Can we ‘teach’ academic writing (and whose job is it anyway)?

On the face of it, the answer to the first part of this question looks like an easy ‘yes’ doesn’t it? In some ways, it is a yes; easy – well, I’m less sure about that. The answer to the second part of the question is perhaps less easy in practice.

Image from socialutions.co.uk

Image from socialutions.co.uk

A few years ago I was tutoring and teaching in courses in different faculties and this was my job: to teach students how to write academically (as in, in the forms and styles required of the disciplines within those faculties, according to their criteria and standards). But here’s the thing: it was actually a really tough job, and lots of my students really struggled to get what I was trying to tell them about how they should be writing.  We were teaching students to write their essays and paragraphs in courses that stood outside of the disciplines, were not embedded or integrated into these disciplines, and yet were expected to produce good student writers at the end of a semester-long ‘academic writing’ course. And often the content we chose to give students to read and write about was not as relevant as it could have been. So, it was tricky work.

In the writing centre we are often asked by lecturers if they can refer their students to us for help with their writing so that they can concentrate on ‘content’ and don’t have to worry about ‘the writing’, which implies that they don’t see this as their job. This is also tricky work because we work with a wide range of students, many from disciplines we have never studied. So, what I am asking here is:  can we actually ‘teach’ writing to students in a writing centre or writing course with whom we may and may not share disciplinary backgrounds? Whose job is this anyway?

In the Writing Centre we don’t ‘teach’ writing didactically or from a position of being experts with knowledge that we will fill empty student heads and pens with. We  advise, guide, support, converse with, prompt… but perhaps we do teach in a more gentle way, in the sense that there are things students are not sure of, or don’t know, that we help them with in our tutorials, like how to approach a literature review, or how to write a comprehensive introduction. Ideally, writing courses should also be more workshop-based rather than pitched as lectures. We learn to write by writing, and being given feedback we can use to keep working and improving, not by being told what good writing is. So, in some ways an answer would be, ‘yes, we can teach students some of the aspects of academic writing’. But we are all too aware that there are limits to what we can do in a writing centre or literacy course that sits outside of the disciplines students are writing in and for.  We cannot teach or advise on the subtleties of writing and knowing in their disciplines if we do not share this discourse.

So this brings me to the second question: whose job is this, then? I think the answer is both parties – those in the disciplines and those outside of it. I have written elsewhere about the important role people with a specialist interest in academic writing and literacies can play in helping academic lecturers talk and think about the kinds of writing their students need to do, and how to make the standards, criteria and also forms and styles more learnable, and teachable. Many others have written about this too. I think it’s easy to say that all lecturers need to be teaching writing in their disciplines, but this is harder to do from the inside where you know what good writing and poor writing look like, but don’t always have the ‘language’ to talk about this with your students in ways that are helpful to them. We become so immersed in our own discourses that the things that  flummox students look like common sense to us, and it’s not easy to step away without some help from someone who sees thing differently and can help you work it all out.

Partnerships between lecturers and writing tutors or academic literacy specialists can be useful in working out ways to teach students in higher education how to adjust to new ways of thinking, talking and writing about knowledge that are particular to higher education, and to particular disciplines. We can and must teach students how to write (and read and think and speak) about what they know, along with the content knowledge itself rather than in a separate space or course, and the job is that of the lecturers primarily, with the possibility of partnerships and collaborations with writing and literacy specialists. It’s a job for all who take student learning, access, inclusion and social justice in education seriously.

Writing tutors tutoring students, or writing consultants assisting clients: just semantics?

There are lots of different terms used for the people who work in writing centres, as well as for what the ‘units of time’, if we can call them that for now, are named. In many writing centres in South Africa and globally, the people who work in writing centres are called ‘writing consultants’ and the units of time are similarly named ‘writing consultations’. Another commonly used pair of terms is ‘writing coaches’ and ‘sessions’; a rather vague name for what happens within that unit of time. There are also different kinds of people working in different writing centres, and this has implications, I would think, for what they are named, and also how they are trained, supported and remunerated. For example, in some writing centres the consultants are postgraduate students; many American writing centres employ high-achieveing undergraduates to assist other students as peers; and in some UK and South African writing centres the consultants are academics, often with PhDs and academic posts. I am not going to get into all these details too much, because I want to think rather about whether the titles we give these people and the way we name the units of time  is just ‘semantics’ or whether there is a bit more to it than that.

In the UWC Writing Centre the people who work with students are students, at MA and PhD level, and they are chosen because they are good writers, but also because they have displayed an aptitude for and willingness to do the work that we do. They are passionate in their own ways about writing, and about helping other students to become more confident and capable writers. We started off, in 2009, calling ourselves ‘writing consultants’ working with student writers in ‘writing consultations’. At the time we used the terms that seemed to be most commonly used because I didn’t really know what else to call ourselves. However, in 2010 I realised that the terms didn’t sit well because they were too closely connected to the language of management. The terms ‘consultant’ and ‘consultation’ are often and everywhere used in the broad field of business – ‘management consultants’, tax consultants’, HR consultants’ and so on. All of these professionals provide ‘expert advice’ or a ‘professional service’ according to both thefreedictionary.com and Wikipedia, and they are supposed to have a wide range of specialised or expert knowledge on the subject about which they are consulting. A consultation, then, could be defined as a meeting between one without expert knowledge who needs to be given professional or expert advice in order to become more knowledgeable and take certain action, like seeing a tax consultant and then being able to file a tax return that earns them a large refund. None of this really sounds like a what I think a conversation about writing should sound like between two students – both with knowledge but one needing assistance or help in talking or thinking about it. Also, the language of management, and the ‘managerial turn’ so many universities have taken on where so many academics are valued only in terms of their ability to produce x research units, or y pass rates and so on is not a language we should be speaking in the writing centre, and thus these terms did not feel like a good fit for us.

In 2010, very briefly, I tried out ‘writing coaches’ liking for a while the idea of us being helpers of a sort rather than service providers. But that didn’t really feel like a good fit either – coaches are also experts, and are hired to produce excellent results or risk losing their jobs, even if this metaphor is closer to what we do than ‘consulting’ (think of the South African national soccer coach turnover and number of match wins for the last few years!). So in 2010, and since then, we have been called ‘peer writing tutors’ working with student writers in ‘writing tutorials’, and this feels like the right fit.

These terms are the right fit for us in our writing centre because the term ‘tutor’ is defined as a ‘person employed in the education of others’ (Wikipedia again). The article goes on to discuss the role of a tutor as playing a collaborative role in helping other students to adapt to different ways of learning through sharing their knowledge as well as giving advice or guidance. This is what we aim to do in our writing centre, and many writing centres have this goal. We cannot be specialists or experts in all of the subjects that students are writing about, and our goal is not to be the cleverest person in the room. Rather, though having a conversation that, with careful and insightful questioning borne of training, our own experiences as writers, and our own knowledge about writing in the university, leads students to gain confidence in the knowledge they do have and the way they are writing, and helps them to grow in the ways that they need to. Thus what we do is tutor – we guide, advise, support and collaborate. We are knowledgeable peers, but peers rather than experts or professionals.

I think the language we use to talk about what we do is important. Words are never just words – they have meaning and power, and even though we may make different meanings for the same words in different contexts, in our context the words that we have chosen describe the ways in which we work, and the roles we claim. This is more than just ‘semantics’ – they say something powerful about us, and what we do when we work with student writers.

What words do you use to talk about the work you do in writing centres or higher education? What do they say about you, and the roles you claim?

Life on the margins of the ‘mainstream’: skulking or thriving?

We have had a couple of staff meeting discussions in the last few months (and years) where the questions of where the Writing Centre ‘fits’ into the university and what role we can/do/should/could play in student academic support, as well as staff development, have come up. There are no easy answers, and there is lots of rooms for debate and disagreement, which has made for some livelier-than-usual meetings. Here are a few of our thoughts on these questions and what our initial answers could be.

We read Sally Mitchell’s excellent article recently:  ‘Now you don’t see it; now you do : Writing made visible in the university’ (2010) and this sparked questions about, in particular, where we want to ‘live’ in the university. What are the benefits and costs of making ourselves and our work more visible in the university, and are we doing rather well on the margins of the ‘mainstream’ or are we skulking here, trying to find ways into larger conversations about writing in the university? Mitchell reflects that part of this debate about whether to be more ‘visible’ or not is linked to quality assurance; in particular the more frequent use in universities around the world of a set of ‘graduate attributes’ against which curricula and student development and teaching and learning need to be ‘benchmarked’ so that the workplace can be assured of what kinds of graduates they are getting from these universities. We completed an exercise in late 2011 where we ‘matched’ certain applicable graduate attributes to the work we do in The UWC Writing Centre, with students and also with tutor training and improvement. At the time it seemed like a very useful thing to do to make our work more visible, and to make it ‘speak to’ the more dominant discourses within the university of ‘quality assurance’ and ‘control’. We wanted recognition, and we wanted, also, to be seen to be complying so that we were, in essence, ‘earning our keep’.

On reflection, though, we have to wonder what we gained and what we may have given up in completing that exercise and making those claims and connections between the work we do, underpinned as it is by quite a different discourse and set of assumptions about education and academic development and literacies to the discourses and assumptions underpinning quality assurance and charters of graduate attributes. A very simple way of understanding it could be to say that we are focused on who students are and are becoming, and our role in helping them take on academic identities, and join conversations about knowledge in their disciplines with increasing skill and confidence, while the university and the workplace are often more interested in the product: not who you are but what can you offer us and what can you do? We have to wonder if these two discourses are even compatible. Can you pin down everything you teach and everything students learn in a neatly packaged way, and claim that you have indeed produced ‘critical citizens’ who have a ‘scholarly attitude towards knowledge’ and are ‘skilled communicators’? Can we benchmark everything we do against a charter that cannot account for everything that happens in a student’s lifeworld beyond the university or the classroom? And, bringing it down to us and our work, by benchmarking ourselves against those attributes, have we made ourselves visible to the university in ways that may compromise what we do, and would like to be doing, in terms of guiding and assisting students, not just with the assignment in front of us, but also with their transition into academic life, and with asking bigger and more thoughtful questions about what they are learning and how to make sense of it? Have we created a tension between who we are and want to be, and how we want to work, and who the university now wants and expects us to be, and how they want us to work?

There are, we think, always tensions between the work that teachers and academics do in their classrooms and with their curricula and the standards, or benchmarks or goals of the university. In an increasingly commodified and managerialised higher education environment where knowledge is a product to be consumed and we in universities are service providers who must satisfy our student clients, trying to work in ways that challenge and disrupt the notions of students, teachers, teaching, learning and knowledge that attach to this approach to HE is always going to be a challenge, and sometime even a battle. And perhaps, as Terrance Riley (1994) suggested a long time ago, we in these spaces that have the ability to question, challenge, disrupt and act differently should aim to thrive away from the mainstream and resist attempts to draw us to far into these other discourses, so that we can maintain a critical perspective that helps us to continue to think critically about who we are, what we do and the impact we have in this being and doing.

Mitchell, Sally. 2010. ‘Now you don’t see it; now you do: Writing made visible in the university. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9: 2, 133-148.

Riley, Terrance. 1994. The uncompromising future of Writing Centers. The Writing Center Journal, 15: 1, 20-34.