SFU joins U.S. writing group

April 01, 2004, vol. 29, no. 7
By Carol Thorbes

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New writing requirements in Simon Fraser University's undergraduate curriculum have resulted in SFU becoming the first Canadian member of a prestigious, international consortium.

SFU has accepted an invitation from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to join its consortium for writing in the disciplines for the 2004-2006 period.

Cornell's Knight institute for writing in the disciplines invites a maximum of 10 colleges and universities annually to collectively study discipline-based approaches to teaching writing and to using writing to enhance learning.

“This isn't about teaching a student simple mechanics,” says Wendy Strachan, one of three SFU representatives participating in the consortium and the director of SFU's centre for writing intensive learning. “It's about embedding writing in the ways subject matter is taught and learned so that students learn to communicate information and thoughts in a fashion that suits a specific discipline. Writing becomes a learning tool when students use it to review what they grasp about a subject.”

Strachan believes this kind of writing also helps to reduce the motivation to cheat.

“If you know how to go through a process to make sense of your subject matter and write about it in a discipline-specific way then the temptation and the need to plagiarize are considerably reduced.”

Members of Cornell's writing consortium include Cambridge University in the U.K., Princeton University and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Through on-site visits, workshops and shared research, the Knight institute helps consortium members develop and enhance their own discipline-based writing programs.

Strachan believes that SFU's new commitment to teaching writing, to assisting faculty in redesigning their courses and to showing teaching assistants how to teach writing prompted Cornell's invitation.

Starting in September 2006, all incoming students at SFU will be required to take two writing intensive courses to graduate.

Strachan says SFU is among the first post-secondary institutions in Canada to make discipline-based writing a compulsory component of its undergraduate curriculum.

Associate professor of physics Barbara Frisken, another member of the SFU trio going to Cornell this June, feels she'll gain invaluable information.

“Members of our science faculty are acutely aware of the fact that their students need to improve their writing and that writing is an important part of a scientist's job,” says Frisken. “But they feel that they are not qualified to teach writing and they want guidance on how to incorporate such teaching into their courses.”

Dean of graduate studies and archaeology professor Jonathan Driver is also on the SFU team going to Cornell.

Driver wants to discover which approaches to writing can strengthen the learning and teaching culture across faculties at SFU.

He adds, “I am particularly interested in finding out how graduate teaching assistants can contribute to discipline-based writing programs and the reciprocal benefits that help them in their own writing.”

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