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.

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.

Thinking about the questions we ask students in writing tutorials

As peer writing tutors, we make use of different questioning techniques during tutorials to generate interesting discussions and assist students who come to us at different stages of the writing process to improve their writing. These techniques often vary depending on the student who needs help and the task being examined.  Although we always ask questions, we are seldom conscious of why we ask different types of questions and how useful these questions are in attaining the outcomes of a set tutorial. In this post, we will reflect on the extent to which our questioning techniques have evolved so far this year, or since we started tutoring at the Writing Centre in an attempt to understand the kinds of questions we ask and why as well as how we ask them. Our interest in the approaches to questioning in the context of writing tutoring was sparked by discussions following observations that were conducted as part of a mentorship programme that is ongoing at the UWC Writing Centre.

In terms of starting a discussion with students, we make use of introductory questions to build rapport, glean information on students’ socio-cultural and linguistic background, ease tension, understand and also manage students’ expectations. These types of questions are important in opening up space for conversation and learning to take place. When we meet students for the first time, in order to make them feel comfortable, we ask questions that help us ‘break the ice’ and ‘kickstart’ the tutoring process for both student and tutor. Students respond to us better when we indicate to them that we are interested in their wellbeing as writers and not just in their writing. The focus of such questions is more on getting to know the student as a writer. This gives us an opportunity to understand the emotions that students experience when faced with academic writing tasks. Beard, Clegg & Smith (2005: 235) concur by highlighting the importance of understanding ‘…the affective dimension in pedagogic encounters and the life world of students, and that it is possible to do so without a collapse into therapeutic discourses’. Writing tutorials provide a unique space for students to talk about how they feel about what they are reading and writing about and we encourage them to do that by asking the right questions. These introductory questions also help us to understand student’s own purpose for visiting the Writing Centre and to find out the help that students need in order to improve their writing. For instance, these sorts of questions help tutors distinguish between initial and follow-up tutorials, as well as students who come to us on their own volition and those that are compelled by lecturers and/or tutors to do so. Such information is very useful in informing the strategies that we use to help students understand the process approach to writing which informs our practice.

Introductory questions are usually followed by task and assignment related questions. These include questions that are intended to probe students’ knowledge about academic writing within a specific discourse, as well as their knowledge of the subject matter or content of a specific topic. More open questions are asked to get general information about a topic. Open questions here refer to questions that perform the dual function of encouraging students to talk generally about their writing in order to provide information to the tutor, while also leading the discussion in a specific direction as the tutor can identify gaps or areas for further discussion based on the information provided. Juxtaposing discussions about the task provided and what a student has written in a draft offers a way forward by giving us a sense as to where students need to make revisions. One way in which this can be done is by starting with smaller questions to scaffold into task analysis, always keeping in mind where we want the student to end up in terms of understanding the task at hand. Examples of these would include why, what and how questions. We more often use why and how questions rather than what questions,because these why and how questions shift the discussion from the tutor to the student,  increase the level of engagement between the student and the tutor, and help the tutor to guide the student towards productive answers. Therefore, we ask questions that are carefully crafted to encourage reflection and ultimately to push students’ thinking forward in a process of engaging with and improving their writing. An emphasis on process here indicates we perceive the students who come to us as being on a journey and we help make explicit to them the ways to get to where they need to go through questioning.

For tutors working at the UWC Writing Centre, questioning techniques are negotiated based on the draft received and the student or group of students who sit(s) in front of us during a tutorial. We tend to lean on our intuition instead of having pre-planned questions. However, our intuition is guided by theoretical and practical knowledge of the academic writing process and academic literacies. Therefore, as our conceptual understanding of academic writing has shifted and our confidence has grown, we tend to ask more questions and do less telling during writing tutorials. This approach provides more space for student-centred and learning-centred writing tutorials. What do you think about our approaches to questioning during writing tutorials? What can you relate to and what strategies do you use that are different? We would love to hear from you.

**This post was authored by Thecla Mulu and Lovertte Esambe (peer writing tutors)**

Reference

Beard, C., Clegg, S., and Smith, K. 2005. Acknowledging the affective in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 235–252

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).

Why can’t I say ‘I’ when I’m doing the writing?

In South African universities, the dominant trend in academic writing is to use the 3rd person and to write in the passive voice. For example: ‘In this essay it will be argued that…’ or ‘This essay will claim that’ – so there is no ‘I’ obviously doing the arguing and claiming, and the passive voice particularly lends the essay a more serious and ‘academic’ tone. This post considers why this trend continues; whether we can question and change this or any trend; and what change could require from us.

The arguments for writing like this tend to go like this (broadly speaking): the 3rd person is a more academic way of writing. It sounds more formal and it goes some way to preventing students from making wild claims that they cannot support – just saying ‘I think’ all the time. Writing in the passive voice also has a more academic or formal tone, and it makes the writing more scholarly in tone and style. It’s also the way many disciplines have always written, and so perhaps this trend continues uncritically because those who set and assess written tasks do not stop to ask themselves why they want their students to write like this and whether they could do things differently.

Now, I know I am generalising and that not all disciplines in South African universities ask their students to write like this. But many do, and many students don’t understand why they can’t say ‘I argue that’, or why they can’t use ‘I’ at all. After all, many of their tasks say a version of ‘You must evaluate the arguments and motivate your answer’. I should probably come right out and say that, in general, I don’t think you have to be either hidden behind the 3rd person or be passive in order to sound and be academic or appropriately formal in your written register, tone or style. But I do think that using ‘I’ and understanding that this is not  followed with your own personal or un-researched opinions and thoughts is not something novice student-writers necessarily understand, and I think that learning how to write appropriately and well in the disciplines takes time and needs guidance.

I think (along with many other writing centre and academic literacy specialists) that any writing in academic disciplines, whether in the 1st or 3rd person, needs to be carefully modeled and taught, and I think the best way to do this is by showing students why we make the choices we do when we write, and what the effects are on our writing. This, however, is always easier said than done, especially for lecturers who don’t spend much time thinking about their students’ writing (except when they assess it and then call the writing centre for help 🙂 ). Many academics who research, write and also teach in their disciplines find it easy to show you a piece of writing that meets the standards and a piece of writing that does not but struggle often to say, explicitly, why the good piece is good and why the other piece is not. Even though lecturers often design rubrics and try to spell out assessment criteria, some of what goes into assigning this mark or that mark is tacit, and is borne of years of experience as well as their own sense of what counts as good writing.

Good writing tends to be writing that makes sense, not just in terms of what it is about and how well researched and structured it is, but also in terms of how well it fits with the assessor’s idea or sense of what writing in English Lit or PoliSci or Sociology looks and sounds like. We often find it much easier, when we are asked about what good writing is, to focus on things like the referencing style and the grammar and spelling; the organisation into clear paragraphs – these things are identifiable and you can more easily assign or take away marks when students have hit or missed the mark. It’s harder to pin down tone and style. A lot of what makes an essay stand out is students’ ability to really get the tone and style right – to find the nuances and explore them; to be critical and inventive and have a clear and engaging voice. This is, really, what makes any piece of writing stand out. But this kind of writing is hard to do, both as an academic researcher and as an undergraduate student.

I have digressed a bit, so back to the ‘I’ in writing: I can’t say here that writing in the 3rd person should be scrapped wholesale or that we should all start writing in the active voice. I don’t write in the 3rd person all the time, but sometimes I do and I must say it feels safer than saying ‘I’. If I write ‘This paper/thesis/study has claimed that…’ and I’m a little (or a lot) off in my claims, then I feel a bit protected by the passive 3rd person. ‘I wasn’t wrong – the study was!’ I know I’m the person who did the study and made the claims, but the 3rd person gives me a little bit of distance from being so personally involved and sometimes that helps writers, I think, to take a leap and make bold claims they may otherwise hesitate to make. I was reading recently that scientists in many fields still tend to use the 3rd person because it enables them to present their work more objectively, as a kind of truth. Perhaps they too feel safer behind the 3rd person rather than coming out and say ‘we/I have found the answer/cure/etc’.

At any rate, whatever the reason is for using these conventions (whether they are the ones focused on here or others) the important point for me, working as an academic development/writing specialist helping academic and students alike with the challenges of academic writing, is that we focus not just on the content of the writing but more explicitly on the rules and conventions that shape the writing itself. We, in the academic development sphere, need to be brave enough to ask, and keep asking, those working in the disciplines tough questions about why they make the choices they make when they write, and why they want from their students the kinds of writing they do; we need to understand more about the what that students are writing about, as well as the why and the how of the writing itself. In asking these questions, and in forging relationships with lecturers and tutors who want help with their students’ writing, we can begin to cast this understanding back onto the disciplinary insiders, and so begin to think more carefully about why we maintain or challenge any of the rules and conventions that shape the way we write.

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.