Routes of Writing

By Carolyn Samuel,  The McGill Writing Centre

I teach academic writing, and I regularly hear students say that they find writing academic papers to be a tough and lonely task. What they often don’t realize is that writing well-thought-out academic papers is challenging for most people, including seasoned academics. To encourage my students to persist with the challenge, this quotation is posted to the myCourses Home Page of my academic writing course:


“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

-Samuel Johnson

Wanting to learn more about how seasoned scholars undertake the task of capturing their research and ideas on paper, I asked several professors and librarians from across the disciplines at McGill to write 200 words in response to one of a series of questions about their own academic writing experiences. The questions and their answers have been assembled at a newly created web page entitled Routes of Writing. The Routes of Writing project is designed to enhance students’ understanding of academic writing by giving them insight into the writing practices and strategies of their professors and librarians.

Student reaction to the site has been enthusiastic. Here are some of the comments we’ve received:

It’s nice to get perspectives from professors of faculties you might not have a chance to take courses in … I like that each answered question gets its own page; you get a sense of the individuality and uniqueness of each professor’s perspective … I find it interesting to spot the name of a professor I’ve had before or whose name I at least recognize, and be able to read their take on the topic.

–Nathalie, Faculty of Arts, U3 student

Those questions are exactly what I would have asked! Actually, I never realized that writing is not so easy for professors, and even they need to work hard at it … I like that professors are talking about their real experiences.

–Belle, Faculty of Arts, Master student

I think this website plays an important role in the demystification of how academic writing occurs. Knowing that there are different approaches to academic writing and that students are not alone in approaching the various challenges associated with writing is reassuring in a way: Even established professors sometimes struggle, encounter roadblocks, and recognize the need to step back from their writing. The variety of suggestions they offer for how they address these challenges gives good food for thought about how I might approach challenges and setbacks in my own writing.

The questions and responses are relevant to students at all points in their academic journey.

–Jennie, Faculty of Education, PhD student

We invite all McGill professors and librarians to contribute to Routes of Writing. If you would like to be part of Routes of Writing, please email me <> for the list of questions.

Learning to scythe

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services

This summer my husband taught me to use a scythe. I accepted my friends’ indulgent smiles when I raved about the experience but I knew that many considered this to be a foolhardy and retrograde pursuit. Some asked, “Would you like to borrow our mower?” or “Why not pay your neighbor to cut the field?” assuming our choice was due to lack of funds or lack of awareness of the advancement in power tools since the Industrial Revolution.  I, however, grew to love the scythe and savored the time I spent moving the blade back and forth across our meadow in Vermont.  I  could extoll the virtues of the scythe at length – the contact it allowed me with the grass and the ground,  the slow and steady pace it set, the satisfaction it led to  a job well done —  but I could never match the accuracy or the beauty of the celebrated essay by Wendell Berry A good scythe.” In this essay, Berry recounts how short-lived  experience with a power scythe led him to believe in the superiority of the hand-held, human-motored version.

Berry writes, “These differences have come to have, for me, the force of a parable. Once you have mastered the hand scythe, what an absurd thing it makes of the power scythe! What possible sense can there be in carrying a heavy weight on your shoulder in order to reduce by a very little the use of your arms? Or to use quite a lot of money as a substitute for a little skill?”  (Organic Gardening Magazine, January 1980)

I consider these words of Berry’s to be wisdom for the ages. There is a common belief right now in higher education that students are so accustomed to communicating via digital technologies that traditional modes of education are no longer adequate. I resist this notion. It is true that today’s digital natives are much more at home with new technologies than previous generations but that does not mean that they can’t learn from older, slower forms of instruction that prioritize human contact, dialogue and interaction. Like the old-fashioned scythe, the old-fashioned classroom has a place IF it is well-made, with attention to details that make it powerful. In the case of the scythe that might be the arc and sharpness of the blade, the length of the handle, the overall weight of the tool. In the case of the classroom the details that matter are the potential  for instructors to convey the changeability of knowledge, the opportunity to invite questions and dialogue, the time to celebrate collaboration and reflection. These elements are old-fashioned but they are still powerful and they still need to be nurtured in the modern university.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

By Chris Buddle, Natural Resource Sciences
Repost from Arthropod Ecology

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.

This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success. Read the full post by clicking here.

Grow the 8% – from

By Adam Finkelstein, Teaching and Learning Services.


The Teaching and Learning in Higher Education blog has a very interesting post titled “grow the 8%” with an infographic on the importance of faculty development. Infographics are visual representations of information and can be an excellent way of synthesizing a complex topic. From their infographic:

Only 8 percent of professors in another study reported taking “any account of research on teaching and learning in preparing their classes.” We need to grow this.

They cite some great resources for faculty development. See below for the entire infographic:

Have you ever used an infographic in your courses? If so, let us know in the comments below…

Photo Credit: Growing in the sand by Fellowship of the Rich, on Flickr

Short writing assignments: something to consider

Many faculty shy away from short writing assignments, considering them to be the poorer cousin of the term paper or research paper.  There is a commonly held assumption that shorter assignments can never match the rigor or substance of longer papers and that faculty are letting students down if they don’t assign a full-length paper (whatever that is according to the conventions of each discipline). Yet, what are faculty to do in a context of increasing class sizes and decreasing TA support? How can we still assess important outcomes such as analysis, synthesis and critical thinking?  Moreover, how can we infuse these elements into courses that have tradtionally relied on quizzes and exams for assessment?  Many faculty at McGill have already discovered one answer to this dilemma: the short writing assignment. These assignments can take many forms – from a 500-word response to a question posed by Prof. Andre Costopoulos in a 200-level evolutionary theory class to a policy brief assigned by Prof. Madhav Badami in a class in Urban Planning.   On Oct. 30th the  workshop “Beyond the research paper – new ways to get students writing”  is being offered by TLS where we will share many more of these of examples and discuss how to design short writing assignments that engage students, provide meaningful tasks, and assess higher order thinking skills. To find out more and register, click here.

McGill Provost reflects on future of the University

By Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services

What are MOOCs, why are they important, and did you know that the concept was actually developed here in Canada? In his recently published article “Questioning higher education”, McGill Provost Anthony C. Masi reflects upon the disruptive role and possibilities of educational technologies at university, both in physical spaces and (a)synchronous virtual spaces. He identifies three initial challenges for universities brought about by technology-driven changes in learning: “digital natives”’ expectations for technology use in the classroom, helping students develop information literacy competencies, and limitations of existing physical spaces.

The future of universities’ role in education is an open question, with significant change in educational models and institutions anticipated over the upcoming years. There are a number of outstanding questions requiring further exploration with regards to MOOCs, ranging broadly from impact upon alumni relations, to equity for on-campus vs. online students, to support and workload for professors. Noting wryly that the plural of anecdote is not data, the Provost makes the case for the importance of learning analytics in informing conversations on these and other questions.

Discussing what matters in higher education.