Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really confused about what is expected of them and what they need to be doing with their research, reading, thinking and writing in order to produce these kinds of essays. We find it hard to help them beyond a certain point because what it is to argue, and what counts as evidence and also as the appropriate use of evidence in support of claims made differs from discipline to discipline.

However,  disciplinary lecturers and tutors are themselves not always clear about what a good argument looks and sounds like, or have fuzzy ideas about how to write good arguments or explain how to do this using clear and unambiguous language. Many academic literacies and writing centre practitioners and scholars have written about this, but I am going to draw particularly here on a recent paper by Ursula Wingate (‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about). In this paper, Wingate looks at samples of students’ work and at comments from tutors, and also talks to students about writing argumentative essays in an effort to understand what students think an argument is coming into university and how they are helped, through feedback on their writing, to begin to write the kinds of argumentative essays required by their disciplines.  What she found, in short, were gaps between what students thought an argument was, and what the discipline required of them, and further, she found that tutors were largely unable to communicate clearly the shifts and moves students needed to make in their thinking and writing through their feedback. The tutors themselves did not seem to have a clear understanding of what argument looked like or how to communicate this to students.

This is perhaps not a very surprising finding, although it is worrying for students as many of them rely on their lecturers and tutors to help them through this maze. As many scholars like Wingate have argued, we need to be careful of assuming that all lecturers and tutors know how to explain the process of producing an argument in clear, accessible terms to novice student writers. As I said earlier on, arguments in academic discourse are difficult to make, and there are so many steps that go into the process.

Think about it: you first need to read and understand the question you have to respond to. Then you need to work out what search terms to use so that you can search the library databases and the Web for relevant information on that topic. Then you need to read all of that information, understand it, summarise it, synthesise it into a coherent whole of understanding so that you can relate it to a reader in your own words. You also need to keep track of where it all comes from so you can reference it. Then you need to go back to the question and formulate a structured, organised and logical response using all of that information. But this is not all. You can’t just create a patchwork quilt of other people’s words and ideas, even if you are not plagiarising. You also, and Wingate makes this point so clearly, need to take a position. You need to have a ‘voice’ in that paper, and you need to direct the information, using it to support the claims you are making as part of the position you have chosen.

Often though, this process is not understood by students as being this obviously complex and many of the students we see in our writing centre don’t really understand all these steps or how to carry them out effectively. So, I think there needs to be some unthinking here, or perhaps rather just different thinking about how we teach students to write essays like this.

In the first place, while at the Writing Centre we can talk to students about the fact that they need to take a position, and we can help them think through their logical and structured response to the question, we cannot always give in-depth insight into exactly how they need to relate their position and the supporting reasons and arguments and why they need to do it like this and not like that. Thus, disciplinary lecturers really need to understand what they are asking of students in terms of the process, and they need to work backwards to build in time to teach students some of these relevant skills, if you like, or academic practices as they also teach them the substantive knowledge of the discipline. Students also need opportunities to practice writing in these new ways, and get feedback that guides them. It’s not always easy to do, but it is necessary.

Another thing that we need to unthink is the language we use. Wingate and also Lillis and Turner (2001)  argue that the words we use to speak about argument which seem clear to us as insiders to this academic discourse and more often than not jargon to students and impenetrable. Words like ‘structure’, ‘coherence’, ‘cohesion’ and also ‘argument’, ‘evidence’ and ‘position’ are all fairly dense words with a lot of meaning packed into them. We need to unpack these with our students and help them to see what we mean, what we need them to do and why we need them to do it in that way.

Once we begin to unthink the way we think about argumentative writing we can see that what we are asking of undergraduate students is a lot, and it is not surprising that so many struggle with writing and research at this level. We can also see more clearly what we can be doing to light their path and equip them with the knowledge and practice they need to understand what they are doing and begin to improve and grow in confidence too.

Lillis, T., & Turner, J. 2001. Student Writing in Higher Education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns. Teaching in Higher Education, 6:1, 57-67.

Wingate, U. 2012. ‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11, 145-154.