I recently had a chance to join Susan Thomas, Alyssa O’Brien, and students in the University of Sydney’s beginning writing class (to be renamed “Introduction to Academic Writing” in 2018) via Skype to talk about the role writing should (will!) play in their lives. I met the students in an auditorium (there are nearly 200 enrolled in the class) during their once-a-week, one-hour “lecture,” which is augmented by another hour spent in tutorial groups of 25 and a third hour of online writing activities. Susan is working to include more tutorial time next year, as data gathered from students indicates that they would prefer that, as would Susan. In describing the course, she goes on to say:
While WRIT1000 is a first-year course, students can take it at any time, including summer and winter school. It's not unusual for third and fourth year students to enroll just prior to graduation, to brush up on writing skills for job applications, etc. In fact, in one of my tutorials this semester, not a single student is a first-year!
There are five short assignments in the class, with each building on/towards the others in a portfolio style. We have a sentence task, a paragraph task, a research task, a peer review task, and a final reflection task. Each person teaching the course does the grading for her tutorials. We focus on sentences and paragraphs and the analysis of these, with the idea being that students leave WRIT1000 ready to write essays in WRIT1002, our advanced writing course; and we have two 2000-level courses focusing more on rhetorical analysis. We have two 3000-level courses, one focusing on workplace writing and the other on rhetorical theory. We have five graduate courses on professional writing and editing, ESL/EAL, and thesis (dissertation) writing.
These courses are all part of the Writing Minor in the Department of Writing Studies, which will launch in 2018. In addition, some years ago Susan founded the "Writing Hub" at U Sydney, which is their writing center and which will also be part of the new Department. All very exciting!
During the hour I spent with the WRIT1000 class, I was delighted to find the Australian students (who were majoring in a wide variety of disciplines) engaged as well as very engaging. I spoke for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, sharing the findings of some major research studies that link the ability to communicate effectively, in both writing and speaking, to success in many fields—from astronomy to zoology and everywhere in between. Since Susan had told me that many of her students take a fairly dim view of collaboration (which seems to fly in the face of the importance their culture places on self-reliance, at best, and might be a form of cheating, at worst), I took some time to talk about how much we know about the value of being able to work (and write) effectively with others, an ability highly valued by many professions and absolutely necessary in an age when it is increasingly difficult (or impossible) for a single researcher working alone to solve the kinds of complex problems facing many organizations and companies today. Noting the Stanford Study of Writing finding that “dialogic interaction” was key to major learning experiences in the college years, I asked how many had collaborated with others, in learning or in writing. A few hands went up, and I hope to follow up on this question with Susan as the term progresses.
During the Q and A session that followed, students stepped up with alacrity, asking important and substantive questions—from intellectual property conventions in terms of collaboration, in general, and collaborative writing, in particular; to why conventions shift from discipline to discipline (such as the use of first person or the passive voice); to tips for revision for both monolingual and multilingual writers.
Any worries I had that the hour might be filled with awkward silences proved completely unfounded, and at the end of our time together I only wished to extend it further. I’m hoping some of the students might take up my invitation to write to me: I have a lot of questions I’d love to ask them about their experiences with writing in and out of class at Sydney—as well as about how they define writing and what they think writing is most useful for. So bravo and brava Aussie writers!