‘Learning in higher education involves adapting to new ways of knowing: new ways of understanding, interpreting and organising knowledge. Academic literacy practices… constitute central processes through which students learn new subjects and develop their knowledge about new areas of study. A practices approach to literacy takes account of the cultural and contextual component of writing and reading practices, and this in turn has important implications for an understanding of student learning…
The study skills approach has assumed that literacy is a set of atomised skills which students have to learn and which are then transferable to other contexts. The focus is on attempts to ‘fix’ problems with student learning, which are treated as a kind of pathology.’
(Lea and Street, 1998)
In the LLI, we’re currently working on what’s being billed as a ‘Transitions Tool Kit’ to help with programme and curricula-level support for academic transition to higher education (HE) study. I use the phrase ‘tool kit’ with a certain sense of unease given that one of the key documents informing its development is French, Kempson and Kendall’s Good Transitions (QAA, 2016: 22) whose recommendations include the warning that ‘there is no… ‘tool kit’ that will work successfully for all students in all contexts.’ (Oops!) In our case, though, the ‘tools’ in question are very much designed specifically to steer conversations away from what the authors of Good Transitions quite rightly identify as unhelpfully generic, context-insensitive approaches to supporting student learning, and towards developing properly contextualised approaches instead.
In this way, we’re extending an approach we’ve been taking with numerous programmes across the University of Leicester for a number of years, now – one that aims to realise the ‘practices approach’ referred to by Lea and Street above. It’s not an approach without its challenges, it should be said. In many ways it would be highly convenient indeed if studying in HE was largely a question of acquiring a set of generic ‘skills’ whose meaning we all agreed on, and whose application was consistent (and consistently recognisable as such) across different disciplinary contexts. If this was the case, we could design resources and services that simply explained in more detail what these shared meanings were and what these consistent applications involved students doing in practice. As we know, however, learning in HE is actually nothing like this and so and we would be doing our students an enormous disservice in pursuing approaches that did far more to indulge our own wishful thinking than to actually help them to navigate the complex and context-specific terrain of learning in HE.
Imagine, for example, sharing the following statement with students:
‘Academic writing at university is impersonal, evidence-based, and aims to be objective.’
Now, on the plus side, this statement carries the virtue of providing a very concise definition of one of the key activities many students will spend a great deal of their time being compelled to do at university. From this statement, it’s possible to imagine proceeding to elaborate on how to ensure ‘impersonality of voice’ and the ‘inclusion of evidential bases for knowledge claims’, all in the cause of achieving and communicating ‘objectivity’ – a concept whose meaning everyone, of course, would absolutely agree on. On the minus side, the statement is clearly not true. It may well be true of how certain people, carrying certain beliefs and working within certain disciplinary contexts would tend to define what ‘academic writing’ should look like, but it’s certainly not true of academic writing per se. What’s gained in the statement’s concision and apparent simplicity, in other words, is lost once we consider its veracity.
In order to bring the statement a little closer to the truth, we would have to say something far more laboured and hopelessly self-qualifying. Something like this, perhaps:
‘The term ‘academic writing’ is a necessarily imprecise (some have argued actually redundant) one used to signify a wide range of dynamic social practices relating to different genres, sub-genres, text-types, registers etc. that not only vary between, but also often within, disciplines. The complex and multifarious relationships between knowledge and evidence in academic writing (including how meaningful and desirable it is to conceive of knowledge as being evidence based) will reflect the epistemological beliefs and values at work within your discipline – beliefs and values that may well themselves, once again, differ within let alone between disciplines. On the question of ‘objectivity’ and what this means, this too will vary between different contexts depending on the nature of the object being studied and, indeed, beliefs concerning the possibility and desirability of objective knowledge in the first place. In some disciplines, for example, some argue that the necessarily partial and value-laden nature of knowledge precludes the possibility of ‘objectivity’, whilst others counter that this argument itself is based on a flawed and false conflation of ‘objectivity’ and ‘values-neutrality’. In developing your writing, then, it’s important to be aware of these context-specific dynamics and what they might mean for how your knowledge should be articulated and ‘performed’ in various written assessment tasks, and how those reading and marking your writing themselves (often with reference to esoteric codes of behaviour and all sorts of conscious and unconscious biases) recognise what they consider to be ‘legitimate’ practice. This latter process of recognition can itself be subject to variation and contestation both (yes, you’ve guessed it) within and between different disciplines.’
In the unlikely event that anyone paid attention long enough to make it through to the end of this statement, we can probably safely assume that they would be wondering why they were bothering to listen to someone who claimed to know something about this thing called ‘academic writing’ only to hear it’s all a frightfully complex and contextual question that defies concise or generic definition and which may not even be a thing at all.
So, attempts to support the development of academic writing at more generic levels risk forcing us to choose between producing digestible and palatable untruths/partial truths, or somewhat baffling, overly-complex descriptions which, whilst closer to the truth, are of little or no value to a student anxious to make sense of expectations and produce better writing. This is not to say that there are no aspects of writing practice that can be discussed in more general terms. On the contrary, approaches to planning, drafting, editing, generating ideas, working through ‘blocks’, dealing with anxieties, managing dips in motivation etc. are just some examples of practices that do indeed carry the potential for more generically-pitched advice and guidance. For those (relatively fewer and self-selecting) students who choose to engage with our central resources and services, the chance to discuss these kinds of practices is highly valued indeed and this is borne out by the consistently positive feedback we receive. I’m certainly not arguing that we should remove access to these resources and services, or that they are not valuable and important to maintain. I am arguing, however, when it comes to learning how to produce writing (an other products for assessment) in ways recognised as ‘legitimate’ within diverse disciplinary communities, we surely need to think about developing approaches that are properly contextualised and situated so as to be meaningful, and therefore genuinely helpful, to students. We also need to base our support on a proper understanding of just what a contested and diverse thing the practice of ‘academic writing’ actually is, rather than on a wishful construct of what it would be no doubt far more convenient for it to be.
I’ve quoted the following from Johnston et. al. before, but what they have to say about student criticality in particular is really helpful, I think, in reminding us what it is we’re really expecting students to make sense of when they make the transition to university:
‘In higher education, the shape and nature of criticality itself is socially constructed and contextually permeated (with localized sub-field, institutional, departmental and other variations)… Our students are attempting to perform social and intellectual practices of particular fields, the rules of which they may only partially understand.’
(Johnston et al., 2011)
In many ways, Johston et al., have defined what for me is the main purpose of the ‘Transitions Tool Kit’ – namely, to help programmes, lectures, personal tutors et al. to help their students to ‘perform social and intellectual practices of particular fields’ and to develop appropriate means both of anticipating the challenges often involved in doing so, and of developing curricula geared towards better enabling students to respond to these challenges.
French, A., Kempson, M., Kendall, A. (2015) Good Transitions: Lessons from the ‘Transitions West Midlands’ Project, Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), Subscriber Research Series, 2015-16.
Johnston, B., Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Ford, P. (2011) Developing Student Criticality in Higher Education, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Lea, MR & Street, BV (1998) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157-172.