The Canadian Question: A CASLL Exchange

edited by Roger Graves

In October 1998, Cathy Schryer posted this question to the CASLL listserv:

For some time I have been wrestling with the question as to whether there is
a Canadian tradition of teaching writing in Canada.  Are there practices and
positions that occur here that would be less likely to occur in the United
States? Is there a conservative set of practices that is uniquely our own?  Are
there also less conservative ( should I say "enlightened" ) practices that
are also more likely to occur here?

She invited responses, and a lively exchange ensued that touched upon many of the important aspects of cultural identity in the practice of writing instruction. What follows is an edited commentary on the responses, which are available in full-text at the CASLL archive.

Russ Hunt was the first to respond:

My own first take is that a "FY Comp" industry parallel to the US one never developed in Canadian universities (I'm not quite sure why, but I have a suspicion it has to do with the dominance in Canada of a English model of university, with its assumption that only the elite come, and with a tighter dominance of traditional English English literature in the middle of the century), and so writing has tended to find its way in the existing disciplines (mainly English) or as non-disciplinary "writing centres" rather than as a separate discipline.  So we got to WID before there was a WID?  (Henry's views
on this would be very interesting to me.)

I think inkshedding, on this view, is a peculiarly Canadian phenomenon.  Writing learning as a byproduct of something else. Very pragmatic, too.

Christine Skolnik took a different view of writing practices and specifically the place of writing centers and writing in the disciplines programs:

I also think (not without prejudice perhaps), that writing centers and writing in and across the disciplines programs *should* be viewed as a supplemental to rather than a substitute for an academic and professional writing curriculum. The argument that Canadian universities are generally more advanced in rhetoric and composition because they've invested in writing centers or WAC/WID programs *rather than* composition courses is frankly unpersuasive.

I think that rhetoric and compositionists regardless of nationality should be working seriously toward optimal pedagogical conditions.  The best universities -- wherever -- have universal curricular writing requirements, well-developed writing centers, *and* writing across the disciplines programs.  The "either or" argument is simply a cop out in my mind. Call me a brain-washed, Americanized Canadian, but I'm not advocating the "American system," I'm just trying to fight for what I see and experienced as a
distinctly *Canadian* academic and ethical problem/challenge . . . I just don't think we should base our ethos on "we don't do freshman comp and we're proud of it" and accept the status quo into the bargain.

Rob Irish picked up on the idea of composition courses as an alternative pedagogy to writing in the disciplines, noting that they are "contentless":

But what is a writing curriculum?  Is the only way to teach writing to have separate courses in writing?  I have trouble with this precisely because most such courses are "contentless".  At the same time, as someone in the thick of WID, I wish for more.  I'd like to see a real writing course for my students, at the third year or so, in which they can focus on content as well as their communication.

The conclusion that I reach from this is that we are really arguing about false binaries here: composition/rhetorical strategies methods courses as opposed somehow to writing in the context of learning. Is it necessary to privilege one over the other or to the exclusion of the other? I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue from 1989-1995, and Christine's comments provoked me to post a response based on my recollection and continued reading about composition in the 20th century in North America:

The tradition as Henry Hubert lays it out is of belles-lettres teaching of writing as an adjunct to literary study. At UNB in the 40s they taught writing for engineers by having them read Hemingway, among others. So it was a "practice" that went beyond the audience of English majors, and it is unlikely to occur in the US at this point, anyway. If I remember Connors work accurately, the belles lettres practice here was phased out of the engineering type curriculum in the 20s.

What I think this really points to is a sharp break in the role of universities. I once looked up the enrollment figures for all Can. univ. from 1920-1980 or so, and the figure jumber from something like 40,000 (Can. total) in 1940 to 400,000 or more in the 1960's. I think the old liberal arts college model of ed.--which I think involved a lot of writing in non-English classes--just fell apart under the weight of the numbers of people and the needs/skills/abilities of these new students (returning war veterans, 1946-50, and their progeny, 1960-75). But in response to this Can. univ. didn't set up first-year comp programs, and despite these numbers didn't enroll nearly as many students (about half as many as the US by percentage) as the US model called for. So, yeah, some really different practices have arisen, but I would relate them to socio-political factors and values rather than any lack of knowledge of how to do things differently. Academics at these times knew perfectly well what US universities were doing; they simply made sure that nothing of the sort happened in Can. universities.

Rick Coe wrote to point out that this was not a new question: Henry Hubert and Nan Johnson had also written about these questions:

I suspect what Northrop Frye said about his Canadian / USAmerican students being 90% the same, but that the 10% that differed was highly significant probably applies to Canadian/USAmerican approaches to composition as well.  But I believe there has been some study of that 10%.  My impression is that the belletristic  "Literature and Composition" course was more prominent longer in Canada (and, in fact, was alive and well at UBC when I was there in the late-70s).  Perhaps because industrializiation was more prominent earlier in the USA.  The writings of Henry Hubert, Nan Johnson, and Roger Graves seem to me highly relevant to this question.   Among them:

Johnson, Nan.  "Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the Canadian Academy: An Historical Analysis."  College English 50.8 (December 1988): 861-73.

Graves, Roger.   Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities.  Winnipeg: Inkshed, 1994.

Hubert, Henry A.  Harmonious Perfection: The Development of English Studies in
Nineteenth Century Canadian Colleges.  East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP,

I ended by commenting on the part of Cathy Schryer's question that inquired about distinctly Canadian questions. Russ Hunt had already noted that

I think inkshedding, on this view, is a peculiarly Canadian phenomenon.  Writing learning as a byproduct of something else. Very pragmatic, too.

And I added my own view of inkshedding as Canadian--

My own experience is that Can. practices, like Canadian politics, can be both more conservative and far more radical that the US equivalent. The whole Inkshed experience is too radical to have come out of the US, but teaching first-year writing to 200 students in a lecture hall is just as far out in the opposite direction. And both are uniquely Canadian practices.

To which Cathy Schryer added:

 I like your idea, Roger, that we  have  the most radical sets of practices on both sides of the equation.  In my own intro writing course, because of the historical and political circumstances here, I have to lecture  for an  hour a week to 200 students ( a practice which I compare to lecturing about swimming) but at the same time we have active workshops (2 hours a week) with inkshedding, discussion groups, peer editing, drafts, an interactive web site that supports the course etc, etc.  But this is a precarious balance and one which the administration wants to challenge ( in its quest for greater numbers).   One of the easiest ways to challenge this balance is by calling the "newer" elements ie, the workshop approach--foreign, non-Canadian.

For example, I am willing to go out a limb and say that because of the history of the "whole" language approach  and even the Lit.Com approach here in Canada that we have a history of retaining the interaction of reading and writing in our courses.

Margaret Procter responded by describing a writing across the curriculum strategy for teaching writing that she has noticed at the University of Toronto:

I've wondered too if Canadians have a distinctive take on the reading/writing question because so much writing teaching happens within lit courses or other disciplinary courses. For instance, over the past few years I have noted an increasing use at U of T of "critique" assignments. Profs find them useful because they make students read specified texts carefully. They go beyond summaries in asking for analytic reading and awareness of argumentation, even for some rhetorical awareness of intended effect on reader. They invite students to resist texts' intentions and even to evaluate their success. They allow for statements of opinion that are based on more than gut feeling or emotional response (while not totally excluding them).

Natasha Artemeva  picked up on this thread and described a technical communication course she teaches that integrates instruction in writing with study in engineering:

The students are asked to choose one of the Engineering courses they are taking concurrently with the Communication course and to follow it in all Communication assignments. They are asked to post journals to the electronic course newsgroup discussing their chosen engineering courses (discussing assignments, asking questions, solving problems, etc.) and responding to other students' postings. It's a kind of electronic log book and at the same time it's dialogic.

Other assignments in this course include a formal letter to instructor written in response to the instructor's letter of request (in this letter students inform the instructor of the details of the engineering course they choose as the focus of their work in the Communication course); a proposal for the topic for the major Communication course project written in response to instructor's RFP; an abstract of an article directly related to the topic of their major project; a progress report (includes both a written report and an oral presentation), and the major written report (both oral and written).

In fact, there is only one large assignment in the Communication course: the major project on the topic related to the chosen engineering course. All smaller assignments reflect different stages in the process of completing the project. The instructor discusses topics for the project individually with each student and provides extensive feedback on all their submissions. Students are asked to exchange drafts, make comments on them, and revise their drafts using peer comments. They can use the course newsgroup to receive feedback from their classmates.

Philippa Spoel made an interesting observation about the lack of composition courses in Canada being related to our cultural aversion to the contemplation of the self that dominates the "expressivist" tradition in U.S. courses:

I notice in particular the privileging in (some) American comp/rhet of an expressivist view of writing--that is, writing as a form of self-discovery and self-expression.  I haven't noticed this approach nearly as much in scholarship and teaching by Canadians.  I think we tend instead to stress writing as engagement with a subject matter, rather than engagement with "the self"--at least, in a university context.  Which may be why we haven't  introduced many writing courses which don't have a clear academic subject (whether that be literature or engineering).   Our emphasis on the reading/writing link and on critique, as you and Margaret have noted, seems to me to be connected to our non-expressivist tradition, if you will (how's that for an identity based on negation?).

For me, Philippa's comment circles back to the issue of cultural identity and how that identity shows itself in cultural practices, like the teaching of writing. In the same what that the people who set up the first universities in Canada wanted those institutions to be cultural beacons for the new society, so, too, does our present society express the same sense of purpose. The difference is that instead of Scottish professors and Anglican institutions we often have materialistic or economic goals competing with cultural goals. That is, universities have as their goals not only the extension of the "high" culture but the extension of our economic or mechanical control over the world. This is a different world we live in, and our universities and ourselves serve different purposes and different peoples than they did 100 years ago. And so, of course, our writing instruction is also meant to serve the new purposes of our institutions.Perhaps our purpose is to interrogate these purposes and question the effects the new university has on our students and their sense of who they are and how they fit into society.

Roger Graves
DePaul University