PWC Q&A: Program Advisory Committee member Sharon Aschaiek

This year we’re taking you behind the scenes to see how PWC operates and hear from key people on the team. In this post, we connected with a member of our program advisory committee (PAC). Our PAC is composed of writing professionals who advise on what kinds of content we should be including in the program in order to stay current with industry standards. See our list of PAC members here.

Sharon Aschaiek is an experienced writer whose company Cocoa Media serves the higher education sector. She is online at www.cocoamedia.ca

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Sharon Aschaiek

What do you do as a member of the PWC Program Advisory Committee?

Together with the other members of the committee, I help shape the content and format of the PWC program by sharing my knowledge and insights as an independent communicator. Drawing on my experience of running a communication business since 2004, I share my perspective on the key expertise students need to know to excel as a professional freelance writer or communicator. Collectively, our PAC focuses on ensuring the PWC program is current and relevant, and optimally prepares students to succeed.

What are some industry aspects that the advisory committee discusses more regularly?

Writing and communications is a vast career area that touches on almost every type of sector and organization. This means the profession can be affected by a variety of forces and trends. Among the aspects of writing and communications trends and issues PAC members discuss are:

– how new and social media affects writers – how they gather information, how they market themselves, and the new kinds of employment opportunities available to them

– the strong need for writers to be able to translate complex research findings into easy-to-understand content

– in an employment environment that in many contexts features contract, part-time or freelance work, the value of having entrepreneurship skills

– the importance of effective storytelling not only in journalism, but in communications for all types of organizations

– how the evolution of the English language, particularly as influenced by social media and mobile technology, affects the way writers work

– how the shift in the format of communications to including more images, video and audio affects the perceived value of written communications, and the way writers do their jobs

– the importance for writers to understand how to be compliant with Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

What do you think is the benefit of having an advisory committee?

A program advisory committee helps ensure a program teaches the knowledge and skills students need to excel in their field. The PWC PAC provides guidance on how communications activities take place in organizations, what employers expect from their communications staff, what are the core elements of effective communications, and how writers can navigate and take advantage of the range of work opportunities in communications. The PAC is essentially like a direct connection to industry that offers insider information and insights on trends and opportunities in communications in order to best prepare students for the field.

Why did you agree to help out?

I enjoy being part of the PWC PAC because it’s very rewarding for me to help people succeed in a field that has been so good to me. I have been writing professionally since 2000, and have been freelancing since 2004, and my writing career has been deeply satisfying in many ways.

As a writer, I find storytelling to be a fun challenge, and I like being able to share important or inspiring stories that can influence how people think and feel. As an independent communicator, I enjoy the flexibility of choosing my clients, projects and hours. Being part of the PWC PAC allows me to share my passion and expertise for writing and communications, and to provide up-and-comers in the field with a strong foundation for their career.

You’ve also been a guest speaker in the program. What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?

As with all things in life, persistence is key. While there are many writers competing for jobs, there are also many opportunities, so keep job searching, prospecting and networking, stay current on trends in writing and communications, and keep practising your writing skills.

Market yourself and your strengths as a writer by consistently blogging and sharing your posts on social media. This not only helps promote your abilities as a writer, it allows you to practise your writing skills.

Whether or not you want to work for an organization or be a freelancer, it helps to have a specialty. Having a niche in an area of communications, e.g. in health-care writing, internal communications or email newsletters, allows you to stand out among employers. It can also help you command higher fees, since you have a specialty not everyone else has.

No matter where you land, be professional. Show up on time, complete every project according to word count and by deadline, be cooperative and helpful, share your (good) ideas, and go beyond your job description. Even if you aren’t (yet) the strongest writer, these qualities can help make you indispensable.

Consider working for yourself. It’s sensible to start your writing career at an organization to gain experience and contacts, and to see if this working style suits you. If it’s not your bag, remember that freelancing is a viable option that is less scary than you may think. Running a writing business lets you practise the skill you love on your own terms and enjoy potentially significant lifestyle and financial rewards.

 

PWC Q&A: Professor Helena Moncrieff

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. Professor Helena Moncrieff teaches PWC’s Editing for Writers course in first term and the Writing Principles: Advanced course in second term. If there’s a reason our students know their CP style, Helena is it! We asked her how she got started as a writer, and about her favourite grammar rule.

 

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Helena Moncrieff

How did you get started in writing? What has been your career trajectory so
far?

 

I don’t remember not writing. I have clear childhood memories of listening to conversations outside my bedroom window and writing them down. I’ve always liked the rhythm of dialogue. It would be easy to say that’s how I ended up in journalism school, but I’m not sure that at 17 I really knew what I was applying for.

My first writing job was working on a newsletter called Zephyr for Environment Canada’s Atmospheric Environment Service (the weather office). Looking back, it was a great summer gig for a student and gave me a really strong portfolio to get started. My first full-time job was with CKO radio in Ottawa as the city hall reporter. I carried a microphone for several years in Thunder Bay, back to Ottawa and finally in Toronto at Queen’s Park.

That led me to a five-year stint in politics writing speeches, news releases and strategies as press secretary to a cabinet minister. Then it was into a national trade association doing much the same for the insurance industry. It was way more interesting than I expected. Now I run my own freelance business writing a lot of features and op-eds for a nice mix of non-profit corporate clients.

What do you like about teaching writing?

It’s a really good reminder of the distance I’ve travelled in writing. It tells me that these skills are not “natural.”  They have to be learned and practised. It is lovely to read student stories after the winter break and see how fluid the writing has become. Even though we take students through a lot of different formulas, I think there is freedom in being unshackled from essay style.

What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?

All experience is good. There are no wrong choices at this point. But don’t write for free unless you see a something in it for you. Your skills have a value.

What is your favourite grammar or writing rule?

Favourite is too strong a term, but I like seeing collective nouns treated as singular. For example, “the couple eats dinner together.”  I know that many publications are leaning the other way now, led, I believe, by writers or perhaps just speakers in the U.K. They might write, “The couple eat dinner together.”  Some do the same with staff, family, army, band and a batch of other words. On the other hand The Beatles is a band, but I wouldn’t argue with “they are coming to Toronto.” In fact, that would be so interesting, who could worry about the grammar?

There is always a way to write around it. Still, I may have to surrender on this one as the plural collectives become part of the general vernacular.

PWC information session March 9

infosession.jpgYou have questions. We’re holding an info session.

Please join us on Thursday, March 9, 2017 from 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM in B109 at Humber’s Lakeshore campus. 

At the information session, you’ll have a chance to meet members of the PWC team and talk to us about the program’s courses and internships.

RSVP to PWC’s student advisor Beth-Anne Chansavang Beth-Anne.Chansavang@humber.ca. Or just come by! Hope to see you there.

 

New Year’s thoughts from PWC’s coordinator Trevor Arkell

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Trevor Arkell

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. Trevor Arkell is PWC’s new Program Coordinator, managing the administration of the program. In this post, we asked him to reflect on the way writing curriculum has evolved over his tenure at Humber, and the PWC program so far.

 

I came to Humber College in 1997, teaching part-time. I was hired full-time in 2002. Since 2012, I have been the coordinator for all English courses at the Lakeshore.

This past fall I took on coordinatorship of the PWC program, a position I am very excited to undertake.

I see the PWC program as the latest evidence that the English department is pushing into new realms and ways of educating students about writing.

To give you a sense of this trajectory, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on our evolution so far.

When I first arrived, Humber’s writing courses were already distinct in a number of ways. The program offered two distinct streams, one for native speakers and one for speakers of other languages (ESL). The program had exams, and it offered upgrading courses for those who needed extra help. It was great to have all those options.

Since then, the department has innovated in other ways:

  • developing a technical writing stream for students in technical programs, for both native and other speakers
  • establishing a much stronger link between what is learned in the first and second semesters
  • moving away from current-traditional models of writing instruction, to emphasize the overt relationship between reading, writing, and thinking
  • focusing in its second-semester courses on project-based learning
  • displacing traditional textbooks with faculty-developed course materials

We’ve also moved into the literary realm with our new journal, The Humber Literary Review, whose work is being noticed in very significant ways.

And then we created PWC!

With the establishment of the PWC program in 2015, the department has further developed its commitment to student writing success.

In developing a professional writing program, we knew that it was important to stay aware of changes in the professional writing world. The PWC program is fortunate to have very knowledgeable teachers with lots of industry experience. They help the students to shift their writing skills from the academy to the workplace.

As professional writers, students need to know about project management, digital, writing principles, repurposing, strategic writing, editing, storytelling, research, and freelancing.  We teach all of those topics.

To prepare PWC students for the world outside the classroom, we also created industry networking events such as the one we had last fall, and mock employment interviews with help from the Humber Employment Centre team. After two semesters of course work, students are ready to get out there into the writing world, with internship opportunities facilitated by our placement coordinator Nicole. And of course, our student advisor Beth-Anne is always there to help the students navigate all of it.

All in all, it’s a very exciting program, and I hope the students are enjoying it. I look forward to seeing them progress as the year goes on.

 

A tour through the tunnels

PWC students go below ground to explore the history of Humber College

In this post, student writer Sarah Nieman chronicles an afternoon spent getting closer to the buildings we walk by every day. Sarah is a member of this year’s PWC cohort.

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Humber’s Tunnels

With armfuls of legends and ghost sightings, you’d think that the entrance to Humber’s storied tunnel system would be a vault door with iron grating, or at least a hidden door, inconspicuous to the outside world. Instead, visitors to the tunnels begin their journey in the relatively unspooky L building, just past a mundane loading dock.

On Friday, December 2nd, several PWC students braved a cold and rainy day to follow Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre curator and guide Jennifer Bazar on a tour not only through the cottages, but through history.

The tunnels, like the red brick “cottages” they run beneath, were built in the 1880s by male patients of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto. What would first be called the Mimico Asylum and finally the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was designed as a “moral treatment” experiment; physical labour and a focus on the natural world around the hospital would heal patients.  Even the apple orchard that runs between the two sides of campus was part of this treatment: patients tended it and collected the apples produced.

Used to transport supplies from building to building, the tunnels originally had tracks running through them like in a coal mine. Although the tracks were removed in the 1930s, you can still see the domed brick ceiling and original river rock foundation in some sections.

The layers of building material that cover the walls of the tunnels is reminiscent of the stone layers found on grand ancient ruins. Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was continuously repurposed as the years went by, changes evidenced by varying materials, changing shades of brick, and bricked-over windows and doorways. Wandering the tunnels, some of which lead to buildings that no longer exist, those on tour can feel the energy of long-gone inhabitants.

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A view from the past: Humber’s entrance and cottages

Historically, the facilities changed as the treatment did. The shift to physical intervention in the 1940s with the rise of electroshock therapy and leucotomies (the Canadian version of lobotomies) and then the synthesis of chemical anti-depressants in the 1950s and 60s saw a gradual population decline in the hospital. Patients no longer needed to live there to manage their illnesses.

The hospital closed in 1979, and lay mostly abandoned until 1991, when Humber College signed a 99-year lease for much of the property. The College restored the buildings to their current state: modern on the inside, yet restored to their original red stone beauty on the outside.

This year saw the opening of the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre, which chronicles the history and culture of the site. “History is a great way of challenging how people see the world,” curator Jennifer Bazar told me when I asked about the importance of studying the property, “It’s so easy to arrive on campus, go to class and head home – without ever taking a moment to realize the life the buildings around us have lived, the events they have ‘witnessed’.”

Tunnel tours at Humber College are available to the public on Doors Open and Culture Days, and to student groups by appointment. Humber College’s Lakeshore Grounds Interpretation Centre will open its first exhibit starting in January, focusing on a history of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. For more information, visit http://www.lakeshoregrounds.ca/

PWC Q&A: Associate Dean

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Vera Beletzan

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.