“Writing or explaining is how we prove whether we know something or not,” Panos Pappas says. “Good students and successful academics use writing every step of the way to scaffold their knowledge.”

Linguistics, Faculty, FASS News, Awards

Going out of his comfort zone

September 14, 2019

“The biggest tool students can use to find work in a knowledge-based economy is the ability to read, retain, summarize and report,” says Panos Pappas, a professor in the Department of Linguistics. “The transferrable skill that I’m teaching for everyone is how to express their thoughts and organize their reading.”

Over his career Pappas has built an impressive teaching portfolio with courses as varied as Modern Greek to Syntax and Sociolinguistics. But it is his leadership role in improving teaching at SFU that won him a 2019 Cormack Teaching Award. The Cormack Awards were created to recognize excellent and innovative teaching within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Since coming to Simon Fraser University in 2002, Pappas has poured most of his energy into improving students’ writing. The university grew quickly between 2005 and 2010, and many international students were unprepared to handle the level of writing expected of them. SFU responded by developing Writing-Intensive W courses designed to show students that writing is a necessary part of their learning process and not something that happens at the end of learning.

“Writing or explaining is how we prove whether we know something or not,” Pappas says. “Good students and successful academics use writing every step of the way to scaffold their knowledge.”

W-courses at SFU aim to train students to write for their particular discipline. Pappas soon realized that linguistics students were not getting enough instruction in how to write in the required style and rhetoric that uses deductive reasoning argumentation where sometimes the things that can’t be said reveal the rules of language. He rose to the challenge by creating a 300 level Writing-Intensive (W) course and teaching two W courses. When Pappas saw that linguistics students also needed writing training at the lower division level, he created such a course after conducting two pilot studies.

Pappas says that seven years ago it was not unusual for linguistics students to arrive at their fourth year not having taken a single writing course. That meant that all their examinations, all the ways in which they proved what they have mastered, would have been through multiple choice tests that may have included some short answer questions. But the culture has changed in the linguistics department.

“It’s been a long and very careful approach despite the fact that those of us who have invested our time in this were not trained ourselves in terms of how to teach writing this way,” Pappas says. “You’ve got to go out of your comfort zone. And then you have to face the fact that you were doing a lot of things wrong.”

Beyond mastering academic writing there are systemic issues that may hinder students’ learning. As universities admit more students, the standard middle class to upper middle class student base diversifies as people from different backgrounds and with different abilities and understandings join an expanding student body. Helping students from all circumstances succeed is something that Pappas finds particularly rewarding.

“I’ve had really good students in my courses but when I talked to them about getting a Master’s degree, they didn’t know what it was because they were the first people in their family to go to university,” Pappas says. “There are academically strong students who don’t understand the system at all. They think that you get a university degree and that’s it. Well it’s no longer ‘it’ because almost everybody has some kind of postsecondary education. If you’re really good you have to go to the next level.”