Writing Across the Northern Border: The Study of Writing and Discourse in Canada

David Beard
University of Minnesota Duluth
Fall 2009

Those of us who work primarily in the United States may not be familiar with the study and teaching of writing in the institutional and scholarly traditions north of the border within the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing (CASDW).  Its May 2009 meeting in Ottawa, Canada, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences provided several insights about the perspectives that this group represents.

This essay reviews the interdisciplinary context of the Congress, discusses the unique disciplinary and research contexts of CASDW, and urges greater dialogue across our national borders.

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

In most years, CASDW meets along with dozens of other scholarly associations as part of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences sponsored by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which consists of 69 scholarly associations, 75 universities and colleges and more than 50,000 scholars across Canada.

This collaboration provides a climate of interdisciplinarity at the Congress.  While I registered for and attended CASDW portions of the Congress, keynote speakers for each association were listed in a general program and open to attendance from all.  The book exhibits reflected the range of research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences in the Canadian context.  The Congress provides a dynamic and interdisciplinary context in which the CASDW can meet and offers opportunities for rich interactions.

CASDW and the Development of Writing Studies in Canada

CASDW (http://cattw-acprts.mcgill.ca/en/about_casdw.htm ) was born a few years ago from CATTW, the Canadian Association for Teachers of Technical Writing, a change that illustrates the biggest distinction between the American community of teachers of writing and the Canadian community.  At the same time that teacher-scholars in the United States were arguing for the coherence of technical writing as a specialization within rhetoric and composition, Canadian universities were completing the process of jettisoning the universal first-year composition requirement (for institutional and scholarly reasons) and defining the study of writing primarily outside the classroom setting.  (Many Canadian universities never had the first-year requirement, at all.  For more on this difference, see Jim Walker’s piece in the 1980 (5.2) Writing Lab Newsletter and Roger Graves, Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities.)

A primary Canadian site for writing pedagogy is, unlike the American context, the Writing Centre.  More than once in the conference, participants argued the professional status of directors and tutors in Writing Centres in the Canadian context – a discussion that appears to echo similar discussions about writing centers in the United States.  But these discussions are more vital in the Canadian context because Writing Centres are not “marginal” places of writing instruction as they may be viewed in the United States.  In the absence of the universal composition requirement, the primary site for writing instruction in the Canadian university is the Writing Centre.

The Dominant Mode of Writing Research in Canadian Universities

The paradigm that has come to drive most (though not all) Canadian research in writing appears to feature three characteristics that may contrast with those found in the United States:

  1. Much writing research in Canadian contexts is characterized by the presumption that the best places to study writing are the places where writing does work – in the workplace, the newspaper, the government.  This presumption has turned disciplinary and professional writing (the backbone of the former CATTW) into the primary site for research.  These transformations are documented in Roger and Heather Graves’ Writing Centres, Writing Seminars, Writing Culture: Writing Instruction in Anglo-Canadian Universities; they are also demonstrated in Catherine F. Schryer and Laurence Steven, Contextual Literacy: Writing Across the Curriculum.
  2. The second, slightly less strong presumption is that genre theory is most appropriate to guide writing research.  Some of this presumption can be traced to the influence of one seminal scholar, Aviva Freedman, who did a great deal to advance genre theory, which explains workplace writing without recourse to formal features.  Her work on genre theory, activity theory and the study of writing is internationally recognized, and it was also a practical success.  Freedman wrote, edited, and co-edited a number of books that placed this work on the map and drew similar scholars into a community, a critical mass who could advance the research agenda.  In a nation where only 100 teacher-scholars attend CASDW, being able to pull ten authors together in an anthology indicates a shaping influence on the national dialogue.  For examples of this work, see, Genre in the New Rhetoric, Learning and Teaching Genre, Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts, and Rhetorical Genre Studies and Beyond.
  3. Resulting perhaps from presumptions #1 and #2, in Canada one finds a movement away from the rhetorical tradition as a site for historical research, for insights into pedagogy, or for the building blocks of contemporary writing theory.  The Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric (CSSR) (http://www.cssr-scer.ca/) works in the rhetorical tradition from a broadly interdisciplinary perspective.  The result of this divergence appears to be the study of rhetoric or of composition – not of both together.  The break from the larger rhetorical tradition had several impacts on the shape of Canadian research on writing and on the major forms of writing pedagogy.  At CASDW 2009, the most common use of the term rhetoric was as part of the phrase “rhetorical genre analysis,” a term indebted to Freedman’s work.  As an adjective, then, rhetoric is converted into a perspective integrated into the dominant mode of contemporary research.

The international history of instruction in writing and rhetoric, tracing back perhaps to Isocrates, appears neglected within contemporary writing instruction in Canada.  This contemporary orientation to teaching writing primarily in the Writing Center and of conducting research only in applied settings may hamper potential insights into contemporary practice that can stem from understanding the rhetorical tradition.

Encouraging an International Dialogue about Rhetoric and Writing

The final panel at the CASDW conference included a panelist/representative from CSSR as well as other energetic young faculty in CASDW to talk about the future of the association and the profession.  The conversation was engaging and demonstrated a desire both to form a coherent professional identity and to continue productive discussions across disciplinary and national lines.

The conversation is important, at least in part because these scholars are active participants in publications based in the United States and in Canada.  A handful have earned degrees in American universities – but perhaps because they are removed from direct participation in a broader scholarly dialogue, ideas from the United States about rhetoric, composition and technical communication may be unclear to some CASDW members.  The richness of research from scholars in the United States, a richness that might also be called a chaos of perspectives, is missing in the CASDW context.  Given the interdisciplinarity of the entire Congress, this lack was especially visible.

On the other hand, the CASDW spirit of a coherent intellectual project, rooted in a common grasp of theory and a coherent setting for practice, appears to be missing in the diverse community of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication in the United States.  While scholars in the United States argue about the merits of Isocratean rhetoric in one corner and the merits of social media in the technical communication classroom in the other corner, colleagues in the CASDW are shaping a national disciplinary dialogue.  The United States’ scholars’ seeming chaos could enrich the Canadian work, but more importantly, the model of the CASDW scholars could help enrich and focus a common sense of disciplinary identity among teachers and scholars of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication in the United States.

Congress 2010 will be held at Concordia University, Montréal from Friday, May 28 to Friday, June 4, 2010.