalhousie’s associate dean of graduate studies. He says it’s predicated on two theories: “One, the skill of writing is a behaviour that you can learn and improve to get a better outcome. Second, the way we actually learn most, if not all, skills is by observing expert behaviour.”

Last year, for the first W.H.I.P.S. workshop, five professors in English, computer science and management, as well as a journalist, each sat in a separate room and worked on a piece of writing, with their computer screen projected onto a large screen for all to see. As they wrote, the faculty members talked out loud about what they were doing and thinking for the benefit of some 120 students – and more than a few faculty members – who came to learn.

“I’d say things like, ‘darn, that doesn’t fit here’ and take out a few sentences,” recalls Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies and professor of computer science, who took part. “In the middle, I said, ‘I can’t fix it from here’ and had to go back to the [original] headings.” It’s an eye-opener for students, she says, “to realize that it wasn’t that easy for us to write.”

Chris Jordan, a computer science student now immersed in writing his PhD thesis, says he found last year’s workshop incredibly useful. “To see how these seasoned academics formulate their thoughts – there’s a lot of tricks they use to sort themselves out.”

Dr. Watters and Dr. Marche are trying to interest other graduate schools across Canada to take part in W.H.I.P.S. on the last Saturday in January. Several have signed on. “The other major benefit,” says Dr. Marche, “is that this helps to celebrate academic writing.”

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