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.


Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part two – who is rehearsing and what for?

In our previous post, we discussed some ideas we have had as a team about writing centres as rehearsal spaces in the university, and who the participants in those rehearsals might be and what their roles may look like. In this post, we look at the second part of our discussion – who is rehearsing and what they could be rehearsing for, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

As promised in Part one, the two questions we will look at here are:

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the ‘play’ or the polished ‘product’ that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

In the first instance, the students who come to talk about their writing are rehearsing. They have tried out a piece of writing, which they bring as a draft to discuss with the peer writing tutors. In working with them we are, to delve into the metaphor of stage and plays, ‘workshopping’ the piece with them. We ask questions and draw them into discussions that try to get them to think about their writing, and whether or not the audience will receive it well; to think about themselves as writers, and what they want to say, or show, to their audience; and about the audience itself – who are they writing to, and what do they need to put into the ‘play’ to show their audience that they have achieved what they were asked to achieve? Students, perhaps, are rehearsing for a range of things. Students want to pass, so they write for the approval and marks that will ensure this. Students also write to develop knowledge and appropriate stances towards that knowledge; they write to gain recognition from the experts and insiders in their field of study; and students write to give evidence of learning, and whether they have achieved certain standards or levels of learning set by the disciplines, departments and faculties they are part of.  It can be tricky, then, for peer writing tutors who take on the roles of coach, or in some instances where additional support is needed, director, to guide the rehearsal and writing process such that students are empowered both ontologically and epistemologically – so that they can rehearse for a multitude of roles and for an appropriate audience with increasing confidence and skill.

I read somewhere that there is no such thing as a ‘final’ draft. There is only a draft that we work on until we have to hand it in for comments or assessment. There will always be work to do on that draft, and we could revisit it over and over down time and make numerous big and small revisions. So, what is the final ‘product’ or ‘play’ that the students produce for their audience? And how do we, in this more hesitant and developmentally-focused rehearsal space, help students to appreciate the process that goes into becoming a more capable and proficient writer (and through that knower) in their fields of study when so much of the focus is not on the rehearsal (and the value of those conversations and false-starts and duffed lines and missteps in developing the ‘play’ that the audience gets to see), but is rather on the polished and finished ‘product’? There is altogether too much focus on product in academic writing, and not enough on process and on mistakes and not-knowing and trying things on and out to get to knowing. This is why this metaphor of writing centres as rehearsal spaces is valuable and why the metaphor of rehearsing for students writing in academia can be a productive and liberating one for both students and lecturers in other contexts as well.

The forms rehearsals could take are many and varied, and in our writing centre we ask students to workshop their assignments using free-writing, conversation, debate and even visual representations of their writing. We draw them into conversations about their writing in a range of ways that we try to vary and play with as we get to know the students a little, and we try to find ourselves in their anxieties, struggles and also triumphs, because we are all writers too, and remembering that is important.

Finally, on this point, the peer writing tutors are also rehearsing. In every tutorial we are rehearsing for future tutorials with students, trying things out and evaluating what works and what doesn’t so that we can keep growing as tutors, and as actors in this space we occupy. For many peer tutors, the rehearsals are also developing their capacity as future academic lecturers. The rehearsal process tutors experience in working with student writing shapes and changes their thinking about the process of learning, and requires them to be reflexive about the role of writing in learning – their own and other students’. As we teach, we also learn, and this constant reflexivity and evaluation creates a process of ongoing development and growth, and insight into writing as a learning and thinking process.

This is not a perfect metaphor for the way writing centres work and what we do every day, or for thinking about a more process-oriented approach to student writing in higher education. Most metaphors tend to fall apart somewhere along the line. However, in spite of the limitations of this metaphor which I don’t have space to delve into here, such as who the audience really is in academia, and thinking of writing as a ‘play’ or ‘act’ (which becomes quite complex), I think that this is a productive, creative and provocative way in which to think about what writing centres, as well as academics, can do in teaching students how to think differently and through writing become different and more proficient kinds of knowers in their chosen fields. If all the world is a stage, and if we are all players on or in it, and if students need to be proficient in certain ways to win accolades, recognition and jobs, then what are the kinds of things we could be doing to create more spaces to make the thinking and writing practices, rules and expectations of the disciplines clearer to novice student actor-writers? What are the ways in which we could turn other spaces in the academy into rehearsal spaces for student writing?