Editor’s note: In September, we brought you part one of a series by Dr. Tom Deans (University of Connecticut) in which he is documenting his experience starting a writing center at Uganda Christian University (UCU). We are excited to bring you part two in the series. To read part one, please open this link: “Another Way to Connect Across Borders: Consider a Fulbright Scholarship”. For part two, Dr. Deans and UCU professors and lecturers Yvonne Birungi, Martin Kajubi, Lilian Lyavaala, Bernard Ochan, and Pamela Tumwebaze share their progress in creating the writing center.
The first writing centre in Ugandan higher education is in the planning stages. Academic staff at Uganda Christian University (UCU), collaborating with a visiting writing center director from the US, have engaged in dialogue and drafted a proposal for a centre that adapts the North American writing center model to the particular circumstances and aspirations of UCU.
In our next post we will share that proposal and our progress so far, but first we wanted to use a roundtable format to reflect on the planning process. Several UCU academic staff members, all of whom also earned degrees from UCU, discuss their aspirations for the writing centre and how they expect it will be shaped by its cultural and institutional context.
Yvonne Birungi is a professional teacher of literature and language in English. She is part of the team that teaches Writing and Study Skills to first-year and second-year students across all faculties (majors) at UCU.
Tom Deans is Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Connecticut, USA. For 2021-22 he is a Fulbright Scholar in Uganda.
Martin Kajubi is a linguist, editor, and lecturer at UCU, where he is teaching Writing and Study Skills and pursuing a Masters’ degree in Strategic Communication. He has experience in training and communication and is passionate about project-based learning.
Lilian Lyavaala is a professional teacher of English language and literature. She holds a Masters degree in Literature from UCU and is currently on the team teaching Writing and Study Skills. She is a researcher in oral literature, has skills in transcribing and translating, and is passionate about editing and student writing.
Bernard Ochan is a teacher, public administrator, researcher, freelance editor, and HR recruiter and trainer. Currently he coordinates the Writing and Study Skills course programme at UCU.
Pamela Tumwebaze enjoys teaching English language and literature, writing, and communication. She heads the Honours College in UCU, where she gets the privilege to interact with many students and learn more about their writing needs, among other things.
Front (Left to Right): Lilian Lyavaala, Pamela Tumwebaze, Yvonne Birungi, & Tom Deans. Back (Left to Right): Bernard Ochan & Martin Kajubi
Let’s start with setting some context. Can you provide an overview of the culture of writing instruction at Uganda Christian University (UCU)?
Tom: Both secondary and higher education in Uganda are strongly influenced by the British colonial legacy, and most institutions follow British traditions for grade levels, curriculum, exams, and the like. For university, students apply to a particular faculty (in what other countries may be called “colleges” or “majors”), such as Agricultural Sciences, Business, Education, Engineering, Health Sciences, Law, Social Sciences, and so on; they complete the BA in three years. While most Ugandan universities do not have the kinds of general education or first-year writing requirements found in North American universities, UCU is an exception in that it has long required its students to take a set of Foundations courses, and those include Writing and Study Skills.
Bernard: Secondary schools in Uganda do teach composition writing, although they emphasize narrative writing more than other modes; academic writing is often introduced in a class of General Paper at advanced level. Conscious that university requires students to do research, interpret it, and present it to the audience in the best ways possible, those who developed the Writing and Study Skills course programme emphasized introducing students to research writing. The courses are conducted by a team of enthusiastic staff.
Pamela: Writing and Study Skills introduces students to the basics of both writing and studying. It is a tutorial-based practical course which gives students an opportunity to practice the different modes of writing for two semesters. Students write assignments regularly and their instructors interact with them about the same; this course is taught when a student is in first year.
Lilian: The transformation from high school writing to this kind of writing is at times quite challenging, but the Writing and Study Skills course demystifies all this.While in both this and other undergraduate courses here, there is a lot of writing based on forming of one’s opinion and then referring to other scholarly giants.
Pamela: Students in undergraduate classes first struggle with writing because their courses require them to formulate researchable topics and write good papers. This experience has gradually taught students to appreciate the Writing and Study Skills, which tutors them to write and study well. My own students have shared with me how challenging it is to actually finally gain confidence in their writing skills.
Lilian: At the end of their undergraduate studies students are required to do individual projects that require a lot of writing. The projects require research, which puts them under pressure to do a lot of reading and writing.
Pamela: Writing in postgraduate classes is even more demanding. As a graduate student, I am expected to write chapter/book reviews, application papers, and so on, which require more rigorous reading and writing. The postgraduate dissertation paper also calls for more work. The amount of research and writing needed usually is the reason for the delays for students to complete their studies. More writing/research seminars and regular communication between students and supervisors or other researchers are always needed to help students.
How do you think the linguistic landscape of Ugandan higher education–where English is the language of instruction but nearly all students have a different home language and are multilingual–should affect how UCU designs its centre?
Pamela: Because each student has a first language that is not English, a course instructor will most likely find that one of the big challenges is mother tongue interference. For most students information will be first directly translated from their first language and then produced on paper. I feel that the writing center should be a place of practice, a place to be tutored and guided even when persistent, long-standing errors can be corrected.
Tom: While I know that linguistics has traditionally conceptualized difficulties in moving between mother tongue fluency and second-language/target language learning as involving “interference” that writers should aim to remedy or overcome, many working in writing studies around the world are now questioning that construct, preferring instead translingual approaches that emphasize all languages as assets and that value meshing languages, even meshing various world Englishes, rather than aspiring to greater and greater efficiency in code-switching between home languages and standard written English.This presents a challenge to the prevailing academic culture, but many writing centres are opting to question that culture, not just accept it as inevitable. I wonder how such progressive, even radical, approaches to translingualism might be received by UCU faculty.
Lilian: I believe the Writing Centre will help all students from various linguistic backgrounds and appreciate native languages. When writers can communicate effectively in both English and their home languages, they will be better prepared for their lives and professional fields. The centre should not only offer English services but also help in case any translation needs arise.
What aspects of the North American writing center model do you think are most worth retaining in a Ugandan and UCU context? And which aspects of that model do you think should be omitted or adapted?
Pamela: The idea of a Writing Center is new in Uganda. For me, any model that gives students and staff an opportunity to be assisted when they are writing papers, reports, and projects is welcome. Students who join University from secondary school do not have a rich background in writing, therefore writing center would be an opportunity for our university to give our students more exposure.
Bernard: Ideally, the writing centre should leverage the strengths of the Writing and Study Skills programme and the expertise of its instructors.
Yvonne: I know that American centres are often staffed by a director and student peer tutors. Considering Ugandan class schedules and other factors, I think it would be a good idea to recruit existing instructional staff to cover 50% of the tutoring workforce and then recruit the other 50% from the student body.
Tom: One distinctive message that I heard repeatedly from administrators and faculty when sounding them out for ideas is that they want this centre to serve not just undergraduate and post-graduate students but also academic staff (the term used here for instructors, lecturers, and professors) and administrative staff (the term used for non-teaching staff). They want the center to encourage a more robust culture of writing and research for not just students but also staff and faculty–and that emphasis on university employees is not part of the usual remit for US writing centers. This makes Yvonne’s suggestion even more salient because while student peer tutors may be terrific in coaching fellow students, they may not be well-equipped to collaborate with academic and administrative staff on the kinds of professional and scholarly writing they must do.
Is there any culture of peer learning at UCU already?
Bernard: We are lucky that peer learning and peer review have been part of how we teach Writing and Study Skills classes here at UCU. We have reaped well from the practice, and leveraging from the skills and abilities that the team has cultivated over years, the centre will stand to achieve more in a short time. Peer learning is a good practice for institutions that are student-centric or would want to encourage a student-centric approach to learning. In the teaching of Writing and Study Skills, we emphasize a learner centered approach. We develop curriculum with one another, visit each other’s class, and teach for one another. In the process, we develop peer review activities and templates that guide learners to review their friend’s assignment.
Tom: At my home university in the US, we have thriving writing and math centers that are faculty-led but staffed by student peer tutors–as well as several other kinds of peer learning programs–but we do not have “class representatives,” which we find here at UCU. That class representative tradition–where one or two students volunteer or are appointed by their peers as organizers of class communications and liaisons to the instructor–is something that impresses me about UCU culture, and it strikes me as an organic precedent that could be leveraged to help UCU students grasp the ethos of a writing centre. Class representatives, like writing tutors, relate to fellow students in ways that faculty cannot.
Pamela: In Honours College we have peer mentorships. Students work together to help one another and this endeavour has seen a lot of success because students tend to be open to each other. I also agree with Tom’s view that the idea that student class representatives are an “an organic precedent” that could help students see the benefits of peer tutoring.
Lilian: I have done quite a lot of peer learning in my classes, and I have found it very fruitful. Students easily open up and develop confidence levels when they peer teach-learn.
What kinds of writing do you imagine that students will bring into UCU’s writing centre?
Prospective Site for Writing Center
Martin: I am optimistic that learners from both humanities and sciences will bring group assignments, which most lecturers are interested in, with the aim of helping learners to comprehend team work, interpersonal skills and personal identity. Others, mostly in the sciences, are likely to come to the centre with project-based coursework. Most of these require them to either spend a lot of time in the laboratories or visit the nearby communities. And since such assignments are group based and also involve report writing which guidance the centre will really offer, then I expect them to make it busy. Also, expect the law students to show up with cases, and briefs and judgements. Majority always need clear guidance on law reviews, analysing and summarising judgements as well as cases. So the centre will receive a good number of them in search of strategies to comprehend these crucial study areas. Generally, I expect more students to seek guidance on citation and referencing in academic writing.
Bernard: The centre would help the students to develop the argument essays they must do for their Writing and Study Skills courses, as well as other courses, and follow them through to the finish. Academic writing is mostly about writing arguments, and a writing centre would be a conducive place to conceive an idea with a peer tutor and develop it to a fully blown writing project. Good writing doesn’t happen from the blue; it has got to be thought through. The centre would provide the avenue to think through one’s writing. The world is full of arguments and stories that when explored to the fullest can not only shape people’s perspectives of life, but also change their moral being.
Lilian: Most students have challenges with writing their final year projects and theses [nearly all UCU undergraduates and all post-graduate students must complete a research paper]. Oh yes, I anticipate seeing them walking in stuck with these documents. Many of them are in the habit of hiring specialists out there to write for them, since they want to graduate and move on. I strongly believe the writing centre is going to help them appreciate their own efforts in writing, by encouraging them and making them feel that their own writing is the best.
Martin: Research is monumental at any college or university. I expect students for both post-graduate and undergraduate to bring research proposals and dissertations to the centre. During this time every student devotes time to meet up with their academic supervisors and later work on the comments identified. So often these comments call for more time that many supervisors might not be willing to allocate, and some masters and undergraduate students have missed out on graduation due to this complication. Therefore the centre is most likely to not only improve on students’ comprehension on research concepts but also boost the graduation rate for those perceived as weak students due to the failure to finalise research on time.
What do you anticipate may be the greatest challenges for a writing centre at UCU?
Bernard: While the new writing centre should ideally build on what we teach in Writing and Study Skills, I do worry about some bad mouthing of the Writing and Study Skills course unit around campus by those who see it as remedial–and this is from the people who otherwise should be encouraging students to engage with the course. I fear for the writing centre that this challenge might spread its wings.
Tom: Among the challenges that I see is that the end-of-term, high-stakes, sit-down final exam is the dominant mode of assessment. I am hearing concerns that not enough faculty assign papers or writing-intensive projects during the regular term, and fewer still build in a process of drafting and revising. If the writing centre is to thrive, it will likely have to play an active role in faculty development, inviting instructors across the curriculum to consider implementing more project-based learning and process writing in courses throughout the undergraduate and post-graduate years. In the meantime, however, most undergraduates and post-graduate students are required to write a thesis in their final year, and that creates a substantial need for writing support.
Martin: Learners’ attitudes towards writing could be a challenge. Having an exam mode of assessment, the majority of the learners focus their write-ups on answering exams and also tend to be mostly engaged in discussions or writing sessions towards their end of semester assessments. It’s also a common practice for learners to visit the archive or library exam session looking for past exam question papers such that their reading is aimed at speculating the nature of questioning technique of the lecturer and also in most cases spending more time comprehending the question approach. Whereas the writing centre is aimed at helping learners identify their strengths and weaknesses and also develop better strategies to grow as writers, I am scared that the majority of our learners might envision it as a question approach room for coursework and end of semester exams.
Bernard: There may be the challenge of students failing to come into the centre. Very few UCU students even have the confidence to ask the question, “What is going on here?” And the few who will gather the courage to do so will want to know if, after completing a tutorial or programme, they will receive some kind of reward, like a grade boost or certificate. They may ask, “What is in it for me?” That is, I think the greatest challenge will be motivating the learners to participate in the writing centre.
Pamela: On the other hand, once the Writing center is established, student numbers may overwhelm the numbers of tutors because our writing culture as a country is not at its best. Our students, who join university from secondary school, do not have much experience in writing academic and creative papers. This might be a challenge in the beginning but I am sure the faculty in the writing center will work out a way of mitigating the challenge.
Bernard. I agree. It might draw few students in the first semester of its existence, but gradually I expect that we will see more members. But if the university is faint-hearted, the center may start, and become stagnant right there.
Martin: I worry that some lecturers may look at the centre as a manufacturing industry for writers and good academic writeups. This might prompt them to make the centre a compulsory place for the majority of their learners before submission of any assignments for grading yet benefitting from writing the centre presupposes that the instructor/ lecturer plays an advisory role or persuades a learner to visit the centre instead of commanding a student. Others might as well give the centre a specific period of time for growth as writers hence losing interest after similar repetitive comments from their instructors meanwhile other students might attach their visits to the GPA. I am also looking at instructors shunning thinking that their role is to identify those weak writers and send them to the centre, yet they too need it to grow in their writing.
Lilian: I agree with Martin that the writing centre may be looked at as a “walk in and get your work done place.” This misconception should be dealt with as the centre sets up. It should be a centre where people who come in are helped/ encouraged to develop their writing ideas (from scratch) independently. All writers from all walks of life should feel free to walk in, even with merely no writing clue.
Pamela: I also think that the writing centre will become some kind of crisis center, where students will come to get help that is beyond writing but also a place to give them hope that they can do it. Writing is sometimes intimidating, right from choosing a topic to actually coming up with the required drafts. Some of the students I have worked with worry about their ability to write impressive papers.
How much do you think UCU’s writing center should emphasize online tutoring?
Pamela: Online working has arrived in Uganda, thanks to Covid, but it has its challenges. For me online tutoring would have to be synchronous and very collaborative. Both the student and the tutor have to be deliberate about getting the best out of the experience. Since our students have managed to study online for two years, in spite of all the challenges, so can the tutoring.
Yvonne: Life in Uganda can get really tedious and a lot of time is spent in traffic and just getting around; we must also take into consideration the undependable internet connectivity. The idea of doing online tutoring using email with immediate responses seems farfetched to me. Synchronous online tutoring may also be difficult because internet access can be unreliable and data usage can be costly. The students that would be served most competently are those who come in person to the brick-and-mortar centre.
Tom: Yvonne’s preference for the in-person modality resonates with something I am learning as a newcomer in Uganda: this is a relationship-intensive culture, and if you want to get something done, best to do it face to face. At my US university, email is the dominant mode of communication and accountability; here it is more immediate modes such as phone calls, WhatsApp messages, and in-person conversations.
Lilian: On-line tutoring has just found its way in Uganda, and for the start it was not a walk in the park. Irrespective of the challenges in connectivity, however it has been embraced. With time, I feel people from all walks of life that need the writing centre services will access them online.
What, for you, will be the best indicators of success for a writing centre at UCU?
Bernard: The best indicator of the success of the writing center would be when the center is able to serve upto 25% of students every semester who are not coerced, but who walk in freely. Maybe 25% is ambitious, let’s say 15%, given the fears and challenges stipulated.
Yvonne: A spirit of willingness and team work already exists in the UCU culture among the staff and student body, which bodes well for success. Still, for the center to thrive, we will need to have enough students coming in. The most high-performing and motivated students, such as those from honors college, may be the first to take the center seriously. Other students will likely join later on, after a serious culture has been demonstrated.
Pamela: Bernard and Yvonne make good points. We need to see the number of students who will voluntarily walk into the center, and we shall also need to see how many will leave satisfied. If the writing Centre becomes a safe place for students and staff, and they then refer their friends, it will have become a success.
This post is part of a series that began with notes on how to pursue Fulbright awards. It will continue with posts that chronicle how the UCU centre moves from concept to (we hope) reality.