Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

I attended a really interesting seminar presentation last week by Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town on ‘academic literacies and the question of knowledge’ (this is also the title of a paper the talk was based on – well worth reading). One of the points she made, referring to a 2007 paper by Theresa Lillis and Mary Scott has really had me thinking, and is the subject of this post: that we need to move, in our academic literacy work, from a more ‘normative’ framing and practice to a more ‘transformative’ framing and practice.

Briefly, Lillis and Scott describe normative practices as those which are focused on identifying textual features or features of practice – genres/moves/’rules’/steps/forms etc – and inducting students into these so that they can become proficient and recognised as belonging to that community of practice. An example would be teaching students how to write argumentative essays by explaining the different stages to them and showing them how to write their own essays following those stages. This is akin, I think, to Lea and Street ‘academic socialisation’ (1998) where the aim of academic literacy work is more to socialise students into the dominant literacy practices in the university rather than to critique or problematise and perhaps even change those practices. I have argued in my own work (Clarence 2012) that much of the work done in academic literacy work in South Africa to date seems to be somewhere between teaching writing especially as a practice bound by certain rules and conventions students must learn about and adapt to rather than as a socially-situated and contestable academic practice.

One of the key problems with normative approaches is that, while it is a very good idea to make overt and visible the oft-hidden rules and conventions that shape writing (the way students make evident their knowing) in the disciplines, these rules and conventions become ‘normal’ and turn into hegemonic and powerful discourses over time. Transformative approaches, then, (what Lea and Street call an ‘academic literacies approach’) seek to question, contextualise and problematise the rules and conventions that shape knowledge-related practices like writing and reading in higher education. These approaches try to see what resources students could be bringing with them to the writing and reading, as well as how the rules and conventions shape and impact on the ways students make meaning and engage with knowledge. They don’t take the dominant practices, rules and conventions as given, but rather seek to understand why certain practices persist, whether and how they could change and what impact staying the same or changing would have on the academic-social practices and context within which the writing is done, and which the writing helps to maintain.

One of the dangers in a transformative academic literacy approach, in spite of its wonderfully progressive agenda, is that the text itself can disappear in all this focus on the writers and contexts (Lillis and Scott 2007). I think this is something those of us working from writing centres and academic literacy development spaces need to think about carefully. Much writing centre practice around the world – certainly in the US, UK, Europe and South Africa – is guided by key principles, among them taking a non-directive approach, engaging extensively in productive dialogue with writers around their texts, and (as Stephen North so famously exhorted us to do) focusing on the writer rather than on the writing. In our writing centre we take this to mean that who the student is and how they feel about and approach their writing is, in the longer term, more important than this one essay in front of us. But we also take it to mean, more recently, that we need to focus on giving students advice and guidance that will not only help them improve on the essay in front of them now, but that they will be able to draw on in further essays and assignments. So, we need to really be mindful of who the students are and make the tutorials we run about them and their process rather than some hegemonic or one-dimensional idea of what their writing should be like. But we also need to focus on the text itself, because not to help them with that text would be irresponsible when the text is what has prompted them to come to us for assistance.

One of the ways we are trying to move away from a normative ‘academic socialisation’ or ‘identify and induct’ approach in our writing centre is by changing the nature of the conversations we initiate and sustain with students. Rather than, for example, trying to show them how to write an introduction, which tends to localise that advice to just this one introduction they are writing now, we try to prompt them to talk about why they think introductions are part of essays or reports, and what kinds of information they think readers need to know upfront in order to understand what they are reading. By looking more at the principles underpinning the writing, we can help students to begin to develop a meta-level of consciousness not just about how to write but about why to write in certain ways. We feel we are, in this way, not quite at the level of transformative writing centre pedagogy, but moving towards this. We are still helping students to identify dominant conventions and practices and to adapt their work to disciplinary expectations and assessment criteria – we think this is necessary as a first step because as Joe Muller as argued, to be unable to see a boundary or a line that one has to cross over and over is to be at the mercy of the power inscribed in that line. In other words, students need to know what the rules are, and how to play by them in order to be more conscious readers and writers. Once we can play by the rules, we can take the next steps towards ‘transformativity’ where we can start to question dominant rules, conventions and practices, contextualise them differently and even break and remake them.

Clarence, S. 2012. Making inter-disciplinary spaces for talk about and change in student writing and literacy development. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 127-137

Jacobs, C. 2013. Academic literacies and the question of knowledge. Journal for Language Teaching, 47(2), 127-140.

Lillis, T. & Scott, M. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5-32.

Making time to write

Apologies, readers. We have been terrible about keeping this blog up to date lately. Our excuse is one many writers know well: we just have not had the time! But, here’s the thing. That’s not completely true. We have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish at least three blogposts. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.

When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.

Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many students may also struggle, especially as undergraduates, because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to a piece of writing to be published or submitted somewhere for evaluation. They may find physical time, but may then discover that it’s not enough, and that they are too rushed. But if they have a deadline they will hand something in, even if it is not the something we would like to read and assess; even if it is rough, or does not fully address the questions asked and so on. So students also need to work out the difference between physical time and writing time.

You see, I know now, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done. I would maybe be able to read a couple of short articles and make some notes on them. But when I was an undergraduate, an hour seemed like enough time to get a draft of my essay scribbled out – it was only 1200 words after all and I’d been listening in class. I didn’t know then about all the reading required, and the thinking and the referencing and the editing and proofing that need to be factored in as well. So, of course, I would leave the essay until a couple of days or less before the due date, read the course readings cursorily and then write out my essay in a hurry. Too late I would realise that I had not given myself enough time to do the task justice, but it took me a long time to learn what went into all that writing and therefore how much physical time I needed to make for my writing. It took me a long time to make my writing important.

This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.

A final point for lecturers and tutors: when you set tasks, make time in class or tutorials not only to explain the task and your expectations to students, but also to workshop with them if possible, or at least to show them, the things that go into writing an assignment like the one you have set them. What will they need to make time for? Reading? Fieldwork? Drafting and revisions? Proofreading? Getting advice from a writing tutor? Doing an experiment and collating results? Be careful of assuming that students, even postgraduate students, know how to spend their writing time or know what has to go into it. Teach them how to make time for writing when you teach them how to write in your discipline – this practical lesson is a valuable one.