Open Letter from Betsy Sargent (English & Film Studies): Do Not Let Faculty of Arts Undermine Centre for Writers

Dear Colleagues,

Even those of you who have already heard my plea (at the department gathering on April 7th) about proposed serious changes to the Centre for Writers may be surprised by the latest development. While the University Writing Committee was informed as early as Fall term about the proposal to move the C4W from the Faculty of Arts (where it has served as an academic unit for 7 years, an extension of the university curriculum) to student services (under the Dean of Students), a proposal that the University Writing Committee vigorously opposed to no avail, there was never any mention of changing the Director of the C4W.

On April 14th, however, Lucie Moussu was informed by the Acting Vice-Dean of Arts that she would as of this July 1 no longer serve as Director of the C4W. The explanation given was that the Dean of Students did not want to supervise a faculty member; there will soon be a search for a non-faculty manager of the C4W.

This in spite of Lucie’s extraordinary work in developing what is now one of the finest writing centres in Canada and in spite of her currently serving as head of the Canadian Writing Centres Association and hosting (with generous SSHRC funding) a major CWCA conference this May in Calgary (keynoted by an internationally recognized expert in the field, Oregon State University’s Dr. Lisa Ede, longtime collaborator with Andrea Lunsford). Check out Lucie’s amazing annual reports on the excellent website she created for the C4W at http://c4w.ualberta.ca/ or the lively 5-minute video about the most recent Long Night Against Procrastination (Ted Bishop and I have cameo appearances for our middle-of-the-night workshops!) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oVLRaXx-dY.

As you’re probably aware, all grad and undergrad C4W tutors until now have been required to complete a 3-credit 300/600-level course in writing centre theory and practice, a course that included many supervised hours in practicum in the C4W. Only the best students in that course went on to work in the C4W in subsequent terms, students who had deep preparation in a range of areas from second-language issues to composition theory to the writing process to writing-in-the-disciplines (not to mention intensive work on citation, plagiarism, and basic grammar and usage). And even after completing the course and being hired to tutor in the C4W, these tutors were carefully mentored (with observations and evaluations of all 40+ of them completed each term by Lucie Moussu).

None of this will be continued—unless those of us affected by this undermining of a splendid Faculty of Arts teaching unit manage to convince the university otherwise.  Please sign this petition arguing for the retention of “highly qualified directors in College and University Writing Centers”:
https://www.change.org/p/international-writing-centers-association-members-retaining-highly-qualified-directors-in-college-and-university-writing-centers/.

The petition has 763 signatures from around the world already, but the more from the U of A the better (please feel free to circulate it to other U of A faculty, in any Faculty); it will be used at the May 25th Arts Faculty Council meeting to make the case for serious, effective writing centres as teaching units within an academic faculty (i.e., they are not remedial services). And even if you don’t feel able to sign the petition, it’s well worth reading since it makes the case even more eloquently than the Writing Task Force was able to do in its 3 years of research 2005-2008, arguing for the creation of the C4W, free and open to everyone in the U of A community.

A particularly convincing comment on this petition argues that accrediting bodies need to insist that a professionally-recognized writing center (led by an expert in writing-centre theory, practice, and research) is as essential to an institution’s accreditation as its library.

An Arts graduate student/C4W tutor has asked for a discussion of these changes to the C4W to be placed on the agenda for the May 25th Arts Faculty Council meeting. Both Lucie Moussu and I plan to attend that meeting, hoping that the phrase Lucie has heard too often this year—that Arts doesn’t want the C4W—will be disproved by the number of our colleagues that show up to protest otherwise.

After all, the C4W was funded by Central through Arts on the condition that Arts run the program for the University—it was funded as a university resource arising from recommendations from a university-wide task force that was established to do extensive research and get answers about best practices in the teaching of writing. Since the C4W was created after extensive consultation, Arts should not be permitted to undermine it or move it elsewhere without similarly wide consultation, in particular with faculty in Arts. And of course, one would hope that at a major research university, such a major decision would be based on the best research possible, not on expediency or the latest administrative fad.

Lucie has received letters of support from writing centre directors and other colleagues around the world. It seems that many post-secondary administrators have jumped on the latest bandwagon, which is to have a one-stop shop for student services (from mental health resources to math and science and writing tutoring, based on the apparent assumption that all tutoring is the same). In this scenario, a writing centre is no longer seen as a teaching unit (used by honours students and grad students and instructors as well as by first-year and international students); it’s seen primarily as a remedial service. Of course, since the C4W will continue to be located in the basement of Assiniboia after this change in leadership, it’s not yet clear exactly how it’s becoming part of a one-stop tutoring service (all the other services being in SUB).

A major concern in this new situation is the looming danger of a form of plagiarism— excessive help—which is much more likely in the absence of disciplinary expertise at the helm, without a Writing Studies faculty member emphasizing repeatedly and modeling how tutors can ask questions, make suggestions, and listen closely as students talk about their ideas and their struggles with writing, but insisting that tutors can never take the pen out of the student’s hand—all the work has to be the student’s own, with the student fully understanding why he or she made each particular choice.

I also understand that the real possibility exists after a year or two of students’ being charged for C4W writing help (as they are currently charged at the Student Success Centre, $20 per hour—which raises so many equity red flags that it’s puzzling how that embarrassing practice has continued for so long). How does that support the excellence in education that the U of A supposedly stands for? What’s next? Charging individual students each time they check out a book at the library?

Of course our students will be the biggest losers if these changes are allowed to go forward (even though wide student protest is unlikely, given that students understand that the C4W will continue–just under different leadership; only the tutors—because of their thorough grounding in writing centre theory and practice—fully understand what they’ll be losing). It would be a different story if the C4W were simply being shut down (or if students were being asked immediately to pay for help with their writing).

So I think it’s up to us, those who understand what’s at stake, to protest. Please come to the Arts Faculty Council meeting on May 25th if you can and/or please sign the petition at the link above (and share that link as widely as possible). Also, do let Lucie know how much you’ve appreciated the work she’s done in the C4W since her arrival 7 years ago. Lucie Moussu <moussu@ualberta.ca>

Gratefully,
Betsy

Professor, Department of English and Film Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB T6G 2E5
Office: Humanities Centre 3-79
E-mail: bsargent@ualberta.ca
Writing @UofA

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3 Responses to Open Letter from Betsy Sargent (English & Film Studies): Do Not Let Faculty of Arts Undermine Centre for Writers

  1. Savage, Anne says:

    Universities needs are great – the existing Centre for Writers must remain to do its work, while a remedial writing centre should also be established. A remedial writing centre is necessary in all universities, but it would not be in any sense a replacement for the the Centre for Writers.

    Anne Savage, Department of English & Cultural Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton L8S 4L9

  2. Arts Squared says:

    Comments on the change.org petition include:

    “The loss of even one highly qualified writing center director affects tens of thousands of students.”

    “Writing Centers are not ‘service’ centers. They are sites of teaching and research. They directly shape student academic engagement and professional development in critical thinking, conversation, and multi-media production. Writing Centers create opportunities for peer teaching and undergraduate research, as well as authorship and publication. For all these reasons, writing centers must have strong leaders with proven disciplinary specializations, in writing center studies, writing program administration studies, writing across the curriculum, and/or composition theory and writing studies . . . .”

    “Writing Center directors may have more of an impact on a student’s success both in college and in life than anyone else they’ll encounter at school.”

    “Well qualified, rigorously guided tutorial support for writing is essential to the education of a human being who will remain an effective participant in and builder of society.”

    “A thriving writing centre serves as an indicator of an institution’s commitment to teaching excellence.”

    “[S]trong writing centers emerge only when they have powerful, disciplinarily well-versed leaders. As a professor of rhetoric, I am not qualified to teach calculus. As a soccer player, I am not qualified to coach volleyball. So, too, with writing centers–they thrive when they are helmed by writing specialists and do not when they are not. It is not enough to have smart, well-intentioned leadership; well-qualified, disciplinarily capable leaders are crucial to writing centers as to most other endeavors in and around the university.”

    “This is one of the most wrongheaded and shortsighted administrative decisions I’ve seen.”

    “Right now, the U of Alberta has a writing centre that is the envy of many universities in North America, because it is taking an evidence-based approach, and because the individual who heads it has poured her heart, soul and considerable expertise into its design. I urge the powers that be to reconsider this decision.”

    “If we believe that Writing Centers provide students and faculty with crucial resources, experiences, and services for the community’s intellectual work, then they must be led by faculty — researchers and teachers who contribute to the field.”

    “I believe the work of writing centers is some of the most intellectual and vital work taking place on university campuses today. Writing centers need to be administered by professionals trained in the one-to-one teaching of writing, who can carry out empirical, theoretical, and practitioner research projects in the writing center; participate in the vibrant field of writing center scholarship; and ensure that the teaching of reading and writing – crucial skills in our highly literate society – in the individualized setting of the writing center matches with the field’s best evidence-based practices.”

  3. Garrett Epp says:

    As I have stated on the change.org petition, one of the better things I did during my time as Chair of English & Film Studies at the UAlberta was to hire the dynamic and highly qualified director of the then new Centre for Writers, Lucie Moussu. I am appalled to learn that she is to be replaced by a non-faculty manager – someone who, regardless of talent and interest, cannot possibly bring the same levels of professional understanding, skill, and inventiveness to this increasingly crucial field. This and other related changes to the C4W – as to any Writing Centre – betray a serious misunderstanding of the field of writing studies (despite the highly public collaborative work that went into the creation of the program and C4W at the UAlberta), and of what is at stake for students, across disciplines. Indeed, I think it betrays a misunderstanding of the function of a university.

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