Despite all the changes and uncertainties caused by COVID-19, we have a teaching and learning success story to share. The University of Toronto Mississauga has launched a new course called ISP100: Writing for University and Beyond, taught by a team of faculty members recently hired and appointed to the new Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy (ISUP). For a very long time now, UTM has been committed as an institution to discussing and developing innovative means to support student writing, of which the Writing Development Initiative (WDI) is just one example. The most recent chapter of that discussion began with the release of UTM’s Academic Plan in the fall of 2017, which recommended, among other things, an enhanced focus on “developing communication skills from foundational to advanced levels.”
The Foundational Writing Skills Working Group (FWSWG) was established in order to implement this facet of the Academic Plan, focusing especially on the “foundational” aspect. The committee members concluded that UTM should develop and offer “a first-year foundational writing course, which would be followed up by discipline-specific pathways through existing upper-year courses.” The FWSWG strongly recommended the creation of a mandatory academic writing course that focused on the writing process (i.e., audience, purpose, context, style), as opposed to specific content or disciplinary requirements. It also advised that the course be taught by writing specialists and delivered in a portfolio-based, first-year seminar format with a maximum enrolment of 30 students. Finally, the committee concluded that, rather than creating multiple first-year courses to fulfill diverse disciplinary distribution requirements, a single course should be designed that would be a new distribution requirement for all students. For a variety of logistical reasons, however, the course was initiated by introducing it as a requirement for selected programs, with additional programs to be added over a period of five years.
Even in a normal state of affairs, setting up such a course would have been a challenge, given that the faculty who were hired to teach it would have just two months on the job before classes started. And as we all know, 2020 has not provided many normal states of affairs. For that reason, the RGASC’s current and previous Writing Specialists (Jonathan Vroom, Michael Kaler, and Tyler Evans-Tokaryk) devoted a great deal of time in the first half of 2020 to developing guide materials for the incoming faculty. Their goal was to offer the new faculty who would join the ISP100 Curriculum Committee a course outline that was partially developed yet flexible to changes.
Once ISUP was officially established this past summer, the Curriculum Committee, including the newly hired faculty, continued developing the aims and outcomes of ISP100. This entailed many discussions around the challenges of remote teaching and learning. The committee focused much energy on streamlining the reading assignments, scaffolding the writing assignments, and making all facets of the course plausible and accessible. The faculty framed their learning outcomes in terms of student opportunities, and they conceptualized writing assignments in terms of portable knowledge. With their focus on text in context, they are preparing students to transfer their writing-related knowledge out of the ISP100 classroom.
As such, ISP100 is designed to help students develop their writing for university and beyond.
Students build upon the writing skills they already possess to analyze how writing works in different contexts and to develop writing, reading, and critical thinking strategies. Students do this by embarking on a journey that spans three modules. The first module prompts students to reflect on past writing experiences and consider how they may influence their writing in university. The second module introduces students to concepts like genre and the discourse community so that they may understand how knowledge is produced and disseminated in their other courses. The final module teaches students how to join and participate in scholarly conversations so they may effectively transfer their writing-related knowledge to the multitude of communicative contexts they will encounter as students and beyond.
In Fall 2020, nine sections of ISP100 are being offered. Enrolment is lower than anticipated but students seem to be enthusiastic about the course, and the course instructors appreciate the lower than anticipated class sizes. Two sections of ISP100 are being offered in person, while all other sections are being delivered in the remote learning environment.
As the Academic Plan and Foundational Writing Skills Working Group acknowledged, we expected that some of the students registered in ISP100 would not have the necessary skills to be successful in the course. All students were therefore required to take a writing assessment in the first week of classes. Students who did not achieve the minimum grade required to take ISP100 were unenrolled from the course and required to enroll in ISP010: The Basics of Writing in English (BoWiE). This course, which focuses on writing basics such as organization, sentence structure, and grammar, will help prepare students for success in ISP100 and beyond.
The ISP100 teaching team for Fall 2020 brings together a unique combination of energetic scholars who are enthusiastic about teaching and writing pedagogy. These faculty members also have diverse disciplinary backgrounds that will ensure a stimulating and dynamic learning experience for first-year students who enroll in ISP100.
A brief introduction to each member of the ISP100 teaching team is provided below.
Chris Eaton completed in PhD in Education with a focus on Writing Studies. Prior to joining the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy, Chris taught writing at several colleges and universities around Ontario. He also started and operated a weekly Writing Commons to support graduate student writing at Western University. His research explores how students inform writing pedagogies and act as co-constructors of knowledge about writing.
Jordana Garbati has a PhD in Education (focus: Applied Linguistics) from Western University, an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University (2018), an MEd from Queen’s University (2007), and a BA and BEd from York University (2003). Prior to joining UTM, Jordana was a Writing Consultant at Laurier where she provided in-class writing instruction, worked with faculty to develop discipline- and course-specific writing assignments, and mentored a team of undergraduate and graduate writing tutors. She also developed and taught a required undergraduate course in the Department of Economics.
Janine Rose came to UTM from the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University where she taught several social science-oriented writing courses to undergraduate students. She holds a PhD in Human Geography from York University and identifies as a critical theorist who views creating inclusive classrooms, empowering students and strengthening their voices through writing as an important part of her role as an educator.
Sarah Seeley holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, and she made a pivotal career shift in 2011 when she began teaching first-year writing. Before joining the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy, Sarah taught writing and linguistic anthropology at several universities in the United States. Teaching writing as a multifaceted social discourse is a central part of how Sarah conceptualizes her work as both an educator and a researcher.
We are confident that interest in ISP100 will grow and that students will see it not only as an opportunity to improve their academic writing skills, but also as a venue for cohort-building and transitional support in their first year. We are also hopeful that ISP100 will serve as a positive addition to the existing opportunities students have to develop their writing skills in the Professional Writing courses in ICCIT, the Creative Writing courses in the Department of English and Drama, and the many other writing-intensive courses across the curriculum.