Debate over writing courses

Faculties raise questions over role of writing in students’ education

The Writing Centre sees over 3
Image by: Justin Chin
The Writing Centre sees over 3

The Academic Planning Task Force will be releasing a preliminary report on April 28 and a final report will be issued by the end of September, but opinions are still divided as to how writing should factor in.

The Academic Planning Task Force was created to draft the University’s academic plan. It’s composed of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty members. The Task Force has suggested adding more types of writing courses to all programs, but the type of courses and why they are necessary is under debate.

According to Chris Rudnicki, AMS vice president (university affairs), members of the Academic Planning Task Force are worried that student’s writing skills are slipping.

“Their concern is that due to factors including increasing class sizes and early graduation, students aren’t leaving university with the same writing skills as 10 years ago. This is a widely shared concern … with engineers, math students, philosophy students,” Rudnicki said.

“[It’s] part of a more general shift in university culture towards content-based learning instead of inquiry. We are often expected to just digest content and spew it back out … [but] everyone needs to know how to write.”

Rudnicki said he had a lot of correspondence with engineering students who have cautioned against mandatory writing courses. However, Rudnicki said the Academic Planning Task Force isn’t talking about implementing another mandatory first-year writing course and it’s up to individual faculties to decide how to incorporate more writing instruction into their disciplines.

“The scope of the plan is incredibly broad, and the plan will need to shy away from detailed plans of what each department needs to do. We are drawing the map—it’s up to different faculties to navigate through the map and set the general direction,” he said.

Mathematics and statistics, biology and education Professor Peter Taylor is the chair of the Academic Planning Task Force. He said the Task Force is open to suggestions about possible recommendations to include in the upcoming report.

“We’re still in a listening and information gathering phase, and have a completely open mind. We’re not going to impose anything on anybody,” he said, adding that the Task Force wants to provide suggestions about what skills students need to acquire at university.

“We want to tell people what we think are important things undergraduates need to leave with,” he said.

According to Doug Babington, director of Queen’s Writing Centre, over 3,000 students a year book one-on-one consultations at the Writing Centre.

“We see a really broad spectrum of students, including lots of english, global development and politics students. However, [life science] is actually our biggest group, and a lot of natural science students come in for help with lab reports,” he said. “We help with writing from all perspectives. The Writing Centre is cross-curricula.”

Babington said many students aren’t given a template for how to write.

“Students don’t realize how much report writing they’ll do on a job,” he said.

The Academic Planning Task Force organized two Town Hall meetings, on March 7 and March 10, to gather feedback from students regarding the place of writing in their faculties and whether the Task Force should consider implementing more writing instruction in all disciplines.

Implementing a mandatory, first-year writing course across disciplines was an idea that came up at the Town Halls, but Babington said he doesn’t feel that’s a viable idea.

“There would need to be more staffing, investment and significant planning to make it a course other than one where students would feel locked in a jail cell and not pay attention,” he said, adding that a university entry-level writing test is an idea worth debating.

Kayt Eubank, Nurs ’12, attended the most recent Town Hall to voice her concerns. She said she mostly does clinical writing in her program, and that this style of writing will likely be the most relevant for her future career goals.

“I’m a third-year student, and we’ve had about three research papers in three years,” she said. “Otherwise, the writing we’re doing is clinical notes, which includes reports of how patients have been doing, clinical findings and progress notes, not formal papers.” At the town hall, Eubank suggested that there be a higher grade cut-off for incoming students’ english marks.

“Raising the admission average —making it higher by making it a 75, or making it an 80—ensures that students coming in have a stronger base of English and writing. This would save time and resources … so you don’t have to take staff away from other programs to teach writing,” she said. “The [Academic Planning Task Force] was stumped. There’s a lot of planning that hasn’t been looked at yet.”

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