The CACE Questionnaire
on English Departments
and Writing Programmes:
by Russell A. Hunt
May 6, 1981
I had originally planned to present the results of the questionnaire in summary form, and primarily in terms of percentages of various answers. This proved impossible -- and, I believe, undesirable -- and I was forced back to the clumsy, inefficient, and humanistic instrument of prose. I hope the report, in spite of this, is a useful source of information.Of 58 Questionnaires on English departments and writing programmes circulated through the February issue of the CACE Newsletter, 35 had been returned or responded to by May 1. This was fewer than I had hoped, but many more than I had been led to expect. The fact that we lack information for 23 institutions means that we should be very careful in generalizing on the basis of the results. It seems very likely, for instance, that it is institutions which do not see a problem and haven't been thinking about the relation between writing instruction and traditional literary concerns which would be the least likely to return the questionnaire. This would, of course, affect the reliability of the sample drastically.
In any case, however, the questionnaire was not intended to allow us to make statements about the Canadian scene as a whole, but rather to serve as a method of collecting and distributing information. Bearing that in mind, I have tried to minimize the extent to which the results are generalized, interpreted, or quantified. Equally important, I have made no attempt to keep institutions anonymous. (Remembering the trouble the Priestley-Kerpneck report had with this issue, it seemed probably impossible in any case.)
A caution should be entered here on behalf of those who took the time to fill out the questionnaires (and sometimes to write lengthy explanations) and that is that none of the answers should be read as a formally considered statement of a department's policy. None of the responses were composed with a view to publication, but rather represent attempts to provide basic information as quickly as possible, and should be read with that in mind. It should also be borne in mind that because in many cases it is not at all clear who actually filled out the questionnaire, I have identified quotations by university. This is not, of course, meant to suggest that the answers represent university policy.
The most striking and important fact revealed by the responses is that, in the area of writing programmes at least, English departments in Canada represent a series of isolated, insular cultures, each speaking its own language and holding to its own patterns of assumptions and values without paying a great deal of attention to what is going on elsewhere. The major problem I encountered in interpreting the responses to the questionnaire is that the most basic and central terms may mean radically different things at different institutions.
At one, "basic" or "introductory" writing might mean a course intended to supply students with the rudimentary foundation in grammatical competence which somehow the schools failed to give them; at another, a course intended to help third- and fourth-year students to manipulate more skillfully the rhetorical principles involved in term and research papers. Methods of measuring teaching load and course offerings vary out of recognition from one institution to the next: at one we find a casual reference to "1 1/2 units out of 40" as a description of the proportion of the department's effort devoted to basic writing; at another we find a reference to "3 out of 24 half courses"; at others references to "10 sections out of a total of 119" or "one-third of a standard load."
Of course, such diversity of language and norm is only to be expected when the concept we begin with -- that of the English department itself -- varies from, on the one hand, a collection of five or six people teaching three courses each to undergraduates to, on the other, a department with scores of professors, instructors, teaching assistants and graduate students teaching a range of courses from basic writing and introductory literature to Ph.D. thesis direction.
That such diversity ought to be expected does not, however, ensure that it will always be noticed or allowed for. In fact, it seems to be very rarely acknowledged. Generally, when we use terms like "freshman comp," "introductory literature," "a traditional literature programme," "freshman," or even "a course," we tend to assume that the terms mean the same thing everywhere; and very often we never discover that we're not talking about the same concepts. It would go some way toward justifying the amount of effort involved in a survey such as this if it brought us to a clearer recognition of the difficulties we encounter in communicating accurately when we discuss such subjects as curriculum, departmental organization, and the nature, methods and goals of instruction.
Beginning, then, with the caution that it is not at all clear that we all mean the same things by "a course whose central or only purpose is instruction in expository writing," it is possible to summarize some of the information contained in the responses. Of the 35 respondents, 20 offer a course so described, and three plan to begin offering one next year or the year after. At three universities -- Trent, St. Thomas, and Brandon -- basic writing is taught but not by the English department. The courses are about evenly split between one- and two-term schedules; virtually all are standard three-class-hour-per-week classes, although there are exceptions: a couple require four hours per week, some divide between lectures and tutorials or "workshops" or "labs," often taught by teaching assistants. Waterloo, for instance, offers one lecture and three labs per week, while Montréal offers two classes and a conference each week.
Of the courses which seem to have composition as the sole or central aim, most do not yield credit which can be applied toward a degree in English. Of those which are described as including "very minimal," "very little" or "no" "attention to literature and literary concerns," only five could be counted toward an English major (at Winnipeg, Université de Québec à Chicoutimi, Montréal, Concordia, and Windsor). It seems clear that the overwhelming majority of these courses are not seen as very closely related to what we might call the traditional concerns of the English department.
Some courses are described as combinations, in various proportions, of literature and composition. In general, I did not include these courses as "basic writing" but it is clear that their relationship to basic writing courses needs to be considered. At some universities such courses are clearly intended to serve the needs which at others have produced straight composition courses; at some the two courses coexist; at some the introductory literature courses make no more special point of writing instruction than do any English courses. settling the proportion of time spent on each activity is no easy matter even for the person directly involved in the course, since reading literature, writing about literate e, and learning to write arc such closely allied activities. Some of the specific comments appended to the question regarding the basic writing course's attention to literature suggest this alliance. At Waterloo, for example, the course includes literature "only incidentally (the lecturer may smuggle in examples from poetry or fiction from time to time." At McGill, "more advanced sections do some preliminary writing about literature, as wall as reading of literary texts, and at Windsor a second course, "Writing About Literature," is proposed, which "will offer guidance and practice in analyzing, and writing about, short stories and essays. Attention will be given to such elements as theme, point of view, tone, and diction."
The sections of the questionnaire regarding the organization of the course yielded very little meaningful information, partly because the phrases "a uniform, multi-section course" and an "individual-option, multi-section course" seem to vary so widely in meaning from one institution to the next. Many institutions, for instance, identified theirs as a uniform, multi-section course but went on to say that there were no common texts, common examination or other means of coordinating the sections. It seems clear, indeed, that a strictly uniform course is not popular. Only eleven departments seem to have gone down the road toward uniformity so far as to use common texts; four or five have common examinations, and only two regularly seem to use interlocking or cooperative marking (here as in other areas I am in some doubt as to whether the phrases have the same general signification). Fifteen departments said they used a common statement of aims or method, but it is not entirely clear what was meant in each case. Only one -- Victoria -- included a copy of such a statement or summarized it. Victoria's stated aim is "to teach the student to convey clearly what he has heard, read, and learned, both in note-form and essay-form, to argue coherently to understand and criticize the arguments of others, and to learn the methods and conventions of reasoning and of scholarly research." Others commented at varying length -- usually in response to questions about coordinating the courses -- on nature of their offering and many of these comments are of some interest. Waterloo, for instance, describes its course in these terms: "Large lecture is given by faculty member once a week. Students then meet in groups of 15-20 with TA for three hours -- about an hour discussion and two hours writing. Most assignments are written in class and revision of assignments is required." At Western, "it is run as a workshop. Little formal lecturing, a good deal of practical work with exercises in punctuation, sentence development, and sequence, paragraph structure and composition. Much written work in several modes of exposition."
Final examinations are apparently not popular in such courses. No question asked specifically about whether a final exam is given, but many institutions volunteered the information that one was not. Winnipeg, for instance: "Usually, we schedule no examination; the grade is based upon the achievement in a number of selected papers, with attention given to such matters as improvement, and quality of the last assignments." Or Waterloo: "There have been times when a common exam has been hold. Usually, there's no final, however, and coordination is encouraged through efforts of the faculty member in charge -- he will organize marking sessions for his TA's, for example."
Although there seems to be no pattern among the selection of texts or the institutions which prescribe common texts, it may be worth listing texts which are mentioned specifically. Only five were mentioned by more than one institution: Cooley, The Norton Sampler; Corder, Avis and Moore, A Handbook of Current English; Crews, The Random House Handbook; Messenger, The Canadian Writer's Handbook; and the venerable McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose.
Mentioned once were Baker, The Practical Stylist; Brent and Lutz, Rhetorical Considerations; Casty & Tighe, Staircase to Writing and Reading; Conrad, The Canadian Writing Workbook; Daiker, Kerek and Morenberg, The Writer's Options; Dekker, Patterns of Exposition; Hall, A Writer's Reader and Writing Well; the Little, Brown Workbook; Mahoney, Workbook of Current English; Memering and O'Hare, The Writer's Work; New and Messenger, Active Voice; The Norton Reader; The SRA Reading Lab, College 1 and 2; Waterston, Brush Up Your Basics; Watt, An American Rhetoric; West and Stremmel, Exploring, Visualizing, Communicating; and Willis, English Grammar.
The only pattern discernible among the texts is that very few of the more recent departures in writing teaching -- focus on the writing process, for instance, or sentence combining -- seem to have attracted much notice.
Closely related to the question of coordination among sections, of course, are the matters of the size of the programme and the nature of its staff. Here again the most striking attribute of the responses is their diversity: the size of programmes varies from thousands of students annually to twenty or twenty-five; the number of sections to be coordinated from scores to one. Class sizes, too, vary from twenty or so to highs of forty-five or fifty.
The Departments were about evenly split between those whose course was taught exclusively by "regular English faculty" on a volunteer or semi-volunteer basis and those which used some proportion of faculty hired specifically to teach writing (usually part-time faculty, teaching assistants, or sessional lecturers). Only a few -- Mount Saint Vincent, Wilfrid Laurier, McGill, Concordia, Guelph, and Simon Fraser -- indicated substantial use of staff hired specifically to teach writing. At Trent, Brandon, and St. Thomas, the writing course is taught outside the English department; at the last the department contributes 3 courses out of a total of 22-25 a year to the programme.
Some of the departments which use specialists offered interesting comments on this practice. At Wilfrid Laurier, for instance, "Increasing numbers of traditionally trained faculty are trying their hands out in the course . . . . As well, we have two or three part-time instructors 'lent' from other departments: these have been vetted by us and undergo a course of informal retraining." This is the only clear instance (aside from St. Thomas) of faculty drawn from other departments being "seconded" to a writing programme; others, however, note a tendency for more "traditionally trained" English faculty to become involved in the course. At Mount St. Vincent, for instance, there "is no firm policy on hiring specialists, and "Regular faculty may teach the course as part of their regular teaching load in the future." And at Concordia "More full-time faculty will be teaching in this area in the future if enrollments in literature courses continue to decline."
Very few respondents said that administrative distinctions were made between writing teachers and others (except where a number of writing teachers were sessional or part-time). At Guelph, "In general, writing course staff is hired on a semester basis; they are non-Ph.D.s interested in teaching writing. At present, there are no tenurable positions available for writing teachers." At McGill "those teaching just writing are not permanent." At Simon Fraser, similarly, writing teachers "are in lecturer rank (non-tenured)".
Policies regarding the training or advisement of writing teachers, as one would expect, varied according to the nature of the programme. A few departments checked or referred to seminars or training sessions; a large number indicated there is some form of supervision, though the form this might take was often left unstated. At Guelph, "experienced teachers are encouraged to use their own teaching strategies," but "new, first time teachers (are) usually provided with handouts, exercises, advice. Borderline papers must be read by two experienced instructors and/or the Director." At Victoria, the "Director of First Year English consults particularly with new sessional lecturers, looks at syllabi and exams, visits one class." Winnipeg perhaps speaks for most departments: "We have been experimenting with all three" methods of training and advising, and "at present no one is used exclusively. We are 'feeling our way' in this matter."
It is somewhat surprising to find the clientele served by writing courses varying so much. A basic distinction is between programmes serving primarily students coming out of grade 13 in Ontario and Grade 12 elsewhere, of course. More surprising is the lack of a pattern among groups of students who take the course at various universities. Aside from the few where the course is required of all students, about two-thirds of the departments responding to this section said that it is primarily non-Arts students who take the course (either because they choose it or because it is required). At Alberta the course is required of first year engineering students; at Guelph "he course is required of students in science and, in fact, is titled "Writing for Scientists." The course is primarily populated by students from professional faculties at Lakehead and the University of British Columbia, and by those from business and commerce at Mount St. Vincent, Ottawa, Ste.-Anne and Wilfrid Laurier. Western Ontario serves "perhaps more from the social sciences than elsewhere, but on the whole a very healthy mix."
One might expect on the basis of this that such courses would serve primarily non-Arts students, but at Laurentian ("very few from science"), McGill ("most from faculty of Arts"), Moncton ("Arts and education mainly"), Simon Fraser ("arts and interdisciplinary studies for the most part") and Windsor (a large percentage of students are from the B.A. and social science faculties") that is clearly not the case. This might be related to the course's position in the overall curriculum-whether, for instance, composition represents an alternative to a more traditional literature course. Victoria, for instance, says that "science students are more likely to take composition than literature," and Ste.-Anne that "students in Commerce tend to prefer it, since its literary content is smaller." It is not clear from the questionnaire, however, how many institutions offer the two as alternatives.
It is clear, however, that most of the courses were instituted at least partly in responses to demand from the rest of the university. To this question, fourteen departments responded "yes" and three more "partly." One -- Winnipeg -- said "only slightly," and seven -- Laurentian, Moncton, Montréal, Université de Québec à Chicoutimi, Victoria, Wilfrid Laurier and Windsor -- denied that outside pressure had influenced the institution of the writing course. Seventeen institutions indicated that they were under some pressure from the rest of their institution to expand their offerings in writing. At Waterloo, for instance, "The engineers . . . would like us to teach a course in the research paper." At Victoria, "The School of Engineering to be established here will greatly increase the number of sections -- they want composition, not literature. We are probably moving toward a technical writing course." And at Windsor, "The pressure is now from the faculties of Business Administration and Engineering. Engineering plans in the next General Calendar to identify [expository writing] as a recommended 'free elective'."
Given such pressures, it may be significant that of seventeen programmes whose origins were dated, thirteen were instituted after the 1974-5 academic year, and seven more recently than three years ago. What is certainly significant, however, is the number of departments that responded to the questions regarding expansion of writing programmes at the expense of traditional literature courses. This is perhaps particularly a sensitive issue because of the amount of time we already give to writing courses. Of the responses that could be evaluated numerically to the question regarding the proportion of the department's teaching effort devoted to writing, the average amounted to over 23% and the answers ranged up to 45 and 50% in some cases. Whatever the cause, these questions generated more comment than any of the others.
Only a very few departments said they were under no such pressure, and often they did not comment. Montréal explained that its pressure tended to involve English as a second language and so was not relevant. Moncton and Ottawa also reported no such pressure. The McGill department is surprised by the lack of pressure: "No, oddly enough. We have had all extra monies that have been used for this course eliminated, and we have cancelled it for next year."
Among those under some pressure, it is difficult to see any clear pattern other than that not many see the pressure as something to be welcomed. Wilfrid Laurier sees it as "in part, a way of smuggling in some very bright literature Ph.D.s who happen to have experience or training in the area." Guelph, on the other hand, comments that there is pressure "from other faculties and schools. While we feel an obligation to respond to the pressure of genuine need we feel our primary obligation is to the B.A. programme." And at Western Ontario: "We are working very hard to honour our responsibility to the academic community to teach both language and literature. There is some pressure of the kind you speak of, mainly from non-academic university think-tank types who think that that is all we should be doing, but we are resisting it vigorously -- and so far successfully."
The tradeoff between writing and traditional literature courses is painfully felt in some cases. At Windsor, for example, "We feel a certain pressure from inside and outside the University to effect a modest expansion of writing/rhetoric courses. For example, we're thinking now of introducing a second- or third-year undergraduate course in Theory of Composition, a survey of early and modern rhetorics. The Administration, on the other hand, is resolved to reduce the number of courses listed in the General Calendar. Thus to make room for one or two new writing courses like the Theory of Composition, we may have to amalgamate or even delete a few courses from among the traditional literature offerings. We will do very little of that, however, as little as we can possibly get away with." Others refer less directly to the possibility of such a tradeoff. At Acadia the pressure is "indirect: a decline of student interest in traditional literature courses, which we are trying to react to. This is one of several responses that include reviewing of curriculum, rotating courses, etc." Concordia has experienced "a continued expansion in this area, largely on the basis of increased student demands. This in itself has not led to a reduction in literature courses, although the number of these has declined."
The response of Winnipeg is perhaps particularly poignant. "Yes, there is a tendency in this direction, partly because courses in writing are popular today and our students tend to choose them rather than traditional literature courses, partly because there exists a growing need to discover how to write better on the part of serious students, and partly, I fear, because an increasing number of students are not really motivated intellectually, and simply do not wish to read and study the humanities." Pressure for writing courses is "mainly from our students themselves. Last autumn I could have filled more sections of Composition, while, at the same time, I had to cancel classes in Milton, Chaucer, and a period course in poetry (or seriously consider doing so) . . . . We may have to expand our offerings in Composition in order to maintain enrollment numbers so that staff members will not have to be dismissed. Does one 'surrender to the market' in order to survive? Or does one insist upon the traditional offerings in order to offer an education? And the choice is somewhat tempered by the fact that some students require the training in composition."
The view that writing courses represent to some extent at least a betrayal of our mission as departments concerned with the academic and scholarly study of language and -- especially -- literature is widespread. Saint Mary's, which does not offer a writing course, enunciates in its response to the questionnaire regarding a seminar, a desire to discuss defending the traditional concerns of English departments against "attempts to substitute so-called writing courses' for an English requirement." Another department which does not offer basic writing, Saskatchewan, refers to the pressure and hints at a threat that, it seems clear, most departments face. "There is definitely an increasing pressure from professional colleges for the Department to convert its conventional first-year language and literature courses to a writing course. The Department has been resisting this pressure for some time. There is also a growing desire in the professional colleges that the Department should offer senior writing classes for professional students. Those courses are seen by the colleges as alternatives to the regular literature courses, and the Department, though interested in pursuing the idea of developing writing courses, does not wish to see them mounted at the expense of literature courses. The Department is also very concerned that creation of any new courses be funded by new money rather than by a redirection of present budgetary allocations."
If nothing else is made clear by the variety of the situations indicated in the responses to this questionnaire, one thing is plain: the growth of writing courses and programmes 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."