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.

Making transitions when writing in new media

I have been procrastinating about some revisions I need to do recently on my own PhD thesis and also on a paper I have been writing with colleagues. One of the forms this procrastination has taken is looking back at some of the early posts on this blog. I was struck by how formal they are – so ‘academic’ in tone and style. The later posts are different, more humorous in some ways, and also more relaxed; more like what I now think blog posts on this kind of blog should be – conversation-starters or think-pieces there to stimulate discussion and thinking and conversation in a more relaxed or informal way. They should be engaging – of the writer and the reader, and be fun to write and read. Well, this is my opinion of them anyway.

But I got to thinking, ‘what changed? Between now and then, why did my style shift so?’ There is also a bigger question here about transitions writers make in their own processes of growth and learning, and how and why these transitions happen. We in writing centres are, I think, quite focused on these transitional moves, because part of our work is to enable them to take place and also to make student-writers more aware of the need for change and transition and growth and how to achieve this.

In my own blog-writing I think my learning has been quite tacit. As I got more comfortable with the blogsphere, and as I started subscribing to and reading other blogs, I started to learn about what I liked to read, what kinds of tones and styles were used in blogs that I identified as being like my own, and I began to play with this genre a little more boldly, although I didn’t try things out very consciously – rather I just began to write a little less formally, and with a little less planning and careful thought. I tried to just let the ideas come, and then edited and organised retrospectively. If I think back, I cannot pin-point this strategy or that which worked, although I could show you posts I liked writing more, and less, and probably the ones I liked more were funnier and more fun to write, and also more personal and about my own writing and how my learning is carried into my conversations with students and tutors. They felt more like the kinds of texts that tend to count as relevant or authentic in the blogspheres I think they fit into.

So, I suppose I have to ask myself, now, ‘what learning from this experience of changing my own writing style in my blog can I take into my tutoring of students and writing tutors?’ You may say that this is an easier space to play within than perhaps a university course where the assessment of the students’ writing is high stakes. After all, no one is marking my blog posts out of 100 or judging the posts to pass or fail against some preset criteria. However low-stakes this space may be in terms of the formal understandings of assessment of writing in higher education, it is not all that low-stakes for me. I am putting my ideas out into a very public space, sharing them with many people I cannot meet or see, who do not actually know me the way a lecturer might, or be able to give the benefit of any kind of doubt. This has made me feel quite vulnerable, and open to possible critique and misreading. While I know, as an academic, that critique is good if it can help me grow and learn, it is not always easy to hear. So each post feels a bit like an act of bravery, and each post is another step in my learning process about writing in this space, in this medium.

I think that each essay and assignment must feel to many students like an act of bravery, as they open their work and their selves expressed in their work up to critique and correction. Students also need to learn to write well in new media and new genres, and often the rules and conventions of these genres are not explained or opened up for discussion and deconstruction in lectures or tutorials. Many lecturers assume that students can work these rules and conventions out on their own, and struggle to see the tacit-ness of their own learning and growth as writers. If they could see this, as I can try to see my own tacit learning and growth, then they could start working with student writers from a place of empathy, because writing in new media and new voices is risky and does feel vulnerable, and support and feedback is needed. They could also begin, as I have tried to do with my tutors, to explain their own processes of learning, making the rules and conventions that govern what counts as the right tone or style or voice in these different media more explicit and easy to see, understand and also challenge where necessary.

Writing never stops being work, and even when we stay with one or two media we are comfortable with as writers we still need to make transitions and change and grow in order for our writing to remain engaging, current, relevant to our audiences. But it doesn’t always have to be painful, unpleasant work. I think that reflecting on our own journeys as writers, trying to pull out and explain our own transitions and what enabled them or made them happen could be a useful and creative starting place when we approach working with student writers who need our feedback and guidance.