The following interview with professors Jami Blaauw-Hara of North Central Michigan College and Mark Blauuw-Hara of the University of Toronto-Mississauga was conducted via email in August of 2022. This is the first of four parts.
David Starkey: I always enjoy having a chance to discuss pedagogy and classroom practice with smart, engaged and innovative colleagues, so it’s a real pleasure for me to talk with the two of you.
Jami Blaauw-Hara: We represent some diverse perspectives in terms of our institutions as well. It will be fun to hear what Mark has to say as well since we don’t dig too far into the weeds over dinner or coffee in the morning.
Mark Blaauw-Hara:Thanks, David! We’re happy to talk with you as well.
DS: Jami, you’re the Writing Program Coordinator and a Professor of English and Communication at North Central Michigan College, a rural community college. Can you talk a bit about the particular joys and challenges of working in your institution?
JBH: NCMC enrolls a little more than 1,500 students per semester in a bucolic tourist area that swells with visitors in the warm summer months. Many of my students are really rooted to this location and see themselves as rural people. I have read and enjoyed countless essays about deer hunting, for example. It’s fun for me to show how rhetoric, discourse, and genre awareness will help improve the lives of my students who may never leave the area. I love it when a student can understand how reading and analyzing a genre is similar to reading and analyzing a river for where the fish are likely to be.
DS: And the challenges?
JBH: I find that I am constantly making a case for what writing programs should NOT be: grammar-focused, lore-driven, and relying solely on Aristotle’s taxonomy. Last year I tried to modify our placement system for writing to directed self placement, but I was ultimately met with barriers of understanding. Our student services administration couldn’t see how it was a good model for all students and simply wanted to use it for students with outdated test scores. We have an English department of four faculty, two of which teach in other departments as well. When we’re all on the same page, this makes consistency among sections and decision making easy. When even one person leaves and a hire is not made or the hire is a blended position (teaching in other disciplines), our department can shift away from writing pedagogy based on scholarship in the field.
DS: And, Mark, while you also taught for many years at North Central Michigan, you’re now an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, at the University of Toronto Mississauga. What led to the move?
MBH: Mostly because it seemed like an adventure to move to Canada and see what life is like across the border. I was also really attracted to the program at UTM. Canada approaches writing instruction very differently than the US, and the writing program at UTM is brand new, so I was excited to be a part of a program that I could help build.
DS: Can you talk a bit about the major differences in writing instruction between the US and our neighbor to the north?
MBH: In the U.S., I’d say that things have kind of stabilized into several tracks: first-year writing, WAC/WID, professional writing, etc. The U.S. has well-developed programs that address each of those. In Canada, things are much more fluid. They don’t have the kind of widespread graduate degrees in writing studies that the U.S. does, and they don’t have a big tradition of first-year writing. That’s not to say that universities don’t care about writing–they do. It’s just a different vibe. Much writing instruction takes place in writing centres, which are very, very active. Some schools have what I’d characterize as WAC/WID programs, but a big first-year writing program that’s mandatory for all students at a university is rare. Similarly, follow-up courses in rhetoric, professional writing, etc. are much rarer than in the U.S. My understanding is that their versions of community and technical colleges do more with formal writing instruction than the universities tend to. To me–and also to my colleagues at my new school–the situation in Canada represents a major opportunity to build model writing programs from the ground up and hopefully avoid a lot of the growing pains that the U.S. had as it tried a lot of different options before it settled on the ones that worked. I kind of feel like it’s the land of possibility as far as writing programs are concerned.