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.

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