Monday, May 12, 2014

Academic Literacies

Thanks to a great session on student writing from Steve and Alex on Friday I have arrived late to this classic:

Lea, M.R. & Street, B.V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in higher education, 23(2), 157-172.
This article addresses the issue of student writing in higher education. It draws on the findings of an Economic and Social Research Council funded project which examined the contrasting expectations and interpretations of academic staff and students regarding undergraduate students' written assignments. It is suggested that the implicit models that have generally been used to understand student writing do not adequately take account of the importance of issues of identity and the institutional relationships of power and authority that surround, and are embedded within, diverse student writing practices across the university. A contrasting and therefore complementary perspective is used to present debates about 'good' and 'poor' student writing. The article outlines an 'academic literacies' framework which can take account of the conflicting and contested nature of writing practices, and may therefore be more valuable for understanding student writing in today's higher education than traditional models and approaches.

Models of student writing in higher education

I'm currently wrestling with digital literacies, and Lea and Street's landmark paper on academic literacies helps:
One of the main purposes of the research has been to move away from a skills-based, deficit model of student writing and to consider the complexity of writing practices that are taking place at degree level in universities. As a starting point, the research adopts the concept of academic literacies as a framework for understanding university writing practices.

academic literacies ... sees literacies as social practices, in the way we have suggested. It views student writing and learning as issues at the level of epistemology and identities rather than skill or socialisation.

Even though staff generally had a clear belief in these concepts as crucial to their understanding of what constituted a successful piece of writing, there was less certainty when it came to describing what underlay a well-argued or well-structured piece of student work. More commonly, staff were able to identify when a student had been successful, but could not describe how a particular piece of writing 'lacked' structure. We suggest that, in practice, what makes a piece of student writing 'appropriate' has more to do with issues of epistemology than with the surface features of form to which staff often have recourse when describing their students' writing.

As another lecturer put it: 'I know a good essay when I see it but I cannot describe how to write it'. This lends credence to the idea that elements of successful student writing are in essence related to particular ways of constructing the world and not to a set of generic writing skills as the study skills model would suggest. Successful university lecturers are likely to have spent many years developing acceptable ways of constructing their own knowledge through their own writing practices in a variety of disciplinary contexts.

One useful way of examining the relationships surrounding texts may be to start by examining the feedback that staff give to students as a genre. By examining some of the genres of students' written work and the genre of staff feedback on it we may be able to make more sense of the complex ways in which staff and students construct appropriate ways of knowing and reproduce appropriate forms of disciplinary and subject knowledge. There is a dynamic within the feedback genre, for instance, which works both to construct academic knowledge and to maintain relationships of power and authority between novice student and experienced academic. Assumptions about what constitutes valid knowledge may be inferred by analysing feedback but frequently such assumptions remain implicit...

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