An Interview with Magnus Gustafsson

Guest Edited by Steffen Guenzel: Magnus Gustafson is a busy scholar and researcher. He is the Chair of the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing (EATAW) and is an Ex-officio board member of the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA). Furthermore, he is an editorial board member to the WAC Clearing House and an editorial board member to Across the Disciplines, as well as the International Exchanges on the Study of Writing. Closer to home, he chairs the scientific committee for Chalmers Conference on Teaching and Learning.

MG_2While he earned a PhD in English Literature with a thesis on a British postmodern novelist, his first job entailed ‘further education’ for him – from running literature courses at an English department to promoting engineering communication education at college level in Sweden for three and five year engineering programs. This work naturally came to involve some initial thinking and researching on process writing and genre pedagogy so that it became his first entry gate to writing development and writing studies His background in literary studies offered several entry points to textual analysis with a much higher resolution as well as the first few steps into understanding genre and its conventions. Another important component in that program was that the strong / dominant proficiency focus in some ESL and SLA contexts in Sweden was balanced with a communicative approach to language acquisition. This focus on writing studies was a response to a perceived complete lack of writing pedagogy at the college level and led to the development of a local approach to these issues. Now he directs at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Division of Language and Communication in the Department of Applied IT, which also includes the Chalmers Writing Centre. In his position he continuously tries to work to integrate disciplinary language and communication into the university’s many programs and levels.

On my institutional website, I describe my work as “supporting division colleagues in course design and networking with course and program managers across the university.” But not all our activities are integrated courses and interventions of course. In my own teaching, I often facilitate PhD level writing courses to increase PhD researchers’ disciplinary discourse awareness to enable their careers as authors. I am also involved in some of our elective courses at the graduate and undergraduaHands from the rightte level as well as our faculty training courses. One of my favorites is ‘Fiction for Engineers’ which is a general education course with a focus on the power of fiction to emphasise the changing perspectives required to take on the challenge of relating technology or engineering to the society and people for whom it is intended.

To understand the role and function of the Division better, a few words might be called for about Chalmers University of Technology which offers bachelor level programs in engineering, management, maritime studies, and architecture. The various BSc programs open into 44 different but related 2-year master level programs. In terms of writing ‘programs’, this setup tends to take the form of starting with basic technical reporting and lab reporting in Swedish in the first year; continues with more specific writing in the second year or at least with a different genre or audience for the writing (some programs turn to English in the second year too). Most of the bachelor programs collaborate with the division throughout the first three years in integrated modules or adopt an adjunct model where a ‘content’ course runs hand-in-hand with a ‘communication’ course. What all the programs have in common is the BSc thesis in the third year. By the dean’s decision this thesis is to be written in Swedish but some 20% are in English for various reasons.

2015-12-09 15.23.45Given this type of context, we work with program managers and / or course managers to isolate the courses where scaffolding writing would be most effective for the program. We end up co-designing writing assignments and structuring these and collaborate in criteria and rubrics design as well as feedback and assessment. Most of the time, however, we do not assess final versions but focus on the process and make sure peer response elements function well.

What does writing look like at your institution? What support do writers and faculty teaching writing receive there?

The “bachelor thesis” offers our single largest writing intervention, where projects are advertised by supervisors and students sign up in an election module. Group sizes vary from 3-6 for projects and tend to involve cross-program connections. Often students from 3 different programs and disciplines participate on a project because that set of competencies is called for as it were. All groups are offered a 5-lectures series from us and participate in a set of 2 or 3 compulsory tutorials for writing support. The lectures address the stages of the writing process, from pre-writing via structure and style to argumentation and critiques.

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But the lectures are only meaningful in combination with tutorials. Typically, some 850 students in approximately 220 groups book 2-3 tutorial sessions each with the division. Generally, tutorials include one focused on peer-response on early drafts or planning reports; a second one focused only on one group and where texts are more complete including results reporting and discussion sections; the third tutorial is geared towards critiquing another group’s report in the closing presentation sessions in May. Needless to say, groups can also book additional sessions with the writing center.

What type of writing support does your institution offer to PhD students?

Chalmers entranceChalmers University accepts approximately 150-200 PhD students each year. Most PhD theses at the university are compiled ones with some 3-4 research articles and an introductory ‘chapter’ that makes a complete argument for the entire research cycle. To prepare PhD students beyond the work they do with supervisors, they can select from a package of courses for ‘generic transferable skills’ (GTS) at the university in which we offer two writing courses among the 3 or 4 that could be said to be ‘writing courses’. Both our courses are multidisciplinary with research students from across the university and focus on the research article through a genre pedagogy informed design.

The course “Introduction to Writing for Publication” (40 hours / 1.5 credits) is offered. Up to 60 students in a workshop / blended environment course learn about disciplinary writing conventions. The seminar culminates with a self-assessment action plan. The course runs once or twice each semester for approximately 2.5 months. The second course, “Academic writing for PhD Students” (80 hours / 3 credits) is in many ways a continuation of the introductory course even if it has been around since the 90s. It too is formed around genre awareness but here the writing process is actually implemented and monitored over 4-6 writing assignments including peer response and formative assessment on all of them. It is offered to 12 students over 8 weeks and is offered three times per semester.

The course offers a combination of ESL – genre approaches (typical language issues for specific rhetorical functions or typical language issues given the language backgrounds of the participants (which varies quite a bit and is very international) but the main focus remains a rhetorical one. I.e. it is not a proficiency course. PhD students who identify language proficiency as a major dimension in their self-assessment plans from the introductory course have access to online material and courses as well as electives for the MSc level and the writing center of course.

How do you see current and future developments in transatlantic learning (about writing in English) from each other?

2015-08-23%2015.09.09-3I’m a teacher first, director second, and researcher third. I don’t know the US and European scenes well enough to claim anything much but on my first trip to the US in 2004 to attend IWAC 2014 in St Louis, the European (or even international) contingency numbered some 20 delegates. I’m probably wrong – there must have been more of us – but we were exotic enough to be invited onto panels etc. Since then, the learning exchange about writing development between the US and Europe has intensified. Conferences like IWAC, IWCA, CCCC as well as EATAW, EWCA, WDHE, EARLI Sig Writing are increasingly international and in the past ten years or so, the current is not only one of US influences into Europe but a more balanced conversation. Where we have to take on and adapt the writing center idea to our many European contexts and languages, my US colleagues are now referring to WAC and WID (of course) but often do so with an awareness of frameworks such as ‘academic literacies’ or ‘integrating content and language’.

The challenge of that conversation is the convers[at]ion! How do I make my limited scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) study of a course at Chalmers relevant to a colleague in Florida who doesn’t even consider engineering education research as a relevant search term and even if she did, would hardly relate to our local context and fully understand it or appreciate it? We are all struggling with this of course but I believe we see more and more of that the further the exchange develops and eventually we will have acquired a way of talking about our practices that is actually meaningful and in which results are more easily translatable into our respective contexts.

Unfortunately, there is more to the conversation than just accounting for context. There is also the element of research traditions. Colleagues like Donahue and Paretti sometimes say that US data collection is more focused on quantitative data whereas the European tradition is stronger on the qualitative. I’m not sure that is still the case or that such a clear distinction can be made but I believe there is something to be said for the type of approaches that are more common in Europe like phenomenography and variation theory. Another potentially European component that could well travel across is the closer connection between writing development professionals and educational developers. There is still more to do in this area of collaboration but it seems we have more of it in European HE than there is in the US still.

The third point for our continued conversation is the huge amount of data on English-mediated instruction (EMI) that is growing in Europe and elsewhere. It is hardly a new area; but, even if it has different consequences across our various educational contexts, it appears to require of us to collaborate more in order to really take on our new research questions with a variety of approaches. Many of the past few reviews I’ve done on EMI or writing development papers have suffered from methodological paucity relative their really interesting research questions. I.e., our individual toolboxes seem too limited to address our ‘new’ questions well enough. As individual teacher/researchers we need to develop our toolboxes or our collaborative networks in order to be able to study our practice or activities with the appropriate mix of methods in our various teams and projects. Ideally, that would enable us to really take on our more complex and demanding research questions with greater acuity.

Question or comment for Magnus? Comment below!

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