Thinking about our writing from the perspective of our readers

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

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

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

And, crucially:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new tool for talking writing: LCT and semantic waves

I completed my PhD last year, and I’m now embarking on postdoctoral research. One of the things I am really excited about is applying my conceptual framework to different kinds of teaching, learning and academic work to the case studies I looked at in my PhD. Specifically, I would like to connect my framework – Legitimation Code Theory – with my academic writing and academic literacies work where possible. This post reflects some of that thinking, so indulge me a little, if you will :).

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), very briefly, builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein, but subsumes and extends aspects of these two eminent sociologists’ work to create a conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ that enables researchers to ‘dig’ beneath what they can see on the surface to find the organising principles underlying practices. It is a critical realist framework, and in terms of my own research in education – pedagogy in particular – it has been very useful because it enables a focus on knowledges as well as on the knowers without conflating the two as a social constructivist epistemology can end up doing. In sum, the toolkit can enable close-up, detailed research that can look meaningfully at what underlies our practices, beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning, for example, so that we can understand the whats, whys and hows, and think more carefully about how to change what needs changing.

One aspect of the ‘toolkit’ I have been using in my own research is Semantics, which comprises two tools: semantic gravity and semantic density. I’ll just be looking at the first tool, semantic gravity, in this post. Drawing on Karl Maton’s 2013 book, Knowledge and Knowers, semantic gravity concerns the degree of connection between meanings and the contexts in which they find application. So a concept/term that does not require a specific context to be understood, and is more abstract or generalised, displays weaker semantic gravity because it is further from any particular context. It could be brought into and transformed in a range of contexts, or applications. A concept/term that cannot easily be understood or applied outside of a particular application or context displays stronger semantic gravity – it is more dependent for meaning on the context in which it has been introduced.

If we work too much in spaces with either weaker or stronger semantic gravity we run the risk of either making it difficult for students to understand how to apply and work with abstract knowledge OR making it very difficult for students to extract abstract meanings from problems and applications to be able to move into different contexts and work ably within them. What is necessary, for students to integrate conceptual understandings with application or problem-solving for example, is a waving movement from stronger to weaker semantic gravity as concepts are drawn up, for example, from students’ own contextual and applied knowledge, and then crucially back into the context to show how using different kinds of conceptual knowledge can lead to different ways of working within that context and then back up to abstraction again and so on. This can be called a ‘gravity wave’ and it could look, heuristically, a  bit like this:

 

Generic semantic gravity wave

Generic semantic gravity wave

I want to now reflect on how we started to use this tool to think about our conversations with students, focused on developing their writing, and them as writers. I started with a tutor workshop, showing the tutors the tools and getting them to try them out a little. Then I asked them to explicitly think about ‘waving’ in their peer tutorials with students, and reflect on whether and how this worked for them, or didn’t, in their narrative reports written about each tutorial. The conjecture we wanted to start thinking about using Semantics was this: If we work only or mostly in the context of each individual written task, talking about, for example, this introduction, rather than talking about introductions in writing more generally and then using that ‘concept’ to analyse the specific introduction in front of us with a view to revisions, are we not doing students’ longer-term growth as reflective writers a disservice? How would our conversations, and students’ view of their writing, change if we were able to more clearly focus on moving between the assignment itself and more generalised or abstracted meanings that can attach to parts of academic writing, like introductions and arguments?

The tutors offered some very interesting feedback in their reports as they started to apply this tool, very lightly, in their tutorial sessions. I was also able to observe them, and was able to ‘hear’ how they were trying to wave the conversations up and down, rather than staying down in the context of the assignment students were working on. Several tutors, for example, commented that they started in the contexts, always: asking students how they are, what they are working on, what concerns or problems they’d like to talk about in the session. Then they moved to the essay, asking students to talk to them about what they had done thus far, and where the draft was in terms of work in progress. Then, depending on their prior reading of the task and analysis of the key issues, tutors tried to shift up the wave a bit, asking students for more generalised understandings of, for example, what referencing is and why we do it, or what an introduction looks like generally, and what purpose it serves in a piece of writing. After establishing more general ‘principles’ like this, the tutors then tried to bring students back down the wave into the referencing or introduction in the assignment in front of them, asking students to then think about where they might be able to improve or make changes, and why.

Most tutors found that this more explicit notion of what could be considered ‘abstract’ and ‘contextual’ in written assignments, and especially the idea of needing to move a student between the two in successive waves over the course of a conversation about an assignment, very interesting, and useful. Often, due to time constraints, student panic, and tutors really wanting to help students improve a piece of writing, we stay too much in the context of this assignment, these writing challenges, these revisions. The worry is that, while this assignment may improve, students may not necessarily take forward from the experience a wider or less specific understanding of what they did well or not, and may therefore struggle with the same issues in similar ways in future assignments, slowing their growth as confident and competent writers.

Rather than staying ‘down’ in the context, being able to bring students ‘up’, even a little, to where they can see the whole picture, and a wider understanding of principles of academic writing more generally, may enable them to go back down, over and over, into different assignments with increasingly greater dexterity in adapting the principles to effectively respond to assignment criteria, and cumulatively develop a deeper understanding of academic writing and what it takes to do it well.

Maton, K. 2013. Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.

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).