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.

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4 thoughts on “Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

  1. Reblogged this on unteaching and commented:

    This could be a useful starting point for thinking about teaching students how to write in the disciplines.

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