Monthly Archives: November 2018

Simple Things

A student comes to see me. He has received a grade on a three-page assignment that he is not satisfied with. It’s not my class, of course, so it’s not my grade, and he’s not here to complain. I’m just the writing consultant, and my job is to help him figure out what he could do better next time. I don’t have to explain the grade, just propose solutions going forward. This turns out to be quite easy.

He tells me that he’s aware that this wasn’t his best work. He didn’t think he had enough time to do the assignment or was given enough space. (The class had been given one week to write three pages analyzing an assigned case.) He was also unclear about the essay form. (They had been instructed to write what was essentially a five-paragraph essay, with the stipulation that one paragraph had to present their theory.) He recognizes that the introduction and conclusion (the first and last paragraphs) could probably use some fleshing out.

In other words, he had already done my work for me. I tell him to set aside three hours over the next few days, in half-hour sessions. In each of the first five sessions, he simply has to rewrite one of the paragraphs of the essay he submitted. Make sure it’s at least six sentences long, I tell him, and at most two hundred words. The day before, make sure you identify the key sentence; then, when you’re writing, make sure that you stay on task. In the last session, read the whole thing out loud a few times and fix what you can. This will show you what is possible within the space you were given. It will also show you what one week + three hours can do. Don’t tell me you couldn’t have done those three hours of work before you submitted. (I don’t say this, of course. It’s in my voice. In my eyes. I think he understands.)

After you’ve done the work, I tell him, we can meet again and look at the new paragraphs. Then we can decide what you have to work on from here, or whether you should just keep writing more paragraphs, about more theories, and more cases. One moment at a time. Keep it simple. Okay, he says. Thanks … I guess.

PS. I lack the comic ability of the late, great Scott Eric Kaufman. Here’s a post on the same theme, just funnier.

Literacy for Academic Purposes

I spent Saturday at the University of Essex attending the BALEAP/ALDinHE Joint One-day Conference (PIM) on Academic Literacies and EAP. It was an excellent conference and I have much to process in the weeks to come. (It was a good week on this score. Just before I left, I had my abstract for the BALEAP Conference in April accepted.) It was great to talk to others who are trying to help students master the art of academic writing and I’ll probably be writing some posts in the future about individual sessions or inspired by the conversations I got to have in the breaks. In this post I want to work through one particular thought that is likely to stick with me.

The conference closed with a panel discussion on the question ” Academic Literacies and EAP: Same or different?” during which a number of very interesting issues were raised. For example, it was pointed out that the Academic Literacies / EAP (English for Academic Purposes) distinction doesn’t map easily onto the Learning Development / EAP distinction, and this had something (though not everything) to with differences in professional background and institutional setting of the different practitioners. Someone else asked when we’d be able to do away with the term “international” to denote the mysterious, foreign “other” of university students in general. We even got into the question of whether academic writing practices are best seen as ways of reproducing or redistributing power through education. All in all, very stimulating stuff.

It seems to me that a great deal of common ground can be found if we think seriously about what we mean by “academic” and, perhaps, challenge a presumption that we, and our stakeholders, often make, perhaps unconsciously. When we talk about academic literacy, and English for academic purposes, we are often using that word to indicate the peculiar predicament of the student. As AL/LD/EAP practitioners, we are helping students to “meet their learning objectives” (often a euphemism simply for doing their assignments). From the point of view of the teaching programs, we are delivering better students, we are imparting “study skills”. The allure of the “deficit model” stems from this presumption, which construes the university as an exotic location with unfamiliar customs and standards. The more “foreign” the student, the more understandable it is that they would need various kinds of pre-sessional and in-sessional support in order to participate fully in the university experience.

But this makes “academic” skills something we need mainly in order to get through school. I makes them something that applies up to the day you graduate, after which you can forget them and use the knowledge that those skills merely helped you to acquire. I think this is the unfortunate consequence of favoring “ideological” over “autonomous” models of literacy, even when we do so, as Mary Lea and Brian Street suggest, to get beyond the “study skills model” of academy literacy. After all, the ideological situation of a student can be specified — and the situations of students in different disciplines and at different levels can even be differentiated. By thinking of “academia” as an ideological setting we position AL/LD/EAP as an ideological function and there’s a short road from this to being the mere service provider that I heard some participants distancing themselves from. The alternative, I’d propose, is to think of ourselves simply as educators (not ideologues).

(I’ve previously reflected on this question in terms of the usefulness of the metaphors of research as a “second language” or seeing our students as a members of a “foreign culture”.)

My suggestion is to think of academic literacy as an autonomous competence that is imparted (along with discipline-specific knowledge) by a university education. I am not sure that we’re doing anyone any favors by pluralizing literacy here, however. Though I understand the arguments for “academic literacies“, specific to disciplines and subjects, it seems to me that “being an academic” involves membership in a diverse but ultimately unified community.  Such membership has privileges for the individual and the existence of the community has value for the society as whole. When I defend the autonomy of literacy practices I do so because I think being literate, and, by extension, academically literate, makes people’s lives better and the existence of literate people makes life as such better. This is not a slight against those who lack such literacy: I also think musical ability makes people’s lives better and I am very appreciative of the existence of people who have this ability even if I don’t.

I need to end this post. The thought I’m getting to is that perhaps a number of apparently arbitrary features of our AL/LD/EAP practices, and perhaps some those that make us feel like members of different “tribes”, might be re-imagined as integral to our work if we think of “academic” skills as valuable in themselves.

Think, for example, of why we are so focused on English language competence. Is this just because we are the Hegemon? Could we not instead say that academia is an international endeavor that has, for a number of well-known historical reasons, settled on English as its common tongue and that English language competence is therefore simply part of academic literacy? To take this a step further: could we not say that writing clear, coherent prose paragraphs, in the familiar “dominant” essay form, is a valuable skill that connects the writer to other knowledgeable people through recognized conventions that facilitate communication and criticism. Finally, could we not argue that a university education gives the student the skills needed to read and write in the contexts that shape the knowledge we have as a culture? That is, academic literacy is simply the competence we need to participate in what was once called “the knowledge society”. This begins at university but does not end there.

I want to make it clear that, as in my example of musical ability, academic literacy, and indeed general literacy, does not have to be a condition of human dignity. In fact, that particular ideological function should be thoroughly critiqued. But I do think that we AL/LD/EAP practitioners can reasonably claim to be doing much more than help people get through school. Academic literacy is not the student’s predicament; it is the scholar’s competence. The individual and the society both benefit from its reproduction, i.e., its transmission to future generations through education. And in that sense, in fact, I don’t mind being a “handmaiden to the sciences”.

Readers, Bureaucrats and the Police*

“I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Michel Foucault

In the old days, before there were journals, scientists would write letters to each other about their results. These would then be circulated and (if I recall my history of science correctly) the readers would add their own comments, sometimes the results of their own attempts to replicate those in the original letter. There was very little question back then about who your peers were.

Today we have too many peers to know exactly who we’re writing for, and even who we are. But that does not mean we can’t identify some of our readers concretely. I think too many academic writers see the journal literature as a completely anonymous authority, a faceless bureaucracy that you somehow have to force or fool into accepting your work.

In order to change this image of the journals, keep that old-fashioned circulation of letters in mind. As your research progresses, make a conscious effort to imagine your readers. Who might be interested in the results you are producing? Name these people, and learn something about them. Where do they work? Where do they publish? And don’t just imagine commmunicating with them. Write them emails. Seek them out at conferences. Arrange to visit their institutions.

Putting faces on your readership is a way of taking ownership of your writing. After all, it also requires imagining your own face on it. Publishing—which is to say, making your ideas public—is a way of communicating with other researchers. It is not just an exam you pass to impress your university administrators and further your career.

Much as I admire Foucault, I think his resentment (even ressentiment?) of academic writing is an unnecessary affectation. Why should sincere researchers, striving, shoulder to shoulder, in the pursuit of knowledge, leave anything to the police and the bureaucrats? We should insist on letting only our peers evaluate our “papers” (admittedly in another sense), i.e., those with whom we also sometimes speak face-to-face. It is their “morality” we should engage with when we write.


*This is an old post from my retired blog.

Tools, Materials, and Skills

When I talk about the “inframethodology” of the “craft of research” I’m trying to draw attention to aspects of the work that are much more obvious in skilled trades, i.e., in the work of craftsmen, artisans. Carpenters and electricians practice very tangible crafts and their competence is explicitly tied to a set of tools and a class of materials. They are also matter-of-factly “professionals” about their work: they have a job to do and must do it within clear limitations; they have to “deliver” something of particular quality by a particular date. All of these features of craftsmanship have analogues in academic work, though we sometimes forget it.

It’s something I spend a lot of my time talking to students about. They are often mystified by the competence we are trying to get them to acquire, especially when it comes to their assignments. They don’t know what they are supposed to do or when they have done it right. This, naturally, makes it very difficult for them to learn.

The metaphor I like to use is that of a joiner’s apprentice learning how to make a table. Imagine the master putting a pile of wood before the student and a box of tools. “Make an 80 x 120 cm dining room table,” she says. “Use only this wood and these tools. You have three hours.” Those are obviously not ideal conditions. But solving this problem will force the student to make decisions and the wisdom of these decisions will reveal his competence. There’s also some knowledge involved since the height of a dining room table is a matter of convention (76 cm, I’m told) and the master apparently assumes the student knows this. All the student can do now is get to work and build the best table he knows how. Future lessons can proceed from there.

This exercise is a lot like giving a student three hours to write a three-page essay on the basis of a case framed by a specific theory. The student is being asked to make a conventionally defined thing out of a given set of materials using a specific set of tools. The teacher has presumably chosen the materials and the tools with the course’s learning objectives in mind. In fact, the task is set up to make it easy for the teacher to determine whether the students have learned what the teacher has tried to teach them. The teacher is perhaps expecting something like a five-paragraph essay: a clear line of argument that can be read in about five minutes; five claims that are supported, elaborated or defended as needed.

Compare the master joiner who is faced with the task of evaluating the table. This would require little more than a quick visual inspection, perhaps a few measurements (though the master could no doubt easily “eyeball” the dimensions), and a bit of “stress testing”. The master might pick the table up and put it down again, jostling it back and forth a little, perhaps sitting on it. There is no mystery about what a good dining room table is. The trick here is to make sure the student didn’t just find one or get a 3D printer to make one. By specifying what tools and materials to use, the master has set a problem that constitutes a meaningful test of skill. The student must select the best materials and the best tools for the job.

Mastery here is revealed not just in a facility with the tools but in a sensitivity to the quality of the materials provided. Which pieces of wood should be used and which should be left out? Which should be used for the tabletop and which should be used for the legs? Which hammer is right for one task and which saw is right for another? In some cases, the time constraint plays into these decisions. The best tool for a three-hour table may not be the best for a table you have the whole week to make. Etc.

I think we overthink the difficulty of academic writing sometimes. I certainly think we overthink the individual assignment. We expect too much of it, in one sense, but we are also satisfied with an output that is too imprecise an indication of skill. It doesn’t indicate any “particular set of skills,” we might say, to quote that famous movie. It doesn’t allow us to measure competence very exactly. As a result, I’m sure students work way too hard on their assignments too.

In fact, they work too hard on their assignments and not smartly enough on their studies. They should recognize that they are training their facility and sensitivity. They should take a small problem and solve it well every day. They should become familiar with how the tools feel in their hands, how the materials respond to their attempts to work them into shape. Slow and steady does it. Then, when the exam question is assigned, they should make some decisions and get to work, knowing exactly what they’ve been asked to do and how best to demonstrate that they can.

The Craft Beneath the Discourse

In my last post, I invoked Heidegger’s distinction between the logical and the existential conceptions of science. Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time, where he distinguishes between science as “an interconnection of true propositions” and science as a “mode of Being-in-the-world” that discovers truths (H. 357). He is interested in the ontological conditions of “the theoretical attitude”, we might say.

But he emphasizes that it is not merely the opposite of a “practical” attitude. Science (“theoretical exploration”) is not a matter of “hold[ing] back from any kind of manipulation”. On the contrary, Heidegger says, science requires a great deal of practical activity: setting up experiments in physics, preparing slides for observation through the microscope, digging up artifacts for archaeological research. Here, already in 1927, Heidegger is heralding the emergence of what we today call “science studies”, i.e., the interdisciplinary study of science as variety of social and material practices. These practices are of great interest to me as an “inframethodologist”.

Writing plays an important role in them. “Even the ‘most abstract’ way of working out problems and establishing what has been obtained, one manipulates equipment for writing, for example” (H. 358, my emphasis). In fact, Heidegger defined human existence by rereading Aristotle’s characterization of human beings as “rational animals” as “that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse” (H. 25). In this sense, then, Foucault’s early work on “discursive formations” can also be considered an “existential” analysis of science, as well as an important part of the transition from the philosophy of science to science studies.

While writing is not the only practical aspect of modern research, it may be the most straightforwardly “existential”, as the slogan “publish or perish” reminds us. Indeed, Heidegger was sometimes uncannily prescient. In “The Age of the World Picture”, from 1938, he describes what might be called “the modern condition” (to play on the title Lyotard’s famous book), in which he sees a shift away from “scholarship” and towards “research”:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (QT, p. 125)

I think that, today, we all recognize ourselves at least partly in this description.

At the heart of Foucault’s theory of discourse — his “archaeology” of the human sciences — is something he called the Archive, which resonates nicely with the passage I just quoted from Heidegger above:

[The archive situates] a practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its freedom: between traditions and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.(AK, p. 130)

This is why I read Foucault’s Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge as detailed empirical and theoretical elaborations of Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture”. Both thinkers were trying to show how “modern” or “classical” representation was contingent on historical processes, and that history appeared to be moving on. The “postmodern condition” is, perhaps, precisely expressed in this image of an archive, operating somewhere between Bolzano’s book of “the totality of all human knowledge” and Borges’s famous “Library of Babel”. It is the craft of making “statements” to be collected in this archive that I’m interested in.