How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts

NtM (Note-to-Myself)

What follows is a quotation from Bronwyn T. Williams (p. 117, 2016) which I need to:

  • a) build my professional case for clearing the vestiges of some lingering fossilised approaches to teaching academic writing at my own university: namely, that academic writing is a static and transferable genre;


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    Academic Writings: it’s complicated!

    b) advance my own doctoral thesis on the ways in which academic writings are more than and different to the sum of their conventionalised rhetorical parts.

I therefore quote Williams in the context of me being both a teacher of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) – who is constrained by inherited and often unquestioned beliefs about what EAP should be (doing); and as a researcher of Academic Writing – who is making the most of her current intellectual freedom to explore what teaching academic writing could be like (bolded text is my emphasis):

The role of prior knowledge in genre and teaching writing has been illustrated in research that demonstrates how students, when asked to write in an unfamiliar genre, draw on ‘antecedent genres’ in their writing (Jamieson, 1975). When students, like all writers, attempt to employ the conventions of a familiar genre in a new context, however, they often do not produce writing which fulfils the expectations of the new genre. More recent research confirmed students’ use of antecedent genres in approaching new work may, however, lead to writing that does not satisfy a reader’s expectations. Often, instead, students produce writing that mixes antecedent genre conventions with new genre expectations, and may result in hybrid work that frustrates both the student and the instructor (Wardle, 2006). Such student uses of antecedent genres are not always explicitly articulated choices, but instead a consequence of relying on what they perceive as general knowledge or experience*. Yet, when students have their attention drawn to their reliance on antecedent genre, they increase their overall awareness of the importance of genre as well as its contextual nature (Bawarshi and Reiff, 2010).

Williams, B. T. (2016) – Chapter 6: Genre Inside/Genre Outside: How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts

Such research implies that students adapt to new rhetorical and generic situations more effectively when they think about genre not as a set of static forms, but as a flexible and intertextual concept. Rather than being taught genre as a set of forms to be mastered, students should be taught that genres work as networks that interact with each other and are employed most effectively in response to particular rhetorical contexts. Such an approach moves us beyond arguments about whether students should be explicitly taught  specific conventions of unfamiliar genres, and instead helps focus on how to help students work with the complex, intertextual knowledge  they have of their antecedent genres when encountering new rhetorical expectations. Considerations of students’ knowledge** of antecedent genres must necessarily include attention to the literacy practices students engage in out of school and the genre conventions students engage in throughout their daily lives.

* For example, students who have been accepted onto university courses on the back of an IELTS score, take a while to undo the habit of writing in the IELTS genre. Similarly, the ghost of the five-paragraph-essay still seems to haunt writing instruction.
** When working in an international context, the pool of ‘antecedent knowledge’ that students bring to the classroom increases- a fertile area of research in academic literacies . This is especially the case in EAP, and I am not persuaded that in my EAP context, at least, we create sufficient spaces and conditions for students’ antecedent context to be explored.

Reference: William, B.T. (2016) ‘Genre Inside/Genre Outside: How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts’ in Multimodality in Higher Education, Studies in Writing, Vol. 33, Archer, A. and Breuer, E.O. (Eds.) Brill: Leiden; Boston

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