Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 1

It’s 2014, and after a much needed break we are back and work and back on the blog. I want to start off this year with a short think-piece about something I have been wondering about for a while. Unthinking the way we think about writing, or aspects of how we teach students to write in academia. This post will be part one.

By unthinking what I am trying to get at is questioning our assumptions about what makes academic writing generally good, or worthy of praise or recognition – some of the ways in which we write and think in academia are so for good reasons and don’t necessarily warrant changes; but not all of them are so helpful and may even be making it harder for students to succeed. Perhaps, then, the start of a new academic year (for us in the Southern hemisphere at least) is a good time to ponder some of these issues.

My first example is the way we deal with plagiarism. I have lost count of the number of assignments we have seen where the task question starts with a list of all the rules for the task, at least two of which have to do with referencing and plagiarism and really severe punishments for instances of the latter. Many of the students we work with have been told that they must reference and that plagiarism is a very serious offence but have no idea what plagiarism really is, or how to avoid it. This is especially so for first and second year students. It has somehow become assumed that someone, somewhere will explain this to students and so many lecturers don’t take the time to explain either how to reference or how to avoid plagiarism to their students. Many students fail at avoiding plagiarism – I did when I was an undergraduate – and many are really worried all the time that they are going to get into serious trouble. Surely we can adopt a different, gentler and more pedagogical approach here.

Shelley Angelil-Carter wrote an excellent book some years ago entitled ‘Stolen Language?’ in which she talked, and here I really am paraphrasing, about the need for students to ‘try on’ different kinds of academic discourse, almost like wearing clothes that don’t quite fit and adjusting them to fit over time, as they grow into them. Another version of this is ‘fake it til you make it’ – writing in a voice and tone and style that is mimicry rather than your own until it becomes your own and feels authentic and easier to keep working in. Students need to ‘try on’ their new academic discourses and often need to ‘steal’ the language and words of others who already have the right voice to try and work out how theirs should sound.

I am not advocating for plagiarism – referencing the work of others is more than academic convention; it also speaks to how knowledge is cumulatively built within intellectual and educational fields and also how shifts in knowledge knowing and making have occurred over time, for example. It is very important and necessary for students to learn how and when to reference and also why. But what I am advocating for is creating space, at undergraduate level particularly, for students to practice writing over and over in the new discourses they need to become familiar with.

This space needs to be low-stakes – no or little assessment or marks and no punishment attached – and students need to be guided as to how to begin to claim a new voice. Exemplars of successful essays can be given to students and lecturers can talk more about what makes these exemplars worthy of good marks and praise. Likewise, exemplars of poorly performing essays can also be discussed. Tutorials can focus on getting students to talk and write more and become more aware of particular conventions and expectations within different disciplines and why these are there. Assessment schedules can be rethought to allow more time for students to practice writing before they are asked to hand in an assignment that counts for a significant percentage of their overall mark but for which they have had very few chances to really prepare.

Most importantly, though, we could shift our focus in higher education from the products of student work to the process that is an education. It takes a long time to cultivate a way of seeing the world, or a ‘gaze’ (Maton 2013). It’s a process that is completed most successfully by have many opportunities for immersion in the new ways of thinking, reading, writing and so on with those who already have this gaze and can guide, teach and help novice students (see Bernstein 1999). Monica Hendricks and Lynn Quinn wrote a very interesting paper a while back about teaching referencing to students as epistemological access to knowing in the disciplines, and their argument is sound: learning how to reference and how to use other people’s words and ideas to shape our own thinking and intellectual development is way more than convention; it is indeed an issue of epistemic access to knowledge and ways of knowing it.

Rather than trying to punish students for failing to recognize often tacit academic conventions and produce ‘perfect’ work, we could see their failures (especially at the beginning of their studies) as opportunities to open up discussions about how disciplines make knowledge and value it, and why we have to enter into conversations with others, living and dead through what we read, in order to grow our own understandings of the world or the parts of it we are interested in learning about and researching. We could explain more clearly the nature of academic research and why academic work has value, and why students need to cite others – not as a chore or as a rule, but as an act that makes them part of these academic conversations and that make them not just knowers of knowledge but potentially also able to contribute to what Leesa Wheelahan calls ‘society’s conversation about what it should be like’ (163).

Angélil-Carter, S. (2000). Stolen language? Harlow, UK: Longman.

Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An Essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 157-173.

Hendricks, M., & Quinn, L. (2000). Teaching referencing as an introduction to epistemological empowerment. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(4), 447-457.

Maton, K. (2013). Knowledge and Knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge, 86-105.

Wheelahan, L. 2010. Why knowledge matters in curriculum. A social realist argument. London: Routledge, 145-163.

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