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In my opinion

From combat to conversation and community: reimagining university writing

We need to use research to identify and implement the most effective ways to support student writing development.

BY ANDREA L. WILLIAMS | MAR 03 2022

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.

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  1. Leora Freedman / March 3, 2022 at 14:12

    Wonderful observation about these common metaphors and their chilling effect! Metaphors and instructional design suggesting social connection and personal reflection will likely resonate more with our current cohorts of students. We also need more metaphors to suggest the importance of writing as a real-world activity, extending beyond the academy.

  2. Dr. Carole-Lynne Le Navenec / March 9, 2022 at 14:30

    Being a University PhD grad, I was pleased to find this article about a topic that was of major interest to me way back in the 1990’s when I was still teaching. I always encouraged students to work diligently with their effective writing departments for help. Eventually, many students achieved better grades in their paper, and I then encouraged them to seek out publishing sources. However, many said they could not find one. Hence, with the help of other departments, and the University libarians, we developed a credit course for enhancing writing skills of undergraduate students, and I was provided help in developing an open access, peer reviewed online journal for nursing and those students whose studies focused on enhancing health care, for which I am Editor in Chief. Now as a Professor Emeritus (or what I suppose I should say Emerita) I enjoy immensely connecting with students, who collaborate their professor to publish together. And many of the reviewers are retired academic staff. Hence, my message would be to invite more contact with us folks who are on what I call Long Term Sabbatical. Feel free to contact me at my secondary email address: drcllbzh@gmail.com

    • Andrea Williams / March 17, 2022 at 15:50

      What a wonderful opportunity you have given nursing students, Carole-Lynne! Having places for students to publish their work is important and such writing experiences are more authentic for students and thus particularly valuable. Your suggestion to draw on the expertise of faculty on “permanent sabbaticals” as mentors and collaborators for undergraduate and graduate students is an excellent one. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful ideas and suggestions.

  3. Glen Farrelly / March 9, 2022 at 15:46

    As one who teaches required writing courses, I completely agree with your points.

    I was curious about your idea of “free writes” and “quick writes” – you mentioned they could be quickly graded. I was wondering if there are any suggestions for how to do this and still provide meaningful, specific commentary?

    I’m also curious of your (or anyone else’s) thoughts are in having fellow classmates review each other’s writing. I’ve had mixed luck with this approach.

    Thanks for the helpful article!

    • Andrea Williams / March 17, 2022 at 15:57

      To answer your question about “free writes” and “quick writes,” some ways to give students meaningful, specific commentary in larger classes is to rotate your feedback: I divide my class in half or thirds (depending on the size) and respond to half every second week or a third every third week, and so on. You can also choose the student writing at random and anymously (with permission) share it with the class and comment on it. One of the best books on the subject of integrating exploratory writing is John Bean’s, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning into the Classroom, which is packed with practical suggestions that are supported by reasearch.

      As for peer response, I’ve had good success with it over the years as long as you a) distinguish it from peer editing (which involves students merely correcting each other’s errors) or peer review (in which they evaluate each other’s work). I spend quite a bit of time preparing my students to do peer response by modelling it and then providing them with detailed instructions on how to give effective feedback.

      Thanks for your questions and I hope this is helpful!