Editor’s note: We would like to thank Anuj Gupta for introducing to us the writing center and the writing programs at Ashoka University, India. Our Global Spotlight features an international writing center each month to map out the landscape of writing centers around the world. Interested in submitting a piece about your center? Email us.
With two Writing Programs and a Writing Center, Ashoka University is growing as a trailblazer in writing education in India. Just two decades ago, there was relatively much less academic writing instruction at the higher education level in the country. However, over the last two decades, a slow but steady growth in writing programs and centers has happened in institutions like Krea University, O.P. Jindal University, Delhi University, Ambedkar University, Shiv Nadar University, I.I.T Gandhinagar, Anant University and many others across the nation (see Dasgupta and Lohokare). Ashoka University, which was one of the first that began this work, continues to be a significant voice and model in the expanding writing pedagogy movement in India. It is a highly exciting time as all these writing centers and programs are beginning to connect and learn about each other’s work while figuring out pathways for collaboration that might help streamline all their efforts into a sustained movement.
The story  of writing pedagogy at Ashoka University began in 2011, with the emergence of an academic writing course within Ashoka’s flagship Young India Fellowship (YIF) program, a one year multidisciplinary postgraduate program in liberal arts. Before the University formally came into existence, the founders launched a pilot program in the form of the YIF in 2010 to gauge the feasibility of liberal arts education in India. Based on the immensely positive student and faculty responses in the YIF then, Ashoka University was formally launched in 2014. Writing pedagogy here began with the YIF in 2011 and gradually evolved into new shapes and forms as Ashoka University formally came into being in 2014.
At the YIF, students from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds from all over India come to develop skills in critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication in order to become socially conscious citizens of the 21st century. While initially, writing pedagogy existed within the YIF in the form of six week long generalized courses run under the name of “Academic Writing”, from 2014 onwards, these courses started to grow in duration as well as in curricula as it gradually transformed into argument-based, expository writing workshops clustered around a new name — “Critical Writing”.
In 2014, when the full-fledged Ashoka University came into being, the YIF and all its courses merged with it. At this time, there also emerged the Center of Writing and Communication (CWC), which absorbed all the YIF Critical Writing courses, and gave birth to new undergraduate writing courses called Introduction to Critical Thinking or ICT courses, along with university wide tutoring services. Over time, due to the increase in student numbers and to maintain greater administrative efficiency, this arrangement evolved into three distinct units of writing education at Ashoka in the form of the Center for Writing and Communication (CWC), the Young India Fellowship Critical Writing Program (YIF CW), and the Undergraduate Writing Program (UWP).
The Academic Writing Ecosystem at Ashoka: CWC, YIF CW, UWP
The ecological network of these three units presents an interesting case study in organizational dynamics. Instead of a hierarchical, top-down relationship between the writing center and the two writing programs, there exists a relatively autonomous structure that enables all three units to work independently and also collaborate in a decentralized manner with each other as well as with other departments — something that is vital for the sustainable growth of this entire ecosystem. Over the years, many of us within the three units collaborated with the intention to develop a coherent sense of a ‘writing community’ on campus, while retaining our decision-making capabilities for our respective units.
At the pedagogic level, all students on campus, including the ones taught by YIF CW and UWP have the opportunity to book appointments with the CWC tutors. Seminars and workshops organized by each of the three units are also, unless specified otherwise, open to all students. There are also several pathways for sharing of ideas between tutors, faculty, and administrators in the writing community. The hour long commute to the University which many writing tutors and faculty share on the University shuttle provides refreshing informal opportunities to share notes on pedagogy. We also started a mailing thread to encourage the sharing of resources and challenges between members. As a result of discussions on some of these channels, we planned a joint symposium for interested teachers across the three units in 2020, which unfortunately had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, there is often an exciting flow of ideas across the writing ecosystem. For example, a recently edited collection of essays on academic writing education in India brought out by three CWC tutors includes essays by two YIF CW faculty (see Chakraborti, Roy, and Magazine), while a student that I taught in the YIF CW is now teaching writing at the UWP! In 2017-2018, we invited Aditi Sriram, the current administrative head of the UWP, to conduct a workshop on best practices for student peer reviews for YIF CW writing faculty, while I was invited to chair a panel at the CWC’s annual conference on academic writing that year.
At the administrative level too, there’s been thoughtful collaborative work to drive broader conversations on writing at the university in many forms. For example, in 2017, several members of the writing community combined forces to develop a joint orientation for all incoming writing program teachers and writing center tutors with a specific purpose to foster a sense of shared purpose and community. This had several joint training sessions to address shared pedagogic issues, along with breakaway sessions specifically focused on tutor work as well as classroom teaching. It’s also common practice for program policies and handbooks to be shared across the various units to facilitate collective problem solving and enhance mutual support.
A closer look at the YIF CW program
Since I worked as the Assistant Director of the YIF CW program (YIF CW) from 2017-2020, and because my experiences happened primarily with that program, I will focus now on its unique pedagogy and offerings. Interested readers can learn more about the wide range of work that the CWC and the UWP do by going to their websites (CWC, UWP) as well as by looking at an essay written by Dr. Kanika Singh, the current Director of the CWC (see Singh).
Over the years, the YIF CW has grown to include a set of 10 writing courses offered to around 300 students with over 10 teachers and a Writing Program Administrator devoted solely to it. Its mission is to help students develop critical reading, writing, and thinking abilities that allow them to engage with the world of ideas and produce their own in order to participate ethically and effectively in the academic, professional, and social spheres around them. Its uniqueness lies in its student body as well as its structural design.
The YIF has immense disciplinary diversity in the student body with the same classroom having students from engineering, humanities, social sciences, sciences, business, and professional backgrounds. Depending on their prior academic and work experiences, there are immense differences in how our students read and write. Curating readings and designing writing assignments that are considerate of these variations in interest and abilities is both a constant challenge as well as an opportunity for pedagogic experimentation in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) work.
In terms of its design, the YIF CW program is built on the principles of flexibility, autonomy, and critical-empathetic dialogue. While there is a basic consistency in the learning outcomes of all the courses in the YIF CW, a shared vision statement, and the kinds of genre-based assignments used in them, each course differs in terms of the pedagogic styles of the teachers as well as the thematic readings used to teach argumentation. These readings are curated keeping both a writing faculty’s disciplinary specializations, as well as the aspirations and abilities of the YIF students in mind. This basic design of genre-based expository writing was inspired by the Critical Writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Valerie Ross, the Founding Director of the program there, provided us with important resources and guidance in the initial phase. Through a collaboration with her, Dr. Durba Chattaraj, the first Director of Writing at Ashoka, worked extensively with a team of writing faculty and the then Assistant Dean of the YIF, Ms. Aniha Brar, to develop a pedagogic framework that could be contextualized to our settings. Each year now, teams of teachers and administrators continue to experiment with this basic structure and help it evolve in ways that are fine-tuned to the evolving YIF sociolinguistic context. In the past, for example, I have experimented with developing a writing-across-the-dialects approach (see Gupta, 2019) while this year faculty in a couple of courses experimenting with a “language buddy program” (see Pande, 2018) to harness the multilinguality of the YIF classroom as well as with role-playing and co-teaching classes (see Chaudhuri and Pande, 2021) to develop more interactive and dialogic practices. The YIF CW is also known for being perhaps the only writing course in the country that runs for almost an entire year, thereby giving students and teachers ample time to do this kind of experimental, deep work.
There is also a high degree of autonomy and flexibility given to teachers in how they wish to turn their classrooms into laboratories of critical thinking, with ample opportunities for reflection and critical-empathetic dialogue between the faculty and administrators that helps to continually improve both the pedagogy as well as the administrative policies. A program runs successfully when there is a healthy dialogue between all the nodes in this network, with both a broad sense of shared purpose and trust, as well as enough room for constructive disagreements and flexibility to co-exist. Because of all this and more, the YIF CW has the potential to serve as a great model of a writing program that can be adapted to many diverse settings across the world.
Over the last few years, the YIF CW has also launched Final Draft: A Journal of Critical Writing that showcases some of the most thoughtful and impactful pieces of writing written by the YIF students along with reflective introductions by administrators and writing faculty from the program. The first two editions can be downloaded by clicking here.
The nurturing environment of the YIF CW program and Ashoka also inspired me to pivot from Literary Studies to Rhetoric and Composition, which is what I’m pursuing a PhD in now.
Since writing pedagogy is not yet widely recognized as a formal academic discipline in India, all the work being done for writing education at Ashoka University becomes even more significant and the credit for the success of all these initiatives goes to the cumulative groups of faculty, students, administrators, and staff who work tirelessly to explore the frontiers of knowledge about teaching and learning.
While the future for writing pedagogy in India looks promising with new centers, programs, jobs, research work, teacher training, publications, and discussion forums slowly mushrooming across the country, the work is far from done. Given the immense inequity that exists in India, critically engaged writing instruction can do a lot to help level the playing field for students and to do that, concerted efforts need to be made not just to establish writing centers in metropolitan based private universities but also in the public universities across the country. One hopes that these trends will continue to grow and become more sustainable in the coming years with more and more universities, faculty and students realising the immense value that writing pedagogy work can bring to transform the work that higher education institutions do.
As goes with all stories, I must acknowledge that this narration covers only my particular experience of writing pedagogy at Ashoka University. There are many more perspectives, events, and sides to the story which will hopefully be written about in the coming months and years.
About the author: Anuj Gupta is a PhD student and University Fellow at the University of Arizona’s Rhetoric, Composition & the Teaching of English program. He also works as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Digital Readability Project. His research cuts across the fields of literacy studies, sociocognitive approaches to writing, second language writing and writing program administration. He is especially interested in improving the ways Indian universities teach students how to read, write, and think critically and empathetically. To this end, he has helped build one of India’s first college-level writing programs as a writing administrator and teacher at the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in his hometown of New Delhi. Anuj’s research and applied work are informed by a commitment to strengthen the health of emerging democracies across the world. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees in English from the University of Delhi and an Mphil in English Literature from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India.