Can a writing centre really be a ‘safe space’ in a university?

In South Africa, this morning, we woke to the news that our president has finally managed to do the unthinkable: he has effectively set us on a path to real economic and political disaster. South Africa is no longer safe, especially for those who were not safe to begin with: poor, unemployed, and unskilled citizens really battling to make a living. The South Africans government should be working for, in other words, yet who are being further hurt by the president’s monstrous and selfish actions. Further afield, Brexit and the reign of Donald Trump are ensuring that, for many – largely, again, those already struggling to get by – the UK and America are not safe. This seems a cold and dark state of affairs, and the end of the tunnel is not yet lit.

In this context, education becomes all the more valuable and important. Making education – in the case of this blog higher education – accessible, just and open to many, is vital to ensuring that the world halts this slide into darkness – politically, economically, environmentally, socio-culturally. Research on making higher education accessible and just argues that students – especially those from backgrounds that are less congruent with the ways of knowing of the university – need to be consciously shown the ‘rules of the game’ in their disciplines, and given tools and opportunities to try these out, and become proficient and knowledgable. However, too often, these students are the ones who eventually drop out of academia; a recent study shows that graduation rates in South Africa are still markedly skewed in racial terms, and almost 50% of students never graduate. This means that, for many students for whom education should represent a way up and out of their present circumstances, universities are not safe.

Writing centres, in published papers, are often called ‘safe spaces’ within the university context. We are there for all students, as critical friends and advisors, not judging or grading their work but rather genuinely concerned with helping them to make sense of at least one set of ‘rules of the game’ so that they can better express and articulate their knowledge to their lecturers and tutors. This non-judgemental, supportive set-up is at the core of who and what writing centres are. And yet, to paraphrase Shannon Carter’s excellent quote: while we are indeed there for the students, we are also there for the university (who funds us and gives us a physical home), and we are also there for ourselves; our own theoretical and methodological underpinnings drive who we are and how we work within our local contexts.

This has led me, of late, to wonder: can writing centres really be ‘safe’, when the university is not safe for so many students, and when the world is not safe for so many people?

barbed wire

Perhaps a good start in unpacking this question is to consider what ‘safe’ means. The dictionary defines ‘safe’ (adjective) as a state where one is not exposed to danger or risk. This definition can indeed apply to the work of a writing centre, as we do work hard to ensure that students feel they can explore ideas and tools in their writing without the risk usually attached to getting it wrong (such as a low grade or negative feedback from a marker). However, safe can also be a verb: to be safe is to be cautious and unenterprising, taking no risks to avoid being harmed. I’m not sure this should apply to writing centre work, or academia.

Part of the work of becoming knowledgeable is encountering knowledge, thinkers, ideas, strategies and so on that may unsettle us, challenge us, shift our sense of self and the world. In her excellent book, Jenni Case argues that a true higher education is transformative on a personal and intellectual level – we should not leave university the same people we were upon entering. This requires risk. We have to be willing to risk being wrong; we have to be willing to risk being challenged; we have to be willing to risk challenging others. Thus, we have to be okay, at least in part, with being unsafe in this sense. However, when we consider that many of our students, in this era of massification or open admissions, are already unsafe in other ways – struggling to pay fees, struggling to find a place to live and food to eat, struggling with poor, unsafe public transport and so on – what kinds of risk can we justify at this level, without further deepening the sense of unsafeness so many of our students must already feel? Yet, what would the unintended consequences be of working too hard to make higher education ‘safe’ and without intellectual or personal risk? What kinds of risk are justifiable, and what kinds are not?

Writing centres can step in here, I believe, in a much more critical way than perhaps they have done previously. Still too often seen as ‘remedial’, ‘skills-imparting’ and ‘soft’ spaces in universities, writing centres now have a rather exciting opportunity to reinvent the discourse that has shaped them, to embrace rather than avoid the larger socio-political context in which they, as part of universities, work. Using critical approaches drawn from work on the ethics of care, and academic literacies, as two examples, writing centres can reimagine what it means to be ‘safe’ spaces, while acknowledging that actual safety may be an illusory goal. We can help students take risks, at least in the arena of academic knowledge-making, and through our tutorials, consultations and workshops, we can more overtly show students how one embraces the challenges of engaging in a truly transformative higher education.

We are not independent of the university: we must acknowledge that the ‘rules of the game’ we help students to play by are often experienced as alienating and unjust. And, perhaps because of the ways in which we are still positioned and conceived of, marginal rather than central to academic development, we do not always take enough risks ourselves in challenging those rules. Thus, we must acknowledge that we have a complicity in perpetuating an unevenly accessible higher education, as much as we work to be non-judgemental, open and welcoming to all students, and as much as we aim to make them feel relatively safe in revising, reworking, and rethinking their academic writing.

life-preserver-1748575_640Rather than leading us to hang our heads, acknowledging our role as insiders can offer a kind of freedom: to use our insider knowledge to challenge dominant discourses around what it means to be literate and knowledgeable; to bring other forms of knowing and knowledge into the writing centre space in creative ways that give already ‘unsafe’ students different tools for exploring their writing; to openly acknowledge the risks involved in academic work, and the challenge inherent in putting ourselves and our ideas out there for judgement, even in an undergraduate essay.

Making the notion of ‘safety’ open for debate and discussion is in keeping with who we are and how we work: it makes the inevitable risks visible, and makes it okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed and unsafe, even in a space that tries to mitigate those feelings. Rather than uncritically adopting a notion that writing centres are an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty, I argue that we need to jump into the water with students and lecturers, and swim next to them as they work out how to get to the shore, transformed, challenged, more resilient, and ultimately more able to grapple with complexity than if they would be if we devoted all our time to make ourselves a safe space in a world that makes such a goal nearly impossible.

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Writing centres and doctors’ offices: fighting the ‘deficit discourse’

Image from fotolia.com

Image from fotolia.com

We sometimes joke at our writing centre that we feel a little like practitioners in a medical clinic. Our ‘patients’ make their appointments and when they do we ask them what they need or want assistance with – telling us about their ‘symptoms’ or ‘aches and pains’. Then they come to see us, and are ushered from the waiting room into the consultation space, where a tutor ‘diagnoses’ issues that need to be looked at and worked on, and advises on a ‘treatment plan’ of sorts. If the issues cannot all be looked at in one session, or if we think more advice may be needed, we advise a follow-up appointment.

While it can be amusing to think of ourselves in this way, it does also give us pause for thought about how students and the wider university community see us, how we see ourselves and how we construct and manage our time and relationships with students and academic lecturers and/or departments. Much has been written in the fields of writing centre research and academic literacy about how the work we do is categorised as ‘remedial’ and often focused towards students who, for whatever reason, do not have what they need to make a success of their university career. These students are often viewed by academic lecturers and tutors as lacking or deficient, and through being made to come to a writing centre ‘to sort out [your] grammar’ or to take an academic literacy course ‘to learn how to write essays properly’, they are often made to feel deficient, lacking or outside of ‘mainstream’ university life. This deficit discourse has been roundly criticised and largely set aside as problematic and unhelpful by most researchers working in the fields of academic writing and literacy. It still, however, persists, and we still need to be vigilant in listening out for it, and in critiquing it. It is a hegemonic discourse in higher education, and has become ‘common sense’, in many contexts where massification and widening participation have been a feature of higher education.

I was at a conference several years ago where Theresa Lillis argued that the reason the deficit discourse is so hard to do away with completely is because it is common sense, and hegemonic, and as such has become invisible. What I think she means is that we don’t see it anymore with critical or questioning eyes because it has become so commonplace to blame students for their inability to succeed, or to blame the school system for not teaching them the right kinds of things, or to blame their parents for not being more involved in their education. It locates the problem within individuals rather than within ways of thinking that underpin wider systems, like education. I am sure that lecturers do not think they are doing anything questionable when they send a student to us for help, with a comment like ‘this would have been a good essay apart from the grammar and spelling. Please go to the writing centre for help’. We’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and we do think that what is behind these kinds of positions and comments is a kind of deficit discourse, where what is focused on is what students don’t have, rather than what they do have. It tends to let the lecturer or university off the hook in terms of who bears the responsibility for teaching students what they need to know and what they need to be doing with what they know in their new academic and learning spaces. These kinds of positions also tend to place a lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of what can be then viewed as ‘remedial’ spaces, like writing centres, academic literacy courses and the like.

We have long maintained in our writing centre, in concert with many other writing centres around the globe and in South Africa, that our work is not remedial. Following Stephen North, we believe we are here to have conversations with writers about their writing: productive, challenging, motivating, helpful, illuminating conversations where both tutor and student are learning, and that ultimately serves the purpose of helping the student to a next step in their own writing process. We can’t ‘fix’ poor writing or poor grammar because the students who come and see us are not ‘broken’. They are learning how to learn in new ways and grappling with new kinds of knowledge in new academic environments, often shaped by unfamiliar and largely tacit conventions. We try, as far as we are able, to make as many of these conventions less tacit by not only helping students to surface the conventions they need to follow (for example, you need to organise your ideas logically into paragraphs; you need to reference your sources accurately) but also helping them to understand why these conventions are there and what following them may yield in terms of their learning and writing.

Image from uab.edu

Image from uab.edu

We are not disciplinary specialists, so we cannot go into all the nuances. Our work cannot stand in for the work a disciplinary expert needs to be doing as well, helping students to see what counts and also understand why and when it counts and how to achieve it. But we believe we provide a valuable space for writers to get feedback that is not couched in any understanding of them being at a deficit, but rather aims to view students as knowers who are entering into, or in the thick of, a learning journey and process that will extend beyond their time at university. We aim to motivate, empower, advise and ultimately encourage student-writers to engage in the process and get more out of learning, reading, thinking and writing.

We may sometimes joke about the similarities between our office and a medical practice, but in reality we work hard to ensure that students enter and exit our spaces feeling ‘well’, rather than ‘sick’ and needing inoculation or a quick course of treatment to get over whatever ails them. Writing centres are no quick fix and we need to guard against falling into remedial gaps. We can be a valuable resource for students, lecturers and tutors, but this requires being clear about our role, and defending against the ‘common sense’ discourses where we encounter them. This work is ongoing and can be tough, but it matters, and this is why we keep at it.

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.

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.

Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.

Lessons learned and lessons shared: writing advice from writing tutors

This was a fun post to devise and also to write. In a recent staff meeting I posed the question: ‘what advice would you give yourself about writing if you could go back in time to yourself as an undergraduate student, or yourself starting out with your postgraduate degree?’ This is what we came up with, and we would like to share it with all of you. There are 20 pieces of advice, in no particular order:

1. Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Taking a break from a piece of writing and doing other things can lead to greater clarity when you can go back to it with fresher eyes.

2. Critical friends are an essential part of the writer’s ‘toolkit’. It’s scary to ask for feedback but if you ask the right people and take their advice, it will help you to grow as a writer.

3. Revisions almost always take longer than you think they will. Make notes about how much time writing takes you, and learn from this when you plan future writing tasks and revisions so you can plan your time realistically and avoid frustration.

4. Learn how to use the MSWord shortcuts and tools well. They can save you lots of time and make the technical side of writing less stressful.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of giving yourself time to think. Thinking is an essential part of doing good writing – the thinking you do before, during and also after you produce a piece of writing all enriches the writing process and the writing itself.

6. For postgraduates, grounding yourself solidly in the field in which you are doing research before you start coming up with research questions is helpful. Read, read and then read. And make good notes!

7. Develop a system that works for saving your files and readings so that you can approach your writing tasks in an organised way. This saves hours looking for files and source documents that could be spent writing and revising.

8. Keep a journal – take note of where your notes come from: which reading were you writing about and what is the full reference. Create a good system for keeping track of your references, and use the journal to assist you in writing summaries in your own words of the relevant points and arguments made by different authors.  This will help you to be more organised, and also to write more comfortably in your own ‘voice’.

9. Save your drafts with separate file names, and develop a logical system for doing this (like Draft1_Eco paper_date). This helps you to keep track of your own development as a writing, and can also be encouraging when you see how far you have come. At postgraduate level especially, saving multiple drafts means you can cut chunks of good writing out of a final draft but still have them saved to use in a conference paper or journal article where they may be more relevant.

10. Keep the topic you are writing about clear in your mind while you are reading and writing; this will keep you on track and make sure that you don’t read  and write about irrelevant or off-topic ideas and information which will confuse you and your readers.

11. Every day should be a writing day, especially for MA and PhD students. All the small bits of writing add up, even if you are scribbling informally in a journal about ideas you have had. A paper, a thesis, a dissertation – these are all written one paragraph at a time.

12. Read, read, and also read! Start reading on a topic you are writing about as early as you can before the due date and read carefully, making notes as you go. Try to summarise the main ideas and arguments that are relevant to the topic you are writing about or to your research questions. Confident writers are readers.

13. Use the work of writers and thinkers you admire and whose work you are using in your own papers and research to help you find a writing voice or style that is relevant in your field and also feels comfortable for you. Find your ‘writing heroes’ in other words :-).

14. Make sure you understand the key arguments you are drawing on in what you are writing well before you get tangled up in the writing. This can help you to stay on topic and write clearly. Often, especially with theory, depth is better than breadth, but this can also depend on your field.

15. Writing is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ exercise, which is often what makes it hard to ‘teach’. You need to find your style of writing by writing as often as you can and getting feedback from an advisor you trust, like a tutor, a lecturer, a peer or a supervisor.

16. Writing is not a skill, it’s a practice. You only get better at it if you practice it, and you can only practice by doing it. Writing for yourself every day, in a research or reading journal, can help you to grow in your thinking and writing.

17. Planning is an important part of writing so don’t skip this step. Make time to develop and plan or a basic structure for your essay or chapter before you write, so that you have something to guide you.

18. Save your writing in more than one place. Email it to yourself, or sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive (among others) so that you never have to be let down by a computer than crashes or a flashdrive that gets lost or breaks.

19. Writing can be difficult, and when you are working on a big piece of writing like an MA or PhD thesis it can also be lonely. Find yourself cheerleaders who can encourages and motivate you, even if they can’t help you with your writing.

20. Writing shouldn’t always be a chore. Writing should also be an activity you can enjoy. If you find academic writing, or any writing, tough, try to look for the bits you do enjoy and use that feeling to help you through the bits that are less enjoyable. There is almost always some part of writing you can enjoy, even if it is just handing in a finished final draft! 🙂

Why we should still be writing academic essays at university

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I had the sense that I needed to do a bit more by way of research in order to write it well, and have thus been putting it off. I always seem to have too many other Things To Do, like write my PhD draft. Which is, itself, like a very long essay. It has an introduction,  it is developing an argument using research, data and other kinds of evidence and my own critical thinking about that evidence and my own argument, and it will finish with a conclusion that will (hopefully) pull it all together. Granted, it is about 78000 words longer than the average undergraduate student’s essay, but the basic idea behind the structure, and I would argue, the intent, is the same. The point is to teach me, as the student, to produce a well-research, sustained and academic piece of writing and thinking that will enable me to move forward in my own ability to think critically and to do research that contributes to knowledge in my field. It will also enable me to more confidently join, and also contribute to and extend relevant conversations and debates in my field. I am learning how to think outside of my own narrower conceptions of the world and even my field, and I am learning to think in ways that allow me to more ably join what Wheelahan (2010) calls ‘society’s conversation about itself’.

This is, ideally, what the university essay is aiming to teach undergraduate students. In many of the essay writing guides I could find online, the first paragraph was an introduction to why students are asked to write essays at university. They mention things like ‘learning to think critically’; ‘producing a sustained piece of thinking and writing’ on a particular topic; learning to write in the forms required of the discipline, and so on. Undergraduate essays generally focus on getting students to read a range of sources on a particular topic, and respond to a question that asks them to take a stance and make an argument, using those sources to support the claims they make. They are responding to the specific, but learning to move to the general to explain it. They are learning to think about, read about, and join conversations that take them beyond their own narrow ways of thinking about the world, and help them to see, appreciate and also challenge other world views, as well as defend their own. These are useful skills to have in the world of work. All work requires workers to be able to apply knowledge and skills in a range of ways to different situations. We can’t always predict what these situations will be. Thus, we need to learn how to navigate between what we know and think now and what is yet to be thought, to borrow from Basil Bernstein (2000). We need a bridge between the specific contexts in which we are working and the general or abstract world of theory and knowledge that we know and also that we don’t yet know, and in the complex process that goes into producing academic essays we can learn how to do this, and in different ways as we become more proficient and confident readers, writers and thinkers.

While there are many other forms of written work that are useful for students to be writing, like reports, portfolios and narratives, and while changes to the way we find, use and think about knowledge and learning may have led some in and outside of universities to wonder whether students should still be writing essays over other more ‘relevant’ kinds of writing, I think the university essay will endure. Not because of what students write about in these pieces of work, but because of what these extended exercises in reading, thinking and writing are training students to do in terms of developing their capacity to join and contribute to, and also to extend, society’s conversations about itself.