Outside the specialist field of writing studies, writing is often spoken of as if it were, quite literally, an “afterthought,” the activity we engage in after all thinking has been done and our ideas have taken their final form. On this view, writing is essentially a “mindless” process and a medium in which we merely record our preformed ideas. But a moment’s reflection on our own development and experience as writers tells us that this is an impoverished view of writing and, in particular, of the relationship between writing and critical thinking. Far from being mindless or mechanical, the process of writing is generative: in writing—and rewriting—we discover, formulate, clarify, and develop our ideas, and, no less important, are sometimes forced to discard them. In short, writing is intellectual work. Graduating students who write well is thus an important indicator that a university is fulfilling its mission.
If you’re consulting this site, you likely don’t need to be convinced that learning to write well is among the most important accomplishments of a university education and a key indicator of academic success. Even so, there might be many reasons why you’ve been reluctant to include writing assignments in your courses: perhaps you teach large classes and/or have few TAs to assist with marking; or perhaps you don’t view developing students’ writing competencies as something to which your course can meaningfully contribute. While there’s no doubt that students’ development as writers and critical thinkers is accelerated when they take written communication courses from specialists in the field, their intellectual development is significantly enhanced by opportunities to write in their disciplines: well designed writing assignments in disciplinary content courses promote deep and critical engagement with course material and provide substantive evidence of the achievement of learning outcomes. In the best case scenario, they result in student work that is a genuine pleasure to read—an experience that all instructors can appreciate!
Developed by a multidisciplinary group of instructors, librarians, and education specialists, this toolkit contains valuable resources for all instructors, including sample assignments and feedback strategies that you might never have thought of. As the sample assignments demonstrate, effective writing assignments are not limited to traditional academic genres, purposes, or audiences. If we think outside the box, it’s likely that our students will too.
Dr. Sue Laver
Director, McGill Writing Centre