Generic or specific: writing in and across the disciplines

We get a lot of requests at our writing centre, as I am sure is true of many writing centres, for generic writing skills workshops. Requests like: ‘Can you come and tell my students how to write at university?’ or ‘Can you come and run a skills workshop on essay writing?’ I have serious reservations about any kind of workshop that tries to give students a list of ‘skills’ they need to master in order to be a better writer, or a workshop that approaches improving your writing as knowing what writing at university is broadly and matching what you do to that set of characteristics or features. There’s a lot of research in the field of academic writing and literacies that shows that generic, one-method-of-essay-writing-serves-all-disciplines approaches to teaching writing don’t really work for the majority of students. The ones who succeed following these workshops were probably already fairly confident or capable writers. Essay writing guides are often gobbledygook to those who do not already have some knowledge about essay writing (much like user guides for electronic equipment).

My response to these requests is always to ask for more information: what assignments are the students working on? What are the assessment criteria? What are the lecturer’s expectations of the students in relation to the task, and what are some of the things they have noticed their students struggling with? What would an excellent piece of work look like? This information helps me to then explain to the lecturer requesting the workshop how we work, at our writing centre, with students either through workshops or individual tutorials. We prefer not to come in with a completely generic workshop, and leave it to the students to work out how to adapt our generic tools and discussion to their specific disciplinary task. We also, however, cannot come in as disciplinary experts and design a completely specific writing workshop either. We sit somewhere between the generic and specific; somewhere between being in a discipline and working across them. So, what we design, and what we take to students in different departments and faculties, is a mix: a brief framing of the kind of writing they are doing and what its aims and goals are, like a lab report or a discursive essay, followed by a brief and focused ‘toolkit’ for writing that includes useful, more generic tools to help them think  and write. For example, how to write clear paragraphs and why this clarity is important in an essay, report, or thesis. We also try to make space for them to do some writing and to  discuss their particular task and particular assessment criteria and expectations and to connect the tools to the specific task.

These kinds of workshop, often, are one-off and tend to stand alone. Over the past few years we have set up relationships across the university with lecturers who come to these workshops and then build on and reinforce a more process-oriented and explicit approach towards writing in their classes, explaining their expectations more clearly to students and helping them to work on their writing through improved feedback. We have also run more than one workshop in these departments and have had students come to see us for individual tutorials, so we can start and continue conversations about writing, and learn more about the specifics of the writing in those disciplines and modules. But many lecturers want workshops that will ‘fix’ the problems and will help students acquire the right kinds of skills, and they tend to see their role as teaching the disciplinary knowledge or ‘content’ and someone else (a writing centre or academic literacy course) takes on the job of teaching the skills.

We really try, in our planning phase, to include lecturers and to open up conversations about what does count as generic and what is actually more specific about the writing their students are doing, and therefore what we can help with and what we need them to be considering more of in their own ongoing teaching. We think about this a lot as writing tutors, and look at what different kinds of writing entail and require, so that we can use our own disciplinary knowledge and experience to deepen our understanding of academic writing, and use this to inform that ways in which we talk to students, advise, encourage and assist them. We run workshops with tutors in the disciplines, asking them to think of all the characteristics of academic writing they can, and then dividing this list into generic features that apply (albeit realised in a range of texts) to all writing (like having a clear and coherent structure, an introduction and conclusion, references and citations etc), and more specific features that really apply to their discipline (like writing only in the 3rd person in scientific reports, or the necessity of using both contemporary and older research and documents in Theology, or the necessity of using ‘archaic’ terms and phrasing in legal contracts).

These encounters with writing ask lecturers, tutors and also students to stop and think: what is more generic and what is quite specific in this piece of writing? What do I need to do to hand in an acceptable piece of work, how do I do that, and why do these features/characteristics have to be included? Why do I need to be precise, and write in tightly structured paragraphs? What needs to be part of my introduction and how do I need to write one for this essay? These are some of the questions that can be asked and answered, moving lecturers, tutors and students towards a clearer and more focused understanding of what writing counts, what makes it count and how to direct students towards achieving success.

Writing well requires mastery of both the generic and specific features of any type or form of text: understanding which is which and how a writer’s grasp of these features impact on the writing he or she is doing is hopefully one way of ensuring a more conscious and less bewildering writing experience.

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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.