The McGill Writing Centre, School of Continuing Studies
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I teach a course titled “Research essay and rhetoric,” which is a writing course available as an elective to students in all faculties. In this course, I immediately try to put the students at ease because there’s a great deal of anxiety about writing. I use a lot of humour. The first class always ends with a grammar joke, just to get the students to realize that grammar can be fun. I never lecture for the whole period. Most of the classes are devoted to particular issues, but I try to mix up the methods of teaching them. I deliver a certain amount of information and then any number of things can happen. For instance, I always have one class where I give the students a sentence with a grammar error and they have to draw what it actually says, not what it intends to say.
I also encourage students to ask questions because I think it’s better to teach in a dialogue form and it gets them over the fear of asking questions. And I use a lot of group work as it really helps the students to get to know each other very quickly. I let them review each other’s drafts, which helps them to develop their own self-editing skills and to realize that what’s crystal clear to the writer is not always obvious to the reader.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
In the writing course, there is no exam but there are a lot of assignments, some of which are take-home and others in-class. They are a variety of lengths, and I show them different genres. They get to submit three of the assignments twice so they learn that writing is a process. This improves their editing and proofreading skills and allows them to have a second go after they’ve received feedback. Having two drafts also makes it possible to measure real improvement as it is very visible. If they’re taking another course that requires a research paper, I allow them to work on the same paper for both courses, with the written permission of the instructor.
Throughout the course, I also give them the same test three times but I add extra questions as we go along. So it’s a review but it also gets them to realize that the knowledge they had at the beginning is not separate from the knowledge that they’re getting at the end.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
I’d like them to learn that writing is a process. We know from research that a large proportion of students start their assignments far too late. I want them to realize that if they invest more time and break up their work into stages, it’s actually far less painful and more rewarding. I really want them to feel that they have mastery of language and to understand that the ability to write well is closely linked with the ability to read well. When they leave the course, I want them to be more confident in these abilities and to understand that writing is absolutely essential to their academic success. In fact, what they are learning is something that goes way outside my classroom and even way outside the university. Being able to express yourself clearly and craft a nice argument are rewarding.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
Teaching them how to do research is absolutely fundamental to the course. We have a class on plagiarism and a library workshop where they are shown how to find, locate, search and evaluate resources. I get them comfortable with academic terminology, and we talk a little bit about the different types of research papers and how you might find two scholars who disagree, so that they become comfortable with that fact.
I teach them research methods as well. They have a staged research paper where they have to write a provisional research proposal and then get feedback from me. Then they get a second attempt to put a proposal together along with an annotated bibliography. So they understand that you need to have a clear topic and that you need to read sources far enough ahead of time to know what they’re about and whether they might be worthwhile using.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
They should use all the resources that Teaching and Learning Services offer. Also, to think hard about what you can realistically achieve. I think one of the major errors that new instructors make is trying to do too much in a course, either too much reading or trying to cover too many topics, and it ends up being a real strain on them and the students. The other thing is to try to have mentors.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
The first thing is that they need to take this writing course as early as possible in their university careers, so they can get the maximum benefit out of it. The other thing they should know is that it is a labour intensive course. It’s demanding but they can also expect me to work really hard. They get a lot of feedback, I’m very available during office hours, which they should make use of, and I use MyCourses, so I think they have an opportunity to get a lot of individual attention. I also encourage them to take it seriously. It’s really not worth taking a course if you don’t have a serious investment in improving.
Why do you teach?
I really first got interested in teaching because I had some amazing instructors myself, who inspired me to become a teacher. They changed my life and made me think about all sorts of things in ways I never had before. And I love it. I think teaching is demanding but at the same time, I think the rewards are pretty powerful. It’s a wonderful thing at the beginning of every semester to meet a new bunch of students and to see their intellectual development and the development of their confidence. I think there’s a sense that I can have a real impact, that what they’re learning in that classroom is going to serve them so well for the rest of their lives.