Writing it all down

Writing it all down McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 11, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 08
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Writing it all down

Communicating thoughts, ideas, findings and observations in the arena of the university requires an ability to write clearly. But not everyone arriving at McGill -- high admission standards notwithstanding -- has that ability.

Photo Writing teacher Charlotte Hussey checks in on her students
PHOTO: Owen Egan

For many students, English is not their first language. Besides, students fresh to university have yet to know the exigencies of academic writing as it varies from discipline to discipline.

Hence the need for courses in "effective communication," tailored for the particularities of students in management, engineering, social work, education and such continuing education programs as public relations -- not to mention all those simply wanting to improve their writing for reasons either of pleasure or practicality.

Those who cut and paste and fit the courses to the needs of McGill's diverse lot of students are a group of seven largely part-time faculty lecturers and two sessional lecturers known, collectively, as the Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing.

Begun 20 years ago as an enthusiastic bunch of education graduate students tutoring undergraduates in essay-writing and teaching "effective written communication" to management students, the group is now a slightly less enthusiastic bunch of "old girls," says its director of the past two years, Carolyn Pittenger, a 20-year veteran of the CSTW.

Will the group be celebrating its longevity? "I don't think so," says Pittenger with a laugh.

"A raise would be nice, though."

While Pittenger loves what she does, and speaks with unbridled pride of her instructors who, collectively, teach at least 1,500 students annually, she would also like to see herself and the centre's staff have greater support from the faculty and the University, not to mention pay and equipment.

In the annual report she submitted last spring to the dean of the Faculty of Education, Ratna Ghosh, Pittenger outlined the obstacles which she says prevent the CSTW from realizing its potential, a potential she considers great considering the experience of her teachers and the current demand both in the University and in outside institutions for courses in effective written and oral communication.

While Pittenger believes the centre is a good cash cow, bringing into the faculty approximately $300,000, according to the director of the Office of the Principal, Réal Del Degan, few of its instructors can make a living without a second job. Some faculty lecturers are paid as little as $20,000 for a five-course course load -- six courses constitutes a full-time load -- and may earn an additional $3,300 for each additional course.

At Concordia University, business communications lecturers receive $4,765 per course, while sessional CEGEP teachers receive at least $4,300.

Ironically, it is because of the low pay that all the instructors have developed expertise in a variety of writing styles, thanks to the necessity of having a second job. "That's why they're so good at their jobs," says Pittenger. Faculty lecturer Sharron Wall, for instance, looks after writing the publicity for the wooden kitchenware she and her husband sell through their company.

"When Sharron Wall talks about writing for the market to public relations students, she knows what she's talking about," says Pittenger, who, after years of teaching effective communications to engineering students, has developed expertise in the area. Her skills in teaching such writing have enabled her to work also as a communications consultant for the past 10 years at STS Systems Ltd., a software company in Pointe Claire.

Donna Lee Smith is a consultant to literacy programs for native and Inuit Canadians. Judith Ritter, a familiar name to CBC radio listeners, complements her teaching with radio broadcasting and freelance magazine writing.

Likewise, Linda Cooper, associate director of the CSTW, has developed expertise in science and medical writing. She works with the Journal of Neuroscience and organizes writing workshops at medical schools in the United States and abroad. "I've been giving workshops to scientists because editors want scientists to write so that other scientists may understand what they're saying... The objective is to share the message, not just record it."

While Cooper enjoys teaching at McGill and would like to work further with the faculties of science and medicine in developing graduate courses in scientific writing, she's reticent to invest much of herself when support is so thin. "The fact is that we've been marginalized over the years and we're terrifically underpaid. If you're not valued, it's hard to be motivated."

That's a situation Dean Ghosh would like to see change. She wants to maintain and strengthen the centre, including finding more space and seeing lecturers be paid better. Even though McGill is something of an anomaly in offering writing courses through its Faculty of Education --other universities generally have their communications courses integrated into the respective faculties -- she believes the centre has a role to play in the faculty.

For one, Ghosh urges her graduate education students to take the optional written and advanced written communications courses. "I've sent students to learn to organize their thoughts and write clearly."

Furthermore, she would like to see the centre become more entrepreneurial, developing its potential for consulting with companies and institutions on matters of written and oral communication.

"It's a very important centre for us, especially now when many people are showing an interest in technical writing. Many professions need this kind of service."

Her eye gazing beyond the Roddick Gates, Ghosh is interested in the centre playing a bigger role on the international stage. Last year, for instance, she was highly supportive of Linda Cooper's initiative to prepare a submission to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees "to help fieldworkers write easy-to-read documents.

"Ours was the best submission, but the budget was too high," recounts Ghosh, adding that McGill will get a second chance in a few years.

Ghosh is "talking to the powers that be" regarding hiring one more person and improving the pay of lecturers. "I feel they do a lot of work and haven't been getting the recognition," she says.

Anthony Paré, chair of the Department of Educational Studies, under which sits the CSTW, wants the new hiree to be an academic. One of the founding members of the centre and its one-time director, Paré would like the "study of writing," the theoretical component of the centre, to be revived.

While seven of the instructors have master's degrees and two have doctorates, no one is paid nor equipped to seek grants for research projects. Pittenger hopes the new person hired will be one of the CSTW teachers.

Meanwhile, on the frontlines on this December afternoon, poet and recent doctor of letters Charlotte Hussey is having her engineering students do their end-of-course assignment. One of her students, Nathan Yang, a U1 electrical engineering student, was surprised by how much he gained from the course. "At the beginning I wasn't too thrilled about having to take the course but I came to enjoy it," said Yang. "I realized writing was important in engineering; 80 per cent of being an engineer is writing reports and memos." The hardest assignment, he says, was writing a research paper; his group's subject: explaining, from an engineer's point of view, "The Science of Star Wars."

It impresses mining and metallurgical engineering professor Ralph Harris just how expert teachers in the CSTW are in engineering communications. Harris teaches communications in his specialty to first year students and several CSTW instructors have audited his course to get the concepts down in engineering communications.

"The group has been very proactive in trying to make the courses as relevant as possible to engineering students and the profession."

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