Professor Sargent Responds to Provost’s Document on Situation with Centre for Wrtiers

The post below is the response of Professor Betsy Sargent (English & Film Studies) to the formal response that the Provost and Vice-President Academic Stephen Dew has offered to members of the General Faculties Council in the form of document 14.1.R for today’s meeting of GFC. The Provost’s document responds to a question posed by graduate student Shumaila Hemani which may be found here. The matter of what is happening to the Centre for Writers was first raised at the last meeting of the General Faculties Council, and GFC told that President Turpin would investigate.

Centre for Writers: Response to Statement from Provost and Vice-President Academic Steven Dew (Professor Betsy Sargent)

 

I want to respond not only as a Professor of English in the Faculty of Arts, but as a Professor in the disciplne of Writing Studies who has served as the Co-Chair of the University’s Writing Task Force, as Director of Writing Initiatives (2007-2012), and as the Founding Director of Writing Studies in Arts and the award-winning Writing Studies 101 (2008-2014).

I’ll respond to each paragraph in turn, starting with paragraph #2:

② I argue with the statement’s promise that the service provided, staff, tutors, training and mandate would “all remain as before” since the original mandate of the C4W–as laid out by the Writing Task Force during its extensive research and consultation across the university 2005-2008–was to be an academic unit, an extension of the curriculum, directed by a tenured faculty member. I quote from page 3 of the June 2006 Writing Task Force Report and Recommendations, easily available online on the Writing@UofA webpages (or just type “Writing Task Force” as a search item on the U of A homepage):

UNIVERSITY WRITING CENTRE INITIATIVE

Create a Writing Centre, to be directed by a tenured specialist in Writing Centre research, theory, and practice . . . with expertise in second language acquisition/ESL/EAL issues in relation to writing. The Centre will train and supervise student peer tutors and will address the needs of university writers of all kinds.

Operational Principles for the University of Alberta Writing Centre:

  1. provide support without charge (drop-in or by appointment) for all U of A writers,

in all disciplines, from senior professors to first-year students;

  1. be seen as a teaching centre and an ongoing resource, not a remediation centre,

staffed by trained peer tutors earning academic credit for their work.

The original mission statement of the C4W is also available online at Centre for Writers Mission Statement; and the home page of the excellent C4W website– http://www.c4w.ualberta.ca/— also makes it clear that the C4W mandate is NOT restricted to students:

We offer free, one-on-one writing support to all students, instructors, staff, and alumni at the UofAin any subject, discipline, program, or faculty, and at all levels of study and with any type of assignment (research papers, reports, theses, reflections, creative writing, grant proposals, résumés, presentations, articles, etc.).

If the C4W is moved from the Faculty of Arts to Student Services, its mandate changes immediately. If the tutors are no longer taught and supervised by a faculty member who is a “specialist in Writing Centre research, theory, and practice . . . with expertise in second language acquisition issues in relation to writing,” the tutors, their training, and the service provided will change. And obviously the staff will change since the writing centre expert at the U of A, Dr. Lucie Moussu, has been abruptly and without justification removed from her position as academic director.

③ & ④ Paragraph #3, in offering to give a “brief summary of the history of C4W,” is accurate to a point—in that the summary is definitely brief. The statement of the C4W mandate in paragraph #4 is truncated, conveniently omitting any reference to faculty, instructors, staff, and alumni users of the C4W (these users ask for and receive help with writing blocks as well as feedback on drafts of academic articles, grant proposals, conference presentations, and other writing-in-process).   Further, no mention is made of the 3 years of research and consultation done by the Writing Task Force (which included members across U of A campuses and faculties, from multiple departments and disciplines, and from the GSA and SU).

The statement that “the C4W provides no courses or programs” omits information as well, given that the intensive practicum required as an essential part of WRS 301 and WRS 603 (Writing Centre Theory and Practice) takes place in the C4W and went through governance in Arts with supporting materials making it clear that these courses would always be taught by the current faculty director of the C4W. Students who complete these courses are not automatically employed as C4W tutors—only the best of them, after close observation and feedback from the faculty director, are so chosen. And deciding to work as a C4W tutor commits them to continuing professional development and education in writing centre theory and practice, with many of them completing and presenting research in the field (the fact that many at the U of A don’t realize that Writing Studies is an academic field is worrying, given the 70+ PhD programs in North America currently sending highly qualified specialists into the job market to work as writing program administrators: directing writing centres, writing-in-the-disciplines and writing-across-the-curriculum programs, and major and minor degree programs as well as graduate programs in Writing Studies).

A select few C4W tutors are assigned each term to work with Bridging Program sections of WRS 101—they receive continuing education and supervision from the faculty director of the C4W in issues in second-language writing. These sections and their dedicated tutors are funded by the Bridging Program through a proposal that Dr. Moussu and I collaborated on—and which ultimately led to WRS 101 being recognized with an international award (making the UofA only the 2nd Canadian institution to have ever received this honour, after U of Toronto).

Six Writing Studies professional associations in Canada are currently in the process of revising and ratifying a position statement on Writing Centres and Staffing, arguing that Writing centres are fundamentally teaching units (I quote here from the 2nd and 3rd pages of this draft):

Writing centres are fundamentally teaching units where writing specialists are engaged in teaching activities. Responsibility for the teaching of writing must be undertaken by those who hold faculty-level appointments similar in rank to the course instructors they work with. . . .

Students who work as peer tutors in Writing Centres need to be educated in the field of Writing Studies and mentored by professionals with expertise in Writing Studies…the quality of their work depends almost entirely upon the quality of mentoring they receive.

Again, the mandate of the C4W is to be a teaching centre, directed by a faculty member and housed within that faculty member’s academic faculty. And of course, meaningful writing centre research with meaningful results can only be done in a centre that is running according to that mandate, under a faculty director.

⑤ While paragraph #5 mentions that the Vice Dean of Arts and the Vice-Provost (Programs) “met with members of UWC, including the Director of C4W,” it neglects to mention that the input received was vocal opposition to moving the C4W under the Dean of Students—precisely because it would destroy the original mandate of the C4W. The document produced by the University Writing Committee definitely did NOT call for the C4W to be moved into Student Services (the UWC proposal seems to have been misread and/or misunderstood by the administrators who received it), and every Writing Studies specialist at the U of A disagreed with the proposal to move the C4W from the Faculty of Arts, arguing that its primary function was a teaching one and that its mandate was to serve all members of the university community, not students alone. Further, no mention was made during any of these so-called “consultations” of the possibility of removing the faculty director of the C4W or of replacing the faculty director with a non-faculty manager. If that possibility had been mentioned, the UWC’s opposition would have been even more emphatic.

⑥ Paragraph #6 is puzzling. “Improving accountabilities” for instance—here are 6 annual reports from the C4W (I am bringing them with me to GFC). These have been produced every year since Dr. Moussu’s arrival in the fall of 2009 (the four most recent are available on the C4W website, if you want to check them out yourself). These annual reports have been submitted to the English and Film Studies Chair in Arts as part of Dr. Mousu’s annual evaluation at FEC, along with her usual report on her teaching and her research—but they have also been submitted to various deans, associate deans, provosts and vice-provosts every year. They are available online in case the dean of any particular faculty wishes to discover whether or not the C4W has been accountable to his or her faculty (the report includes statistics on users of the C4W by faculty).

These annual reports make astonishing reading. The Arts Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, acts as chair of the UWC and is also the immediate oversight for the C4W Director. While I do have some suggestions about improving the administration and administrative support of the C4W within Arts, I find it hard to believe that accountability could be improved (unless that might mean that the various administrators who receive these annual reports would actually read them).

I’m also puzzled by the claim that this move will “create synergies among some of the various student-focused writing service programs at the University” –“some” is misleading, since there’s only one possibility, the existing small Writing Resources unit in the Student Success Centre that charges $20 per hour for its services (and there has been plenty of collaboration and synergy with that unit already—no administrative move was needed to facilitate it; nor would this move do anything to change possibilities for collaboration with the Writing

Across the Curriculum program at the Centre for Teaching and Learning—these possibilities already exist through the University Writing Committee).

As must be clear from my comments above, I argue that the Dean of Students is definitely NOT the most appropriate unit for hosting C4W. Faculty across the university need to continue to see and respect the C4W as an academic, teaching unit that produces research and that serves as an extension of the university’s curriculum by teaching its clients (and its graduate and undergraduate tutors) about the writing process and about the challenges of writing in different disciplines and genres and for different audiences and purposes. The director of the C4W needs to be a tenured faculty member not least because the director needs to be able to speak as an equal to colleagues who need tactful feedback on assignment design (given that the C4W is often the place where clusters of students from a particular course descend in tears, unable to understand an assignment or unable to understand why their attempt to complete it received a failing grade; without realizing it, we’re often unaware of the conflicting cognitive demands/signals our writing assignments give to students).

Since paragraph #2 claimed that the location of the C4W would remain the same, it’s hard to see how the space would suddenly become “neutral” (as is stated here); and the C4W already has “an institution-wide mandate” (as is clear not only from the original mission statement but from the statistics on clients in the annual reports).   The move to Student Services is not needed to achieve that mandate, which has been clear from the very beginning of the C4W. As was agreed to by Dean’s Council in 2006, it was funded by Central through Arts on behalf of and to serve the entire university.

⑦ I hope I’ve made clear by now that I disagree with the claims made in paragraph #7 that there will be no change to “the nature of services provided to all students or to … the tutoring program” and that students won’t eventually notice any difference in the availability or quality of services, so I won’t repeat myself.

The concluding sentence reveals some misconceptions (and the courses, by the way, are WRS 301/603, not WRS 301/601) in that no tutor can expect to be hired simply by completing the appropriate graduate or undergraduate course. The intensive practicum in the C4W allows the academic director to closely observe and evaluate students as they learn the ropes and only those who excel are hired as C4W tutors once 301 or 603 is completed. Consider the difficult situation of future tutors if they were to complete WRS 301/603 taught by a faculty specialist in Writing Studies and Writiing Centre Theory and Practice and were then employed by a non-faculty manager who had never him or herself even taken WRS 301/603, let alone any other graduate-level course in Writing Centre Theory and Practice or in the teaching of writing. The tutors would be trying to approach their work according to the best research and theory available in the field while simultaneously being asked to tutor differently by the non-specialist director—this puts the tutors in an untenable position and is one of the reasons why the WRS 301/603 courses must be taught by the current academic director of the C4W.

⑧ I’m reassured by the statement in paragraph #8 that “the Office of the Provost will continue to support and develop this service to students at no cost to them regardless of its administrative home.”

But I believe that supporting and developing the C4W involves treating its superb academic director with respect. Not only was she not allowed to complete her current administrative term–in spite of excellent work and bringing nothing but glory to the U of A (serving this year as President of the Canadian Writing Centres Association and hosting, with the help of generous SSHRC funding, its largest national conference ever)—but, by cutting her administrative term short (it was scheduled to end June 30th, 2017), the university has deprived her of the option to express an interest in serving for another term. The usual protocol for faculty serving as chairs, directors, deans, or vice-deans who wish to serve for another 5 -year term is to put out a widespread call for comments on their performance; a formal evaluation, assuming an overall positive outcome, would then result in re-appointment for another 5-year term. No such formal evaluation of Professor Moussu has taken place, which is in my view a serious abridgement of due process for a faculty member who has put all of her considerable intelligence, energy, and expertise into the running of a writing centre that has fulfilled the hope the Writing Task Force had for it—that it would serve as a model across Canada.

I respectfully request that this change in the administration and in the directing of the C4W be delayed for a full year, allowing Dr. Moussu to complete her administrative term and allowing for wide consultation and research at least equivalent to the research that created the C4W as a teaching centre in the Faculty of Arts in the first place. Any change to the administration of the C4W–since it is a research/teaching unit, albeit in a form with which many at the U of A are relatively unfamiliar—should go through governance in Arts and then GFC, with input from all stakeholders, including students. To do anything less is an appalling waste of the 3 years of hard work and research of the faculty, students, staff, and administrators on the award-winning University of Alberta Writing Task Force.

Betsy Sargent,

Professor, English and Film Studies, Writing Studies

Faculty of Arts

30 May 2016

 

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One Response to Professor Sargent Responds to Provost’s Document on Situation with Centre for Wrtiers

  1. Anne Savage says:

    Thanks for this information. I follow this discussion with interest.

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