Monday, 15 April 2013

The Real and the Ideal: do we have a ‘normative’ sense of writing tutorials?

In this post we want to reflect on the kinds of things we value in our approaches to student writing tutorials, and how these ‘normative’ kinds of judgements might shape the way we talk to students, and the way students tend to respond.

Often, there is, at least initially, a kind of ‘clash’ between our goals for the writing tutorial and the goals of the students. In some ways, this can most basically be described as a clash between a ‘process-oriented’ approach and a ‘product-oriented approach’ to academic writing. We will try to unpack this while trying to avoid essentialising these issues. 
To start with the product-oriented approach to writing that many students adopt (and that many lecturers adopt too): this approach is what it sounds like, really. Many students come to the Writing Centre tasked with producing a piece of academic writing, in a certain form and following certain guidelines or rules, many of which they do not fully understand at undergraduate level, and which are often tacit. Most students at undergraduate level that we tutor are very focused on that product, on getting it written as quickly and painlessly as possible and on getting the best possible mark they can. They seldom (at least at the start of coming to the Centre) see themselves as beginning a process-oriented approach to writing, where their own personal and academic growth is a focus, and where the product is one of a series of products that link together to create a sense of forward motion, personal growth, knowledge building and confidence-building. This process-oriented approach may be valued in the university in some corners and places, like Writing Centres, academic-development-type courses and with certain lecturers and tutors. But on the whole, the approach to writing, learning and assessment in higher education globally is dominated by a focus on the product, and often the person producing it is overlooked or under-considered. We in the Writing Centre take issue with this, because this is not the approach that we value. But we need to be aware of the kinds of concerns a focus on the product creates for students about academic writing, so that we can understand our own approaches to academic writing and our methods of guiding, advising and encouraging students more reflectively and critically.

When we discussed the idea behind this blog post – a musing about whether there is something ‘normative’ about our approach to academic writing, and whether and how we might be imposing this onto writing tutorials perhaps unconsciously and what effects this might have – we started with the idea of a ‘traditional’ and a ‘non-traditional’ approach to tutoring in the university. In the sense that we are using these terms in our thinking, a ‘traditional’ tutorial places the authority in the tutor to direct the tutorial and set the agenda, and it also makes the tutor the holder of knowledge and knowing about what is under discussion. In the ‘non-’ or ‘less traditional’ approach, the power dynamics are challenged, because the tutor shares the agenda-setting and authority over directing the discussion with the student, and both the tutor and student have knowledge that is included and drawn on in the discussion – the students’ knowledge about the assignment topic is actively sought because writing tutors do not have subject-specific knowledge for every assignment that they need to assist students with. We find, though, that the dominant approach according to students is the more traditional approach, and that when students are invited to work with the peer writing tutors differently they tend to initially find this disconcerting or challenging. Many of them would like us to give them yes and no answers and tell them what to write and how to write it so that they can complete their product. Many students do eventually enjoy the different way of working when they get used to it, but it is initially tricky to get many students to open up and start talking and take on some of that authority and confidence in their ideas and their writing. This leads us to wonder what we are valuing in our approach over the alternative, and why we insist on drawing students into discussion and conversation, rather than simply capitulating and telling them what they want to know. Are we making value judgements here about what counts as the ‘right’ way to assist students with their writing? Are we saying, tacitly, that a writing tutorial ought to go a certain way or have certain outcomes? And, if we are, how are these judgements impacting on how we manage our time with students?

In short, we think the answer is probably ‘yes’. Yes, we are making certain value judgements about what academic writing is and is not (and these are not just ours because they are informed by theory and practice in our field). We are saying that writing is a process, and that there are certain things that need to be valued in that process, like giving the student full ownership over their own writing, and giving guidance and advice that develops the student-writer’s capacity and confidence, rather than just developing single assignments. We are valuing a focus on the ‘deeper’ elements of writing, like the way the ideas are organised and the way the writer is creating coherence for the reader, as well as the use of evidence to support their claims and warrants, over a focus on the ‘polishing’ in terms of fixing typos and correcting spelling and grammatical errors (unless polishing is what is needed). We are, to an extent, making a normative kind of judgement – we ought to go about things in a certain way because of what we value, and not necessarily because we are trying to make the writing easier to read or nicer to look at. There are normative criteria that shape academic writing, and what we value taps into those as well, like how to structure an essay and how to argue academically and why we do so in certain ways, and why we don’t use exclamation marks or rhetorical questions, for example.

We do not always communicate these value judgements overtly; often this is tacit, in the way we gently guide the conversation through questions and prompts to the issues we think the student would benefit most from working on with us. We often know what we need to talk about based on the task before the students as well as our own experience as writers and tutors, so we don’t often stop and think about what might be underpinning what we are doing in those conversations.  This blog post was an attempt to do a bit of that reflection and thinking. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue too? What do your value in your writing centres, and how does this shape your encounters with students, and with other academics?

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