Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]|
Humanities Academic Skills Unit
La Trobe University
Clinical Education and Training Centre
The University of Western Australia
The heavy teaching loads of language and academic skills (LAS) practitioners are often felt to constrain us in research and publishing. Yet, it is our teaching that generates questions worth researching, and our consultations with students that provide much of the material we need to answer these. We have access to the assignments, instructions, and curriculum materials distributed by lecturers; to the students' written texts; and to the comments tutors write on these. We are well placed to examine these and to ask the students questions about how they interpret particular writing tasks, and how they make particular decisions about purpose, content, use of sources, mechanics of language, discursive voice, and so forth. What we lack, often, is the time to take advantage of this position, and to pursue our questions in ways that academic colleagues recognise as research. This paper looks at the potential and the problems for LAS research, and argues that LAS practitioners should have confidence in our ability to produce publishable work. Our universities need to realise our potential to contribute to their research quantum, and hence must recognise the importance of LAS advisers controlling the way our work is structured, and allowing us to build time for recording and reflecting into the teaching day.
unfortunately, the same 'proofreading-shop-in-the-basement' mentality that undermines the pedagogical efforts of the writing centre hampers research as well.... Most of the people hired to run such places have neither the time, the training, nor the status to undertake any serious research (1984a, p. 444).In Britain, a comparable division of labour has produced a situation where "much of the 'high status' writing in higher education research and scholarship ... tends to come from departments of Education and Linguistics and from academics who do not have direct, institutional responsibilities for teaching writing" (Ellis & Le Court, 2002, p. 42).
The frustration of those whose responsibilities for teaching demand all their energies is shared by LAS practitioners in Australia and New Zealand. Short-term contracts are common, around a third of LAS appointments are "general" rather than "academic" staff (Chanock, East & Maxwell, 2004, p.44), and even those on academic appointments teach more contact hours than lecturers in the disciplines. In these conditions, it is hard to find the time to plan and carry out research projects, or to write them up; and opportunities for publishing are limited by the fact that we do not belong to any discipline, and there is no journal dedicated to the kind of work we do.
While all of these problems are real, we would like to sound a more hopeful note in this paper, and explore the opportunities our situation offers for particular kinds of scholarship. There is no reason for LAS practitioners to lack confidence in our ability to publish. At the same time, however, we need to be able to organise our time, and to conduct our teaching, in ways that allow us to take advantage of our opportunities. It is in our universities' interest, as well as our own, to recognise that for us, teaching and research do not compete for our attention but go on simultaneously. It is our teaching that throws up questions for research, and our teaching that provides us with answers.
For LAS practitioners, however, our teaching time is also our research time, because students' learning is the object of our study. Students bring us their writing, in the hope that we can teach them how to avoid or correct their errors; and our best chance of success lies in discovering why they are making those particular errors. There is usually a good reason for a bad word choice, a bad sentence, or a bad essay. Mina Shaughnessy (1977) showed American writing teachers how to read "basic writers'" errors as evidence of learning rather than of failure to learn, and closer to home, Ballard and Clanchy (1988), Bock (1988) and Taylor (1988) have shown how Australian students' errors are produced by their efforts to negotiate unfamiliar disciplinary cultures. Just as the faulty utterances produced by language learners - their "interlanguage" (Selinker, 1972; Kutz, 1986; Chanock, 1996) - suggest the kinds of sense they are trying to make of the target language, our students' ragged prose reveals (mis)interpretations of the literate practices of the disciplines they study.
It is this process of interpretation that provides the impetus for our research. Especially when working with students one-to-one, we are well placed to ask them questions about how they interpret particular writing tasks, and how they make particular decisions about purpose, content, use of sources, mechanics of language, discursive voice, etc. We try to discover how they learn the purposes, conventions, and cultures of their disciplines; how they choose whether, whom, or what to "ventriloquate" in their writing; what constraints they are aware of, and what freedoms. (For a particularly illuminating study of this kind, see Ivanic, 1998). What we learn, we plough back into our teaching: by talking with students about the common reasons for common problems, we help them gain control of their expression. At the same time, we are left with questions and hypotheses that generate further research.
In pursuing our questions, again, we have an advantage over researchers in the disciplines. We do not have to create artificial tasks in order to generate data. Students are already engaged in the activities we want to study, and are quite ready to tell us about them. Motivation is high, trust is already established, performance is genuine, and materials for study are abundant. We have access to the assignments, instructions, and curriculum materials distributed by lecturers; to the 'live' discourse of academic communications in lectures and seminars; to the students' written texts; and to the comments tutors write on these.
How, then, can we respond to criticisms such as Purves' suggestion that, in attempting qualitative forms of reporting such as case studies, teaching narratives and ethnographies, we often fall short of the standards that researchers ought to meet (1988, p. vii)? Can we defend the value of the "reflections on experience" (North, 1984b, p. 25) which make up so much of our publications?
We must respond in part by respecting what we know. Some of the most insightful writing in our field consists of reflection on the meaning of a few examples: remarks by students, passages from essays, tutors' comments, or assignment questions. Perhaps the most (deservedly) influential text for Australians in our field is Literacy by Degrees (Taylor et al., 1988), in which the majority of authors offer just such reflections. It is not the quantity of their evidence, but its resonance with the experiences of their readers, that is persuasive in constructing an interpretation of students' transition to university as a largely unmediated encounter with an unfamiliar culture(s) (Ballard and Clanchy, 1988); of academic literacy not as a foundation for study but as a goal towards which students move only by trial and (if all goes well, diminishing) error in writing the forms required by their disciplines (Bock, 1988); and of errors as the evidence that allows us to "diagnose [students'] conceptual or epistemic confusions" (Taylor, 1988). Other exemplary reflections on experience include Fox's book Listening to the World (1994), in which she shares what international students have told her about their experiences of study, and Matalene's 'Contrastive rhetoric: An American writing teacher in China' (1985) where she tries to understand a foreign educational culture which challenged her assumptions about teaching, learning, and writing. Pieces like these are valuable because they focus on behaviours that we recognise in our students, and offer explanations which, if we apply them to the puzzles we encounter in our teaching, help us to make sense of what we see.
yet they are asked to provide information about their activities and programs and about their students' performances and abilities to audiences that are used to information being presented in the traditions of social science research (p. vi).In these traditions, size matters; so does design. The unsystematic and ephemeral exploration of writing that takes place in one-to-one consultations with students may well be considered unsatisfactory as 'data'.
One way in which we can support our memory of discussions we have had with students is to harvest examples of the things we were discussing. This is not difficult, in that, as well as teaching and research sharing the same time in our working lives, they also share the same space. The materials that serve as evidence for our ideas are the documents students are given in their subjects, and the pieces they write for assessment. We focus on these when we teach. In order to harvest examples from them, however, we need time to examine them outside of the contact hours we spend with students, and this is why it is essential for us to be in control of the organisation of our work. If we see students on a drop-in basis, where they bring their assignments to their sessions with us and take them away again at the end of the session, we cannot copy passages to reflect upon later, and to quote, where appropriate, in our writing. However, if we ask students to leave the work with us ahead of their appointments, we are not only better prepared to discuss the work when they come in to see us, but we are also able to notice and to note examples of the patterns we think are worth investigating further. When these are more substantial than a sentence or two, we can seek the student's permission to quote them, and, if (very rarely) that is not given, dispose of the notes we have made; but we do not use the students' time with us to take the notes we need, nor do we lose the opportunity of taking them. It was in this way, for example, that Chanock collected two drafts of a student's Art History essay (with her permission) which enabled her to show how a writing consultation had shaped the student's understanding of what was needed to improve her work-in-progress (Chanock, 2002). Close textual analysis can also be done with the assigned readings on which, to some extent, students base their own writing; one such analysis enabled Chanock to develop a framework for lecturers and students to use in analysing the language features characteristic of writing for colleagues in a discipline, on the one hand, and for lay readers on the other (Chanock, 2003).
In addition to documenting what we think is significant, however, we can also go on to test our hypotheses with further research of a kind that readers recognise as more substantial, although it need not be costly of time or resources. For example, when Chanock wanted to test her suspicion that the very common marker's comment "too much description; not enough analysis" was understood in widely varying ways by the students who received it and even, perhaps, by the markers who wrote it, she asked lecturers in contrasting disciplines to complete a questionnaire about their understanding of the comment, and distribute a similar questionnaire to their students (Chanock, 2000). When she wanted to document more systematically her students' claims that school had not prepared them for the referencing requirements they encountered at university, she distributed a five-minute questionnaire in lecture classes which found that roughly a third of students had not been expected to reference direct quotations in Year 12, while a quarter had been expected to reference these in their bibliography but not in their text. For discussions of reading "in their own words", 72% had not been required to reference at all. When published, results like these may help to discredit the assumptions, common among academic staff, that plagiarism is either deliberate cheating or a practice of international students.
A different sort of research occurs when LAS practitioners harvest examples of the 'live' discourses of teaching and learning - for example, Clerehan (1996) tape-recording her consultations with students in order to tease out the "dialogic" nature of learning about writing, or Chanock (forthcoming) attending departmental seminars to record the subjects and verbs used in oral presentations for comparison with those used in writing for various audiences. Here, too, we have the advantage that what we need is close at hand and spontaneously produced in the natural course of academic interactions. At the same time, if this sort of work is to be published it must draw upon, and explicitly contribute to, the scholarly context of theoretical perspectives and methods for exploring language and learning (as, for example, Clerehan drew on Bakhtin and Chanock on Halliday, among others, in the articles above). To make use of this scholarly context, again we need time; and institutions that accommodate this need are repaid both in DEST points and a higher quality of teaching informed by the insights and intellectual tools of the global academic community.
Thus, our practice generates questions, and our reflections are tested - and complicated - by close textual analysis of written and oral texts, by focused surveys, and by dialogue with relevant scholarship. Another kind of research, which makes up a great deal of LAS advisers' publications, is "action research", in which the writer, in collaboration with colleagues who are teaching a subject, engages in a cycle of "planning, action, observation, and reflection" (Emerson et al., 2002), leading to a revision of practice aimed at improving the effectiveness of teaching. Literacy by Degrees provided a model for this in Vic Beasley's (1988) chapter on "Developing academic literacy: The Flinders experience", and the literature abounds with examples. McCarthy and Walvoord (1988, p. 86) believe that "collaborative research, undertaken to answer teachers' questions about their own and their students' practices is ... essential.... This research is based on the assumption that knowledge is gained not only through action but also for action". The immediate utility of this kind of research appeals to LAS advisers, and we are well placed to do it when discipline lecturers draw on our experience to re-think their teaching methods. Numerous conference papers each year report on action research projects, but they can also form the basis for extended and substantial studies such as doctoral dissertations and resulting publications.
One such project was Vardi's study of one lecturer's attempts to improve her third year students' writing, a project of the kind that McCarthy and Walvoord (1988) characterise as
The Focused Pair. In this model [for collaborative research] ... a writing specialist pairs with a teacher from another discipline, and together they study the writing going on in the latter's classroom .... Focused pairs, in many cases, produce not only professional growth and change but also publications (p. 80).Vardi's study arose through a disciplinary lecturer approaching Vardi with the request to help her evaluate whether or not the feedback and assessment strategies she had incorporated into her disciplinary teaching had improved her students' texts. This request ultimately resulted in a PhD study which was, for Vardi, an opportunity to contribute to knowledge in her field; and, for both Vardi and the collaborating lecturer, a method of informing good practices in teaching. The lecturer provided access to her classes, readings, handouts and, most importantly, to her students. Those students who had agreed to participate in the study gave the lecturer permission to photocopy, for analysis, all their written texts for the unit, along with the teacher written feedback they had been given. This allowed Vardi to undertake in-depth analysis of the texts, the types of feedback the students had received, how the texts changed over time, and how the changes observed related to the feedback and the assessment process. The results of the study provided insights into the characteristics of student disciplinary writing in the later undergraduate years, the nature of tertiary student writing, and strategies and feedback that are effective in promoting positive change in students' texts (Vardi, 2003).
As a result of the research process, a number of positive things happened. Firstly, the process enthused the lecturer involved who used the findings to modify her practice, keeping those strategies that worked and abandoning those that appeared to be less effective. Vardi used, and still uses, the insights gained through the study in her ongoing work with both lecturers and students. Both the researcher and the collaborating lecturer presented one of the student cases at a HERDSA conference (Bailey & Vardi, 1999), and as a result of this presentation were invited to submit a paper to an international journal (currently in publication). Further publications are also in the process of being written.
It should be clear, from this survey of the types of research LAS practitioners can do largely by drawing on the data from our day-to-day work, that teaching provides a wealth of opportunities for "reasoning why" students do what they do, and producing papers that contribute to the development of our community of practice. We can separate the 'ore' from the 'lore' of working with students by asking ourselves - and them - what is the good reason for whatever bad practice we have been asked to help them overcome.
However, we are also concerned - and increasingly so, as we establish a common ground amongst ourselves on many matters - to communicate with the discipline lecturers whose practices unwittingly generate so many of our students' confusions. For this purpose, we need to look at publications that are read by academics in the disciplines, and these may well proliferate in response to the government's new emphasis on encouraging better teaching in part by associating funding with participation in the scholarship of teaching and learning. We already have the journal Higher Education Research and Development, which is read by academic developers and university administrators as well as LAS advisers. The electronic journal UltiBase should probably be more used by LAS advisers, as it is aimed at university teachers in the disciplines as well as education professionals. Still in our region, the new journal based at the University of Wollongong, the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice [http://jutlp.uow.edu.au/], may be the kind of vehicle we need; while the International Journal of Learning [http://learningconference.publisher-site.com/] offers a venue for writers in a wide range of areas to exchange ideas about teaching, learning, and the relationships between formal education and the wider society. And for those of us who teach a high proportion of NESB students, there are journals of applied linguistics in which, if our command of theory is sufficient, we may find a home for some of our research. It is sometimes possible, as well, to publish in discipline journals, especially if we write in collaboration with a lecturer in that discipline.
The appendix to this paper lists a range of journals in which LAS practitioners have published, and more can be found on the WAC Clearinghouse website [http://wac.colostate.edu/index.cfm], including the various "across the curriculum" journals emerging out of the "writing/language/communication across the curriculum" movement in the United States.
Ballard, B. & Clanchy, J. (1988). Literacy in the university: An 'anthropological' approach. In Taylor, G., Ballard, B., Beasley, V., Bock, H., Clanchy, J. & Nightingale, P. Literacy by degrees (pp. 7-23). Milton Keynes: SHRE and Open University Press.
Beasley, V. (1988). Developing academic literacy: The Flinders experience. In Taylor, G., Ballard, B., Beasley, V., Bock, H., Clanchy, J. & Nightingale, P. Literacy by degrees (pp. 42-52). Milton Keynes: SHRE and Open University Press.
Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, syntactic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. London: Taylor and Francis.
Bock, H. (1988). Academic literacy: Starting point or goal? In Taylor, G., Ballard, B., Beasley, V., Bock, H., Clanchy, J. & Nightingale, P. Literacy by degrees (pp. 24-41). Milton Keynes: SHRE and Open University Press.
Chanock, K. (1996). The 'interdiscourse' of essays: Listening one-to-one and telling one-to-one hundred. In K. Chanock, V. Burley, & S. Davies (Eds.), What do we learn from teaching one-to-one that informs our work with larger numbers? Proceedings of the Conference at La Trobe University, 18-19 November 1996 (pp. 50-56). Melbourne: Language and Academic Skills Units of La Trobe University.
Chanock, K. (2000). Comments on essays: Do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education, 5 (1), 95-106.
Chanock, K. (2002). How a writing tutor can help when unfamiliar with the content: A case study. The WAC Journal, 13, 113-132. http://wac.colostate.edu/journal/vol13/chanock.pdf
Chanock, K. (2003). A framework for analyzing varieties of writing in a discipline. The WAC Journal, 14, 49-65. http://wac.colostate.edu/journal/vol14/chanock.pdf
Chanock, K. (Forthcoming). Investigating patterns and possibilities in an academic oral genre. Communication Education.
Chanock, K., East, J. & Maxwell, J. (2004). Academic and/or general? How the classification of LAS advisers affects us and our institutions. In K. Deller-Evans & P. Zeegers (Eds.), Refereed Proceedings of the 2003 Biannual Language and Academic Skills in Higher Education Conference, 24-25 November 2003 (pp. 43-52). Adelaide: The Student Learning Centre, Flinders University.
Clerehan, R. (1996). How does dialogic learning work? In K. Chanock, V. Burley & S. Davies (Eds.), What do we learn from teaching one-to-one that informs our work with larger numbers? Proceedings of the Conference at La Trobe University, 18-19 November, 1996 (pp. 69-81). Melbourne: Language and Academic Skills Units of La Trobe University.
Ellis, V. & Le Court, D. (2002). Literacy in context: A transatlantic conversation about the future of WAC in England. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 5(3), Special Issue on WAC in International Contexts, 28-60.
Emerson, L., MacKay, B., Funnell, K. & MacKay, M. (2002). Writing in a New Zealand tertiary context: WAC and action research. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 5(3), Special Issue on WAC in International Contexts, 110-133.
Fox, H. (1994). Listening to the world: Cultural issues in academic writing. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.
Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kutz, E. (1986). Between students' language and academic discourse: Interlanguage as middle ground. College English, 48(4), 385-396.
Matalene, C. (1985). Contrastive rhetoric: An American writing teacher in China. College English, 47 (8), 789-808.
McCarthy, L. & Walvoord, B. (1988). Models for collaborative research in writing across the curriculum. In S. McLeod (Ed.), Strengthening programs for writing across the curriculum. New Directions for teaching and learning no. 36 (pp. 77-89). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
North, S. (1984a). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46, 433-446.
North, S. (1984b). Writing center research: Testing our assumptions. In G. Olson (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp. 24-35). Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.
Purves, A. (1988). Foreword. In Lauer, M. & Asher, J., Composition research: Empirical designs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(3), 208-231.
Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford UP.
Taylor, G. (1988). The literacy of knowing: Content and form in students' English. In Taylor, G., Ballard, B., Beasley, V., Bock, H., Clanchy, J. & Nightingale, P. Literacy by degrees (pp. 53-64). Milton Keynes: SHRE and Open University Press.
Taylor, G., Ballard, B., Beasley, V., Bock, H., Clanchy, J. & Nightingale, P. (1988). Literacy by degrees. Milton Keynes: SHRE and Open University Press.
Vardi, I. (2003). Tertiary student writing, change and feedback: A negotiation of form, content and contextual demands. Unpublished PhD, The University of Western Australia, Perth, WA.
|Authors: Kate Chanock's background is in Anthropology, African History, and TESL. Before joining La Trobe University in 1987, she taught in a secondary school in Tanzania, a prison in Texas, and the Home Tutors Scheme in Melbourne. Now heading La Trobe's Humanities Academic Skills Unit, she lectures on academic reading and writing, argument and evidence, audience, voice and language; and works with individual students, at all year levels, on their writing-in-progress for the disciplines.|
Dr Kate Chanock
Humanities Academic Skills Unit, Level 4, HUM III
La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic 3086
Phone: (03) 9479 2535 Fax: (03) 9479 1700 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Iris Vardi has been involved in education for over twenty years in a wide variety of roles including teacher, lecturer, tutor, academic skills adviser, academic staff developer and educational consultant. She is passionate about education and improving teaching and learning outcomes. Her research interests lie in the areas of tertiary literacy (in particular writing development), approaches to teaching, and critical thinking.
Dr Iris Vardi
Manager, Educational Design and Research Unit
Clinical Education and Training Centre, The University of Western Australia
Mail Point M306, 35 Stirling Hwy, Crawley WA 6009
Phone: (08) 6488 8136 Fax: (08) 6488 8130 Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Chanock, K. and Vardi, I. (2005). Data: We're standing in it! In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/chanock.html
Copyright 2005 Kate Chanock and Iris Vardi. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.