Can a writing centre really be a ‘safe space’ in a university?

In South Africa, this morning, we woke to the news that our president has finally managed to do the unthinkable: he has effectively set us on a path to real economic and political disaster. South Africa is no longer safe, especially for those who were not safe to begin with: poor, unemployed, and unskilled citizens really battling to make a living. The South Africans government should be working for, in other words, yet who are being further hurt by the president’s monstrous and selfish actions. Further afield, Brexit and the reign of Donald Trump are ensuring that, for many – largely, again, those already struggling to get by – the UK and America are not safe. This seems a cold and dark state of affairs, and the end of the tunnel is not yet lit.

In this context, education becomes all the more valuable and important. Making education – in the case of this blog higher education – accessible, just and open to many, is vital to ensuring that the world halts this slide into darkness – politically, economically, environmentally, socio-culturally. Research on making higher education accessible and just argues that students – especially those from backgrounds that are less congruent with the ways of knowing of the university – need to be consciously shown the ‘rules of the game’ in their disciplines, and given tools and opportunities to try these out, and become proficient and knowledgable. However, too often, these students are the ones who eventually drop out of academia; a recent study shows that graduation rates in South Africa are still markedly skewed in racial terms, and almost 50% of students never graduate. This means that, for many students for whom education should represent a way up and out of their present circumstances, universities are not safe.

Writing centres, in published papers, are often called ‘safe spaces’ within the university context. We are there for all students, as critical friends and advisors, not judging or grading their work but rather genuinely concerned with helping them to make sense of at least one set of ‘rules of the game’ so that they can better express and articulate their knowledge to their lecturers and tutors. This non-judgemental, supportive set-up is at the core of who and what writing centres are. And yet, to paraphrase Shannon Carter’s excellent quote: while we are indeed there for the students, we are also there for the university (who funds us and gives us a physical home), and we are also there for ourselves; our own theoretical and methodological underpinnings drive who we are and how we work within our local contexts.

This has led me, of late, to wonder: can writing centres really be ‘safe’, when the university is not safe for so many students, and when the world is not safe for so many people?

barbed wire

Perhaps a good start in unpacking this question is to consider what ‘safe’ means. The dictionary defines ‘safe’ (adjective) as a state where one is not exposed to danger or risk. This definition can indeed apply to the work of a writing centre, as we do work hard to ensure that students feel they can explore ideas and tools in their writing without the risk usually attached to getting it wrong (such as a low grade or negative feedback from a marker). However, safe can also be a verb: to be safe is to be cautious and unenterprising, taking no risks to avoid being harmed. I’m not sure this should apply to writing centre work, or academia.

Part of the work of becoming knowledgeable is encountering knowledge, thinkers, ideas, strategies and so on that may unsettle us, challenge us, shift our sense of self and the world. In her excellent book, Jenni Case argues that a true higher education is transformative on a personal and intellectual level – we should not leave university the same people we were upon entering. This requires risk. We have to be willing to risk being wrong; we have to be willing to risk being challenged; we have to be willing to risk challenging others. Thus, we have to be okay, at least in part, with being unsafe in this sense. However, when we consider that many of our students, in this era of massification or open admissions, are already unsafe in other ways – struggling to pay fees, struggling to find a place to live and food to eat, struggling with poor, unsafe public transport and so on – what kinds of risk can we justify at this level, without further deepening the sense of unsafeness so many of our students must already feel? Yet, what would the unintended consequences be of working too hard to make higher education ‘safe’ and without intellectual or personal risk? What kinds of risk are justifiable, and what kinds are not?

Writing centres can step in here, I believe, in a much more critical way than perhaps they have done previously. Still too often seen as ‘remedial’, ‘skills-imparting’ and ‘soft’ spaces in universities, writing centres now have a rather exciting opportunity to reinvent the discourse that has shaped them, to embrace rather than avoid the larger socio-political context in which they, as part of universities, work. Using critical approaches drawn from work on the ethics of care, and academic literacies, as two examples, writing centres can reimagine what it means to be ‘safe’ spaces, while acknowledging that actual safety may be an illusory goal. We can help students take risks, at least in the arena of academic knowledge-making, and through our tutorials, consultations and workshops, we can more overtly show students how one embraces the challenges of engaging in a truly transformative higher education.

We are not independent of the university: we must acknowledge that the ‘rules of the game’ we help students to play by are often experienced as alienating and unjust. And, perhaps because of the ways in which we are still positioned and conceived of, marginal rather than central to academic development, we do not always take enough risks ourselves in challenging those rules. Thus, we must acknowledge that we have a complicity in perpetuating an unevenly accessible higher education, as much as we work to be non-judgemental, open and welcoming to all students, and as much as we aim to make them feel relatively safe in revising, reworking, and rethinking their academic writing.

life-preserver-1748575_640Rather than leading us to hang our heads, acknowledging our role as insiders can offer a kind of freedom: to use our insider knowledge to challenge dominant discourses around what it means to be literate and knowledgeable; to bring other forms of knowing and knowledge into the writing centre space in creative ways that give already ‘unsafe’ students different tools for exploring their writing; to openly acknowledge the risks involved in academic work, and the challenge inherent in putting ourselves and our ideas out there for judgement, even in an undergraduate essay.

Making the notion of ‘safety’ open for debate and discussion is in keeping with who we are and how we work: it makes the inevitable risks visible, and makes it okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed and unsafe, even in a space that tries to mitigate those feelings. Rather than uncritically adopting a notion that writing centres are an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty, I argue that we need to jump into the water with students and lecturers, and swim next to them as they work out how to get to the shore, transformed, challenged, more resilient, and ultimately more able to grapple with complexity than if they would be if we devoted all our time to make ourselves a safe space in a world that makes such a goal nearly impossible.

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How do we help students become more resilient writers?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this idea of resilience in learning and writing recently. This is partly because I have started a big project – a single-authored book – and I am really struggling to find my voice and the words, and the frustration is knocking me back a bit. This is also partly based on my ups and downs with peer review on papers I have written in the last two years, and how I have made sense of the process of peer review, even when it has hurt, so that I can keep moving forward. And I have been wondering how we develop resilience in academia, and as writers and thinkers, and whether and how we can help or teach students to develop this too.
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Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks, and to keep going without letting the setbacks overwhelm you; it is also defined as an elastic property of objects, that they can use to reform themselves into their proper shape when something has bent or pushed them out of shape. Resilience is a key element of success; you need to be able to get yourself up and keep going after a setback. For writers, setbacks often take the form of critical feedback that signals more work to do, more thinking, more writing. Sometime way more than we expected to have to do, or even want to do.

If you are an academic who has chosen a career that involves much writing and publishing, you accept that you will be knocked back but that you will have to keep moving. No journal article or book chapter is written in the first try – many drafts and revisions will need to be completed before it is ready to be read by your peers in a published form. But, for undergraduate students, this notion of writing and revising is not something familiar or even normal. Most assignments are written once, handed in, marked (sometimes with and sometimes without feedback or comments), and then moved on from. Few students have repeated opportunities to write a draft, have it read and commented on, and then make revisions to improve the paper.

The system of peer review, feedback, drafting and revision is not readily built into most undergraduate education, or even early postgraduate education, for example in a coursework or taught Masters programme. Perhaps this is why many students struggle to develop resilience against having their work or ideas critiqued, which should then prompt them to rethink, revise, and not feel defeated. A project I worked on several years ago built a first draft-revisions-final draft system into a course where students had previously had no opportunities to get feedback on an essay in progress. I thought most students would really like this system, but I found when I talked to them after the project that many had been frustrated and discouraged receiving feedback that meant they had more reading and writing to do, as they believed their essays were fine as they were. They didn’t want to make revisions; they wanted to give up and move on to something else.

I wondered, though, if this wasn’t a normal reaction from a first-year student encountering critical commentary on her work for the first time. Of course she would have that kind of reaction. Even experienced, published writers dread feedback as much as they appreciate the opportunities it affords them to improve their work. I further wondered if, given further drafting-feedback-revising opportunities in courses across the curriculum and thus made a normal part of undergraduate education, those students would have developed writer-resilience over time. Sure, the feedback may still have initially been upsetting or difficult to read, but with input from tutors and lecturers on how to use feedback to revise their work, these students may well have learned to get back up and keep writing, and would certainly have gained a great deal, both intellectually and emotionally, from that process.

resilience

I am aware that increasingly large classes, and linguistically and educationally diverse student bodies, make creating and sustaining writing intensive courses a challenge. But, some of this challenge stems less from the time it takes to read and comment on student work, and more from the nature of the curriculum being too full of things students need to learn and know and less with time for things students need to be able to do with what they know, such a problem-solving and argument-construction. I think this is an imbalance that may need to be corrected if we do take seriously helping our students to become more resilient thinkers and writers, an ability that will surely stand them in strong stead in further studies, and in the world of work.

Reimagining literature reviews as part of undergraduate research

I am currently supervising a PhD student, and she has been working on her literature review for the last few months, building the foundations and rationale for her study. Reading her successive drafts, and seeing her voice grow and develop, has given me pause for thought in terms of how we conceptualise, teach and write this thing called a literature review, especially in undergraduate education.

There has been a growing drive in the last five years or so, certainly in South Africa, towards making research a strong focus of undergraduate curricula, across the disciplinary map. In a higher education system that wants to grow its postgraduate  student base, both in quantity and in quality, having prospective postgraduates learn how to design, manage and write about research projects while they are undergraduates is becoming increasingly valued and important. Thus, parts of research projects – in particular methodology courses and literature review assignments – are becoming more common at undergraduate level. In this post, I will focus in on literature reviews – specifically a few of the main shortcomings of how they tend to be taught and assessed at undergraduate level, and the implications for postgraduate research.

In a fairly traditional research assignment or project, the literature review is almost always the starting point. We read to map out the field, to work out who are researchers are that are working in this area and what they are (and are not yet) writing about. We read to work out what we think about the research we are interested in doing, to work out what kinds of research questions might be viable and also interesting to answer. We read to develop our own voices, and to build our credibility as we map our own research project onto the field, especially into gaps in the field we are working in. In short, we do a great deal of reading, and a great deal of thinking, scribbling, drafting and revising as we build – whether for a large or small project – the foundation and rationale for the research we plan on doing.

Once we have scoped all of this out, and have honed in on one question we can answer, we design a study, develop a theoretical framework, and proceed to generate relevant data that we can analyse and interpret in order to answer the research question. Doing all of that reviewing and reading of literature makes sense in the context of a research project as a whole, because what we do find will then speak back to that field – adding a voice and new ideas and thereby making a contribution. Without the research project as a whole (behind and) in front of the literature review, it can become a disconnected and therefore potentially unhelpful exercise, if its aim is to begin to acculturate undergraduate students into the hows and whys of doing their own research.

A literature review is less a review of existing literature – summary and compare ‘n contrast exercises – and more contextual framework for the research you propose to undertake. You are setting out, for your reader, the parts of the broader research field that are relevant to your own research – that they need to know about in order to understand why your research is necessary and important. Relevance is key. What you should not be doing is writing a long assignment showing the reader everything you have read, laboriously summarising, comparing, contrasting and synthesising the views of different authors. What tends to happen, in these kinds of review exercises, is that your research project and questions get lost in the tumult of other researchers’ projects and arguments. You lose your voice, and the relevance of all that reading is lost.

Unfortunately, most of the literature review assignment at undergraduate level I saw at the writing centre I used to manage over the last few years end up becoming exactly this kind of exercise, largely because there is no drive to understand the rationale for a research project students are invested in. Students are given a topic, perhaps a couple of the same readings with instructions to find two or three more related readings on their own, and then asked to summarise, synthesise and connect the readings in a literature review. In the better assignments, the topic will be a research question, but it is (as I have observed) difficult and puzzling for an undergraduate student to work out what they are reviewing in the literature and why, I believe because it is not their research, or because there is not project as a whole. The assignments thus do not end up helping these students learn how to do the kinds of literature review work that will be useful to them in postgraduate study.

This brings me to a second issue: postgraduate study, and the expectations of postgraduate students as compared to undergraduate students. Honours and Masters degrees are usually quite structured, and students embark on coursework before undertaking a manageable research project. The reading lists are shorter than they would be, in general, for a PhD study. But the task is, albeit on different levels, the same: you need to construct a research question, and develop a study that can be carried out in order to find an answer (crudely put). Thus, whatever existing research you read needs to be relevant to that project – it needs to help you understand your part of the field well; it needs to help you locate your proposed research in relation to existing research; it can help you work out appropriate theoretical and methodological frameworks or approaches; it defines and delimits your context and scope for the research; and it guides your reader into the rationale and need for your research. If all undergraduate students have learned is to summarise whole readings, without knowing how and what to select from them relevant to a specific project, how will they be able to accomplish the challenging task of building contextual and conceptual frameworks for their postgraduate research? If undergraduate literature review assignments are more often than not stand-alone assignments rather than initial parts of whole research projects, how will we need to adapt our supervision and mentoring practices at postgraduate level to bring students up to the levels of research and writing that are required of them?

Too often, postgraduate students who have done well as undergraduates end up feeling stupid and incompetent when they try to use what worked for them at undergraduate level in their postgraduate work, only to be told that they are not working at the right level, or in the right ways. Our work, in teaching undergraduate students the value and practice of research, is to look for clearer ways to align undergraduate and postgraduate expectations and study; to reimagine the teaching of research at undergraduate level so that it builds, cumulatively and in progressive stages, towards the capacity to continue learning and growing at postgraduate level. We cannot keep leaving it to the students themselves to work all of this out on their own, if indeed we want research, inquiry and curiosity to be much stronger and more visible in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.

Learning about our writing through feedback: giving and receiving

When we think about academic writing, generally, and how we might characterise it for students learning how to express their thinking at university, what might we tell them? This blog has discussed some of this here, and here, but let’s just say for the purposes of this post that we might tell students that academic writing is not vague – it has something specific to say, and generally it tends to try and say it as clearly, and concisely as possible. An excellent article I read recently has really helped me to better express a great deal of my advice to writers I work with on how to be less vague, and more focused. There is a lot of advice out there for writers on how to polish, strengthen and improve their writing.

But students, especially undergraduate students, find it difficult to turn all of this advice into improved writing – at least, this takes some time, and they tend to need a good deal of guidance and opportunity to practice, make errors, and receive feedback that can help them to avoid those errors in future writing. Theresa Lillis wrote in her 2001 book on student writing that essay writing advice is often most helpful to writers who already have some experience of writing in the right sorts of ways. Fresh out of school, with no real sense of what an academic argument is or how to create one in a piece of research-led writing, most undergraduate students read essay writing advice with a sense of overwhelmed confusion, and their attempts to put the advice into practice tend to produce different kinds of results, some more successful than others.

Lucy writing advice

Image credit: Charles Schultz

So, how can we assist students, practically and practicably, with their writing? How can we show them what better and poorer writing looks like in our disciplines or fields of study (rather than in a generic way), and how to turn the weaker aspects of their writing into strengths over time? Feedback, I hear you say. Yes, I would agree, but feedback from whom? Many lecturers would groan on hearing this word ‘feedback’, especially those who teach increasingly large classes in disciplines where students need to write a great deal, the more the better for their learning (think here especially of the humanities and many of the social sciences). With large classes and reams of written work to mark, lecturers often skimp on the detailed written feedback, or give only the most cursory comments, perhaps supplementing this with ‘global’ feedback in a lecture for the whole class on common errors and misunderstandings. This tends to mean that students keep making these errors, and the development of their thinking, writing and ability to create and critique knowledge in the discipline takes far longer to progress.

Yet, feedback is what all writers need. Critical, thoughtful, clear feedback that praises what is well-considered and realised in our writing, and points to what has been less well realised and needs further revision and rewriting. Whether in larger or smaller classes, in disciplines where students write a great deal, and are expected to improve with each piece of writing, feedback is essential. Preferably individual feedback that engages students in thinking differently about their writing, although this is often a logistical challenge for many lecturers and tutors.

Peer feedback, then, has been used as a partial solution to these challenges in many university courses globally. Students give feedback on writing to their peers, either in classes or in tutorials, in structured tasks that try to guide students on what kinds of feedback to give and how to give it well. Many of these instances of peer feedback work well, probably as many struggle to achieve their goals. Giving constructive, kind-but-critical, and helpful feedback on a piece of writing – feedback that will make it possible for the writer to make effective revisions – is hard work. Telling someone a paragraph they have written has no point is not that hard, but giving them advice that helps them to understand why there is no point, and how to both create a point and then reconstruct a paragraph that makes sense within the piece of writing – that is much more challenging. Many students, especially undergraduates, need guidance in order to provide their peers with this kind of feedback – this is a practice that needs to be learned, and that can be taught or scaffolded.

There are many, many research studies that have been published on feedback – the principles of good feedback, how to work with feedback as a writer, how to structure peer feedback-giving exercises, why feedback is ignored by students and how to get them to pay attention, and so on and so on. One of the questions asked in many of these studies goes something like: ‘how do we get students to learn from feedback, and improve their writing?‘ (The corollary of this seems to be ‘why don’t students learn from the feedback they get?’) One paper I read recently on a peer feedback-giving exercise revealed an unexpected finding in the students’ evaluation of the exercise: that they learned more about their own writing from giving feedback to their peer than they did from the feedback they received.

This is interesting, because many of the studies I have read focus almost solely on what to do with feedback received, and how to make sure that feedback givers give better feedback, so that the receiver can do more with it to improve their writing. But what of the lessons about writing that feedback-givers can consciously learn, and act on in their own writing? To return to the example above, if you need to give a writer feedback on how to improve a pointless paragraph, or one that doesn’t quite develop its point, you may find yourself reflecting on this aspect of your own writing and seeing it differently. Going back to it with fresher eyes, you may find yourself revising your own paragraphs, ensuring the the points you are making expand your argument, and are well supported with evidence.

Students can learn from the feedback they receive if it is given in understandable, actionable ways. But creating peer feedback-giving exercises in writing programmes, courses, or centres provides an excellent opportunity not only for students to learn how to give useful feedback, but also to learn more about their own writing through being asked to read, think about, and comment on a peer’s writing with the aim of giving them clear, constructive and useful comments and advice.

Argument: creating a coherent whole out of the parts of your essay

One of things many undergraduate students I have worked with over the years have always battled with is understanding the difference between an essay that makes an argument, and an essay that has useful information in it that is not tied together around a central thread or point. In my former role as the coordinator of a university writing centre, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help students understand and address this struggle through writing workshops and tutorials, and in my work with their lecturers and tutors.

Getting your head around what an argument is, and how to craft and make substantive and coherent arguments, is key to succeeding at your higher education studies and beyond, and not just in the humanities and social sciences. Although they may do it in different ways and in different forms, all fields make and defend arguments for and against things: this design for a footbridge rather than that one for this community; this method for building a hydrology model rather than that one in this project site; this theory of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on modern society and not a different one; and so on.

From gigya.com

From gigya.com

The argument is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question you don’t want your readers to ask at the end of your essay. It is the ‘golden thread’ if you like, that takes the strands of your argument and pulls them into a defined shape to substantiate and develop the central claim your essay wants to make. This is often called ‘the thesis statement’. It needs to be clearly made, often in the introductory part of your writing, so that your reader knows what it is that is helping you to select and organise the parts of your essay or paper that will follow. What follows the introduction will be a connected selection of sub-claims, supported by relevant evidence, that further develop and substantiate the central claim, and all of these sub-claims must make up this golden thread – they need to connect, in a logical and coherent order, to create an argument that is persuasive and makes sense.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

You could think of these sub-claims, and the evidence you have selected from literature or empirical data, or both, as strands of coloured wool. On their own, side-by-side, they just make up a collection of strands of coloured wool. Without a purpose or aim to draw them together into a blanket or a scarf or similar, they are just pretty strands of wool. They need a knitter and the knitter needs a pattern to follow. In undergraduate and early postgraduate studies, where students are completing coursework, they are given their ‘knitting patterns’ in the form of task questions and instructions to respond to. Later on, in independent research, students need to design their own patterns, or research tasks.

Students, as the knitters, will read (or devise) the task, decide on what research needs to be done to generate the information needed to respond appropriately to the task, and using their prior learning as well as the thinking, reading and writing practice they have had thus far, they will ideally weave or knit the information together to create something new, that represents (hopefully in their own creative way) the pattern they were asked to follow. They will create new knowledge from existing knowledge, even in a small way, by taking a position on an issue and advancing a substantiated argument. Without the argument to tie the strands together into a pattern, the essay will likely end up looking a bit like the picture above – a collection of paragraphs, each with their own point, but together not quite managing to create something coherent or sensible. The essay may well leave the reader wondering: ‘So what? What is the point of all of this?’

A tool I recently learnt on a writing retreat has really helped me to create a define my own ‘pattern’ for my writing, and is helping me to make sure that I am actually knitting together arguments in my papers that make sense, and are properly substantiated. Taken from a book called The Craft of Research, the tool helps writers to plot out the golden thread by asking them to think carefully about the main claim, the sub-claims, the reasons for those claims, and the evidence needed to substantiate them. Claims and evidence are probably quite obvious – of course we need both of these elements to write a paper worth its salt. But what of reasons? According to the authors, reasons are important because they outline the logic of the argument you want to make. I have learned, using this tool, that I am quite good at generating many reasons for the research I want to write about, but I am less adept at pinning down my claims. This tool has been helping me to work on this.

This (below) is my version of the tool in action: an argument for a paper I am working on plotted out in my research journal on stickies. Following the retreat facilitator’s advice, I use stickies to avoid writing long-winded claims and reasons. This is not the plan for your paper, this is the plan for your argument, and you need to be able to identify and state your claims, reasons, and related evidence fairly concisely. If it takes you 7 or 8 stickies to state one claim, you have some more thinking and refining to do before you are ready to plot out your paper and knit your strands together.

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I start with my main claim, and then identify any sub-claims that are part of that. I then write out the reasons for the claims I am making, and follow with the evidence I either have, or need to have, to support these claims. The orange stickies at the end contain my ‘take-home message’ or the answer to the ‘So what?’ question (which will be part of my conclusion) as well as the limitations on the argument I want to make. Not every paper will include limitations, but all papers need to have claims, reasons, evidence, and a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ question. All papers we write, whether as undergrads, postgrads or professionals, need to have a point – and the point is the argument, and the way in which we are weaving that golden thread through the writing to create something new from all the strands of research, reading and thinking we have been doing.

From dreamstime.com

From dreamstime.com

If you are a writing teacher or tutor: consider using or adapting a tool like this to help students you work with understand the link between the research they are doing and the information they are gathering, and the ways in which this information and research need to be pulled together selectively around a central argument that knits all the paragraphs or parts together into a coherent, persuasive whole.

If you are a writer: try this tool out, and look for others that can help you to make clearer the ways in which your arguments are constructed and crafted, to ensure that your own writing is a clear, persuasive and makes as much sense as possible.

Reference: Booth, C., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. (Eds) 2003. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thinking about our writing from the perspective of our readers

The issue I want to reflect on in this post stems from some writing and rewriting I have been doing on a prospective journal article recently. A conversation with a good friend about the revisions I have needed to work on, following advice from peer reviewers, turned to an interesting question: how would I write the revised paper from the perspective or standpoint of my readers, and how would this improve my writing?

When I run writing workshops with students, I almost always start with ‘APC&E’: Audience, Purpose, Context, and Evaluation. I am not sure where this comes from – I was taught the APC part as an undergraduate student, and again as a tutor of undergraduate students several years later, and added the E a few years ago to account for the emergence of rubrics that students need to read and interpret before handing in a task for assessment (as opposed to only after if at all, as when I was s student). This is the best place to start, with any piece of writing, whether creative or academic, for a lecturer or tutor, or for a journal editor.APC&E

  • Audience: Who am I writing to? How much do they know about my topic? What kinds of considerations do I need to take into account in terms of the language I am using, or the terminology, or the theory (and so on)?
  • Purpose: Why am I writing this paper/article/thesis/report etc? What am I trying to achieve with this piece of writing? What are my main aims and claims?
  • Context: Is this piece of writing for a tutor? For a lecturer? For an editor? Is the context local (my class, my department, my university) or wider (national or international, general or specific)?

And, crucially:

  • Evaluation: How will my writing be assessed? What are the guidelines/criteria to which I am writing, and that I need to consider as I create this piece of work? What would the possible consequences be if I don’t write to the guidelines or criteria?

Considering the APC&E is something I think all writers, especially novice writers, should get into the habit of doing, as it can mitigate against making missteps and errors. For example, assuming too much (or too little) knowledge on the part of the reader, and writing too abstractly, or perhaps too pedantically. Or, being unable to communicate the purpose of your writing, and so confusing your reader with a poorly structured, meandering argument. Rather than just sitting down to write, to just get it done, students need to be encouraged (and initially guided) in considering the APC&E for each piece of writing. If this becomes a healthy writing habit, students can grow into more thoughtful and thorough writers, and they can begin to think about their writing not just from their own (narrow) perspective as its author, but from the potentially wider perspective of its readers, and what they could take from the writing in terms of knowledge, or provocation for new thinking.

Working with this notion of writing from the view of the reader needs to be encouraged through an adaptable tool like the APC&E because it doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t necessarily commonsense. Most students have never been asked to think about these aspects of academic writing before they come to university, and if these habits don’t begin at undergraduate level, they are unlikely to become part of how students think through and create their written work as they progress through their studies. As an editor of two journals, and a peer reviewer, it is clear that not all authors do consider their readers when they write, and this is often clear in the kinds of feedback the articles receive from peer reviewers and editors.

My lack of consideration, or perhaps mistaken assumptions about, my readers was made clear to me in comments I received from three peer reviewers on the paper I am currently revising. Although they thought the paper was well-written, and considers an important topic, they essentially seemed to miss my overall purpose, and asked for revisions that indicated that too much of what I wanted to convey in the paper had not made it across the bridge between me as the author and them as the readers. I had not clarified my purpose, and further comments about revisions to the methodology and conceptual framework indicated to me that I had perhaps not fully or accurately considered the journal’s readership. Hence the conversation with my friend, stemming from me asking advice on how to address these comments in my revisions, and his advice to come at my writing as these three readers did, asking (and addressing) more critical questions about my assumptions regarding the audience and context, and my understanding of my purpose in writing the article.

This has not been easy to do. I really have no idea who will download and read my article; following Teresa Lillis (2001), I almost have to invent my readers in my head, and write to imagined rather than real people, which is challenging, and I am a fairly experienced writer, now. For undergraduate students, inventing their lecturers and tutors and trying to anticipate their feedback and reception of the writing is even more challenging, and often feels impossible. Thus, this tool needs to be adapted for writers working at different levels, and for different tasks: a first year student writing to a tutor will need to consider a different set of APC&E concerns than a PhD student writing to external examiners and a supervisor, for example. The PhD student may also need less, or different kinds of, guidance than the first year student new to writing at university, but guidance is key to working with the tool, and making this thinking process into a writing habit.

This is where tutoring and peer guidance comes in, and where a writing tutor or writing respondent can help: by being a critical friend and reader. Writing tutors within spaces like writing or learning centres can be students’ critical readers, and can help students to decipher ‘rubrics’ or writing guidelines, giving them a clearer sense of what their readers will be looking for, and what they can do to anticipate their readers’ reception of their writing. A tutor can’t tell a student what feedback they will get – feedback is not a uniform thing by any means – but they can work through the students’ APC&E, and create a space for reflection, thoughtfulness and a renewed, reader-centred approach to the piece of writing being worked on. All writers write for readers; thinking more carefully about who we are writing to, why and how, can help us as writers create a stronger bridge to our readers, ensuring clearer (and hopefully more accurate) reception of and engagement with the ideas and knowledge we are creating and sharing.

A new tool for talking writing: LCT and semantic waves

I completed my PhD last year, and I’m now embarking on postdoctoral research. One of the things I am really excited about is applying my conceptual framework to different kinds of teaching, learning and academic work to the case studies I looked at in my PhD. Specifically, I would like to connect my framework – Legitimation Code Theory – with my academic writing and academic literacies work where possible. This post reflects some of that thinking, so indulge me a little, if you will :).

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), very briefly, builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein, but subsumes and extends aspects of these two eminent sociologists’ work to create a conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ that enables researchers to ‘dig’ beneath what they can see on the surface to find the organising principles underlying practices. It is a critical realist framework, and in terms of my own research in education – pedagogy in particular – it has been very useful because it enables a focus on knowledges as well as on the knowers without conflating the two as a social constructivist epistemology can end up doing. In sum, the toolkit can enable close-up, detailed research that can look meaningfully at what underlies our practices, beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning, for example, so that we can understand the whats, whys and hows, and think more carefully about how to change what needs changing.

One aspect of the ‘toolkit’ I have been using in my own research is Semantics, which comprises two tools: semantic gravity and semantic density. I’ll just be looking at the first tool, semantic gravity, in this post. Drawing on Karl Maton’s 2013 book, Knowledge and Knowers, semantic gravity concerns the degree of connection between meanings and the contexts in which they find application. So a concept/term that does not require a specific context to be understood, and is more abstract or generalised, displays weaker semantic gravity because it is further from any particular context. It could be brought into and transformed in a range of contexts, or applications. A concept/term that cannot easily be understood or applied outside of a particular application or context displays stronger semantic gravity – it is more dependent for meaning on the context in which it has been introduced.

If we work too much in spaces with either weaker or stronger semantic gravity we run the risk of either making it difficult for students to understand how to apply and work with abstract knowledge OR making it very difficult for students to extract abstract meanings from problems and applications to be able to move into different contexts and work ably within them. What is necessary, for students to integrate conceptual understandings with application or problem-solving for example, is a waving movement from stronger to weaker semantic gravity as concepts are drawn up, for example, from students’ own contextual and applied knowledge, and then crucially back into the context to show how using different kinds of conceptual knowledge can lead to different ways of working within that context and then back up to abstraction again and so on. This can be called a ‘gravity wave’ and it could look, heuristically, a  bit like this:

 

Generic semantic gravity wave

Generic semantic gravity wave

I want to now reflect on how we started to use this tool to think about our conversations with students, focused on developing their writing, and them as writers. I started with a tutor workshop, showing the tutors the tools and getting them to try them out a little. Then I asked them to explicitly think about ‘waving’ in their peer tutorials with students, and reflect on whether and how this worked for them, or didn’t, in their narrative reports written about each tutorial. The conjecture we wanted to start thinking about using Semantics was this: If we work only or mostly in the context of each individual written task, talking about, for example, this introduction, rather than talking about introductions in writing more generally and then using that ‘concept’ to analyse the specific introduction in front of us with a view to revisions, are we not doing students’ longer-term growth as reflective writers a disservice? How would our conversations, and students’ view of their writing, change if we were able to more clearly focus on moving between the assignment itself and more generalised or abstracted meanings that can attach to parts of academic writing, like introductions and arguments?

The tutors offered some very interesting feedback in their reports as they started to apply this tool, very lightly, in their tutorial sessions. I was also able to observe them, and was able to ‘hear’ how they were trying to wave the conversations up and down, rather than staying down in the context of the assignment students were working on. Several tutors, for example, commented that they started in the contexts, always: asking students how they are, what they are working on, what concerns or problems they’d like to talk about in the session. Then they moved to the essay, asking students to talk to them about what they had done thus far, and where the draft was in terms of work in progress. Then, depending on their prior reading of the task and analysis of the key issues, tutors tried to shift up the wave a bit, asking students for more generalised understandings of, for example, what referencing is and why we do it, or what an introduction looks like generally, and what purpose it serves in a piece of writing. After establishing more general ‘principles’ like this, the tutors then tried to bring students back down the wave into the referencing or introduction in the assignment in front of them, asking students to then think about where they might be able to improve or make changes, and why.

Most tutors found that this more explicit notion of what could be considered ‘abstract’ and ‘contextual’ in written assignments, and especially the idea of needing to move a student between the two in successive waves over the course of a conversation about an assignment, very interesting, and useful. Often, due to time constraints, student panic, and tutors really wanting to help students improve a piece of writing, we stay too much in the context of this assignment, these writing challenges, these revisions. The worry is that, while this assignment may improve, students may not necessarily take forward from the experience a wider or less specific understanding of what they did well or not, and may therefore struggle with the same issues in similar ways in future assignments, slowing their growth as confident and competent writers.

Rather than staying ‘down’ in the context, being able to bring students ‘up’, even a little, to where they can see the whole picture, and a wider understanding of principles of academic writing more generally, may enable them to go back down, over and over, into different assignments with increasingly greater dexterity in adapting the principles to effectively respond to assignment criteria, and cumulatively develop a deeper understanding of academic writing and what it takes to do it well.

Maton, K. 2013. Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.