Navigating Undergraduate Academic Writing: Guess What? It Depends on the Professor

It happened in one of my early student interviews. The student read the item on my developing questionnaire that asked them to self-assess their ability to adapt their writing to meet the needs of the assignment. The question was supposed to be getting at switching from genre to genre. If they were writing a reflection, did they sound reflective? If they wrote an academic assignment, did they get their point across in the form of an argument and address a specific question? But her response was, “I’m meeting the needs of the professor, not necessarily meeting the needs of the assignment.”

And it kept happening over and over – sometimes with the same question sometimes with other questions – the students in my sample talked about needing to figure out the teacher. It wasn’t just a handful of the students in the sample. It was 100% of the students in my sample. They pondered issues such as: What were her preferences? What biases does she have? Is she an easy or hard grader? How approachable is she? How open is she to re-interpreting assignment guidelines with uncertain students? How well does this teacher actually understand academic writing themselves?

There is a novice to expert continuum with guiding writing as there is a novice to expert continuum with becoming a writer. Students can tell when faculty are not confident in their own skills to assign and evaluate writing – and this state is not uncommon in undergraduate nursing which can be taught by faculty who aren’t required to write and publish themselves. Novice instructors are far more likely to hold tight reigns on their assignments and rubrics and be overly focused on surface textual features.

Navigating the writing context is like a journey down the yellow brick road in search of the great and powerful Oz (the teacher) who can solve all their academic writing needs. When they get to know Oz, they sometimes find Oz is not the all-powerful being that they’ve hoped to find. Oz is flawed and fallible, but Oz does have the power to help students recognize that the true power of being a good writer was within them all along.

Students had various strategies for success in this mission of “figuring out” the teacher such as: paying attention to a teacher’s overt opinions on a subject and matching them; noticing what words teachers like to use and slipping them into their own writing;  talking to their classmates on how they saw the assignment; talking to classmates who had already been through the class to see how they perceived the assignment and the teacher; testing out ideas about topics with instructors and peers; judging their relationship with the teacher to see if she can “take it.”

Other students seemed to never be able to figure out teachers no matter what they did. Or they felt they could learn to read the teacher if they ever got the opportunity to write for them more than once in a term — which rarely happened.  Their biggest faux pas in this area seemed to be that many of these students would never actually approach a teacher to ask questions, or they felt that when they did, their questions were misunderstood or brushed aside. Often these students were the ones that you would most want to come and speak to you – immigrant students, students where they learned English at an older age such as when a teen or an adult, and, in nursing, it was also often male students.  These are our students who perhaps struggle to feel like they belong because they don’t fit the stereotype of who a nurse is – passive, polite, white females. And for those who may be thinking, It isn’t like that anymore — implicitly these traits in nursing are still the most highly rewarded and have an easier journey navigating the nursing world.

The opinionated students don’t fit in well either as they often insist on maintaining their own opinion and making things their own. They are the ones that twist assignment criteria to ensure they can say what they want to say. Sometimes these behaviours are highly rewarded, but other times it means they fail the assignment.

It depends on the professor.

What concerns me most is what this means for writing as a pedagogy. If the strongest students are graded highly because they are able to spit back to the teacher exactly what they want to hear, if the writing that is most highly rewarded is the writing that fits into a nice little box where the number of checkmarks on a rubric is the only indicator of learning and quality, we have a problem. It means higher education is not about independent thinking. It’s not about recognizing where boundaries can be stretched and alternative perspectives are valued.

The undergraduate students in my sample spoke about a very problematic culture of writing in higher education. I will speak broadly to this because while I think nursing has some work to do, I don’t think some of the problems I see in the reports I heard from nursing students specifically are exclusive to nursing contexts. Students spoke about “bullet-point” assignments, “fill-in-the-blank” style assignment guidelines. A few students – and this especially came from students who had experience as students in other disciplines such as psychology, English, or gender studies – recognized that the writing was different in nursing.  It was more “simple.”  It was certainly often inflexible. You must “stay within script”. You can be creative but only “within the dimensions they want us to be.” There are boundaries. Being creative, depending on the professor, could mean losing 10% of your grade. There are far too many assignments where there isn’t enough choice and students are forced to write about topics they do not care about. For those students, in those moments, writing becomes a functional and robotic task.

Why do we not have enough faith in our undergraduates to be able to give them free reign to go where their ideas and passions take them?

Are we afraid that we can’t fairly grade if our 60 students aren’t handing in 60 cookie cutter assignments all answering the exact same question using the exact same literature? Who wants to grade those? We lament grading because of the things we do to ourselves in assignment guidelines. I’m asleep already just thinking about it.

Are we afraid if we don’t know the topic to the same degree an expert would know the topic that we aren’t capable of accurately assessing writing?  I don’t know about that – I know when someone has written something in a way that is accessible to me and when they’ve caught my attention and I learned something. Without knowing much about the topic, I am also capable of being sceptical when the accuracy seems “off” or there seems there is another side of the story that isn’t being presented. I am an astute reader. I assume all faculty are astute readers too.

Do we tighten our rubrics into minute details because then we are able to be more reliable in our grading across students or between raters?  But what are we sacrificing in terms of assignment validity in the process? Are we still able to capture the objectives we are hoping our students leave our classroom with at the end of the term? Seriously, just feed them a multiple-choice test if you want strict criteria and one correct answer.

I’m getting a little ranty. I can feel it.  But this is a hill I am willing to die on.  If you are not giving writing assignments that students can get excited about – and I mean every student – your students are learning you, not the threshold concepts of your subject matter. Students are equating their success at writing with their ability to be successful in navigating the writing context, teacher preference, and their levels of writing self-efficacy are impacted as a result. Papers are not about one correct answer. Writing is not about the text produced, I mean, yeah, you want it to be readable and not “messy” – students get that.  As one of my student participants said, “It almost becomes part of your identity. Like you care more about that subject when you go to other places. And then you’re also looking into the literature, so what do other people know? And you’re sort of building yourself and your knowledge base.”  A student walking away from your course should feel that about every assignment.

This little rant is courtesy of a preliminary analysis emerging from a secondary analysis of Congitive Interviews conducted with the primary objective of editing the developing Situated Academic Writing Self-Efficacy Scale. 

Is Social Media the Creation of a Never-Ending Research Story? 

“At its heart, research is storytelling.”

How do we know our research has impact? What science seems to value in terms of impact is metric based: number of publications, citation counts, uptake of an intervention into practice. But research is a social process perhaps even more than it is a measured process and what if you do the kind of research that seeks social change, or change in beliefs, or adoption of new attitudes? What if your research explores how individuals learn and adopt that learning into their identity?  In those venues, measurement is irrelevant. How could we possibly count how many people change their behaviour or beliefs based on our research?

My focus as PhD student this term has been knowledge translation. Knowledge translation goes by many alternative names — knowledge mobilization, knowledge diffusion, the movement of theory and research into practice — just to name a few.  This focus has caused me innumerable struggles. What does research impact mean when what you are trying to do with your work is invoke a paradigm shift about writing in a health discipline (nursing)?  Traditional discussions of KT and the oft-cited Canadian Institutes of Health Research definition, take a very linear approach – top down, some might say.  You do research. You get practitioners (knowledge users) to implement your research. Success happens. How successful might depend on how quickly that happens (rate of uptake). The knowledge translation model may seem simple if your research is about use a of a new drug to treat a disease symptom but less simple if you are looking at insidious changes that happen in practice attitudes and beliefs.

No matter your research focus, you aren’t getting through a grant application without explaining how you will share your research.  In practice-based disciplines, such as nursing or education, this is a tricky  obligation. We know from our lived experience that when we have a real-world problem, we and our colleagues, don’t immediately go to the library databases and search for a solution.  Our problems are more context-based and require solutions that consider that context. For example:

How do we get students to understand what we mean when we say we want them to integrate reflection and literature into their assignments?

How do I make this rubric assess what I want it to assess on this specific assignment?

As educators most of our knowledge doesn’t come from books. It comes from experience. When we have an immediate problem in our work our first search for knowledge involves walking down the hall and knocking on the door of a colleague or mentor.  That colleague usually responds with a story. Remember the time when…. ? or I had a student once who…. ? And we absorb these stories into our own experience and it changes who we are as educators. It changes what we know and how we practice. This is our mechanism for learning. This is our mechanism for change.

So my struggles with knowledge translation (and the more pragmatic requirement that I write a paper worth 50% of a grade on the subject) have made me ponder my existence on social media. I started the @academicswrite persona to talk about my research — to talk about all change that needs to happen in academia surrounding writing. It occurred to me while reading about the various modes of knowledge translation that I had created for myself a mode of community building and knowledge translation. But through what mechanism does social media work as a knowledge translation strategy? Is social media the creation of a never-ending research story? Is social media a mechanism for social change, and by extension, the uptake of (educational) research into practice?

But change is hard. And in academic writing you are coming up against belief systems that are outdated, emotionally charged, opinionated. There are so many faulty assumptions in academia, especially in the disciplines, about academic writing. I’ve written before about how academic writing instruction is devalued so I will not repeat those points here. In writing there is also a novice to expert trajectory that influences the academic community.  There will always be new people coming into that community that will scream loudly at the top of their lungs that student grammar is so bad and it makes their writing unreadable and this is the fault of someone else — high school teachers, the intro to writing teacher, texting culture.

(Novices can only see grammar problems. Experts can see past the grammar to the real causes of those writing problems that appear to be grammar.)

So, I have to write this final paper and I decided I’m going to tackle the role of social media in creating communities of practice through networked participation, because without knowing it, a year and three months ago when I started this blog and its sister-Twitter account, I was formulating the beginnings of my KT plan. And this KT plan works through a complex web of identity building, storytelling, and the changing of belief systems — a complex blending of the personal and the professional.  Drawing inspiration from Naomi Barnes, a member of my Twitter community, I can see how the relationship between Twitter and Blogs is a subtle process of knowledge building.

It starts with a Tweet that is a small spark. That spark may not look anything like the idea that is brewing inside. In fact, it might appear in your Twitter feed and go by completely unnoticed.

Your psyche may be sensitive to the topic so that you start to see it everywhere.

I tell my research story through tweets. I research and read papers on the topic and I tweet about what I read.

Then I write this blog you read now as a preliminary sketch of my thinking on the topic. The comments I get about the blog and the tweets will continue to shape my thinking. The blog will inform what I write in the formal paper to meet the requirements of my course. That formal paper may turn into a publication. The publication will be released and I’ll tweet about it. More twitter conversations will ensue. I may write a blog telling additional research stories that relate to the publication. I’ll create a larger narrative of my research which adds to the collective meaning and knowing on the subject.

I see blogging and social media as the construction of an ongoing story that blends the personal and the professional.  Because academic writing and publishing is one thing but blogging and micro-blogging, like Twitter, are a whole other genre of writing. A genre created for persuasive purposes. Through my Twitter (primarily) and my blog I’m telling a story that has no beginning and it has no end but that story is intended to seep into your emotions, your psyche, and your identity. And I’m doing it all though telling you stories that contain fundamental truths by using conventions that are part fact and part fiction.

But how do we use storytelling to persuade and create change through social media?

  1. Stories lead to reflection – I’ve often said on my Twitter account I am not a writing tipster but I do aim to inspire. If I make you think about your writing approach, even if what I say just resonates, I will improve your writing process. That improvement may come through simply providing you with assurance that the way you write is not abnormal. I may provide you with the courage to try something new whether it be in your own writing, or in how you guide your students. I will make you think.
  2. Stories create meaning – Meaning comes through creating a supportive relational space. Telling stories to help new community members feel belonging means you take your work seriously and the work of your colleague’s seriously too. These stories move our theory into practice because those experiences are lived.
  3. Stories “freeze thoughts out of context” – Social media becomes a permanent record of thought and its evolution. You can trace your own evolution of thinking through the trail of tweets you leave behind and by the correspondence it elicits.
  4. Stories create community by binding a listener and the teller together –Transformation may occur within a listener/reader in how they view themselves and how they view others. Empathy results. I follow people on Twitter based on who I can learn from. I follow scholars of different races and genders, ages and stages of life, different socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. They tweet about their lived experiences which are different from mine. I don’t always interfere with their stories by commenting but I read and I learn and I come to understand.
  5. Stories evolve with discussion – we tweet and we write blogs and other contribute to the conversation, and by creating that conversation our thinking changes.
  6. Telling your story teaches others how to tell their own stories – when we tell stories we encourage others to tell their own stories. By listening to the stories of those with experience we can absorb their stories into our own sense of identity. Having an identity within a community means a sense of belonging will develop. In this way, the community continues to change and the collective knowledge developed within this situated learning is in constant evolution.

Storytelling is one of the mechanisms through which our practices change. Social media can facilitate that.  Please comment or tweet at me the aspects of storytelling that work in your community and networks. It will most certainly inform the paper I will write about this process.