Russell Hunt

Afterword: Writing Under the Curriculum

[As published in Writing Centres, Writing Seminars, Writing Culture: Writing Instruction in Anglo-Canadian Universities, ed. Heather Graves and Roger Graves. Winnipeg: Inkshed Publications, 2006. 371-383.


It's pretty clear that writing instruction in postsecondary institutions (and more generally, the ways in which language and learning are formally connected) in Canada is characterized by isolated and uncoordinated initiatives, sometimes brilliantly creative and sometimes slavishly imitative; in any case, varying wildly from context to context. There are patterns (Roger Graves, Tania Smith, and Henry Hubert, among others, have done ambitious jobs of looking for them, and even occasionally finding them), but in the central batch of institutional accounts in the present volume it's difficult to see a single clear direction which applies across more than a few cases.

The most fundamental pattern, in fact, is negative. It's mainly about what's not there. "Freshman comp" isn't there. There's nothing remotely resembling the situation in the US, where most universities have offered, for many decades, mammoth programs designed to administer writing instruction to either all or most of their first year students. Robert Connors (1996) has outlined a remarkable history of the advent of this phenomenon, in the process of recounting the recurrent episodes in which its effectiveness or justification has been widely but ineffectively questioned. Such a conversation or debate is inconceivable in the Canadian context, as the accounts in the present volume make clear. In Canada no English department chair could refer casually to the fact that although first year composition program is "seldom an organic and vital part of an English department's sense of itself . . . these courses bring considerable resources into the department -- typically not tenure track faculty lines but more library funds, more nonteaching staff hours, more office space, occasionally graduate assistantships, and more votes in faculty assemblies" (Kearns, 2003: 52). In Canada they have no such consequences because they don't exist.

This apparent rejection of the American model of composition instruction is, in my view, the single most important fact about instruction in, and study of, writing and reading in Canadian Universities. In Canada, as in Britain and the continent, and for similar complicated social and historical reasons, it's generally, and without a great deal of reflection, been assumed that postsecondary students already know how to write, or should, and if they don't, well, it's up to them to learn. In Germany, in my experience, classroom-based writing is generally considered a pretty much automatic information dump, engaged in almost exclusively in connection with examinations. Explicit instruction in writing is all but unknown at the postsecondary level. The situation is not much different in Britain. Here in Canada, there has been somewhat more attention to writing, in some measure because there has been for many decades significant institutional and professional pressure to attend explicitly and directly to those issues.

This pressure comes in a number of forms, almost all related in some way to the existence of that immense freshman comp industry south of the border. It's true, of course, that some of the pressure has been felt from domestic sources -- for example, it has been a response to demographic changes in the composition of the student body, as participation rates in higher education in Canada have climbed inexorably to approach those in the U.S. In general, the more students who turn up on campus in the fall the larger proportion of them there are likely to be who will be judged by the faculty as being inadequately literate. "Why haven't the high schools done their job?" is one way the judgement gets phrased; another has often been, "Why doesn't the English department do something about this?"

But it's also true and probably more important that the pressure to "do something" is intellectual and social, issuing from the connections between the academic communities in the two countries.

As, over the latter half of the twentieth century, that gigantic American institution evolved its own professional infrastructure scholarly journals and associations in rhetoric and composition, graduate programs, a textbook industry that in size and power began to rival the scientific ones Canadians who believed that something needs to be done, formally and explicitly, to help students learn to become better, more flexible, more effective manipulators of language (primarily written, and primarily as writers), increasingly had one major source of ideas and models: the U.S.

This has been particularly true since the virtual vanishing of the short-lived British presence in these matters after the Thatcher holocaust. The British influence I am concerned with here, I should make clear, needs to be radically distinguished from the long-standing and durable Anglophile commitment, most powerfully in English departments, to great texts and high culture -- a commitment which Hubert and Garrett-Petts (this volume) argue is responsible for the widespread rejection of "theory" and rhetoric in Canadian English Departments "as a means of defending British canonical literature that embodied values potentially threatened by a strong critical program."

The British influence I'm talking about came from elsewhere. It was primarily focused on the schools, but had strong implications for postsecondary instruction. In the period around the time of the 1966 Dartmouth Conference, when the Atlantic-Anglo cross fertilization of ideas about literacy learning burgeoned and the English ideas were new, especially to Americans, people like James Britton and Nancy Martin and Douglas Barnes brought ideas and practices to literacy learning at all levels which bode fair for a while to revolutionize North American literacy teaching at all levels, from preschool to university graduate programs. As chronicled in John Dixon's 1967 book, Growth Through English, the cross-oceanic fertilization was instrumental in fostering the new attention to the way in the activity of writing occurred which ultimately became, in North America, the "process" movement a movement which was, of course, hailed as a "paradigm shift" in composition instruction. I would argue, by the way, following Sharon Crowley ("Around 1971"), that this hailing was premature: the paradigm, though it shivered, did not actually shift. These ideas, as well as many of the other changes in assumptions about language education, also in significant measure importations from the Commonwealth, changed the weather, but not the climate, in language instruction in the last quarter of the twentieth century in the US, and hence -- for a while -- in Canada. But as the climate of innovation in the UK faded, and as Australia and New Zealand similarly embraced a back-to-basics attitude toward language and language instruction, especially at postsecondary levels, the range of ideas and approaches available in Canada narrowed to include primarily influences from the U.S., and especially from the "comp industry."

That influence is particularly pervasive, of course, in part because the journals and publications available here are primarily based there, and the professional associations which Canadian academics join are so dominantly American ones. Rick Coe (this volume) points out the casually imperialistic American habit of nominating international organizations as "National" (think of "national" sport leagues) where Canadian ones are more modestly termed "Canadian" central examples here being the NCTE ("National Council of Teachers of English" and the Canadian equivalent.

But at least equally important, these ideas have been imported along with the faculty hired in English departments and by the various writing centres and other initiatives, who have almost universally been trained in the graduate programs supported by those American freshman comp programs (there are, as one might expect, only a very few venues in Canada where training in composition and rhetoric is offered), and who usually come with extensive experience of teaching in such programs. This doesn't mean, by the way, that they are automatically proponents of such programs: in many cases I speak from personal experience they come with a sigh of relief at having escaped them. Whether proponents or not, however, they regularly bring with them a framing of the issue which assumes that the default mode for approaching writing is "the comp course"; equally important, they bring the assumption that explicit and formal class-based instruction is an open option. And indeed there are institutions in Canada which have taken up such an option (though not commonly under the auspices of an English department). Such programs have, however, remained relatively uncommon and isolated.

In this, in any case, as in many other cultural matters, Canada finds itself defined (in its own terms) as primarily like, or not like, the US. This has of course been even truer culturally as the historical social ties with Britain have severed or faded; the accounts in this volume by Henry Hubert and Will Garrett-Petts and by Kevin Brooks of the way Canadian Departments of English found themselves the last bastions on campus of Anglophilist values make clear the way this position came to be increasingly isolated and peculiar in the academy, and in fact largely insulated English departments from the social changes that "Americanized" so many other departments. Old hands will remember Robin Matthews and Jim Steele's attacks on the Americanization of social science and the university generally in Canada in the late sixties.

It was rare (though not unheard of) to find such charges of Americanization made about English departments, in some measure because the departments weren't Americanized, even though they hired Americans. Many of the faculty hired from American graduate programs in the sixties were happy to escape the fate of most of their peers, who, having gone blithely into graduate programs in literary studies, found themselves on graduation, at best, teaching three sections of Freshman Comp and perhaps the occasional course in something related to what they'd spent their graduate careers studying (usually, of course, classic British literature), and on scholarship of which their aspirations for promotion and tenure were based.

The profound difficulties posed for young faculty in US English departments by the growth of the comp program has been richly documented. One high point was Maxine Hairston's revolutionary call for a mass secession from the domination of what she termed the literary mandarins (1985); that it is a continuing issue can be seen in Kearns' recent (2005) proposal to upgrade the status of freshman comp instructors.

Many American academics came to Canada in the late sixties for political reasons, of course, but many found the curricular, social and theoretical attractions nearly as persuasive. Along with the utter lack of first year comp, Canada also had retained vestiges of the traditional English and German veneration of the professor as a leisured cultural artifact, his eccentricity (yes, it was virtually always a "him") licensed, his moral bona fides unquestioned. You could feel, in the Canadian English departments of the seventies and even into the eighties, that sense of bearing the white man's burden among the savages, of defending the Matthew Arnoldian "best that has been thought and said," holding the gates against the barbarians. Anyone who frequented the ACUTE (Association of Canadian University Teachers of English, as it was then called) meetings at the annual "Learneds" conventions will remember the atmosphere.

In fact, it is the rare Canadian English department that doesn't still have regular internal disputes often about defining positions preparatory to hiring replacements for retiring Miltonists or Chaucerians about the proper nature of the curriculum. Horror stories about the radical postmodernization of U. S. English departments, such as that at Syracuse, are traded. Every decision to move to stretch the canon to include some new element Canadian literature, American literature, Colonial and Post-colonial literature, literature in translation, literature by women, queer literature, literary theory, cultural studies is characterized by many as a watering down of the field, as a compromise with popularity and triviality, a betrayal of a noble mission.

No wonder, then, that it's virtually unheard of for a Canadian English department to have taken composition on board, in spite of its pervasive presence in the profession. What a shockingly American idea. In Canada writing instruction has only rarely been housed in or even associated with English departments.

Fitting nowhere else in the traditional departmental and administrative structure of universities, it has simply infiltrated the cracks, finding housing in administrative units, other departments, writing centres, various ad hoc creations of deans and provosts. The prediction I made back in 1981, and which Tania Smith quotes "the growth of writing courses and programs is going to change the configuration of our discipline. The change has already begun, and although its outlines are not apparent, it seems probable that its growth will be at the expense of what we have been calling 'the traditional concerns of the English Department'" has turned out to be either unrealistically optimistic or hysterically alarmist, depending on your predilections. It hasn't happened. As Procter (this volume) points out, at the University of Toronto (and, it seems clear, elsewhere) instructors employed in writing centres are even more than the toilers in the vineyards of freshman comp in the US usually isolated from the faculty in the departments whose students they share, and observes that "Although students from all courses and programs seek instruction from college writing centres, the people who assign their course work and the people who offer instruction on that work inhabit separate universes."

One of the most interesting consequences of this disciplinary homelessness in Canada has been the way folks concerned with writing in university have been pushed to find allies in other situations. In part this is simply a matter of the size of the cohort of people interested in the issue: there are fewer not only because there are only a tenth as many people in Canada, but even more dramatically because of the absence of that first year comp industry, and of the accompanying discipline of Composition and Rhetoric as a force on campus. Thus when in the early eighties a group of Canadians interested in writing found themselves as usual at an American conference, talking about how tangential their interests seemed to the issues being debated in the sessions elsewhere in the conference hotel, it sounded reasonable to try to set up some venue for Canadians to share their own experiences, which, it was becoming clear, were radically different from those of the Americans at those same conferences.

When it came to the crunch, however, the people who were interested in the matter turned out to be a profoundly different, and far wider and more various, sampling than you would have usually run into at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or the Wyoming or Penn State Conferences on Freshman English. In the event, those attracted to the growing group in Canada were people who had interests in high school and grade school language learning, they were people who were focused on language arts pedagogy, they were people from cognitive psychology and education and ad hoc writing centres and even, very occasionally, they were people from English departments.

The heterogeneous composition of the groups that formed at the annual Inkshed conference, beginning in the mid-eighties, but also in other gatherings of people mutually interested in literacy learning has meant that exclusive concern with writing (not to mention writing at postsecondary levels, and even less class-based essay writing) has simply not been possible.

The need to establish and enrich collegial relationships among the range of people who read and contributed to the Inkshed Newsletter and came to the annual conferences -- high school and elementary teachers, professors of education, psychologists studying reading, writing consultants in business, early childhood educators, professors of literature, staff from writing centres, graduate students in education meant that the conversation included issues rarely on the table at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication in the US. Literary reading, early language development, reader-response criticism, semiotics . . . the list goes on, as a glance through the back issues of the Newsletter from the eighties will demonstrate.

It was not, of course, only in this fairly small organization that the pattern worked itself out; it is evident in other contexts where writing and reading and their consequences were considered, as well. And this inability to narrow the focus, to concern ourselves exclusively with theories of composition, rhetoric and pedagogy and with their implications for the practice of composition instruction, contributed, I would argue, to the growth of attitudes toward the functions of writing in the curriculum which, regardless of what anyone intended, have created a unique opportunity to put writing not at the focus of institutionalized explicit instruction, but to attend to it as a pervasive phenomenon underlying and supporting all learning -- as literacy.

The idea that writing (more generally, literacy) is foundational to learning in all disciplines (and between them) is, of course, hardly new. Its most familiar embodiment has been in what have come to be called "Writing Across the Curriculum" initiatives, many of which followed on the creation by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler of the ambitious WAC program at Michigan Tech in the late seventies. But that movement, while still alive, never attained the dominance many expected, encountering resistance both from English departments defending their dedicated comp programs and from other departments less than eager to take on what they saw as the English Department's proper burden of paper marking, grammar correcting, and basic composition instruction. WAC has not been markedly more successful in Canada; promising programs here have often succumbed to similar resistance.

Two other developments, however, have found more fertile ground in Canada's antispecialized context. One is the rise of genre studies, especially the aspects more directly concerned with writing, following on the work of Carolyn Miller (1984) and Charles Bazerman (1988), who, respectively, offered those concerned with literacy learning a newly useful definition of genre and showed them how to use that definition in a powerful and productive way. This way of thinking was not easy to connect to classroom instruction in pedagogy. But, as Popken (1999) has observed, Aviva Freedman and her colleagues at Carleton and McGill offered an alternative.

Is it actually possible . . . to stand back away from a genre, to look at it, to comprehend its context and its properties, and then to learn how to produce it? Drawing on European theories of situated cognition (Lave and Wenger), Freedman and her research colleagues . . . have argued that it is not. Instead, they suggest that writers must be immersed in the context of a genre actually to understand it well enough to be able to acquire and produce it. . . . We simply haven't had enough dialogue on how genre theory (which has been most interesting to scholars) and genre acquisition theory can actually be translated into classroom practices.
It is not, I would argue, coincidental that this remarkable work on tacit learning in actual contexts of use, with all its difficulties in being "translated into classroom practices," was a prototypically Canadian phenomenon.

It is similarly significant that the closely related, though separate, second development -- the sudden rise among rhetoricians of interest in, and respect for, writing found in contexts other than the academic -- found a comfortable home in precisely the same community of scholars. Beginning with the work of Odell and Goswami (1982), it was increasingly acceptable to study seriously writing that was neither belles lettres nor academic scholarship and criticism. While, again, such studies did not appear to have much value for informing the practice of classroom instruction in writing (where, in and out of English classes, the formal academic essay's reign continued largely uninterrupted) the recognition that rhetorical strategies of remarkable sophistication were deployed in business letters, annual reports, quarterly summaries, and internal feasibility studies made it increasingly reasonable to ask where those strategies developed, if not in formal instruction. This question was posed in Freedman's landmark 1993 Research in the Teaching of English paper, "Show and Tell? The Role of Explicit Teaching in the Learning of New Genres" and then explored in unprecedented depth in a series of ambitious research studies, culminating in the publication of Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Genres in 1999.

While I would not suggest that it was only in Canada, nor only because of the cross-disciplinary ferment occasioned by the absence of a composition and rhetoric established, rooted in the institution of first year comp, that such questions could be raised and explored in such powerful depth, I would argue that it was particularly appropriate here, and unsurprising that it would be in this context that the historically rooted resistance to formal instruction combined with the institutionally enforced concern for literacy and how it develops should combine to occasion this sort of scholarship.

Further, I would argue that if we are to make the most of this peculiarly Canadian compromise, what we need to be exploring are ways of putting writing not across the curriculum, but under it. We need to be exploring ways of constructing situations for student writers which offer them immersion in the social situations which occasion and use writing, in which they can deploy the learning strategies Dias et al. show at work in the workplace writing situations at the focus of their studies, and subordinate explicit instruction to the situations where the apprentice writer can best profit from it. That such an approach would be consistent with a substantial portion of the range of structures which already exist in Canada, and are described in the present volume, for giving attention to literacy is clear. Whether it is likely that this can happen, in a climate where teachers and institutions are increasingly under pressure to define explicit measurable goals for explicit instruction, and where the influence of US practices has not lessened (whatever Michael Adams may argue about the increasing cultural differences between the US and Canada), is less clear.

For such an approach to become widely adopted, and indeed effective, the implications of the McGill-Carleton research on how genres -- and forms of literacy more generally -- are learned in actual practice will need to be explored in a structured way, and new structures for supporting literacy learning in contexts of practice will need to be developed. Attention will need to be paid to providing situations for student writers in which the characteristics of workplace writing are effectively created. Though this is less unlikely in Canada than in the U. S. -- in part because it should be possible to build on the hodgepodge structure of writing centres, isolated writing programs, and other initiatives that characterize the contemporary scene here, and in part because it would not entail disestablishing an existing institution like Freshman Composition -- I hesitate to argue that it is very likely. What is more probable is that a continuation of the present mosaic of programs and initiatives will continue to allow space for local programs and responses to support literacy in ad hoc and uncoordinated ways -- a quintessentially Canadian situation.

References:

Adams, Michael. (2003). Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. Toronto: Penguin Press.

Bazerman, Charles. (1998/2000). Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science." Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Available online from WAC Clearinghouse, Landmark Publications in Writing Studies. <http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/books/bazerman_shaping/>

Connors, Robert J. (1996). "The Abolition Debate in Composition: A Short History." Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change, ed. Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker and Edward M. White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 47-63.

Crowley, Sharon. (1996). "Around 1971: Current-Traditional Rhetoric and Process Models of Composing." Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change, ed. Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker and Edward M. White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 64-74.

Dixon, John. (1967). Growth Through English. Reading: National Association for the Teaching of English.

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Anthony Paré and Peter Medway. (1999). Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Genres. Mawah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hairson, Maxine. (1985). "Breaking our Bonds and Reaffirming our Connections." ADE Bulletin 81 (Fall), 1-4.

Freedman, Aviva. (1993). "Show and Tell? The Role of Explicit Teaching in the Learning of New Genres." Research in the Teaching of English 27 : 222-251.

Kearns, Michael. "The Composition Teacher-Scholar in the New University." ADE Bulletin 117 (Spring 2005), [50]-56.

Odell, Lee, and Dixie Goswami. (1982). "Writing in a Non-Academic Setting." Research in the Teaching of English 16 (Oct.): 201-24.

Popken, Randall L. (1999). "Developing a Theoretical Paradigm for Genre Pedagogy." Paper, South Central Modern Languages Association Freshman English and English Composition Section (Memphis, TN, Friday, October 29).
Online: <http://www.tarleton.edu/~popken/99SCMLA.htm>