Writing Empires I:
Composition and the Expansion of English

2007 MLA Convention
27-30 December 2008
Chicago, Illinois

Wendy Shilton
University of Prince Edward Island

Recasting the Outcast:
Foretelling the Future of the 101 Legacy at UPEI


Do not cite without permission of the author.

                        Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say
                                                            I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. 

                                                                                  – from The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett (3)

      If culture is “a strategy of survival,” as Homi Bhabha argues in the Location of Culture (172), the English Department at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), Canada, could be said to be engaging in a radical strategy of survival deployed on its own behalf. It is doing so, moreover, not through expansion and appropriation but through contraction and (r)ejection – in striking counterpoint to the University’s considerable recent expansion. After thirty-two years of delivering the University’s mandatory first-year composition course, English 101: Academic Writing, the Department is casting it out. Scheduled to be dropped by Fall 2008, the course already has been expunged conceptually from Departmental obligations and assigned to a liminal space on the frontiers of non-English departments, faculties, and the Administration. The move is deliberate, enacted at a time when literacy levels in the province are the lowest in the country,1 and without the slightest notion at this time of whether or how the course will survive.

      Since the English Department’s decision, the campus rumour mill has been active in constructing theories to explain what to many seemed unthinkable. Many assumed the course was at fault and deserved to be tossed. Others pointed to the Department, asking, Are they mad? Have they thought of budget and number implications? Have they suddenly abdicated on their professional obligation to teach writing? What of their moral duty – after all, isn’t literacy fundamental to human prosperity? Still others, deluded by the common notion of first-year composition as a remedial boot camp for instruction in comma splices and sentence fragments, congratulated the Department for its self-liberation from indentured servitude.

      “Where now? Who now? When now?” These are the questions that circulate as an ad hoc committee, of which I am a member, deliberates over the currently “Unnamable” future of writing instruction on campus. Only soothsayers, of course, can foretell the future, and I am no soothsayer. But in the following discussion I try to demystify some of the forces at work in this struggle while making credible predictions about its future. Ultimately, I argue, first, that writing instruction, once proudly promoted, has come to represent the force of an alterity deemed threatening and disavowed by a department which itself had become marginalized, and second, that the participatory culture indigenous to this small island holds the key, if there is one, to ensuring a strong foundation in higher literacy that will “Keep going, going on.”

      First, some socio-institutional context. Prince Edward Island, which lies off the coast of eastern Canada, is the nation’s smallest province, with a total population of approximately 140,000 and a largely acqua- and agricultural economic base. UPEI is a public liberal arts and science institution, with approximately 4,000 full- and part-time undergraduate students and a handful of graduate programs, mostly in the sciences.2 English constitutes the largest undergraduate department at the University, with eleven full-time members and an average of seventeen part-time members; its primary focus is the teaching of literature and literary theory, with some specialization in linguistics, theatre arts, and creative writing and strong interest in active learning pedagogies. Since 1975, the Department has provided two “service” English courses (English 101, and an introductory literature course) for all students, mandated by the University Senate for reasons that foreshadow to some extent the “crisis of literacy” constructed by the “New Vocationalism” of the 1970s (Godzich 1). These service courses were taught, until recently, by all full-time English faculty with an attitude characterized by a blended rhetoric of professional pride and social responsibility; as one now-retired colleague said to me on my arrival, “English 101 is the most important course at the University, and it requires the best teachers teaching it.”3          

      Since the late 1990s, a strong emphasis in writing across the curriculum and within the disciplines (WAC/WID) has developed, bolstering the foundational writing requirement. These initiatives include a Senate-appointed writing advisory council; a writing centre and coordinator; WAC/WID faculty workshops and student involvement; advanced courses in composition and rhetoric; a Writing Minor with more than eighty cross-listed writing-intensive courses; and collaboration with the province’s high schools and Ministry of Education. With each new writing initiative, English 101 is always positioned as the foundational sine qua non.  

      If UPEI appears to have emulated patterns typical of writing program development at American colleges and universities, I would urge deeper examination. Although UPEI has a unique hybrid of approaches to writing instruction – one remarkable in its reach, diversity, and sophistication when considered within the general Canadian context of writing instruction – it is nonetheless embedded in the strengths and limitations of Canadian academic practices. In Roger Graves’ 1994 study, Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities, he argues that Canada’s universities historically have demonstrated a resistance to writing instruction, perceiving it as superficial, remedial, or introductory. He argues elsewhere that a neo-colonial ideology pre-empted the development of Canadian composition instruction and scholarship: “while not colonial . . . the vision of university education that has dominated the Canadian academy is not postcolonial either (showing an awareness of identity, agency, resistance, provisionality, situatedness)” (Teaching Composition 110). Tania Smith’s essay, “Recent Trends in Writing Instruction and Composition Studies in Canadian Universities,” observes three distinct differences between Canadian and American writing instruction: the absence of a national test instrument such as the American SAT (which has pre-empted systematic writing assessment measures and the streaming of students into pre-regular and regular writing courses); a belles lettres approach to curriculum in which literature courses offer a “minor component in basic writing skills that is mainly instruction in the avoidance of common errors”; and the coordination of writing instruction through [English] department supervisors rather than writing program administrators (http://www.stthomasu.ca/insked/cdncomp.htm 5). All three components pertain to UPEI’s early pproach to writing instruction, with the striking exception of  English 101 which more closely parallels American “freshman composition” courses.  

      UPEI has morphed considerably from the days when English 101 first was established, especially with its recent transvaluation of the University’s long-standing image as a “teaching institution” into that which privileges research in professional advancement and aspires to be the “top university in the Maritime provinces” (Update http://www.upei.ca/president/file/update 2007.pdf ). Consequently, what began in a laudable spirit of University-wide service has become profoundly problematic. The course now serves over eight hundred students per year, more than double its original numbers and requiring increasing reliance on contingency faculty while full-time faculty teaching loads are scheduled to go from 3/3 to 3/2 by Fall 2008. Yet, 101 delivery expectations and conditions remain virtually what they were more than a quarter of a century ago, with the exception of funding for additional part-time contracts, cobbled together on a per-semester basis.  The Department has no separate 101 budget nor administrative assistance. Securing appropriate and adequate classroom and office space facilities is a struggle every semester. And from the Department’s perspective, neither the Administration nor faculty across the disciplines recognize the particularly labour-intensive nature of teaching composition, or the unparalleled scope of university-wide service performed yearly by the Department on the entire campus’s behalf (to which is added the service load of the 2nd English requirement and professional writing instruction).

      Two recent departmental studies, with external reviewers, corroborated the increasing challenges to 101 delivery. The first, a comprehensive departmental review, cited English 101 as the “academic cornerstone” of a UPEI education and central to retention and student success while pointing out the need for more resources and greater University-wide support to share appreciation and support for writing issues across the curriculum. The second, a special study of English 101 two years later, with Roger Graves as external reviewer, reconfirmed the recognition that English 101 plays a crucial academic role at UPEI while recommending the centralization of the administration of writing-related programs into one office under a Director of Writing to ensure a context of proper and sufficient resources.  With no new resources appearing, English faculty, one by one, began to use subversive bricolage tactics to withdraw from teaching English 101 (for example, course relief for research or new course design); next a decision was made to assign full-time faculty to English 101 every second year. Finally, with the heightened awareness of labour inequity issues that followed a successful faculty strike in March 2006, the English Department made its decision to eliminate English 101 from its areas of responsibility. In response, the Administration understandably deferred the proposal and established the ad hoc committee charged with bringing to Senate by mid-October a valid set of options for providing academic writing instruction.

      To date, no consensus, and no report to Senate, have occurred. Committee discussion is fraught, and proposals from every quarter at the table come flying thick and fast. To be sure, important convergences have emerged. Everyone agrees, for example, that writing skills are essential. Assessment appears to be desirable to all. And the concept of writing as a university-wide responsibility gradually is taking meaningful hold. But there is strong resistance to the idea of a self-standing writing program, largely, I believe, because, despite the multitude of WAC/WID initiatives, courses, and support services on campus, the theoretical and pedagogical relatedness of these entities is not recognized as a result of the general paradigm of language as adjunct to “real” disciplines.

      My role on this committee has been to insist that an adequate basis of understanding is necessary from which to make valid recommendations to Senate. To determine whether or not English 101 should be replicated, reformed, or discarded wholesale, it is important to name the real, versus alleged, problems concerning it. It is not that the English Department got “sick of teaching 101,” as so often accused, but rather that it wearied beyond endurance of coping with the contradiction of a worthy course, which generated considerable revenue, beggared by the direction of resources elsewhere. At the same time, the underfunding of the course in the first place resides in the lack of awareness that academic learning is possible only through the personal operation of language. If the inextricable connections between language and learning are not acknowledged and taught, a powerful hidden or undeclared curriculum operates in the learning environment, promoting the restricted literacy that “provides for competence in a specific code,” as Godzich points out, “with little, if any but the most rudimentary, awareness of the general problematics of codes and codification in language” (5); the result is that “the citizen, though a competent wielder of the codes in effect in the sphere of production to which he or she is attached, becomes linguistically incompetent in the political sphere” (9). Thus, this committee needs to understand (1) how writing development occurs effectively in post-secondary education, according to the balance of research and best practices in composition and rhetoric; (2) what would be gained or lost by removing a foundational composition course such as English 101; and (3) the consequences of recommendations for teaching, learning, and research at UPEI as well as for the University’s institutional place in the provincial, regional, national, and international academic contexts.

      With these goals in mind, the proposal I am promoting on this committee in conjunction with the University Writing Council is entitled, “Toward a Sustainable Future for Academic Writing Development at UPEI.” It is designed to articulate the interdependence of the WAC/WID entities on campus within the paradigm of a sustainable knowledge ecology. Following knowledge ecology theorists, such as George Pór, we urge the development of a comprehensive program of writing development that counters the traditional view of knowledge as inert collections of information and argues instead that knowledge exists in dynamic, diverse ecosystems in which information, ideas, inspiration, and creativity cross-fertilize and feed one another through  engagement with the larger environment(s) in which it exists.

      Briefly, this program would offer a customizable first-year writing experience that centres on the study of language and interdependent communication skills withina comprehensive program of writing development, including writing assessment based on the principle of differentiated need and self-directed placement, preparatory options, strong WID development, effective integration of information literacy instruction and digital literacies, and service learning and intern partnerships with the Island’s high schools and business community to foster an Island-wide culture of literacy.

      The English Department’s decision to cast out English 101, then, was the result of a long  process of erosion in its ability to continue offering a course whose value was campus-wide but misinterpreted and therefore under-resourced. Was the decision inevitable? Not necessarily. Certainly it brought the matter to a crisis, which in turn grabbed the attention of the campus and forced faculty and students across the disciplines as well as administrators to think about how writing instruction affects their roles in promoting teaching and learning.

      But culture, I believe, is more than a mere strategy of survival. Survivalism begets defensive retrenchment, and I tend to agree with James Berlin’s statement  in Rhetorics, Poetics, Cultures that “the English department’s abhorrence of the rhetorical . . . does far more harm than creating a permanent underclass of department members whose putative role is the remediation of the poorly prepared. It also works to exclude from the ranks of the privileged managerial class those students not socialized from birth in the ways of the aesthetic response” (15). I am interested, rather, in the retooling of English departments as the guardians of a comprehensive notion of English studies, as Bruce McComiskey argues in English Studies: An Introduction to the Disciplines(s), with the right for equal status for all domains in the discipline, including creative writing, literature and literary criticism, critical theory and cultural studies, linguistics, rhetoric and composition, and English education. When the intersections of all language functions are understood as integral to learning, writing studies will not be cast out nor the departments associated with them marginalized. Instead, writing instruction will be integrated properly with learning and resourced sufficiently for the multiple literacies necessary for interdependent democratic agency in today’s world, empowering the many rather than the elite few of empire. 

1.         For example, the 3rd Annual Report Card of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies: AIMS; and the December 2004 Report of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development PISA 2003 study; and UPEI’s own recent NSSE report that correlates the under-preparedness of first-year students with their inability to engage learning effectively.
2.         The five graduate programs include Veterinary Medicine, Chemistry, Biology, Island Studies, and Education
3.         The English Department’s unusual number of institutional, regional, and national awards in teaching and instructional leadership may well be a consequence of the pedagogical experience afforded through teaching English 101 and learning to intersect with the actual, rather than idealized, literacy needs of students.      


Works Cited
Beckett, Samuel. The Unnamable. The Collected Works of Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove,
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. West
            Lafayette: Parlor, 2003.
Godzich, Wlad. The Culture of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Graves, Roger. Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities. Winnipeg: Inkshed, 1994.
- - -      "Teaching Composition Theory in Canada." Composition Studies 23:2 (Fall 1995).
McCoskey, Bruce, ed. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Refiguring English
            Studies Series. National Council of Teachers of English. 2006.
Smith, Tania.   “Recent Trends in Writing Instruction and Composition Studies in Canadian
            Universities.” Inkshed Publications. Canadian Association for the Study of Language and
            Learning. 994.<http://www.stthomasu.ca/inkshed/cdncomp.htm>