Writing studies program wins international award

UAlberta becomes second Canadian university ever to be recognized by world’s leading writing studies organization.


(Edmonton) A writing studies program at the University of Alberta has received international acclaim for its innovative approach and dedicated instructors.

Writing Studies 101: Exploring Writing was awarded the Writing Program Certificate of Excellence for 2014–15 by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), considered the world’s leading organization for writing studies. The U of A was the only Canadian institution honoured this year and only the second ever to be recognized by the CCCC.

“For the program to receive this prestigious award from the CCCC, it shows Writing Studies 101 is something very precious that the U of A should be very proud of,” says Elizabeth Sargent, past director of Writing Studies 101 and professor in the Department of English and Film Studies. “It is also a testament to the wonderful instructors who teach Writing Studies 101.”

Housed within the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Faculty of Arts, WRS 101 is a blended course, with a mix of online and in-class components. Its instructors train with the U of A’s Centre for Writers, and it collaborates with the university’s Bridging Program and English Language Program to offer courses for international and ESL students.

The course is open to all U of A undergraduate students and is accepted as three credits toward students’ writing/English requirement across every faculty.

Writing about writing: a novel approach

Seven years ago, the University of Alberta’s interdisciplinary Writing Task Force piloted the first writing studies program in the country to also use writing theory and research as subject matter.

The initial version of the course had just two sections in its first semester, with many assuming its "writing about writing" approach would limit its cross-faculty appeal. Now, WRS 101 offers 23 sections to more than 400 U of A students each year.

Sargent, who sat on the task force, says it helps students in all disciplines gain the knowledge and experience they need to produce university-level writing.

“We discovered one of the major concerns in designing first-year writing courses is the issue of knowledge transfer,” she explains. “Students weren’t really becoming consciously reflective—often they didn’t transfer anything to their subsequent courses or to the workplace.”

The task force brainstormed ideas for a course that could teach students not only how to tackle academic writing, but also how to carry those skills forward into their careers. WRS 101 was born of those discussions, says Sargent.

Current instructor and co-ordinator Jon Gordon says most writing courses typically offer a “placeholder” topic as subject matter—usually considered inconsequential to the learning process.

“For example, a writing course might use the topic of zombies to teach essay writing; what we realized is students were actually learning more about zombies than they were learning about the writing process,” says Gordon. “That’s why the 'writing about writing' approach is fundamental to the success of this course.”

It was also clear to instructors, long before the implementation of WRS 101, that most students do not arrive at university equipped with the writing skills necessary to navigate the world of academia, adds Sargent.

“There is a significant amount of research, scholarship and theory in the field of writing, and our students have the right to be exposed to this subject matter,” she says. “They learn not to procrastinate; they learn strategies for generating ideas, how to read and respond to writing; they read research on revision and different stages of the writing process—and then they write about that material.”

Enrolment numbers for the course have increased exponentially over the last seven years, with almost half of the current sections now funded by and reserved exclusively for the Bridging Program.

In fact, Sargent says, demand for WRS 101, which offers small class sizes and one-on-one sessions with tutors, has become greater than the program can accommodate. Several U of A faculties have proposed dedicated sections for their students, and stakeholders are busy exploring funding options.

“The open sections fill up within 24 hours of being posted, and there is often a long wait list,” says Sargent. “It’s clear there is student demand for it, and the university should continue to do its best to support it and build on it.”

The 2014–15 Writing Program Certificate of Excellence will be officially presented in March 2015 at the CCCC’s annual conference in Tampa, Fla.