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Writing Instruction

Okay, University of Alberta department of English, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I have a honours degree in English from this fine institution and yet it wasn’t until my first week of working as a co-op student copywriter that I realized how little applicable skills I had actually learned during those many years achieving my degree. Professional writing is completely different than academic writing and this university simply does not have a system in place to teach students how their skills can be transferable into the real world (versus the airy, vagrant, academic world).

Second, Third and Fourth year English courses at the University of Alberta are exclusively focused on literary and cultural theory or various literary periods. Now that I am a student at the University of Waterloo, I’ve the opportunity to peruse their course catalogue and check out the titles of some of these (I think) more practical courses. I had better mention here that at the University of Waterloo you can do an undergraduate degree in English specializing in either literary studies or rhetoric and professional writing (RPW); similarly, in my graduate program, I can specialize in either rhetoric and communication design (RCD) or literary studies. Anyway, check out some of these undergraduate course titles that students at the University of Waterloo have the option of taking: Writing Strategies, Genres of Technical Communication, Genres of Business Communication, Arts Writing, Legal Writing, Approaches to Style, Rhetoric: Principles and Practice 1 and 2, Speech Writing, History and Theory of Media 1 and 2, Information Design, The Rhetoric of Text and Image, Writing for the Media, The Discourse of Advertising, and Rhetoric of Argumentation.

The main point I am trying to make here is that the University of Waterloo actually teaches classes on how to make an argument, how to write in the professional world, and how to be critical in the professional world as well. The University of Alberta has many excellent courses on criticism, but none actually teach students how to write, especially not in a professional context. Tania Smith shares my frustration in an article that I came across here in Waterloo (Thanks to Prof Cathy Schryer for this one:  http://www.stthomasu.ca/inkshed/cdncomp.htm):

As one example, I offer the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the university where I obtained my honors B.A. and M.A. in English literature. “Literature and Composition” courses at the University of Alberta have traditionally been 8-month long surveys of post-1800 British, American, and Canadian literature in which students write academic, analytical essays about literature . . . In 1994 Roger Graves explained that Canadian English departments market their courses to students and other departments as if they were “universal guides to clear writing,” but in reality they are “introductions to reading and writing within the discipline of English studies”. [Graves, Roger. Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities. Winnipeg: Inkshed, 56]  

Interestingly, Tania Smith was training as an English instructor at the University of Alberta at the same time that I was beginning my undergraduate degree. It is quite possible that she instructed some of my peers. Her description of how she was trained to be an English instructor at the UofA startled and angered me:

When I was trained as a first-year English instructor in 1994 and 1997 at the University of Alberta, I and my peers were given only 8-10 hours of training, and a very small portion of that time was training in “writing instruction,” which seemed to be interpreted as grammar instruction, grading, and written response to student writing. The bulk of the seminar was about syllabus design and leading discussions about literature. As a result, I and my peers were led to believe writing instruction was just that simple, and since there was no way to enforce it, far less than 1/3 of class time in English 110 was spent “going over” the common errors in class. More intensive writing instruction techniques (such as the use of multiple drafts and peer response) were briefly mentioned as possible methods, but were discounted as too time consuming for the instructor. Therefore, although the course was to include a writing instruction element, this element was often treated superficially as a matter of form and grammar, and teachers could easily get away with spending far less than the required percentage of the course discussing such matters which could easily become boring and tedious. Without more intensive training for writing instructors, and some sort of institutional controls on syllabi and methods, such courses are handicapped in their mandate to teach writing.

I recall enjoying my first year English course—likely moreso because I took it with my best friend than because we had a particularly good instructor. However, I took English 100, which was a version of first year English specifically focused on English literary studies. Many of my friends took English 101, which was to have a writing component in it, but which, I recall, ended up focusing mostly on grammar instruction rather than writing. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed learning grammar, composition, and literary studies, yet this option was not, and still is not, available to first year students at the University of Alberta.

                Anyway, it appears that this diversity is available to students at the University of Waterloo and I applaud the English department here for their forward thinking practicality.

Comments

  1. Alison Martin says:

    My sentiments re UofA.

    Am currently living in the United Arab Emirates and looking to do a masters in something other than TESOL (blech), and was looking for a Professional Writing MA. I connected to your post through a Waterloo Search. However, the course listings for the next year don’t appear to me to be very practical. I’d like what you suggest, “…Writing Strategies, Genres of Technical Communication, Genres of Business Communication, Legal Writing, Approaches to Style, Rhetoric: Principles and Practice 1 and 2, Speech Writing,… Information Design, The Rhetoric of Text and Image, Writing for the Media, The Discourse of Advertising, and Rhetoric of Argumentation.” Did you find any other reputable schools that offer this type of degree?

    tks.

    Like

  2. If you’re looking for an MA in professional writing you’d be better off looking into an after degree program in copywriting, creative writing, or journalism. An MA degree is a degree that requires engagement with academia and therefore you’ll review and contribute to research projects in classes that may not seem overly practical, and yet are what the university wishes to promote. I can honestly say that the University of Waterloo is one of the best English programs, for its size, in Canada, and the diverse course selections is unique to the country. The only other rhetoric streamed English program in Canaa is at Simon Fraser in Vancouver, maybe check their site out.
    Best of luck!
    Allan

    Like

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