Four Burning Questions for Janet Giltrow, academic writing expert

Posted on Friday, November 2, 2012

Janet Giltrow is an internationally renowned expert on academic writing. / Photo courtesy of Janet Giltrow.

On Nov. 8, Prof. Janet Giltrow, Senior Associate Dean of Arts at the University of British Columbia and internationally renowned expert on academic writing, will deliver a keynote presentation and two workshops about writing as a way for students to participate in the research-intensive culture of the university.

Writing can be a means of students’ engaging in research culture — in its values, its activities and goals, even its controversies. As writers, students can begin to participate in the culture of disciplined inquiry from the first weeks of the first year. From first year to fourth, professors can engage students in the work of the disciplines by incorporating writing in the curriculum.

In her lecture, Giltrow will suggest ways of setting aside the idea of writing as a skill, and introducing new terms to the talk about writing and curriculum. These new terms open the prospect of distributing writing-related learning outcomes throughout the curriculum and doing so by cultivating the activities indigenous to research culture itself.

For more information and to register for the keynote address, go here.

What are the common assumptions about writing that faculty and students bring to the university?

It’s commonly assumed that writing is something separate from doing, something for English class or “composition.” Get the basics in place, correct the errors, and the job’s done. Alongside that assumption is the common view that there are writing universals — rules for writing — that hold for all occasions. Teach those rules; job’s done.

When professors are disappointed in student writing, they might figure that the basics haven’t been put in place, forgetting that, for students, the styles and reasoning of the disciplines — even the disciplines themselves — are all new. It’s up to the university to invite students into this unfamiliar terrain, and give them opportunities to come into their own as writers and thinkers.

What is it specifically about your approach that challenges the status quo of academic culture?

My approach challenges the traditional formats of teaching and learning — the lecture, the quiz and final exam, even the term paper — and asks, what are the patterns of interaction in these genres? Where, in these traditional patterns, are the opportunities for student writers to learn from the reception of their ideas, from the up-take of their claims, or questions, or speculations? These patterns of interaction can be re-designed to provide sustained, formative response — not just from the professor but also from a community of inquiry.

Why should faculty members consider including writing in their courses, regardless of the discipline?

In every discipline, we find indigenous genres: ways of writing and reading, speaking and listening local to the work of the discipline. These are a rich resource for student writing: a means of engaging in the activities of the discipline and identifying with its values. Every discipline has its own distinct rhetorical context — often left unexplored because it’s second nature for those teaching in the discipline. Well-designed writing opportunities, drawing on the genres indigenous to the discipline, can bring these contexts to light and orient students to the thinking of the discipline.

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Category: Four Burning Questions

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