Can we teach academic writing (and whose job is it anyway?)

On the face of it, the answer to the first part of this question looks like an easy ‘yes’ doesn’t it? In some ways, it is a yes; easy – well, I’m less sure about that. The answer to the second part of the question is perhaps less easy in practice.

Image from socialutions.co.uk
Image from socialutions.co.uk

A few years ago I was tutoring and teaching in courses in different faculties and this was my job: to teach students how to write academically (as in, in the forms and styles required of the disciplines within those faculties, according to their criteria and standards). But here’s the thing: it was actually a really tough job, and lots of my students really struggled to get what I was trying to tell them about how they should be writing.  We were teaching students to write their essays and paragraphs in courses that stood outside of the disciplines, were not embedded or integrated into these disciplines, and yet were expected to produce good student writers at the end of a semester-long ‘academic writing’ course. And often the content we chose to give students to read and write about was not as relevant as it could have been. So, it was tricky work.

In the writing centre we are often asked by lecturers if they can refer their students to us for help with their writing so that they can concentrate on ‘content’ and don’t have to worry about ‘the writing’, which implies that they don’t see this as their job. This is also tricky work because we work with a wide range of students, many from disciplines we have never studied. So, what I am asking here is:  can we actually ‘teach’ writing to students in a writing centre or writing course with whom we may and may not share disciplinary backgrounds? Whose job is this anyway?

In the Writing Centre we don’t ‘teach’ writing didactically or from a position of being experts with knowledge that we will fill empty student heads and pens with. We  advise, guide, support, converse with, prompt… but perhaps we do teach in a more gentle way, in the sense that there are things students are not sure of, or don’t know, that we help them with in our tutorials, like how to approach a literature review, or how to write a comprehensive introduction. Ideally, writing courses should also be more workshop-based rather than pitched as lectures. We learn to write by writing, and being given feedback we can use to keep working and improving, not by being told what good writing is. So, in some ways an answer would be, ‘yes, we can teach students some of the aspects of academic writing’. But we are all too aware that there are limits to what we can do in a writing centre or literacy course that sits outside of the disciplines students are writing in and for.  We cannot teach or advise on the subtleties of writing and knowing in their disciplines if we do not share this discourse.

So this brings me to the second question: whose job is this, then? I think the answer is both parties – those in the disciplines and those outside of it. I have written elsewhere about the important role people with a specialist interest in academic writing and literacies can play in helping academic lecturers talk and think about the kinds of writing their students need to do, and how to make the standards, criteria and also forms and styles more learnable, and teachable. Many others have written about this too. I think it’s easy to say that all lecturers need to be teaching writing in their disciplines, but this is harder to do from the inside where you know what good writing and poor writing look like, but don’t always have the ‘language’ to talk about this with your students in ways that are helpful to them. We become so immersed in our own discourses that the things that  flummox students look like common sense to us, and it’s not easy to step away without some help from someone who sees thing differently and can help you work it all out.

Partnerships between lecturers and writing tutors or academic literacy specialists can be useful in working out ways to teach students in higher education how to adjust to new ways of thinking, talking and writing about knowledge that are particular to higher education, and to particular disciplines. We can and must teach students how to write (and read and think and speak) about what they know, along with the content knowledge itself rather than in a separate space or course, and the job is that of the lecturers primarily, with the possibility of partnerships and collaborations with writing and literacy specialists. It’s a job for all who take student learning, access, inclusion and social justice in education seriously.

*This post first appeared on The Writing Centre @ UWC (uwcwritingcentre.wordpress.com).

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sherranclarence

I work with an amazing and diverse group of people who are passionate about teaching, learning, writing, thinking and rethinking, and making a difference in higher education in South Africa.

4 thoughts on “Can we teach academic writing (and whose job is it anyway?)”

  1. Great post! I work on the service side of a post-secondary institution, and I agree with everything mentioned in this article. I think your last article brought up a very important topic: building/enhancing the partnership between faculty (professors) and services (student development center, writing center etc..). It is vital that faculty are aware the of services available to them (and to their students) within the institution. It takes a strong collaboration between faculty and staff to manage and improve a student’s writing.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree with the point about needing strong collaboration between faculty and service providers in order to help students improve their writing. I teach physiotherapy but spend a lot of time of time giving feedback to students on the technical aspects of their writing, rather than focusing my input on the profession-specific details.

    My concern is that if I don’t integrate the “writing” feedback immediately, I doubt that my students will make the effort to go to the Writing Centre. I’m trying to figure out how to show them that there is value in writing (and speaking) well but they don’t always buy into it. Their immediate response is always that they’re there to learn about physiotherapy, not English. Now that I see it written like that, I feel sad.

  3. Hi there great blog! Does running a blog similar to this
    require a lot of work? I have no understanding of computer programming
    but I was hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyway, if you have any
    suggestions or tips for new blog owners please share. I know this is off topic however I
    just had to ask. Cheers!

    1. Hi there. Thanks for the feedback :). Running a blog can be a lot of work – you need to post as regularly as possible so as to hold your readers’ interest, and that can be a challenge (finding things to write about and balancing writing with everything else you have to do). We have some posts in our archives about blogging that may be helpful. We can say, though, that working with WordPress or Google’s blogger, both free blogging ‘tools’ online, is really easy and a lot of fun too. Best of luck!

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