Art & Science – epistemological & linguistic differences

North, S. (2005) Different values, different skills? A comparison of essay writing by students from art and science backgrounds. Studies for Higher Education, 30 (5), 517-533

So… the History of Science OU course sounds interesting…! This is quite a sensitively-written piece. The key message could have been that learners with a background in the sciences are generally more naive and less capable of being critical, forming an argument, etc… and initially it appears to be heading in that direction, but eventually concludes that the science students were not inferior in some way, but disadvantaged through taking a course that followed unfamiliar discourse conventions.

Thinking about why we have been given this piece in particular to read… for me the piece makes explicit – through comparison – what academic discourse looks like in the humanities; how a constructivist view of knowledge is – and should be – represented in our writing. It highlights discourses as incorporating attitudes and approaches as well as linguistic techniques.

So what are these specific ways in which we should be writing?

Orienting themes – this is what natural scientists call ‘dressing up with flowery language’ and what social scientists understand to be linguistic devices that specify the context of a statement. Here are three examples of different kinds of orienting themes as given in North’s article:

photo (4)

North found that textual and interpersonal themes in particular were significantly more common in the arts students’ essays. ‘Flow’ was felt to be an important quality among the arts students, and I think this relates to the use of textual themes. North highlights the absence of the writer’s voice in the science students’ essays – which would relate to the lower incidence of interpersonal themes.

Intertextuality – the writer’s own voice is one aspect of intertextuality, as is the use of citation in the resolution of different perspectives. North found more frequent use of citation in the arts students’ essays and cites Hyland (1999) in relating this to the dominant ‘shared consensus’ view of knowledge in the hard sciences and the ‘mediated & contested’ view of knowledge in soft disciplines.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of process over product in creative disciplines in earlier blog posts and I was intrigued by the differences in process revealed through the participant interviews in North’s study. I was shocked that some of the arts students made up to FOUR full revisions of their essays; the scientist in me feels that doing four times as much work for an 11% increase in grade point average is illogical, and that these students would benefit from taking an approach that was a little more strategic… or at least from planning their essays properly before they started to write them. Looking at the participant quotes, I’d be willing to bet that was what Ewan meant when he talking about ‘getting the feel of [the essay]’ before writing it in two hours.

I wondered whether there was a relationship here between deep and surface learning approaches, and whether there may be a link to be made with disciplinary difference. North cites Kuhn (1970, p167) in highlighting that science education often elides process; in which case this History of Science course may be more disruptive or subversive than it initially seems…

KnudI wonder where I would fit on the researcher’s continuum between art and science? I did Biology/Chemistry/Physics A levels, then a biology degree and then trained to be a science teacher. But after that big smack on the head on my mid-20’s I switched over to social science and the creative arts. I’m beginning to feel less frustrated and more intrigued about my own sense of identity, and I’m looking forward to reading this shiny new Knud Illeris book I bought… I expect it should give me more ideas to link up to this question of who I am and what I believe.

The funny thing is, I see a lot of what North sees as science-y writing and attitudes among my own students, even though most of them come from a creative arts background, where everything is mediated and contested. This is particularly obvious in the Teaching Development Project unit, where they have to evaluate a change in teaching practice; their instinct is to identify control groups and produce pie charts and argue using percentages, and it is quite difficult to get them out of this mindset. Another source of consternation is when I start talking about ‘evidence’ and ‘argument’ in the writing of their HEA Fellowship statements. I think the issue for my students is that in the social sciences we use the same words as the hard sciences – research, dataevidence, etc. – but the constructivist-interpretivist flavours of these concepts have subtly different qualities and associations. ‘Research’ and ‘evidence’ also exist as concepts in the creative arts but they are very different animals indeed; in a way, it is the creative arts that form the opposite end of the spectrum, while the humanities and social sciences reside in the middle. For my students, it is this middle ground that puzzles them as they have little prior experience of it.

Developing that last paragraph has helped me to identify how I might help my own students to recognise what is expected of them…!

This entry was posted in WrAP1. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *