Hyland, K. (2009) Chapter 1: Points of Departure

Book cover imageThis was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Not only was it nice to read something so well-written, but it was also fun to revisit some of the ideas I started to engage with when I first started blogging – e.g. the inextricable bond between thought and language – and to take them further and relate them to my current practice as a teacher and doctoral student.

Essentially this chapter presents academic discourse as the affective and behavioural qualities that are shared, accepted and valued by the academic community. These include the way we speak, write, interact, and so on. What is most interesting to me on coming back to my notes after a couple of days away is the idea of academic discourse as a way of thinking, but I’ve already got quite a lot to put into words get down without grappling with that particular creature… all in good time…

My own learning journey towards becoming a member of the academic community included my undergraduate degree, a brief career in educational publishing and a couple of years in HE administration. Then I set out on my learning technology/educational development/teacher education career path and almost immediately began to present at conferences and publish papers (like this one). I don’t recall struggling with the discourse at the time. In fact, revisiting them is somewhat disturbing as the 30 year old me seems a lot more eloquent than the present day version. I suspect this was/is partly to do with naïvety. I can already see there are certain elements of academic discourse that didn’t really figure in my work or my writing; not so much because I wasn’t aware of them; more because I didn’t appreciate their full purpose.

A particularly interesting thing for me about this chapter is that – although it was published only four years ago – it makes no mention of the internet and related new forms of publication (e.g. blogs), and how they (along with cultural diversity and the dominance of the English language, etc.) may be changing the landscape of academic discourse. Hyland has maintained a very traditional perspective on how knowledge is created and academic identities are formed, which is quite different to the dominant view among those working in learning technologies. I found it very persuasive (I’m a sucker for a good writer), and began to really question my personal established learning and teaching practices. Is it possible that I’m undermining not just my own reputation as an academic but also academia itself by exposing my learning process to the world? Hyland points out that [traditional] academic discourse is necessary not merely to help other academics have confidence in our ideas, but also to satisfy the the general population – who support us in our advancement of global knowledge – and convince them that our findings are relevant and useful. I don’t feel any personal shame in being a perpetual learner – I genuinely believe that openly writing down my thoughts for a potential audience (rarely an actual one) helps my learning process – it enables me to record, organise and revisit my reflections, and I expect my academic peers to realise that… but I hadn’t considered these wider implications of my actions.

In these informal, self-published forms of academic writing, the development and publication process takes place in the open. Everything gets published at the outset. A few interested parties might leave feedback or start a dialogue. Earlier posts are referred back to when ideas reemerge and are refined. Throughout the process the author retains ownership, and the content is available for anyone to access without subscription or membership of an academic institution. There are many contrasts we can make between this and traditional peer-reviewed publication. I imagine the reasons academics have for blogging are pretty diverse. My blogs are part-sandpit, part-filofax, but many academics – e.g. Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist and keen cyclist, and Professor David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist, use theirs as a place where they can communicate not only their ideas, but also their emotions, opinions and personal agenda – and this is all accessible (in both real and linguistic terms) to the general public. Given that the academic community defines and judges us by our control of academic discourse, does this kind of ‘popular’ writing harm or boost our credibility? Among whom?

It’s not just my own blogging practices that this chapter gave me food for thought on, but also those of my students. The ‘key forms of knowledge transfer’ Hyland describes (lectures, seminars and textbooks) bear little resemblance to the curriculum on the unit I am teaching at the moment. I host a 40 minute online seminar to introduce each topic – but these are optional, and relatively new additions to the course (their purpose is just as much to encourage synchronous student contact as to inform). I provide a choice of source material (all available online) for each topic on a very deliberate sliding scale of linguistic accessibility; from research papers and journal articles to information booklets, webpages, diagrams and videos. They are asked to choose one of these items – or something else entirely (provided it’s relevant to the topic) – and respond to it in some way on their blog (here’s an example). I give some suggestions for how they might respond, including non-text ideas such as a sketch or video, but encourage them to be as creative as they like. They spend the first week of each fortnight constructing their own response and the second actively engaging with the responses from their peers (in groups of four). So, this chapter raised the following question for me: Is my curriculum an effective induction into academic discourse? And does this matter?

At the moment, I’m happy to argue that it’s as good an induction into academic discourse as it needs to be. The primary aim of the course is to produce reflective practitioners who can relate and apply pedagogic theory to teaching practice – with the emphasis very much on the practice. If the theory isn’t accessible, many participants won’t even leave their starting blocks, let alone clear the first hurdle. While I agree that being able to critically evaluate academic research outputs for oneself is important, I think debating and reflecting upon the questions they raise should take precedence. Is this dumbing down? Michael Gove would probably say yes. But then he also believes that great teachers are born, not made. I have 63 great teachers on my course. They are creative, enthusiastic, kind and hard-working. They are also academically diverse:

  • In Art & Design you tend to get a higher proportion of students AND teachers with dyslexia than you do in other subject areas.
  • At UAL the teaching course I lead is not a probationary requirement but a compulsory programme for all teaching staff; therefore participants may be returning to HE after a long gap.
  • A wide range of academic roles and backgrounds are represented, including programme directors, studio technicians, research fellows and part-time lecturers.

These are some of the reasons why I’ve developed a flexible, stepped approach to academic reading, writing and thinking for my students. They are grouped with a deliberate mix of roles, with the intention that the discussion and feedback stage will scaffold their engagement with a wider range of academic sources and formats via their peers’ research and responses. What I’ve noticed already (we’re only on week three) is that people aren’t all just going for the ‘easier’ sources; they are trying to push themselves and take a deep approach to their learning – trying the longer articles (not necessarily finishing them, but that’s ok), often picking two sources from the list when I’ve said they only need to look at one, etc..

I guess I believe that thinking, writing and talking like an academic isn’t something that happens overnight, and if it’s forced too early then it will feel (and maybe sound) false or pretentious. Interestingly, the conventions of academic discourse that Hyland lists – being explicit about structure/purpose, cautious when making claims, clear in making connections, generally coherent – are the exact things we focus on when giving feedback on the written reflective commentary at the end of the unit, and I do think it’s possible to follow these conventions while maintaining a personal, reflective and informal voice.

There were a couple more points in the chapter that I’d like to note. One was about Social Constructionism (is this the same as social constructIVism?) and its similarities with the Connectivist perspective described by George Siemens as ‘a Learning Theory for the Digital Age‘. The notion of academic knowledge as existing not ‘out there’ but within a community resonates with Siemens’ perspective of knowledge as ‘resting in the diversity of opinions’. I also found the James Watson reference interesting (about competitiveness). I met James Watson once. A superb speaker and an outrageous misogynist…



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One Response to Hyland, K. (2009) Chapter 1: Points of Departure

  1. Pingback: The empathy and dynamism of non-academic discourse | Doctored

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