Ellen Grote, Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia
OVERVIEW 'Student Writing' presents a case study investigation of the writing experiences of ten 'non-traditional' undergraduate students as they struggle to meet the demands of the written literacy practices in Higher Education (HE). As part of the Literacies Series edited by David Barton, this volume advocates a perspective that recognizes academic literacies as socially situated practices. In response to the 'problem' of increasing numbers of non- traditional students learning to write for institutes of HE, Lillis highlights the need to examine issues of Access, Regulation, and Desire. Lillis argues that Access needs to be examined in terms of the distinctive language and discourse practices in HE; that issues of Regulation should be explored in terms of the way meaning can be constructed through the academic writing practices of the institution; and that matters surrounding Desire need to be investigated in relation to students' expressed longing to take part in the HE community and to express their own meaning in academic writing.
In the introductory chapter Lillis explains the purpose of the book and its general theoretical framework. Three audiences for the book are identified as researchers of academic literacy, HE teaching staff and policy makers, and student-writers. The general layout of the book is then described.
Chapters 1-3 focus on issues of non-traditional students gaining access to HE and its literacy practices. Background information to the context of the study are provided and a theoretical framework is constructed to explore issues related to Access. Chapter 4 analyzes the institutional regulatory system that governs academic writing conventions, specifically the conventions of essayist literacy. Chapter 5 explores Desire in terms of accessing HE and being able to introduce one's own meaning into academic discourse through essayist literacy practices. Chapter 6 illustrates how dialogue can be used to 'talk students into essayist literacy' (p. 133) as a way of apprenticing students into the literacy practices of HE.
Finally, Chapter 7 concludes with discussions on how new understandings of student writing can be achieved by reframing the 'problem' of non-traditional student writing using an 'academic literacies' approach to research and on how this present study contributes to this discourse. Each chapter begins with an overview of the issues to be discussed in the chapter and concludes with a brief summary of the main points. Throughout the book the reader finds page-length biographies describing personal, cultural, professional, and academic backgrounds of students who participated in the study. Also appearing intermittently throughout the book are the author's personal reflections which are highlighted in boxes entitled 'Connections'. Four Appendices provide a brief overview of the backgrounds of the ten students included in this study; a description of UK examinations, qualifications, and courses which are referenced in the book; a summary of the data collected from student participants; and examples of typical feedback and 'talkback' formats, also referenced in the book.
CONTENT DESCRIPTION In the Introduction to the book Lillis reframes the 'problem' of non-traditional students writing for HE by raising questions that guided her investigation: 'Why do we write as we do? Who gets to write in these ways? Who benefits from such writing? What meanings are we valuing and how? Who does the academy construct as belonging, and how? On what terms do "outsiders" get to be "insiders" and at what costs? How do we want to write and why?' (p.2).
Lillis sets out to explore these questions in terms of Access, Regulation and Desire by problematizing the institutional practices of HE in the UK from the perspective of students as they approach and experience them. She argues for a more open dialogic pedagogy as a way to make the writing practices of HE more accessible and transparent.
Chapter 1: Language, Literacy and Access to Higher Education In this chapter Lillis discusses the socio-historical changes that have taken place in HE in the UK which have led to an increased enrollment of non-traditional students. Lillis maintains that changes in the demographics of the student population with respect to socio-economic class, age, and cultural background must be considered when addressing student writing practices. The traditional skills-oriented model of literacy is then examined. While at odds with contemporary understandings of literacy as socially situated practices, the skills model continues to dominates current teaching practices. It is argued that the consequence of continuing such practices which fail to understand student writing as social practices is that non- traditional students will have restricted access to the benefits of education.
Chapter 2: Student Writing as Social Practice This chapter focuses on understanding student writing practices within a theoretical framework informed by a number of sources including those associated with the New Literacy Studies and critical discourse analysis (Baynham,1995; Barton and Hamilton, 1998; Ivanic, 1998; Lea and Street, 1998; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanic, 2000), Gee's notion of discourse communities, and Fairclough's model of language use which locates texts within the context of situation, embedded in the context of culture. Within the contexts of situation and culture three levels of practice are examined. At one level practice can be seen as what members of a social group do in relation to the material world. At a second level, it is the repetition of particular ways of using language that is systematically maintained by individuals and social institutions. For Lillis '[s]pecific instances of language use -- texts -- involve drawing on these existing available resources: "members' resources"' (Fairclough 1992a, p. 80).
Throughout the remaining chapters of the book she refers to these as 'representational resources' (after Kress, 1996, p. 18). Lillis quotes Barton and Hamilton (1998) to describe literacy practice at the third level of analysis as '"a powerful way of conceptualising the link between the activities of reading and writing and the social structures in which they are embedded and which they help shape"' (p. 34). Two Bakhtinian concept of language are discussed: the dialogic nature of language and the notion of addressivity. These are explored in relation to the way that voices influence the meaning that is constructed while writing/reading texts and the way that the writer perceives the potential reader of the text. This leads to a discussion of identity and student writing as it pertains to the construction of meaning.
Chapter 3: Restricted Access to a Privileged Practice In this chapter Lillis discusses the ways in which students attempt to make sense of the 'institutional practice of mystery' (p. 53) involved in writing essays for HE. Essayist literacy is then analyzed in terms of the conceptual framework set out in the previous chapter. The differences between student and tutor perceptions of these practices and conventions results in confusion in the minds of the students. It is suggested that the current pedagogic practice of providing feedback to students to address these differences in perceptions appear to be ineffective. The feedback itself is often ambiguous, and as a result, students become frustrated and excluded from participation. Lillis illustrates how these practices are experienced by her students and their responses to them using specific examples from her data.
Chapter 4: The Regulation of Authoring Chapter Four is devoted to analyzing the mysteries of 'Regulation' within HE in terms of meaning making in essay writing. The conventions that regulate and restrict the meanings that can be made are examined, and data samples are used to show how students struggle to understand what can/cannot be expressed in their writing and the language that can be used to express it. Issues of regulation, language and identity are discussed further with reference to the case-study data.
Chapters Five: Essayist Literacy, Gender and Desire In this chapter Lillis discusses how non-traditional students attempt to realize their desire to engage in HE through a process of negotiation and through their use of 'representational resources'. Issues of gender arise as the desires of individuals are influenced by factors related to their social context. Changes that take place within these contexts are seen to affect student participation in HE. Meaning making through essayist literacy practices is also discussed in terms of individual socio-cultural perspectives and gendered subject positions. Lillis addresses the criticisms she has raised in her analyses, then discusses an alternative dialogic approach to traditional written or oral feedback sessions which she outlines in greater detail in the next chapter.
Chapter 6: Dialogues of Participation This chapter describes the dialogic framework which facilitates 'talkback' exchanges with students whereby the tutor guides and collaborates with students on their writing. Three types of dialogues are identified and characterized in terms of mediating four different aims within the 'talkback' conference. The 'tutor-directive dialogue' can serve two objectives: to induct the student into essayist literacy practices and to discuss language issues (p. 132-133). The second type of dialogue is a collaborative engagement in which the student can discover and learn to express her own intended meaning in writing. The third type of dialogue is one that 'facilitates student "talkback" as part of "long conversation" (Maybin 1994)' (p. 132-133). Excerpts from the data are used to illustrate how such dialogues can be conducted to achieve different aims.
Chapter 7: Rethinking Student Writing in Higher Education In this final chapter, Lillis (re)addresses the ways in which this work and other recent research in academic literacies can offer perspectives on student writing as an alternative view to traditional pedagogic approaches and practices. The chapter concludes with a discussion of areas requiring further research.
DISCUSSION While the issues raised in this book are not new, particularly for a North American readership and especially for those involved in teaching second language writing, they are presented in a new light. As tertiary education has become more accessible to 'non-traditional' students, many of whom continue to be the first in their families to participate in HE, the question of who owns the 'problem' is central if tertiary institution aim to realize the democratic ideal of equal opportunity. The book offers a very brief, though useful overview of tertiary education from an international perspective, describing how this issue has been addressed in the U.S., Australia, and South Africa. While the UK context presents its own historical, socio-cultural driven challenges, the alternative approaches proposed in this book may be adapted to many other settings, though perhaps not all.
There are several aspects of the format of this book that I found both refreshing and, for the most part, reader- friendly. Throughout the book the reader knows exactly where the writer is coming from and where she is going. The inclusion of personal reflections, framed as 'Connections', contribute not only to fulfill her aim to connect with non- traditional student-writers as part of her target readership as well as those who are a part of the system. These shared experiences provide a sense of the author's personal involvement, commitment, and insights which have both inspired and brought to fruition the work itself.
Another refreshing aspect of this book is the way in which the participants in the study are presented as real women with personal histories and daily lives that extend beyond the world of academics. Rather than seeing these as background issues, Lillis brings them to the fore, emphasizing the need for a holistic perspective of students whose subjectivities shift from moment to moment throughout their daily lives. Rather than presenting the biographies together in an appendix, they are presented as they are brought into the discussion. The reader can then connect and humanize the voices presented as data with real individuals whose personal histories and present day lives are as complicated as our own.
On the whole the conceptual model which grounds this study seems to work effectively as a tool to explore the important questions about academic literacy practices of HE raised in her introductory chapter. The suggested alternative pedagogical approach of using a dialogic 'talkback' mode rather than monologic feedback would appear to be an effective means of enculturating non-traditional students into negotiations with academic literacy. While this approach appears to remedy the weaknesses of a monologic approach, it raises a number of practical questions regarding the challenges faced with its implementation.
Given the diversity of values and literacy practices among academic communities within institutes of HE (Johns, 1997), how can such practices be coordinated within and across disciplines? The language used in the dialogic conferences is a particular type of discourse, undoubtedly requiring conscious monitoring, perhaps training. Will tutors involved in disciplines other than language studies see the value of changing their discourse practices when talking to students about their writing?
While the significance of culture is highlighted in terms of language use within the context of situation and context of culture, there seems to be minimal recognition that the orientation of the dialogic interactive approach suggested, that of a question-response format, may not be one that is comfortably shared across cultures (Heath, 1983). With non- traditional students coming from a range of cultures to institutes of HE, it is not clear how bicultural the students need to be to engage effectively in these dialogues. For example, how does the tutor engage the student who responds to questions with silence? It has been argued by Torres Strait Islander Martin Nakata, and his colleague Sandy Muspratt, that critical learning models need to be scrutinized for Western bias or they will continue to ensure that mainstream students will succeed, while others, Indigenous students in the Australian context, do not (1994).
Issues related to culture and gender may also be somewhat problematic for some students participating in dialogues about their writing. For example, would Sara, the English- born 25 year-old Pakistani student, bilingual in Urdu and English, feel comfortable engaging in a one-to-one collaborative dialogue with a male tutor? Would her brother be receptive to a female tutor's hedged directives? And even when gender is not an issue, how does the tutor respond to the student who just wants to know what it takes to get full marks (or even just a passing mark)?
Finally, there is the issue of time. How can dialogues be worked into the students' and tutor's tight schedules? And how can the 'long conversations' (p. 133) be sustained in a system where relationships between tutor and student usually terminate at the end of the course?
While questions of practical implementation of the model in cross-cultural situations remain, this book has made a significant contribution to the discourse on issues of diversity and fairness in HE. For students who are trying to make sense of the 'mysteries' of essayist literacy, while the theoretical analysis may be somewhat challenging for newcomers, this volume offers some insights into the HE writing practices, so that they can perhaps participate more effectively in them. For those engaged in literacy instruction at any level, and whether this instruction is in English as a first or second/foreign language, this book challenges one to reflect on how one responds to student writing. For the literacy researcher it offers a fresh re- analysis of academic literacies as socially situated practices.
REFERENCES Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies. London: Routledge.
Barton, D., Hamilton, M. & Ivanic, R. (Eds.). (2000). Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context. London: Routledge.
Baynham, M. (1995). Literacy practices: Investigating literacy in social contexts. London: Longman.
Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and social change. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: CUP.
Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Johns, A. B. (1997). Text, role, and context: Developing academic literacies. New York: Cambridge: CUP.
Kress, G. (1996). 'Representational resources and the production of subjectivity: Questions for the theoretical development of Critical Discourse Analysis in a multicultural society'. In R. Caldras-Coultard and M. Coulthard (Eds.), Texts and practices. London/New York: Routledge.
Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998). 'Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach'. Studies in Higher Education, 11 (3), 182-199.
Nakata, M. & Muspratt, S. (1994). How to read across the curriculum: The case of a social studies 'Social Investigation Strategy' as ideological practice. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 17 (3), 227-239.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Ellen Grote is a PhD student in Applied Linguistics at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia. She is currently engaged in research projects in bidialectal education at the Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research at Edith Cowan University. Her own PhD research project is an ethnography of the official and unofficial writing practices of female adolescent Aboriginal English speaking students at school. She has taught ESL/EFL in higher education in the US and the UK, and taught EFL for business purposes in the UK and the Ivory Coast, West Africa. She has also been involved in teacher training.