Thinking about our writing from the perspective of our readers

The issue I want to reflect on in this post stems from some writing and rewriting I have been doing on a prospective journal article recently. A conversation with a good friend about the revisions I have needed to work on, following advice from peer reviewers, turned to an interesting question: how would I write the revised paper from the perspective or standpoint of my readers, and how would this improve my writing?

When I run writing workshops with students, I almost always start with ‘APC&E’: Audience, Purpose, Context, and Evaluation. I am not sure where this comes from – I was taught the APC part as an undergraduate student, and again as a tutor of undergraduate students several years later, and added the E a few years ago to account for the emergence of rubrics that students need to read and interpret before handing in a task for assessment (as opposed to only after if at all, as when I was s student). This is the best place to start, with any piece of writing, whether creative or academic, for a lecturer or tutor, or for a journal editor.APC&E

  • Audience: Who am I writing to? How much do they know about my topic? What kinds of considerations do I need to take into account in terms of the language I am using, or the terminology, or the theory (and so on)?
  • Purpose: Why am I writing this paper/article/thesis/report etc? What am I trying to achieve with this piece of writing? What are my main aims and claims?
  • Context: Is this piece of writing for a tutor? For a lecturer? For an editor? Is the context local (my class, my department, my university) or wider (national or international, general or specific)?

And, crucially:

  • Evaluation: How will my writing be assessed? What are the guidelines/criteria to which I am writing, and that I need to consider as I create this piece of work? What would the possible consequences be if I don’t write to the guidelines or criteria?

Considering the APC&E is something I think all writers, especially novice writers, should get into the habit of doing, as it can mitigate against making missteps and errors. For example, assuming too much (or too little) knowledge on the part of the reader, and writing too abstractly, or perhaps too pedantically. Or, being unable to communicate the purpose of your writing, and so confusing your reader with a poorly structured, meandering argument. Rather than just sitting down to write, to just get it done, students need to be encouraged (and initially guided) in considering the APC&E for each piece of writing. If this becomes a healthy writing habit, students can grow into more thoughtful and thorough writers, and they can begin to think about their writing not just from their own (narrow) perspective as its author, but from the potentially wider perspective of its readers, and what they could take from the writing in terms of knowledge, or provocation for new thinking.

Working with this notion of writing from the view of the reader needs to be encouraged through an adaptable tool like the APC&E because it doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t necessarily commonsense. Most students have never been asked to think about these aspects of academic writing before they come to university, and if these habits don’t begin at undergraduate level, they are unlikely to become part of how students think through and create their written work as they progress through their studies. As an editor of two journals, and a peer reviewer, it is clear that not all authors do consider their readers when they write, and this is often clear in the kinds of feedback the articles receive from peer reviewers and editors.

My lack of consideration, or perhaps mistaken assumptions about, my readers was made clear to me in comments I received from three peer reviewers on the paper I am currently revising. Although they thought the paper was well-written, and considers an important topic, they essentially seemed to miss my overall purpose, and asked for revisions that indicated that too much of what I wanted to convey in the paper had not made it across the bridge between me as the author and them as the readers. I had not clarified my purpose, and further comments about revisions to the methodology and conceptual framework indicated to me that I had perhaps not fully or accurately considered the journal’s readership. Hence the conversation with my friend, stemming from me asking advice on how to address these comments in my revisions, and his advice to come at my writing as these three readers did, asking (and addressing) more critical questions about my assumptions regarding the audience and context, and my understanding of my purpose in writing the article.

This has not been easy to do. I really have no idea who will download and read my article; following Teresa Lillis (2001), I almost have to invent my readers in my head, and write to imagined rather than real people, which is challenging, and I am a fairly experienced writer, now. For undergraduate students, inventing their lecturers and tutors and trying to anticipate their feedback and reception of the writing is even more challenging, and often feels impossible. Thus, this tool needs to be adapted for writers working at different levels, and for different tasks: a first year student writing to a tutor will need to consider a different set of APC&E concerns than a PhD student writing to external examiners and a supervisor, for example. The PhD student may also need less, or different kinds of, guidance than the first year student new to writing at university, but guidance is key to working with the tool, and making this thinking process into a writing habit.

This is where tutoring and peer guidance comes in, and where a writing tutor or writing respondent can help: by being a critical friend and reader. Writing tutors within spaces like writing or learning centres can be students’ critical readers, and can help students to decipher ‘rubrics’ or writing guidelines, giving them a clearer sense of what their readers will be looking for, and what they can do to anticipate their readers’ reception of their writing. A tutor can’t tell a student what feedback they will get – feedback is not a uniform thing by any means – but they can work through the students’ APC&E, and create a space for reflection, thoughtfulness and a renewed, reader-centred approach to the piece of writing being worked on. All writers write for readers; thinking more carefully about who we are writing to, why and how, can help us as writers create a stronger bridge to our readers, ensuring clearer (and hopefully more accurate) reception of and engagement with the ideas and knowledge we are creating and sharing.

Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

From sandboxtactics.com

From sandboxtactics.com

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus who tells him that life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change the world. Morpheus shows him a glimpse of this layer beneath the world he can see – there is a Matrix that we are all plugged into and most of us don’t even know it’s there. Knowing about it and seeing it can bring danger – powerful people don’t want us educated about the Matrix and our power to change it – but it can also bring freedom, choice. After this glimpse, Morpheus tells Neo he can choose – take the blue pill and he wakes up tomorrow and nothing is different. Take the red pill and he goes on a journey towards consciousness, learning, emancipation. Neo chooses the red pill and with Morpheus as his mentor off he goes, eventually learning how to see the inner workings of the Matrix and change the world he lives in, and by extension, himself and those around him. His is a journey of transformation. There is way more to the story, but this is enough for you to follow my thinking here.

I’ve been playing with the idea of higher education teaching, learning (and writing) being like a Matrix. The students are the Neos,  with potential and talent that needs to be recognised, brought out and nurtured. They have the power to change the world but they often don’t know how to. Peer tutors and colleagues students engage with are like the crew on the Nebuchadnezzar (the ship they all live on): Trinity, Tank, Dozer, who support, teach, and challenge Neo on his journey. Lecturers can probably be more like Morpheus – a little older, more experienced and knowledgeable, ideally mentors and teachers. When students enter university, they often know that the world is bigger than they think it is, and that there are many more things out there for them to know and do and see and be. They come to us to be taught and to learn because they want access to this wider world of possibilities; they want to be transformed and changed and have opportunities to live bigger, more exciting and often more comfortable lives. I have worked with many students over the years, and most of them really do want the red pill rather than the blue one, even if they can’t phrase their desires in these terms, and even though they have very little sense of how much hard work and dedication it will take and that it’s a lifelong process of learning. I think part of our job as the Trinitys or Morpheuses in their journey is to build into learning and teaching more of a sense of what the Matrix is all about and what they can and should be doing to be learning about how to see it, understand it and eventually change it. Our assessments, teaching approaches, student activities, writing tasks etc all need to be pulling students towards not just knowing what’s out there on the surface, but more importantly the principled knowledges and ways of knowing that underpin, give rise to, shape what we see on the surface. In other words, we need to be teaching not just what we can know, but why we need to know it, and how we would/could know it and what we could do with it.

Writing is one way of getting deeper into the Matrix, because writing is one of the main ways in which we ask students to show us their knowledge and understanding. Becoming a more conscious and powerful writer is a bit like going on a Neo-like journey. We start off being shown (or told) to write in quite formulaic ways. These are the three steps of an introduction; this is a topic sentence; a conclusion does these three things, and so on. Undergraduate students often see these ‘formulae’ in quite basic, surface ways because this is often how they are taught. They can struggle, often, to become more creative writers because the formulae feel safer. The whys and hows are there, of course, but for many students they are often tacit or hidden. One of the ways in which we become more conscious writers, who make choices about how we write because we understand what the requirements are and why they are so, is by learning precisely these things: the criteria, what they mean and why they are there. As we go, through feedback (from Morpheus-like mentors), reflection (on our own and with peers) and more writing, we can begin to see the Matrix and eventually, write the code ourselves.

From dan-dare.org

From dan-dare.org

If we can understand not just that there is a Matrix (and this is what it is, and what we must do if we want to live in it), but also begin to see the hidden code that makes up the Matrix, and possibly change it and ourselves to act and think differently, we can truly be transformed by learning, and by studying at university. I think we can more readily achieve ‘graduate attribute’ type goals with our students – for example, graduating civic-minded and active citizens who are aware of and have the tools to change their environment and society – by orienting them (and ourselves) towards making visible the systems of meaning* that we are hoping students will engage with. We can more readily show students how to become lifelong and ongoing learners, and we can equip them with tools – principled and applied knowledges – that make them able to not just see the Matrix (whether at university or in the world around them) but also able to change it. If we can shift our focus from the ‘stuffed’ curriculum** full of ‘content and skills’ by beginning to understanding who our graduates in particular disciplines need to be and what they need to know and do, and connecting this to the kinds of teaching we do and the kinds of tasks, assessment etc that we ask students to engage in, we can begin to work within systems of meaning and knowing  more consciously and overtly.  I’m thinking that this might be a way of getting to the heart of higher education and its transformative potential and purpose. It’s not easy to get into the Matrix and make the changes, but it most certainly is possible.

* Wheelahan, L. 2013. Keynote address. Rhodes University, Department of Education PhD conference, October 2013.

** Cousin, G. 2006. ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet, 17: 4-5.

Responding to ‘reviewers’ – a tool for developing consciousness in writers

I love getting new ideas to use in my writing workshops, both with lecturers and students. This new idea is a tool for lecturers to use with their students, and it’s built on a practice I was told about by a lecturer in a foundation year programme this week. This tool is useful for helping students to develop a reflective stance on their own writing and a meta-level of consciousness about what they are doing when they write and how their approach to writing, reading and thinking is shifting over time.

This tool is called ‘Response to the reviewer’ because it bears similarities to the letters authors of journal articles/books/chapters in academia are more often than not asked to write after they have completed revisions recommended by peer reviewers. In these letters, authors have to explain to the editors of the journal what changes they have made to their work, why and often where in the paper the changes have been made. It’s a challenging exercise because it doesn’t just require a list of changes made – editors often want some idea of the reasoning process that went into making or not making the changes.

The lecturer who sparked this idea writes fairly detailed rubrics outlining his assessment standards and criteria for his students. He does not have time to have them all write drafts, have these marked formatively, and then rewrite and revise these as he has over 300 students. So, what he does is create an assessment plan that makes each successive task build on the tasks before, so that the previous essay, for example, works a little like a draft of the following one, even if they are not on the same topic. His rubrics, then, and the way he completes them and comments on students’ work feeds forward rather than just feeding back, as he wants students to think about how to improve on areas of struggle/vagueness/weakness in the following assignment. I think this is a really creative way of addressing the issue of wanting students to revise and improve in their writing without the ‘luxury’ of time for multiple drafts and guided revisions. In order to see whether these revisions and improvements are indeed happening, he asks his students to attach task one’s draft to task two, and so on, so that he can remind himself, and also them, of the comments he has already made on their writing.

The tool build on this by adding a self-reflective an extra dimension. One of the goals we must have in higher education is to guide students not just in acquiring and applying certain technical or applied skills or knowledge-related practices, as well as theoretical and principled knowledge, but also to guide them in becoming certain kinds of knowers – people who think, act, write, behave, see the world in particular ways (a lawyer, for instance, or an accountant or an analyst of some kind). Part of this becoming is developing a consciousness – who are we? Where do we fit into our field? What are our roles? What choices can and do we make and why? What could we do differently? How? Etc. Often this works at a meta-level, underpinning all the actions we take and choices we make, and so after a while it becomes more tacit, and more part of our ‘way of being in the world’ as Bharuthram and McKenna argue about academic lecturers’ understanding of their disciplines. The tricky thing is understanding, once you work like this, how you developed this consciousness in the first place, and as a teacher, working out how to help your students, through the tasks and teaching you design, to develop this in themselves.

Here’s one idea of how to begin to do that: Take, use, adapt my colleague’s idea first. Write rubrics that give your students a clear set of assessment criteria. When you assess their work, don’t just tick boxes and assign a mark – give yourself a space for comments, and give them three  or four clear things to do or consider the next time they write an essay. Explain as far as possible what you mean and how they might go about doing these things so that they have an actual plan of action rather than just a wishlist. Then, get them to attach the rubric from task one to task two when they submit but add this new tool – ‘Response to the reviewer’ – by asking them to write a paragraph explaining how they put your comments on task one into action in task two, or how they did not and why. This, I think, will achieve two important goals: the first is that it will give you very useful information on whether and how your students are (or are not) using your feedback, and why. Then you can make adjustments, and learn from their responses how to improve your feedback-giving. Second, it gives students opportunities to reflect on a different part of their writing development – not the ‘what’ that they are writing about, but the often more hidden ‘how’ and ‘why’ they have written the task the way they have, what they have found do-able and what they have struggled with. You can use this tool in each assignment or you could give students guidance on writing more substantial reflections quarterly or semesterly on a set of rubrics they have been working with in your course.

We don’t just develop this kind of conscious understanding of our practice – we are often guided to it through questions we have to consider from colleagues or mentors, or  tasks we have to complete, or through more mundane things, like applications for promotions or for new jobs, where we are asked to reflect on what we have done thus far and what we’d like to do next, and why. The why is so important here, because this is what moves us into that ‘meta’ space, where the tacit can be surfaced, looked at critically, and rethought perhaps. This is a space for growth and change, and the more we can take students here and make it an encouraging and also challenging space where they are supported in being more reflective and self-critical, the more they can begin to grow and transform in the ways we may well want them to (and that they may well desire themselves).

Making an argument: what it is and is not in academic writing

This post follows on from our previous post about unthinking the way we teach students to argue in their written work. We see many students every year at the Writing Centre with argumentative essays. We therefore spend a lot of time talking about how to help students understand what argument is, and how to construct arguments in their essays. We also have to talk about what it isn’t, amongst ourselves as tutors and also with students.

Several research papers within the field of academic literacies and writing look at argumentative writing, and debate student struggles with this genre and how to help them write more effective or relevant or appropriate essays. Key among the findings of the papers we have read seems to be that students come to university with a narrower understanding of what an argument is. In short, many students associate argument with arguing in the sense of having a fight with someone. Further, they also then see making an arguments as reinforcing your side of the fight or argument only, leaving someone else to oppose you. Most academics would immediately say ‘Oh no, it’s not about fighting, it’s about…’ debating, persuading, challenging, weighing up two or more sides of pertinent issues, and so on. Academic arguments are, among other things, balanced, careful, evidence-based, logical, well-structured and well-referenced. They are based on research, and weigh up different sides of an issue from the standpoint of the writer’s stance or position on that issue. Different disciplines like Law or English or Physics will make arguments in different ways, for example thinking about case summaries or literary critiques or models. However, for the most part they have many of these more general characteristics in common. They are designed to persuade more than to inform, to challenge and debate more than to simply present a position.

But explaining to students that these are some of the main things academic arguments are is not necessarily all that helpful. Students need, also, to know what they are not, and through guiding feedback on their writing to be shown what to do differently if they are not making arguments in the ways expected of them. Academic arguments, as stated, are not ‘fights’. They are not one-sided or narrow, and they do not pretend that the opposing side does not exist. They are not based on opinions, heresay and personal views, and where they are based on a writer’s personal views, these are supported and critiqued with research and evidence. Academic arguments are also not descriptions or explanations alone. A writer will use the tools of description or explanation to defend and support the stance they are taking, but an essay that merely describes or explains an issue without taking a position in relation to that issue and the evidence is not an argument.

Again, merely telling students these things does not guarantee that they will understand what you are saying clearly enough to put it all into actual practice in their own writing. They need this kind of advice on their writing as they write, through verbal or written feedback. However, explaining to students ahead of reading and writing what you as the assessor do think an argument is and is not, and what you expect from their writing and why you need or want them to write like that is an important step in making the ‘rules of the game’ clearer to novice writers especially. Having to explain these rules or guidelines to students also creates an opportunity for reflection on the part of lecturers or tutors, and possibly also an opportunity for rethinking some of the ways in which you can creatively and critically address the teaching of argumentative writing in your field or discipline. Perhaps you could share some of the ways in which you do this? We’d love to hear some new thoughts and ideas.