Vol. 2, No. 3 (Winter 2021)
Stephanie Bell, CWCR/RCCR Co-Editor
The CWCR/RCCR’s Centre Spotlight series showcases the diversity of Canadian centres of writing support across education institutions. Beginning with Kristen Welbourn’s exposé on one of Nova Scotia’s first and only high school writing centres, this series takes a snapshot of our community today and prompts us to ask questions about the historical forces that have shaped its development.
This Centre Spotlight casts light on a tutoring centre embedded within the writing-in-the-disciplines program founded by Robert Irish in 1995: the Engineering Communication Program or ECP. Interestingly, the ECP originated, in part, from a Writing Centre (see: Weiss, Irish, Chong, & Wilkinson, 2019). In this way, it may be considered a model of success in terms of the vision that Canadian leaders in writing studies had when they turned away from the American trend toward First-Year Composition.
P. Weiss, R. K. Irish, A. Chong, & L. Wilkinson, (2019), We Have Changed: Reflections on 20+ Years of Teaching Communication in Engineering. 2019 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (ProComm). pp. 286-287. doi: 10.1109/ProComm.2019.00064
The ECP Tutoring Centre
Dr. Faye D’Silva, Coordinator, ECP Tutoring Centre
The University of Toronto’s long history of supporting student writers through its many writing centres includes teaching and tutoring engineering students. Part of this history is our Engineering Communication Program Tutoring Centre, which supports undergraduate engineering students in the development of their professional communication practices.
Our ECP tutoring centre provides support for the students enrolled in Engineering and Engineering Communication Program (ECP) courses. In collaboration with Engineering faculty, the ECP develops discipline-specific communication courses integrated across the engineering curriculum from the first to the fourth year. It also offers Humanities and Social Science elective courses related to language, science and culture.
Together with the ECP, our tutoring centre works to normalize writing support at advanced levels of professional study. There is an expectation that students come to university equipped with literacy practices which include knowledge of linguistic, social, and cultural features of academic discourse used by academic disciplines (Lea & Street, 1998). However, given the unique academic and professional writing practices of each discipline, it is not surprising for local and international students alike to feel inadequately prepared to grapple with the complex nature of academic literacy practices.
Not only do we find ourselves working to counter the attitude that writing support is remedial among students and faculty, but we are also often helping students recognize the role of communication in engineering and extending their passion for engineering to engineering communication. It’s not uncommon to meet students who choose engineering hoping to dodge writing.
Within this context, the ECP tutoring centre’s main objective is to equip students with discursive knowledge and practices that can prepare them to fully participate within their discourse communities. In doing so, we aim to develop student’s professional communication skills and help them recognize the role of communication in engineering.
Question for reflection: Have you encountered first-year engineering students adjusting to the amount of writing and communication assignments at your writing centres?
While the centre is often used by both multilingual and native English-speaking students, an important facet of our tutoring instruction is geared towards Professional Language Development (PLD) which is intended to support students who use English to study engineering, rather than studying the English language (Kinnear et al., 2016). Our trained PLD instructors bring diverse disciplinary knowledge to our tutoring sessions and work with students who self-identify as needing support in developing their professional language competence.
Question for reflection: How do your centres respond to language development needs of students? Do you have specific instructors assigned?
In engineering discourse, students need to communicate complex technical ideas to audiences that may be non-experts in the field by employing a diverse range of approaches and modes. To construct an academic text, whether in written or visual form, students need to know:
1) The audience they are writing for;
2)The discipline in which they are writing; and,
3) The purpose of the text (Paltridge, 2001).
Considering the broad range of modalities common in engineering discourse, students need to gain competence in multimodal environments and therefore, need to develop the ability to visualize problems. Through faculty-led integrated communication courses, students learn to utilize visuals to enhance data clarity and strategically apply visuals to strengthen rhetoric. When students visit the tutoring centre, our tutors not only guide them on incorporating visuals, but also teach them crucial and critical decision-making skills of discerning which data to include within a text and which to include in the appendices.
As assignments are becoming increasingly multimodal, students often visit us to receive feedback on slide design and presentation skills in order to develop their professional and interpersonal competencies. For instance, students have the opportunity to practice presenting one-on-one and in teams and during these sessions, we focus on effective visual communication and oral communication.
Question for reflection: Have you been seeing more multimodal assignments at your centre? Are your writing consultants trained to comment on this emerging genre?
Due to the professional nature of the discipline, students are encouraged early on in their program to develop and represent their professional identity through a résumé and portfolio. As a result, another genre of student-produced texts that we often see at our centre includes resumes, CVs, job application letters, and higher educational applications such as the statement of purpose and scholarship applications. Our communication instructors are trained in these non-engineering specific genres.
Question for reflection: What type of specific-genre training does your writing centre provide?
It may be useful to know that our instructors do not share the disciplinary background of our students and address difficulties presented by students on various aspects of the communication process. Often times, they simply function as the audience providing feedback on general writing issues.
While we may not be engineering experts, we do function as communication instructors in various courses throughout the program which allows us to gain mastery of specific disciplinary practices common in engineering. In addition, specific training sessions in the form of PD sessions are offered to enhance disciplinary and genre knowledge. A great deal of our work involves leading students through a process of learning to write precisely using accurate language and presenting it concisely, which are critical elements of engineering writing.
While the debate between generalist and specialist tutors may be ongoing, it would be safe to say that our tutors employ strategies that reflect both generalist and specialist tutors. In many ways, we function as the non-expert audience, allowing students to break down their complex conceptual knowledge into simplified bits of information and communicate with experienced communicators.
The Engineering Communication Program. (2020). University of Toronto. Retrieved from https://ecp.engineering.utoronto.ca
Kinnear, P., Stickel, M., Frank, B.M., & Kaupp, J.A. (2016). American Society for Engineering Education. ASEE’s 123rd Annual Conference and Exposition. June 26-29, 2016. New Orleans, LA.
Lea, M., & Street, B. (1998). Student writing and staff feedback in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, (2), 157-72.
Paltridge, B. (2001). Genre and the language learning classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.