The empathy and dynamism of non-academic discourse

Looking back, I appear to have enjoyed the first chapter of Hyland’s Academic Discourse very much (honeymood period of the EdD?) I enjoyed chewing over what Hyland’s ideas meant for my own academic practice – in particular, the way I use blogs with my students and for my own learning, and whether there was a conflict between my own practices and the purpose and intentions of more traditional academic discourse. I also mentioned that – while I was surprised, looking back, at the apparent eloquence of my earlier papers – I could see there were certain elements that were missing. After the second workshop day, where we looked in more detail at ‘moves’ in academic writing, I am beginning to recognise specifics. I need to return to this in my next post, when I plan to go over the workshop activities and resources and attempt some consolidation.

In discussing the Journal of Pragmatics paper on Authorial Identity, I felt more skeptical of Hyland’s conclusions; a link was made between discomfort with individualistic identity and L2 students in general, whereas I didn’t feel the quotes used in the analysis demonstrated evidence of this – many implied their discomfort was linked to being a novice on the periphery of a scientific community. Some implied a link with Chinese culture in particular. It was fun to chew over though, and for me, the most useful part was Ivanic’s three selves – the autobiographical, discoursal and authorial self.

Now for some new stuff:
Hyland, K. (2009) Academic Discourse: English in a Global Discourse. London: Continuum. Chapter 6: Student Discourse

…this really did hit home. Several weeks ago, by way of ‘getting in the mood’, I wrote a very ranty introduction to my RRW1 assignment where I highlighted my frustration that our understanding of research paradigms was to be assessed through an academic essay. It’s not that I lacked confidence in my ability to write. It’s because I run an initial teacher training programme for Art and design teachers and I’ve become very passionate about assessment methods that are inclusive of the diverse groups I teach, and aligned to the real world that teachers find themselves in.

While Hyland describes academic assessment as measuring both understanding of content and control of literacies, I have increasingly left the latter more open to interpretation and preference on my own courses. These days it is possible to engage with Learning & Teaching theory – and apply it to one’s own practice – through many different routes, including accessible handbooks and various toolkits created and/or curated by organisations such as the HEA and the JISC – even Twitter and Youtube. Personally, I appreciate the added depth of critical understanding that you get from exploring a range of academic literature (that should be obvious from this blog), but my job as I see it is to get teachers to start thinking about learning and teaching, to network, find different ways of doing things, try out new stuff and share what they are doing with other teachers.

Some of my students are already seasoned academics, in which case they tend to engage with more challenging literature. Many are not – some don’t have a first degree. Many have dyslexia. I feel that too strong an emphasis on traditional academic literacies on my course in the past resulted in students concentrating on using what they perceive to be ‘correct academic language’ and often missing the point. The course has evolved to place sharing, informal discussion, observation and feedback in the foreground, and academic reading and writing on an accessible sliding scale. The message is: ‘if you find reading academic texts virtually impossible, and have no intention or desire to publish pedagogic research, that’s ok, you can still do well on this course. It’s about teaching, not reading and writing.’

Being pretty immersed in ┬áthis whole philosophy at UAL, at first I approached the RRW1 assignment with the mindset that its purpose was to assess my understanding of research paradigms. And of course I felt that the best way of assessing that would be to examine the learning process evidenced on my blog. That’s how I assess my students’ understanding of learning and teaching theories (actually I don’t – they do – their work is graded through peer and self assessment). But I’m not a total maverick. After some false starts, my obedient streak kicked in and I even ended up removing all the contractions, the images, allusions to future reading and various ranty tangents before submitting the final, sterilised version. In making these changes I felt that I had indeed compromised concreteness, empathy and dynamism in favour of abstraction and incongruence.

So… Hyland’s description of student resistance towards the use of academic discourse resonated with me. I could hear myself in the quotes he used, and this surprised me, given that I’ve been studying at postgraduate level pretty much non-stop for the past few years. I then realised what had triggered my fairly recent passion for making the ITT course more accessible; it was, of course, the findings from my MA dissertation.

Reading Hyland – and appreciating again the clarity and accessibility of his own writing – I found myself wavering between rebellion and the pull of indoctrination. The students alluded to and quoted in Chapter 6 – undergraduates writing essays and giving presentations, postgraduates with their theses – all will become more comfortable with and skilled in the use of academic discourse by the time they graduate. They will make their peace with it, and when it is their turn to tutor and supervise others, they too will encourage and demand adherence to the rules of academia. Inertia is inevitable because none of us wants to risk dismantling the podium we stand upon.

Interestingly, Hyland seems somewhat more expectant that times are a-changing, while at the same time presenting watertight arguments for the status quo that I completely agree with; for example, the foregrounding of the decisions and actions of scientists over findings and wider concerns (in oral presentations to peers). Hyland points out that a doctoral thesis is an incredibly high-stakes form of assessment and the risks of failure are too great to permit rapid innovation; while change has been apparent in the more ready acceptance of subjectivist epistemologies and the validity of personal experience, experimentation with the genre of the doctoral thesis itself has generally been unsuccessful.

So – it’s not that I disagree with Hyland; on the contrary, I think he makes the clearest case I have seen in favour of academic discourse; what it is and why it exists. It’s that I also have a passion for non-academic discourse; I feel it is the only way I can truly, accurately and legitimately articulate what I don’t understand; what I find challenging, and where my uncertainties lie. For some reason I am compelled to articulate these things. Hyland does talk about ‘multiple literacies’; the ability to switch practices between one setting and another, and acknowledges that writing and reading are not homogenous skills. I would be really interested to find out Hyland’s view of the assessment methods I use for my own students, and generally on informal, reflective blogging as academic discourse.

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