Metaphors shape how we see and interact with our world. Military metaphors dominate academia: cells attack and invade in microbiology and companies devise strategies, slash budgets, deploy resources, and conquer markets in business and finance. And so it is with writing: undergraduates are “engaged” with a course and “equipped” with writing skills, graduate students enlist in “dissertation bootcamps,” and faculty “publish or perish” and may enroll in “writing retreats.” Such language is ubiquitous and insidious and so all the more destructive because it constrains and distorts how writing is understood in the academy. Instead, we need language that reflects current writing practices as well as aspirations for all that writing can be and do in the university, which has more to do with scholarly conversation and community than combat.
Some have argued that remote work has increased the value of writing for organizations because of the “deliberation and discipline” that writing requires. But writing is far more than just a skill in academia: it is the primary means of creating and disseminating knowledge. Yet for an activity that is central to the scholarly enterprise, writing has a disproportionately low-profile in universities, particularly in Canada. The invisibility and low status of writing in Canadian universities is attributable to several factors, such as few Canadian institutions requiring a first-year writing course, the focus of most English departments on literary studies rather than writing and rhetoric, and few universities in Canada having writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) programs to support disciplinary writing instruction.
Rather than the age-old laments about student writing, which get rehashed in popular journalism and in committee meetings, we need to use research to identify and implement the most effective ways to support student writing development. My own field of rhetoric and writing has found that writing development is not a matter of one-and-done, but involves a complex and lengthy process. Because no single course is going to teach students everything they need to know about writing, even where there are first-year writing courses, writing must be the shared responsibility of all faculty rather than the exclusive burden of a few writing specialists who teach writing courses or in writing centres.
If students are going to learn how to write well, they need to see writing not simply as a means for getting a good grade, but more how faculty see writing: as an essential part of thinking through problems and creating and sharing knowledge. Writing-across-the-curriculum programs provide instructors who are not writing experts (although they are often expert writers) with effective ways to support student writing development. In my faculty’s WAC program (Writing-Integrated Teaching), instructors from across the disciplines regularly assign writing-to-learn activities called “free writes” or “quick writes,” which are short, low-stakes and which help students learn key concepts, such as opportunity cost in economics or adaptation in biology; many instructors appreciate the window this writing gives them on their students’ understanding. Graded mainly for completion, writing-to-learn activities do not necessarily require extra instructor and TA time, so they can be done even in very large classes. Such active learning strategies benefit all students, but especially traditionally underrepresented groups such as Black and first-generation students, and thus contribute to equity and diversity. With remote learning, many instructors found that too many of these “low stakes” assignments resulted in excessive workloads for students and too many deadlines. But in moderation these activities can help students learn course content and improve their writing on more formal assignments by giving them writing practice.
Formal assignments are also essential for students learning to write, and research shows that students learn better when assignments come with clear instructions about the task, purpose, audience, genre, evaluation criteria, and exemplars. With guidance from writing-across-the-curriculum programs and teaching and learning centres, instructors are increasingly implementing this research and supplementing or even replacing standardized tests, timed exams and high-stakes writing assignments such as term papers with scaffolded assignments that provide learning objectives and evaluation criteria, integrate practice and formative feedback, and provide examples of successful student work – practices which we know are particularly helpful for students from underrepresented groups. Faculty development and TA training programs are working to improve the feedback students receive on their writing so that it is less focused on penalizing surface errors and more focused on identifying substantive issues and suggesting ways students can improve these. Such feedback is particularly important for multilingual students whose minor punctuation errors sometimes receive more attention than their argument and evidence: grammar and correctness matter, but instructors send the wrong message if comma splices are prioritized over argument.
Alongside these improvements in how writing is being taught in courses, there has been an increase in informal support for writing through events. The sponsors of these events and groups – writing specialists, librarians, and faculty developers – are helping to build and sustain cultures of teaching and of writing in the university. “Shut up and write” sessions bring students and faculty together to write in silence: like Quaker meetings, the absence of talk is intended to foster deeper reflection by freeing writers from external distractions. Such events are particularly important to the many writers without a room of their own or a quiet space in which to write and who benefit from social support for writing. Many graduate students are even more isolated and “dissertation boot camps” provide instruction and structured time in which to write alongside peers. Also growing in popularity are faculty writing groups, formed both along and across disciplinary lines (l belong to both types of groups), where members provide feedback on each other’s drafts.
These writing events and groups do more than increase productivity: they promote intellectual exchange and community. As such, they deserve greater recognition, support, and uptake, which is why they need names that better reflect their purpose and importance. Rather than emphasizing the absence of talk in writing sessions, we need to highlight the role such events play in connecting writers and building community. Reframing these events as conversations rather than commands and demands for silence would draw more participants, including those who most need such support. Like “shut up –and write,” the term “dissertation boot camp” is misleading: graduate students are neither juvenile delinquents nor new recruits who need to toughen up and conform to survive; rather, they are apprentice writers who need guidance and support. These military terms may challenge the misperception of writing as a “soft skill,” but we know that writing matters in the university.
With the return to in-person teaching, Canadian universities have a chance to expand how we think about and use writing, from a tool for assessment to a way to promote equity and inclusion through more transparent assignment instructions and low-stakes writing activities. As a unifying activity that brings together students and faculty from all disciplines, by renaming and reframing writing as conversation and community rather than combat, we can better support all writers in the academy and build back better universities.
Andrea L. Williams is an associate professor, teaching stream as well as director of writing and rhetoric at Innis College and WIT (Writing-Integrated Teaching) in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto.