Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ethnographies of academic writing seminar

This was a seminar held at the Open University on July 16, coordinated and led by Theresa Lillis. The full name of the event was 'Ethnographies of Academic Writing in a Global Context: the politics of style'. Theresa is running a longitudinal research project called Professional Academic Writing in a Global Context (funded by ESRC) looking at practices in writing for publication in English-language journals by non-native-English-speaking scholars - the seminar topic was based on ideas derived from this, particularly ideas around what is at stake in academic text production in global contexts, and how an ethnographic approach can help us to understand the significance attached to 'style'. See the outline programme.

Highlights that stuck in my mind were: Ana Moreno's fascinating exploration of the different ways that English and Spanish academics express critical comments in book reviews; Constant Leung and Brian Street's interesting discussion of methodological issues involved in using multiple and multimodal sources of data about students writing, which never quite crossed the line to talking about students' own multimodal text production; Lucia Thesen's critical but ever so understated observations on the way that an academic literacies/ethnographic perspective can itself be problematic for research carried out in Africa, in its orientalising effect (my word not hers) representing local contexts, strange data, and problematic theorisation etc.; Mary Scott's informal discussion of 'ethnopoetics' informed by striking examples of extracts from student essays transformed stylistically by being presented as poems.

As is often the case with mainstream writing-focused events (as with WDHE 2010, reported on in an earlier post), I was a bit frustrated with the continuing scarcity of work that uses the theoretical and methodological insights from this field to examine emerging media-intensive practices in both actual and virtual contexts of writing. If applied linguists would pay a bit more attention to learning technologies, I tell myself, it might be easier to get learning technologists to think seriously about students' writing.

In my own presentation to the seminar I talked about a bit of desktop research I've been doing into the meaning of the term 'scholarship' as applied to academic blogging. Starting with the premise that all scholarship must be discipline-related (which seems true to me, although some people may want to dispute it), I sought to characterise some academic blogs that I found through Technorati, Scienceblogs, and other sources, as to whether or not they conformed to conventions of writing 'typical' for their disciplines. I used Bazerman's 1981 paper 'What Written Knowledge Does' as a model. Bazerman looked at canonical research articles in the fields of molecular biology, sociology of science, and literary criticism, and distinguished them according to how they treated the assumed 'fixity' of the knowledge they were dealing with, how they engaged with the literature of the field, how they positioned their assumed readership, and how the authors represented themselves. I applied his criteria to selected postings from academic bloggers in the same 3 fields, namely: Pharyngula (PZ Myers), Understanding Society (D Little), and DG Myers' blog on literary criticism.

I'm still writing up this paper for conventional publication (not entirely a digital scholar as yet) so I won't go into any more detail here. Suffice it to say, that the three posts I mentioned above do reproduce Bazerman's features of typicality for their disciplines to an interesting degree. Interesting to me that is -- I sensed that the seminar audience found it quite interesting, but were not convinced it had much to do with ethnography, nor with the real business of academic writing.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Writing Development in Higher Education conference

The 13th WDHE conference was hosted by what used to be called the WriteNow CETL (when we still had 'settles').

I've been to the last five of these conferences and as usual I quite enjoyed this one, although I was a bit less engaged this time because of competing commitments (like the SCONUL meeting), the need to travel down to London from Milton Keynes each day, and most pertinently because I felt that many of the same discussions were being had over again. It's significant that the issue of how to get writing more centrally onto the agendas of disciplinary teaching and student support never seems to get any less pressing. From my own point of view, as well, the continuing marginality of new media issues in the context of student writing is a bit depressing. I've had a personal agenda for a few years now of trying to get writing in online contexts recognised as a central part of the student writing experience at university, but I still found only a handful of presentations at this conference that had a digital dimension.

The ones I attended included Trevor Day's presentation about designing an online writing support resource at the University of Bath, Maria Jersky from LaGuardia U. on promoting multilingual writers self-efficacy using Web 2.0, Florence Dujardin on student voice and social bookmarking at Sheffield Hallam, and the keynote by Andrea Lunsford from Stanford U. who was ostensibly talking about a longitudinal study of student writing practices, but in fact spent most of her time eulogising three of her favourites who were doing remarkable things with websites, as well as probably getting A's in their essays.

My own presentation was about a little project that I'm involved in at the OU and AUT University in Auckland, trying to create an open access resource for academic writing support online that can be contextualised by teachers and students to their own tasks in hand. The project is called Contextualising Online Writing Support which means that I could use little cartoons of cows on my slides.

The high point of the conference for me was, as last time in Glasgow, catching up with Claire Aitchison from the University of Western Australia who is doing some very interesting work into the writing practices of postgraduate students, and is, as I found out, a fellow Dragon user ...

... Claire is actually much more experienced with this beast than me having been at it for two years but she still jumped up and down in gleeful recognition of my problems -- trying to get it to learn that 'Hi’ at the beginning of an e-mail should never be spelt 'high'; trying to correct its default assumption that everything I'm writing is at heart a business letter, so that its knee-jerk interpretation of a name like 'Annette Byrne' is 'net earnings'; getting over all the glitches it seems to cause with other programs including stopping the computer from shutting down by refusing to end its recording function. We agreed that the goal of speak-writing was a worthy one and much better for our eventual fluency, but that there should be a dragon users anonymous group giving each other support and therapy while we were trying to get there.

SCONUL information literacy study

I had an unexpected invitation to attend a meeting of the Society of College, National and University Libraries Association (SCONUL) to discuss ideas for a large scale study of the impact of information literacy programs in higher education. I thought at first that the invite had come through Alison Mackenzie, who I invited to our second lidu seminar in Glasgow last March, but it turned out that Cathie Jackson who was organising the meeting for SCONUL had been googling around looking for people who might be interested, and found us.

The meeting clashed with the first afternoon of the writing development in higher education conference I was booked to go to (more of that in my next post) but I was intrigued enough to want to attend. They'd sent out a proposal for a study that had been written by Ralph Catts from the University of Stirling (here is an example of his work on information literacy indicators), which I found challenging on a number of fronts, not least because it draws on a highly empirical/experimental tradition of educational research which I had not previously thought appropriate to the study of literacy. Information literacy, of course, develops from information skills, traditionally the province of libraries and historically considered to be testable via a pre-test -- intervention -- posttest model.

After a preliminary discussion with a colleague in the OU library I went to the meeting with the idea that the OU could definitely contribute to the more qualitative case study aspects of the proposal. In the event, two of the other preliminary speakers also expressed concerns about the theoretical and methodological feasibility of determining the contribution to learning, or student attitude, or retention, of information literacy programs. Not to mention determining what constitutes an information literacy intervention in the first place. Ralph himself was completely open to discussion along those lines and the afternoon was very productive.

My own introduction drew attention to the experience of writing centres in the USA who found their funding cut by their universities when 'impact' studies proved inconclusive. For some managers no evidence of value clearly equals no value. I also talked about the work of our lidu partners in the 'Learning Literacies in the Digital Age' project with regard to information literacy and the way it tends to be supported in UK colleges and universities (by central support services like libraries, as opposed to academic and media literacies pretend to be located within the subject curriculum).

In the general discussion, there was some support for the idea that the impact of information literacy might be more easily measured in terms of its influence on the input to student learning, including on academic practice, rather than directly on learning outcomes. We also discussed possible sources for funding for a study, including JISC, the EU framework seven, and a possible ESRC seminar series. It was left with Alison and Cathie and Ralph to summarise what we had been talking about and to propose an onward strategy for developing a study and a bid for funding.

We will definitely be re-inviting SCONUL c olleagues to the OU lidu seminar in October, where Esther Hargittai's large-scale research on information literacy skills will be of interest to them.

Catching up -- more problematic E-literacy practices

I suspect it's not good blogging practice to save up one's ideas for posts over a three-week period and then send them all at once. If there are casual readers who have dropped in from time to time and found nothing more, they have probably already concluded that the blog is defunct. And anyone who's actually got a feed from the blog suddenly gets a whole bunch of messages arriving at the same time and probably hasn't got time to read them properly.

However, unless you are an experienced diariser it's quite difficult to keep up a regular output of comment. When you are continually inundated with e-mails, proposals, forms to be filled in, reports and papers to be written and read, and other reading and writing tasks that don't seem to get any less as the university gets more digital, then time not spent committing your words to the ether seems precious.

But, of course, there are dozens of very busy and very successful academics and other university professionals keeping very regular and very informative blogs. I'm currently exploring some of them for a talk I'm preparing on 'the rise of the academic blogger' at a seminar on academic literacies and ethnography at the open University on July 16. My idea is to take a few of their posts and see if they display any of the characteristics of written knowledge in their disciplines that writers like Bazerman and Hyland have identified.

In the meantime, on the assumption that it's only me that's reading these posts anyway, I'm just going to go ahead and send all the ones I've been mentally composing the last three weeks at the same time!

The first is another reflection on the problematics of new literacy practices brought into education from the wider world of the Internet - it occurred to me while I was updating the online study material for the OU course I work on, 'the elearning professional'. For the last three years we've included a link to a site belonging to an American university which was a field leader in ePortfolio practice. The link was to a page on Reflection- advice to students on writing reflectively in their ePortfolios, the value of it, how to do it etc. When I was checking the link recently I found it had disappeared. Not only that, the whole site about the university's ePortfolio system had been subsumed by a new site promoting individual student blogs. This is interesting enough in itself, as it bears out the intuition I'd already had that the complex monolithic ePortfolio system that was all the rage couple of years ago would find itself 'un-bundled' (to use a current buzzword) into its component parts: systems for storing, reflecting, showcasing etc.

But even more interesting was to find a video on the bit of the website that is about using the reflective blog element of the ePortfolio, flagged as 'an example of using the reflective blog element to establish yourself as a leading thinker in your field'.

How the noble art of reflection is fallen! From self-knowledge to self-promotion.