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.

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.