This year we’re taking you behind the scenes to see how PWC operates and hear from key people on the administrative and teaching staff. Vera Beletzan is our associate dean and the originator of the PWC program. We asked her about everything from starting the program to the benefits of an advisory committee to why she likes teaching grammar.
Tell us about the origins of the PWC program. What need did you see in the marketplace for a program like this?
The Professional Writing and Communications program is part of the Department of English at Humber. We deliver academic writing and professional writing courses across most of Humber’s programs. As part of the work we do, we get to interact with people from a whole range of industries. We began to notice how often, in program advisory meetings for example, the issue of writing and communications skills came up as an identified gap in the workplace.
There was a spotlight on these skills in the media as well. For example, the Conference Board of Canada was publishing results of a study asking employers to give feedback on the preparedness of students coming out of college and university. And what kept coming up as a real need was communication and writing skills, as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills.
So an idea was born. We organized a forum of industry leaders and professionals in the field of professional writing and communication to get feedback on the skills that were needed. We heard that communication departments are ever more critical in the information age, and that there was a growing need for writing expertise, from digital literacy and repurposing content down to the basics of impeccable grammar and punctuation. We also heard a lot about the challenge of finding this expertise.
After doing our research, we developed a detailed curriculum proposal, secured college and then ministry approval, and ran the first cohort last fall. We had a very successful first year. Our students all had great internships across a wide variety of workplaces, and some are still there.
You teach the program’s Grammar Bootcamp (held at the beginning of the year). What do you like about teaching grammar?
I really love exploring language structure – it’s endlessly fascinating that humans can do this amazingly complex cognitive thing that we call language (grammar / syntax, etc.) and communication. The challenge for me is to help students understand how to look with awareness at language – which is hard, as language usually operates on an unconscious level.
I like to figure out ways to help students see structure objectively and develop the tools to notice when things go wrong – edit their own work and other people’s work. The more they can notice – the more they can control – the more tools they have for putting text together appropriately for the context. That’s a powerful skill.
You also recruited the PWC’s advisory board, a group of professional writers and editors who provide guidance to the program. What is the value of such a board?
The role of our Program Advisory Committee is crucial. We are lucky to have a great group of professionals who have the expertise and experience to provide feedback and support for the program. They come from public and private sectors and are really representative of the world of communications. We meet twice a year and always emerge with new ideas and directions. Our PAC members also give generously of their time by helping us secure internships and by meeting with our students in networking events.
How do you think the world of writing is changing today? What opportunities do you see?
Technology is going to keep driving us to be ever more flexible – we are going to have to get faster and better at assessing audience and medium, and packaging information in appropriate, clear, and tight text, sometimes switching “code” multiple times a day. People who can do that will be in demand.
What’s your favourite grammar or writing rule?
If you think you love a rule, make sure it’s a real rule and not a bogus ‘prescriptive’ rule. For example, “don’t split an infinitive” is a schoolroom rule that actually makes no sense in reality. We don’t say “they waited for the pumpkin more than to triple in size before entering it in the competition.” On another note, I like the Oxford comma, I just do.