My PhD research is all geared up to answer this question, and I am using this, and other posts in the blog, as a form of personal and public reflective note-taking, hoping to track my thinking, and get your reactions.
The question is relevant to me in three contexts/identities:
– having been a student who has had to write ‘academically’ (from school to my MEd)
– being a teacher of ‘Academic’ English
– being a researcher of ‘Academic’ Writing
As a student, I was obliged to conform to academic conventions; as a teacher, I am obliged to re-enforce these norms; as a researcher, I am obliged to critically engage, i.e. question, them.
I admit that these three identities conflict, and that I am navigating what each day (i.e. each lesson and reading) brings to my attention.
I have been reading Shaughnessy (1998: 3) who says something that I have heard ad infinitum but have never found the reference for, until now:
… learners are perceived (…) as empty vessels, ready to be filled with new knowledge. Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.
Her basic message is that we (teachers) see students of writing as students who have ‘problems’ (she refers to the medical metaphors of writing ‘clinics’, ‘remedial’ classes, ‘diagnostic’ tests).
But right now, it is me (the teacher and researcher) who has a ‘problem’ with this….
Mary Scott has come to my rescue in many ways because she has helped me to articulate what might be wrong with seeing students as ’empty vessels’ and as ‘remedial’ cases.
Scott (2014: 215) invokes the metaphor of ‘ghosts’ in the text. These, she says, are ‘errors’ that manifest themselves as spectres (spirits) of ‘fertile facts’ (drawing on Virgina Woolf). What seems like an error to me (the teacher), is actually the tip of a student’s complex academic and social literacy that needs to be understood, rather ‘corrected’.
The teacher in me, however, says ‘standards are standards’ and that we must fix the error; but the reseacher in me says ‘what exactly are these standards?’.
This dilemma is sharply captured in Thesen and Cooper Eds (2014) who refer to ‘contact zone’ writing, the academic writing of students from multiliterate backgrounds, of students, that is, who are increasingly becoming the norm in the 21st century academy and who bring with them ‘fertile facts’, not errors. This whole collections of essays is about what risks we can take in academic writing (I strongly recommend it).
I have also been inspired (as a student/teacher/researcher) by a Radio 4 interview with the Master of Eton College, Tony Little, who towards the end of his interview shares a poignant story: it is about one of his brilliant students who upon sitting an entry exam for Oxford, failed. He failed because he saw a flaw in the exam question, questioned the question, and answered his own, corrected version, of the question. He was bascially punished for being ‘critically engaged with the form of the question’ (I so related to this story: I have agonised, as a student, over the ambiguities of exam questions and over the assumptions that underlie them).
If the ‘academic’ in Academic Writing in any way means ‘critical questioning’, then where do we draw the boundaries of what is acceptable academic writing behaviour/framing of knowledge?
Your reactions, please!
- Shaughnessy, M.P. (1998) ‘Diving in: an Introduction to Basic Writing’ in Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures Lawrence Erlbaum
- Scott, M. (2014) ‘Error’ or Ghost Text’ in Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, their Theachers and the Making of Knowledge, Multilingual Matters
- BBC Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04fc707 (Interview with master of Eton College on what makes Eton so special)