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Saturday, November 19, 2016

On the artificiality and the realness of academic writing

I've been trying to articulate for a long time the tension I feel between the relatively staid, formulaic way we tend to teach writing in the places I've taught it, and the inherent sense of possibility and promise I intuit about the act of writing itself.

After a longish lecture on introductions, paragraphs, and conclusions yesterday, I attempted to explain this to one of my classes. (I tried again in the second class and was able to get it across in a more abbreviated fashion.)

As a teacher of writing in a high-stakes "foundational" writing course which in some ways exists in relationship to the dreaded "writing-as-skill" discourse (which frankly I am not as scared of as some people), I feel a tension between:

a) the fact that what I teach, assign, and assess are basically "mutt genres," or rather all a part of the meta-genre that I call "Prove You Can Do What I Asked You To Do So You Can Pass This Class and Get On With It." (Formerly known as "Prove You Can Write an Essay," but not everything we assign in the course is an essay.) In other words, we have very specific types of assignments with very specific rubrics, and we do practice versions and then final in-class versions in which students are tested on whether than can write a summary, a critique, and an "essay" based on fairly explicit, strict conventions laid out in a textbook and/our lectures; and

b) the fact that I truly believe that aside from that somewhat artificial, overly school-ish rhetorical setting, which does not feel very "real" or "writery" -- not even when compared to what I believe/assume is assigned in other courses at the university -- when it just comes down to the rhetorical triangle of writer-topic-(imagined-or-real) audience, something true, good, and powerful can happen, that if somehow one of the in-class essays a student wrote blew away and ended up on a streetcorner in Saskatoon or Cleveland or Bristol or Mumbai, someone could pick it up, read it, and go "Huh! I never thought of that before! That's really interesting! That changes how I think about this thing!" ...Or that even I, the teacher who grimly sits down to grade 36 very similar essays, could have the same experience.

In a way this is a tension between camps in writing studies -- very broadly, current-traditional vs. expressivist (except I wouldn't claim either of those traditions, really, being an applied linguist by training) -- but I can't help feeling there's a dynamic tension here that could produce a new way of looking at the kind of class I teach.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Everything adds to being in another world."

The ideal lecture theatre is vast, truly vast. It is a very sombre, very old amphitheatre, and very uncomfortable. The professor is lodged in his chair which is raised high enough to see him; there is no question that he might get down and pester you. You can hear him quite well, because he doesn’t move. Only his mouth moves. Preferably he has white hair, a stiff neck and a Protestant air about him. There are a great many students and each is perfectly anonymous. To reach the amphitheatre, you have to climb some stairs, and then, with the leather lined doors closed behind, the silence is absolute, every sound stifled; the walls rise very high, daubed with rough paintings in half-tones in which the moving silhouettes of various monsters can be detected. Everything adds to being in another world. So one works religiously.

from an interview with a student in Bourdieu & Passeron's "Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation"

Monday, August 22, 2016

On the eve of a new academic year

1. In college an English professor once told us "papers are a chance to take care of little pieces of your soul." I sort of believed that then. I sort of believe it now. I hope I write now because I want to and because I care about what I write about, not because I feel I have to.

2.  I am not sure I could tell my students what my professor told me, and think they would believe it.

3. Even though I am not evaluated on research, I have been attempted to carve out a small program of it over the last year. It hasn't quite come together right. I've become obsessed, for some reason, with understanding writing and language from what I seem to think of as an "institutional" perspective, even though when I really think about it, I can't imagine what an "institutional" perspective would be. (That in itself is interesting, I suppose). I have been warned away, by multiple people, from doing this kind of research that digs into institutional policies, practices, etc., to avoid stirring up negative vibes. I understand this, and even though I think it would be arrogant of me to assume I'm important enough to be a nuisance to anyone who'd be implicated in this research, my goal really isn't to cause trouble. It isn't to tell everyone that they're doing it wrong.

I want to learn about the place where I work so I can do my work better, and I want to find a way to do this without getting in anyone's way. I'll probably have to think about this for a while longer before I can do it well. I am probably placing myself in the middle of conversations I don't really understand by trying to understand the 10+ year history of my institution's approach to writing and language.

4. This is going to be a much busier year than my first year was. I'm just coming off a glorious summer of parental leave (stressful in its own way, yes), looking down the barrel of a 2-2-1 year with 3 releases for admin work (including team teaching a course in the first semester, so it's really more like 3-2-1) and 4 or 5 conferences I need/want/hope to go to. Time management - never my forte - is going to be more important than ever.

5. I somehow wrote $15,000 worth of grants last year, which is really not bad considering I'd never written a grant before.

6. I also somehow became co-editor of a Canadian academic journal, which is pretty daunting, but exciting. So I'll be doing that.

7. What do I want from this year? To do my job better, to serve my students better, to collaborate with colleagues more on their projects, not mine, to avoid cynicism, to not work evenings or weekends. I don't know how much of all that will happen. Some can, I think.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What drives changes in writing course curriculum?

I am doing the first phase of a project on the history of a first year writing course. It's mostly document analysis of the founding documents of the course (recommendations from a curriculum committee, a proposal for the course, and ten years of syllabi of the course). The next phase will involve interviews with the people responsible for the syllabi (I hope).

I haven't found much in the literature on this -- historical studies of university writing courses, but I'm sure there must exist something like this out there -- and I find it fascinating.

When I started the project I proposed that it would be about the pedagogical, theoretical, and disciplinary influences on the way the course has changed its teaching and assessment methods over the years.

I was told again and again, though, that this didn't make sense because the idea that these things are the primary drivers of change is misguided. At first I didn't get it, or refused to go along with this idea. I still think that the way someone is trained, or the ideologies they bring with them about writing or teaching or language (which in academia are shaped in part by what disciplinary communities you align yourself with -- who you read) matter a lot when it comes to how the teaching of writing is actually carried out, and I probably will get to this eventually.

But now that I've been working (properly working, not as a grad student) at a university for about a year, I am starting to understand this. This must be incredibly obvious to anyone with more experience than I have, but I see now that:

Local and institutional social/political/ideological factors drive curriculum/ pedagogy/assessment more than "current theory and research" in a discipline drive these things -- for a few reasons, but mostly because the people at the top who make the decisions have different ideas and priorities than the people at the bottom who actually work with students.

This doesn't only affect how we teach and assess, etc (though this is important and something I need to learn more about for my project), but it affects who is teaching and assessing etc, and this is important I think.

At my own institution (well before my time) there have been administrative decisions which resulted in, among other things, the dissolution of a writing center, the creation of two subsequent writing-focused units that folded into other units and eventually disappeared, the implementation of a writing-intensive learning initiative which gradually lost its administrative infrastructure but still remains on the books, the re-emergence of student writing services in a new unit, and the establishment of an English-language support-focused unit (which seems to be part of a shift in the discourse I'm seeing across certainly my own geographical context if not more widely, from universities perceiving a need for 'writing support' to 'language support,' which is mostly a good thing but brings of some interesting and contentious issues when it comes to disciplinary divisions of labour).

All or most these decisions resulted in people being hired or losing their jobs, in instructors getting or not getting help doing their jobs, in students having or not having access to more help with their writing. In other words, these decisions added and subtracted people who bring with them all the stuff I talked about in the 4th paragraph above.

Anyhoo...more on this later, I hope.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Students Suck and Are Horrible" - Professors

"Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room -- whether at a grammar school, a high school, or a college -- have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy of twelve years old."  - Adams Hill


Look, I get that it's frustrating to work with students who aren't into what you're teaching. It happens to all of us. And maybe I am naive. I have after all only been teaching at universities for nine years. But I am still sometimes amazed at the negative attitude toward students' writing and linguistic abilities that appears to be the default view of many university faculty.

It isn't that some, or even many, university students aren't "bad at writing," if by "bad at writing" we mean something like "don't meet the expectations of excellent writing by undergraduates in their field." But of course, that's not what people usually mean -- they mean "bad at writing" in the sense of "based on my cobbled-together idiosyncratic understanding of what 'good writing' is," which for most people (including me!) is so maddeningly vague as to be irrelevant.

I have heard more than once since I started at my current institution, from more than one senior academic with presumably years of experience teaching young people, that students "can't write." This is often applied to "international students," but then whoever says this usually follows it up with some version of "it's not just international students -- there are plenty of native speakers who can't write at all!"

Three things come to mind.

First, the assertion that "students can't write" has literally been conventional wisdom since people started caring about "university writing" as a thing. Guess when Adams Hill, who ran entrance exams for Harvard, wrote the quote at the top of this post? In 1879, a hundred and thirty seven years ago, that's when. So: either all students, from the young white dudes at Harvard of the late 19th century to the Canadian immigrants of the early 21st, have been always and forever horrible at writing since the dawn of time, or this is that thing our professors warned us about: a discourse.

Second, and this is something I have trouble understanding maybe because I am a language person and not a "content" person (which doesn't really make sense but whatever), I'm interested in what I perceive as the personal offense or even anger with which faculty seem to talk about this topic. Here are some quotes from the media from professors at my own institution:

"The grammar sucks and the writing is awful...There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine.... It’s not.” (1
" ...insofar as [ESL] students are academically or linguistically unprepared to enter the broad cultural debates that animate the educational conversation, their presence in the graduate classroom and in some cases, their receipt of Canadian credentials, occurs to the detriment of the Canadian students and institutions." (2)

These are just two (relatively different) examples of how faculty talk about students. There are a lot of other things you'll hear every day on campus. I'm not necessarily taking it upon myself to "combat" those who seem to be unduly dismissive of student writing (though I have been known to use the phrase "this is what we're up against" from time to time with colleagues). I think this attitude itself needs to be studied; people like me should look more into why faculty feel this way, how language ideology works in the university,  and so on.

Third, I have to say, as a teacher of what might elsewhere be called "basic writing": my students, the vast majority of them, can write. They know how to make sentences and paragraphs and even essays. I would estimate that in any given class of eighteen students there are one or maybe two students whose basic grasp of syntax and/or vocabulary feels to me like it has the potential to cause them serious problems throughout their university career if they don't attend to it assiduously*.

This is just how I feel, by the way -- there are empirical questions about students' writing/language ability that can be answered  (and some have been) , vis-a-vis their success in later studies or the workforce or whatever. But why do I think my students can write when some of my colleagues don't? Am I wrong? Or could it be that someone like me, whose career is devoted to studying and teaching English language and writing to university students, is worth listening to on these questions?


[* Incidentally, part of my current work at my institution is with a unit that is charged with helping these students, and that is what we are trying to do. But it's not "students" who "can't write." It's maybe 10% of students.]

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Thought Questions: "Language support" vs "Writing support?"

“ESL” vs. “Writing” infrastructures (or ad hoc 'solutions') : Where does expertise and responsibility for working with L2 speakers/learners/writers lie in an institution?


Let's say an institution has a writing centre and an (English) language centre (e.g., Centre for Applied English Studies @ Hong Kong U, Official Languages & Bilingualism Institute @ U Ottawa). Who "works with" second language students, and how

Do writing centres incorporate second language pedagogies into their ethos & training?

Does the institution develop a mindset of L1 students go to X services, L2 students go to Y?

Does differentiating between "monolingual L1" students and "multilingual L2 students" become more or less necessary?

What is the relationship between writing programs and ESL support initiatives?

What is a university looking for when they identify language support as an area of need, and there are already writing programs in place?

How do writing program administrators trained in a humanistic English studies milieu incorporate theory, research, and pedagogy from second language studies/applied linguistics?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of hiring "applied linguists" vs. "writing specialists" to work with L2 student writers?

Are disciplinary divisions between "TESOL" and "writing" a help or a hindrance for delivering student support services?

How effective are university-wide generic "writing" or "language services" vs. more Faculty or department specific support?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Plurilingualism vs Multilingualism vs Translingualism

Plurlingualism seems to be the emerging theoretical construct of choice in Canada for the move away from "English-only"-type orientations to ELT. I don't know whether this is happening in the US but I suspect it is not. Below is a brief survey of some recent theoretical work on the terms multilingual, plurilingual, and translingual.

I remain encouraged by yet slightly skeptical of all of these. I think there needs to be a better understanding of how (and even whether!) people come to understand themselves as multi/plurilingual and especially as monolingual. I've said before that applied linguistics may need a "monolingual studies" analogous to "whiteness studies" in other fields, but that might be a bridge too far...


Coste, Moore, Zaratemultilingualism describes societies, plurilingualism describes peoples' use of language.

the focus on the individual as the locus and actor of contact encouraged a shift of terminology, from multilingualism (the study of societal contact) to plurilingualism. 


Mooreplurlingual and translingual are basically the same thing and are described in opposition to multilingualism which describes "separate competences in fixed and labelled languages"

Plurilingualism does not describe separate competences in fixed and labelled languages, but views languages as ”mobile resources” (Blommaert, 2010, p.43) within an integrated repertoire (Lüdi & Py, 2009) that can include translingual practice (Canagarajah, 2013).


Canagarajah - Translingual practice is an umbrella term which describes a number of 'newer' approaches to language that deviate from traditionally monolingually-oriented linguistics; a translingual orientation is therefore in opposition to monolingual orientation. (I would imagine that he and perhaps others would argue that the traditional understanding of "multlilingual" is actually based on a monolingualist orientation to language.)

I adopt the umbrella term translingual practice to capture the common underlying processes and orientations motivating these communicative modes.

Taylor & Snoddon - these terms are basically all the same -- plurilingualismtranslingualismpolylanguaging, and even multlilingualism are all ways of describing the trend of embracing "other languages"  in TESOL.



 The time is ripe as there is a palpable zeitgeist and related (if separate) manifestations of plurilingualism, whether they are termed thusly or as translingualism, polylanguaging, or simply multilingualism. Indeed the four books reviewed in this special issue....all touch on various aspects of, and research on, the role and value of learners' and teachers' first languages and additional languages, and policies that support plurilingual repertoires in relation to English teaching and learning. We hope practitioners and researchers alike will find much on offer here to enhance their understanding of language teaching and learning.