As a great proponent of Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles, I led a staff development session a few weeks back where my colleagues and I took part in an ARC session having read Ursula Wingate’s “Using Academic Literacies and genre-based models for academic writing instruction: A ‘literacy’ journey”.
Wingate’s article offers a description of three intiatives she implemented at King’s College London with the aim of not only helping students (both native speakers and non-native speakers) develop their academic writing, but to embed their learning within their disciplines as varied as they may be. These initiatives were a conscious and timely move away from study skills based provision prevalent in many instituions offering EAP.
Current writing development provision is, Wingate rightly points out, simply not fit for purpose. At the root of this is the division of the student body. Students are predominantly divided by language proficiency. Native speakers gain ‘remedial’ support from study skills centres within universities, while non-native speakers are often dealt with in EAP language centres. One main criticism of this cited by Wingate is Mitchell and Evison’s (2006), which argues that this division results in writing development that is divorced (devoid?) of thinking. Wingate also believes that to divide students in this way is to ignore that fact that both native and non-native speakers are novices when it comes to academic writing (arguably though this depends on their level of study).
Wingate begins by offering some historical background to the two approaches that most informed the three waves of writing development course discussed in this article: namely the genre-based approach and Academic Literacies. Interestingly, Wingate takes the opportunity here to set the UK against the US. While the UK has been the site of much academic writing research, Wingate argues that there has been no significant shift in our approach to writing development despite Lea and Street’s seminal work on Academic Literacies in 1998. Wingate states that this is “partly due to the fact that no writing pedagogy has been developed by Academic Literacies” (p.27). Some institutions (interestingly only London based campuses are cited here) are moving forward, albeit with an American model of Writing in the Disciplines. This is made possible because the Writing in the Disciplines model provides a pragmatic pedagogy that is clear to implement (possibly because this has been around some 20 years previous to the work on Academic Literacies). The premise is simple: writing development is embedded within the discipline, with responsibility for students’ development lying with subject specialists. The former premise being what Wingate is striving for.
Wingate explores the two approaches chosen to inform the writing initiatives the article is based on in some detail. Looking at genre-based approaches first, Wingate highlights the two strands of this approach – the Swalsian “genre as a specific type of communicative event with a specific communicative purpose which is recognised by the specific discourse community” (p. 27), and the Sydney School for whom text also has a social context, but also sees genre “as a ‘staged, goal-oriented social process’ (here citing Martin 1993) within a specific context of culture” (p.28). In classes these approaches differ slightly in that in the Swalsian tradition, the text analysis is done by ‘experts’ and then the identified feaures of a given genre are taught to students. For the Sydney School, text analysis is informed by Systemic Functional Linguistics and as such the analysis is done cooperatively through modelling, jointly constructing a text and then constructing individually.
Whichever genre-based approach is used, they are unified in their focus on what Wingate identifies as the ability “to enable students to understand and control the conventions and discourses of their disciplines” (p.28). Wingate also cedes that some Critical EAP supporters (for example Benesch and Canagarajah) claim that genre-based approaches only serve to entrench students into normative practice and that genre approaches fail to allow for considerations of identity. And this is where Academic Literacies join the debate. Wingate quotes Lillis’s view that Academic Literacies exists to challenge normative practices in UK institutions, and whilst it is pragmatically lacking, Academic Literacies gets close to developing a practical application is in its shaping of students’ critical awareness at least.
Wingate then dedicates the remainder of this article to outlining the three writing development initiatives. The initiatives were to be tested in a single discipline first with the view of eventually being rolled out across the disciplines. Initiative one was ‘discipline-specific online writing support’.
Wingate’s first intiative (piloted with undergraduate Management students) was built on constructivist foundations which meant that, unlike other online writing courses that are generously peppered with “long lists of instructions, the tasks and activities in this course enabled students to find out criteria and principles by themselves” (p.29). In this course students were given materials to use to establish their own criteria for writing within their Management discipline. These materials included a published article written by departmental staff, feedback from tutors on student writing, models of good assignments, and interviews recorded with departmental staff as to what constituted acceptable writing in the Management discipline. Students on this course then apply their criteria to student essays to assess whether they are good models of writing for this dicsipline. Although faculty staff helped ‘create’ materials for this course, they had no hand in its delivery so the course became a stand alone entitity, forgotten by the department. The course became an ‘add-on’ rather than ’embedded’ provision as Wingate had hoped (p.30). In their evaluation of the course, students “ranked the text-focused components as the most useful ones” (p.30), but the aspects of the course aimed at fostering critical awareness were ranked last.
The second initiative, ’embedded writing support’, was co-delivered by Wingate and two further subject specialists. This writing support made use of the text types students had to read and write in the first year of their undergraduate Applied Linguistics course. Students were given journal articles to read and opportunities to discuss the reading and were given formative feedback (provided by the subject specialists) on their writing. In sessions (led again by subject specialists) time was allocated to the analysis of the disciplinary discourse features within the texts.
In feedback on this course students commented that they prefered student writing as models rather than journal articles as this genre was seen as an unrealistic goal and beyond their own academic writing capabilities at this stage in their studies. Again students did not value or even engage in opportunities to question the normative practices of their field. Lecturers stated that providing formative feedback was a large demand on their time, but wielded positive results in terms of improvements in student academic writing. It was this extra demand on time that meant this second initiative proved less than popular with other departments.
The final initiative Wingate details is the ‘genre-based writing instruction’. Wingate had learnt from the former initiatives that students failed to value the ability to challenge the status quo as proponents of Critical EAP or Academic Literacies do. Therefore any attempt to raise students’ critical awareness was foregone in this third iteration. The texts used on this initiative (a mix of initial face to face sessions followed by independent learning materials made available to students) were student written and exemplars of the genres students needed to replicate. “The teaching methodolgy followed genre-based literacy pedagogy in using the cycle of deconstruction, joint construction and independent construction” that Wingate attributes to Martin (p.32). Wingate offers a brief insight into how this works with an example from looking at writing introductions. Students work together to deconstruct a number of introductions from high acheiving student assignments. A number of these are annotated identifying the moves within the introductions and students are left to identify the moves present in a further introduction. Students then write their interpretations of what constitutes acceptable features of an introduction. In the ‘joint reconstruction’ cycle, students work on one introduction volnteered by a group member. To complete the cycle students then apply their new understanding of how to construct an introduction to introductions they are working on.
As this initiative was still in progess at the time Wingate wrote this article she could only surmise its success. The positives of this initiative seem to be that it does not involve subject specialists (other than in the intitial provision of materials as per initiative 1), it is inclusive as students look at models then work on their own writing to make it conform to the norms of the genre and can therefore be used by any student. It responds to what students seem more comfortable with, in terms of text type and uncritical academic practice (and in the process rendering Academic Literacies less potent).
I felt a bit saddened after reading this article. Wingate outlines three rather interesting initiatives, but I can’t help thinking that they are reworked into lesser iterations as the desired ’embeddedness’ fails to garner support from subject specialists. I have been left with an overwhelming sensation that EAP is stuck. Wingate argues that students are not ready to challenge the normative practices of their fields, and I have to say it feels like EAP is not ready either (perhaps I’m being unfair here and really mean HE). I think there is much agreement that writing development should happen within the disciplines, but when initiatives like Wingate’s ’embedded writing support’ fail to take off we are often too ready to accept defeat. In the years it takes to trial initiatives and rework them (often factoring out the time commitments of subject specialists) students are on courses receiving writing support that proffers, at best a simulacrum of writing with real purpose, at worst a meaningless patchwork of language that students fail to intrepret the pattern of for any discipline. I live in hope that as some institutions (well mine at least) create teaching pathways to promotion (as opposed to just research) that more investment, in terms of time if nothing else, will be made in the development of students’ writing. As it stands what is blocking our students’ writing is the inability to embed writing development within the discipline. We all, EAP practitioner and subject specialist alike, want to give our students the best opportunities we can. This cannot happen while we are in a state of inertia; we need to move, to evolve, to challenge the status quo and we need to do it now before we do any more students a disservice.
As an aside, the ARC session went very well. Interestingly, many colleagues wanted to know exactly what Academic Literacies is. It seems that, perhaps due to its lack of tangible classroom application, it comes across as a bit woolly. Also many were frustrated by Wingate’s ongoing journey. Teachers, it would appear, want a final destination.