By: Rachel Kinzer Corell
Cross-Cultural Consideration of University Writing Instruction:
A Global Perspectives 2017 Program Report
“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all
if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the plot of the book centers on the TriWizard Tournament and the three schools represented by the respective champions who compete in it. Those schools include, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the United Kingdom, as well as the French from Beauxbatons Academy and the Bulgarians from Durmstrang Institute. When the tri-wizard tournament becomes a four-person quest thanks to a mysterious spell that requires Harry Potter to compete as a second Hogwarts champion, students and teachers alike are forced to evaluate their own perspectives of one another and look beyond their familiar understanding of the world they know. That said, although Harry’s adventures at this magical boarding school involve interactions with these students coming to Hogwarts from abroad, these young wizards are ultimately competing, not collaborating, in their experiences. So, while their perspectives are expanded through the friendships they forge, much of what they can learn seems ultimately limited by the competitive nature of their meeting.
Although it isn’t the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Virginia Tech’s Global Perspectives Program (GPP) is certainly an experience that has a magic all its own. (Some graduate students might argue this experience is the closest thing to a Hogwarts letter they’ll ever get; they are probably right.) Much of its magic stems from the collaborative nature of inquiry into higher education required by the program. Facilitated by collaboration between Virginia Tech, a US higher education institution, and Swiss higher education institutions including the University of Basel and University of Zurich, GPP aims to push its participants to gain a better-informed, more global understanding of the function of higher education in an increasingly global society. In this program, US students don’t simply visit universities abroad in Switzerland, France, and Italy; they are asked to engage in an open dialogue with their counterparts from European universities and take part in a cross-cultural collaboration where they try to address educational issues based around a program theme, with this year’s theme being “higher education as a public good.” With this context in mind, one of my primary goals in taking part in the GPP experience was to learn more about how the field of writing instruction functions in Europe, whether related to academic writing, technical writing and professional communication, or writing across the disciplines in general. This essay discusses my experiences and what I learned in the process.
CONTEXT & BACKGROUND.
A central part of my GPP experience involved increasing my general understanding of the state of higher education in Europe (e.g. the Bologna Process). This required me to think about what I could learn about higher education instruction in a context outside US classrooms, and it required me to try to see things through a global lens, an essential part of the GPP experience. In fact, research has shown that the field of study abroad can serve many purposes, with producing better global citizens being one of the primary goals.
In “Experiential Pedagogy for Study Abroad: Educating for Global Citizenship,” authors Lutterman-Aguilar and Gingerich assert that “study abroad in and of itself does not lead to the development of global citizenship, but it can do so when it is designed with that goal in mind, putting into practice the principles of experiential education” (43). Rooted in theories of learning as a collaborative effort, they argue that the knowledge gained from study abroad experiences is experiential when some degree of reflection occurs (45). This is certainly the case with the Global Perspectives Program, where we are encouraged to pursue our learning objectives and research questions and reflect on them in the context of the GPP theme through group discussions, blog posts, and program reports.
LEARNING OBJECTIVES & RESEARCH QUESTIONS.
Like many in my cohort, I had the hope that a study abroad opportunity through Virginia Tech would add to my graduate school experience and better prepare me for work in higher education. Specifically, I wanted new knowledge regarding best practices in European higher education, and ideas for implementing them in the U.S. With a background in English, specifically rhetoric and composition studies, I personally entered into the GPP program with the hope that I could expand my worldview and learn about writing instruction outside the U.S. Given that undergraduate academic writing instruction and first-year writing classes in particular are a uniquely American phenomenon, I was specifically curious to see how and in what ways writing instruction manifests itself at all levels both within English studies and across the disciplines in European universities.
While first-year academic writing instruction is practically ubiquitous in the United States, there is overall less emphasis on concepts in technical writing (e.g. professionalism and professional communication) and largely varying emphasis in writing across the disciplines. With this in mind, my research questions focused various aspects of writing instruction in European higher education, and my some of the questions I wanted to explore were:
- What kinds of writing instruction do students have at the university level in European higher education institutions?
- How is writing instruction incorporated into programs beyond traditional English studies in higher education?
- How is professional development instruction incorporated into programs in Europe? Is it as part of an interdisciplinary program, or does it vary by academic focus?
With respect to academic writing instruction, I was surprised at what I found. Overall, European universities lack the first-year writing instruction courses so well known in the U.S. Especially when considering STEM areas outside the humanities, it is easily possible to progress all the way to the PhD without any formal writing instruction. As such, writing across the disciplines is similarly unheard of. Indeed, during our visits to Swiss, French, and Italian universities, writing instruction is not mentioned as a subject area of concern even when transferrable skills are being discussed.
That said, good communication was consistently emphasized as important, which implies an emphasis on technical writing in practice if not in name. This emphasis is limited, however, as the research-focused nature of graduate work in European universities tends to preclude the addition of writing instruction to coursework, particularly when writing would be a secondary discipline for the student. In the end, though each university we visited treats writing and communication in slightly different ways, and its treatment and emphasis vary by institution, some common themes emerge with regard to Switzerland and European education in general.
ETH, the top-ranked university in the country, offers Master’s and PhD degrees in English, but has no formal writing requirement. Such is the case at University of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest university, despite having the largest number of degrees in both German and English. At USI, Switzerland’s Italian speaking university, it is possible to study literature and communication sciences, but it doesn’t go beyond those disciplines. In addition, the University of Strasbourg in France shared a similar level of emphasis on communication as University of Zurich and USI. Even at Switzerland’s oldest university in Basel, home to the world’s oldest English department, there is no university-wide writing instruction.
However, two universities that we visited did have significant communications requirements as part of a transferrable skills component. At PoliMi, a top ranked school in Italy, graduate students are encouraged to improve various “soft skills” for purposes of professional and scientific communication. And at SUPSI, an Italian-speaking vocational university, career counseling and career training during the course of the degree program emphasize communication as a soft skill as well.
INSIGHTS & FUTURE INQUIRY.
It might seem odd to those familiar with the U.S. education system that universities in Europe do not tend to have any formal writing instruction at the college level despite varying degrees of emphasis on communication, but it is important to remember that writing courses in the U.S. are typically housed in English departments. While needing to know English is a growing reality in Swiss universities, especially in master’s level programs (Hoi, 2014), its influence is not such that major writing programs have yet to take hold.
Indeed, during my conversations with graduate students and faculty members at these universities, communication and writing ability were both almost universally agreed upon as important skills to have mastered, but the concept of writing instruction across the disciplines to teach these skills was new to nearly all of them. In their work to expand the pedagogy behind teaching academic writing in a European context, Björk et al (2003) conclude that this is typical of writing instruction in Europe. According to Björk et al (2003) the writing instruction that is occurring is recent, and more common in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK (3). With this in mind, it would be interesting to follow up in a few years to see if (and in what ways) writing instruction has expanded across European universities, particularly those in Switzerland.
A high value is placed on communication skills and writing ability whether one is at university in the U.S. or in Europe. Although I didn’t encounter much regarding writing instruction, I did learn that, like many schools in the U.S., some universities in Europe have started to increase emphasis on the importance of communicating science, meaning that classes and workshops focusing on these concepts will likely become more available, especially to students in STEM areas.
While I did expect to have fun while learning about higher education in Europe, I did not expect the level of transformation that I felt taking part in this experience. Writing about the trip led me to constantly reflect on how what I learned could actually be put into action in the future. Working with graduate students from the other universities participating in the program was inspirational as well. Despite our different backgrounds and research interests, we all came together with open minds to discuss our ideas and perspectives. We were unified in our identical aims to understand higher education as a public good and to use knowledge of higher education to make a difference in the world, and that’s what having a global perspective is all about.
Björk, L., Bräuer, G., Rienecker, L., & Stray Jörgensen, P. (2003). Teaching Academic Writing in European Higher Education: An Introduction. Studies in Writing, Volume 12. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lotte_Rienecker/publication/ 226775605_Teaching_Academic_Writing_in_European_Higher_Education_An_Introdu ction/links/55f2a87108ae0af8ee1f9197/Teaching-Academic-Writing-in-European- Higher-Education-An-Introduction.pdf
Hoi, Geraldine Wong Sak. (2014). “English a fact of life for many Swiss students.” University Courses: SwissInfo.ch. Retrieved from: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/ university-courses_english-a-fact-of-life-for-many-swiss-students/37652268
Lutterman-Aguilar, A. and Gingerich, O. (2002). Experiential pedagogy for study abroad:
45545452015/09/global citizenship major writing programs have yet al Perspectives Program.ed could be put into action in the fu educating for global citizenship. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad. Retrieved from: http://inside.augsburg.edu/cge/files/2012/10/Frontiers1.pdf
Rowling, J. K. (2000). Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. New York: Scholastic.