This Writer’s Identity

I started writing this post earlier this week but got that sinking feeling in my stomach of boring myself, so I abandoned. It was that same feeling you get when someone not academic, like an old aunt or some random dude on a bus, asks you what you are studying in school and it requires too much thinking to make it digestible to outsiders so you make it really brief and boring so that they won’t ask any more questions. I didn’t start this blog to regurgitate my research topic and all the extensions of it … I started it to tell the stories about my research and writing that can’t go into academic papers.

Like the fact that this week I was doing statistical things. I’ve been learning SPSS, mostly on my own but also with the help of this book. I really need to take another proper stats class because the last time I took stats was in 2001. I kind of had to run my results in a hurry because I was writing an abstract for a conference. My results for my long term follow-up of writing self-efficacy across the nursing curriculum are really cool, if perhaps not really surprising. For example, just less than half of my sample fell out of synch from their entrance cohort and the comparison between the students who fell behind and the students who stayed on pace is validating for our recent decision-making about entrance requirements and ideas I’ve had for writing interventions with our students. The out of synch students have lower grades in general (writing, GPA, and clinical), higher anxiety and lower writing self-efficacy. It’s also suggesting that my second year paper I have the students write does a kick-ass job of being predictive of student performance and clinical ability — or at the very least, I make a very valid rubric.  I still have to figure out the “so what” of these findings.

The other thing going on in my school life parallel to that is that I am taking a philosophy of nursing science course. The topic of the week was theoretical integration or bridging the gap between the “received view” and and more modern philosophical thinking — maybe post positivism and mixed methods or qualitative and its various identities. I’ve been teaching research methods to undergrads for over 10 years and the textbook I use simplifies the post positivist paradigm so much that I always thought post positivism WAS mixed methods. Which it is totally not — or at least not entirely.

So a lot of what I had to read this week was about positivism and where it came from and the arguments against it, which are loud and strong but somehow it still survives as the dominant “received” view. I haven’t liked everything we have discussed in philosophy of nursing science. I hated our readings on defining health from different paradigms, for example. I said in class this week, after others said that they found the readings really challenging (I didn’t find them hard at all. I found them the easiest yet), “that all the cells in my brain breathe a collective sigh of relief when the readings are describing things in positivist, terms.” It such a comfort zone for me.  So comfortable in fact, I took a creative writing course one year and when forced to write some poetry, I managed to slip in the phrase, “skewed to the left.” I had to. I’m not a poet. But I do remember the class commenting on the oddness, but yet effectiveness, of the phrase — when they were told what it meant.

And this is where I finally get to my point about identity. Because positivism while comfortable, isn’t what I believe in, in terms of science. I’m not in the least suggesting that all that statistic-ing I’ve been doing this week is positivist. There is too much self-report in my work to be making that claim. I can feel comfortable with statistical thinking and still recognize its tremendous limitations. I’ve come to understand that social construction is my dominant view — especially feminism. Writing, gender, identity, pedagogy, and academia are all socially constructed. I want to sit down with each of these students and ask them why?  What makes writing assignments make you feel like it is an attack on your being? An attack on your sense of self and self-worth?

Of course IRL, I have these conversations every day with students. For the most part, they validate that what I am trying to do with my writing assignment, works. They walk away from my course knowing more, and learning more, about research than they do from reading the textbook. But the ones that really despise writing, of course, likely lie to me and avoid me. But I am convinced, that writing is the best way of knowing out there for student learning and theoretical integration with practice. (And that is the topic of my next paper).

The paper I wrote for my philosophy of nursing science course was on academic voice. And knowing my comfort zone is positivist, logical, and mathematical it may or may not surprise you that my argument about academic voice, which is not unlike the argument that every academic who takes the time to write about academic voice makes*, is that it needs to be better infused with the writer’s identity. I did something in this paper that I have never done in my entire academic life — I got autobiographical. It was a risk because the professor of this course is my advisor. I’ve already learned that she does not appreciate some of my little flair-ups of less-than-academic words (whatever that means) in some of the papers I’ve written — e.g.  the idea that we need to better “sell” the importance of writing to our students; that writers “juggle” many processes when they write; that some students fall out of “synch” from their cohort. She has considered all these phrases slang or colloquialisms.  I acquiesced and edited “sell” and “synch”, the latter of which I still think is now an accepted variant; note that I rebelliously used it in paragraph two, above. Synchrony is such a pretentious word. “Juggle” I would not cave on — there is nothing colloquial about this phrase; it is vivid and pulls a picture into the mind of the mental exercises writers experience when they write.

*(Because, lets face it, if you hold the received view on writing, you probably aren’t writing articles to try and sell the need to continue on with the objective, boring, colourless, turgid, disembodied voice that is positivist academic writing. There is no need to defend the dominant perspective. I can’t take credit for this statement. I read it somewhere. Or many somewheres.)

But my autobiographical use was for argument building. I was trying to illustrate that identity in writing is sometimes critical for understanding the meaning behind the text. Words may not be innocent but they are, for certain, often inadequate especially when it comes to making meaning. I had been using examples of how infusion of identity works when used strategically — see for example Potgieter and Smit (2009), or Fleischman (1999) and (1998). I have recently read two amazing papers where academic writers have struggled with voice and identity based on the nature of the epistemology of their work (see Leggatt-Cook, 2010; and Ward et al., 2015). There are times I am reading an academic’s work and my mind and being are begging to know who they are and what drives them (again, see the two Fleischman articles linked above). So at what I felt was a strategic and appropriate juncture in the paper, I shared that I was a woman and I had written a novel and that I believed all writing was creative writing.  And… that sometimes I don’t feel I have an identity unless I am writing. We’ll see if she “buys” that this paragraph enhances the paper. It is quiet possible we may not agree — but that’s OK. She told us she didn’t have to agree with us. We just had to have a sound argument.

So while my brain cells are in their comfort zone when I can use logic and statistics, my writing self is not in her comfort zone unless I can show myself in what I write. And so I embrace my Cartesian duality. I hope to spend the next five years honing it and flaunting it.

And just to really humiliate (and maybe humanize) myself, here is the poem I wrote in 2006 (at a really f&%ked up time in my life), where I used the phrase “skewed to the left.” (Looking at it now, almost exactly 10 years later — it is dated October 20 — for the first time … it is actually not terrible)

Two Dimensional

I wish the camera had caught the moment when

I glanced up and saw you watching

with your eyes flashing in a lens flare and

your smile back-lit with infatuation

That it could have captioned my heart

faltering and my voice cropping

a syllable in a lilt only I was aware of

 

But two dimensions flatten

events, unfocused and tinted

perspective appears as lint on a lens

mood a sepia shadow over my face

Memory imprints faulty connections

retelling the story not from the centre

but rather skewed to the left

 

Will it matter in five years

will I remember your presence

both awkward and comforting

or will dullness and discolouration transform it

me on display at that moment when

I was someone else

before I looked up and found you

Idea Generation: A Philosophical Conundrum

I’m watching my students wrestle with their ideas for their academic paper right now. It is always a fascinating process. I once did an informal survey about how often their topics changed before they actually wrote and submitted their assignments.  Very few people wrote on the first topic they picked. A larger number (maybe a quarter of the class) wrote on their second topic choice and an even larger proportion hit the jackpot on their third topic. A handful of students had filtered through 4 or more topic possibilities before finally settling on one they could work with.  Sometimes topics were abandoned because an appropriate media source couldn’t be located. This outcome happened for students who were doing exactly what I suggested they don’t do — self-identifying a topic and then retrospectively searching for a media source that stated their thinking. The assignment always works better if you let the media feed you the topic and you come across it organically, through a social media feed, or flipping through the newspaper Saturday morning. (Does anyone read paper news anymore?) More often, it was in the literature search phase where topics were discarded. Search terms weren’t working to find studies, or there weren’t enough appropriate studies to find 5 primary sources on their topic.

I find that period of time where you need to settle on an idea and focus to write about to be the most anxiety provoking phase of academic writing.  What if I never get a handle on how to write this paper? I have at least one student a term who emails me shortly before, or just after the due date, when it is waaaay too late, relating this nightmare to me. It is my personal nightmare. It keeps me awake at night when I am playing the student role.

I’m struggling with the same process right now. I have a philosophy of nursing science paper to write in the next couple of weeks. There are two of them due for the term and I instantly had a better idea as to how to handle the second paper, than the first.  My students have three pages worth of assignment guidelines to help them structure and get a handle on what they need to write about. My assignment guidelines are one sentence: Identify a concept in your research area and then critically discuss that concept from two theoretical perspectives.

My research area is writing self-efficacy. The concepts inherent within are numerous.  My gut told me to look at writing voice. My advisor (who is also the course instructor) thought that was interesting. Other possibles that came up included pinning down writing self-efficacy itself, but I wrote another paper which helped with that process already. Authorial identity (which is linked to voice) also came up as a possibility. Self-regulation in writing also seemed workable because while most scholars think self-regulation is a part of self-efficacy (as does the chief self-efficacy scholar, Bandura), there are some who believe it is a separate concept.

The bigger problem turned out to be the theoretical perspectives. I finished my Masters in 2002, and it was two years before that since I last took a theories course. I thought about looking at self-efficacy or self-regulation from the perspectives of Bandura, and the oft-cited theory of writing by Flower and Hayes. But I had my doubts that they were different theoretical perspectives.  A quick flip through my article stacks told me my assumptions were correct. They are both social cognitive theories and thereby constructivist in thinking — where the learner constructs an understanding of knowledge through experience and reflection. Even if Hayes himself has written that he’s “a psychologist and not a sociologist or cultural historian,” the social aspect is present in both the original model and the revised version.  Scratch that idea.

Other theories interested me including Vygotsky (nope, social cognitive), and situated learning. Nope, in situated learning, learning takes place through social relationships situated within a specific environmental context…. sounds pretty social cognitive/constructivist to me.

I then stumbled upon behaviourism. While constructivists believe that internal thinking is important to understanding the world, behaviourists believe in stimulus-response and that external encounters influence behaviour (e.g. If your phone beeps, you’re going to pick it up and look even if you are writing).  Self-regulation can be assessed through behaviour as much as through internal reflection.  It could work!

But I hated it.  It wasn’t exciting. And the topic wasn’t clicking for me. And as a true attest to the power of Bandura (and others) and his work, virtually no one discusses self-regulation from a behaviourist perspective.  My gut told me that my head was never going to be able to grasp this paper or this concept from that perspective.  I went home and put my feet up but still had that feeling of having an empty hole in my gut. That feeling always tells me I’m not done searching.

But something told me to return to this Ryan et al. paper (mentioned in this blog) on voice in academic writing. Academic writing and its objectified voice was developed out of the positivist tradition. But movements abound everywhere to eliminate obtuse writing. Suddenly the hole in my gut was gone. And I was excited.

What is the opposing view? The movement to make academic writing more accessible must come from some philosophical standpoint. Maybe it is interpretivism? Maybe it is constructivist? Post-positivist? Or maybe it is pragmatic — the value in it is found in the success of its implementation. I haven’t completely got a handle on that yet and I have a lot to learn about these epistemological standpoints but if you have any thoughts on the matter or any sources that might help me better grasp the philosophical underpinnings of this topic, let me know.

 

Let’s Chill Out About Plagiarism: Yes, I Just Said That.

How do you decide what is a serious enough offence to call plagiarism? Where do you draw that line?

The day Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best days of the summer, and I say that, as a Canadian, watching the whole American election circus from afar.  It was a good day because the world was talking about plagiarism and where you draw the line — something I have to think about nearly every day as an academic. They were talking about what defines plagiarism, in particular, but more importantly they were talking about how plagiarism is about the context in which it is committed.  I spent my time on social media that day rubbing my hands together with glee.

My title to this blog is not in any way to suggest that plagiarism is not to be taken seriously. I have seen plagiarism in action. I’ve had students hand in annotated bibliographies that are word for word from the abstracts of the published articles.  I’ve seen students submit identical or nearly identical assignments. I’ve known of a student who stole another student’s work, unbeknownst to the student victim, by copying their paper from a computer when s/he left the lab to use the bathroom. I’ve marked countless papers with vast amounts of uncited information. I had two sisters hand in a paper on the same topic with the same reference list with identical errors, identical headings with different writing under each paragraph, but the citations in basically the same order. The latter was likely a case of inappropriate collaboration — or one sister wrote both papers — I will likely never know what went down there but it wasn’t honest writing.

This recent Chronicle of Higher Education article also concerns me. While I have no doubt that there are people making big money off student cheating, I refuse to believe that every student is doing it (otherwise these businesses could never submit an assignment on time, they’d be so busy). Maybe I’m naive. But for students who are hiring others to create custom assignments for them based on a course’s assignment guidelines, it would be nearly impossible, short of a confession, to catch it. I’m not going to waste time hunting these students down.  In a practice based profession, I’m hoping they’ll manage to fail themselves out in other ways.  A now retired colleague mentor of mine used to always say: Do we want spend our time educating, or policing?

Over 10 years ago when I was a junior faculty member, a couple of more senior instructors decided to become marking zealots. They began pulling students’ sources as they graded and searching for every point the student made in citation and low and behold they found many situations where students had copied word for word from sources.  Should I be marking this way too? I wondered at the time.  I could never bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, to me, to grade papers with this kind of mindset.  It felt like viewing students as guilty until proven innocent. It felt like a witch hunt.

My preference for identifying plagiarism was, and still is, to rely on the subtle signs: poor awkward writing and grammar in this paragraph, high level language in the next always sets my alarm bells off. But there are others too: font type or font size changes, hovering a cursor over the text and seeing web links, misuse of pronouns, change in verb tense, change in person voice from third to second, and the more obvious, finding another student’s name mistakenly left unedited somewhere in the document. I frequently, when grading, pull sentences out of papers and drop them into Google just to be sure. I’ve never used Turn It In. I believe there is a fee to a program to access it and in these times of fiscal restraint, my department has just said no.

Uncited material that should have been cited is the most common type of “plagiarism” I see. About 10 years ago, we, meaning a sub committee in my department, set rules about when we would call it plagiarism — 4 or more incidences of a missing citation would be considered plagiarism.  We would make the student take their paper back and add the citations. They would get a form filled out and placed in their file.

I’ve since had instructors, who weren’t around at the time we made the decision, say to me. Students will purposely leave three uncited sections in their paper because they know they can get away with it.  What!? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the citation? It is way too much work to be that deliberate in your purposeful non-citing.  Students who haven’t cited, really, haven’t thought much about it at all.

I would sit with these students, often facing their tears and soggy Kleenexes, in my office and point out the error of their ways and they would stare at me blankly not really sure what I was asking them to do when I asked them to fix their citation. I don’t think I took that from anyone, some of them would say in many varied ways, I just wrote that because I know it.  I heard it in class. 

And my thinking started to change. Most, if not all uncited work I saw in undergraduate student papers had nothing to do with intentionally or maliciously trying to steal the work of someone else to, I dunno, try and look smart? Most of it was as a result of poor research or not understanding the value in finding a source to support their rationale or argument they were presenting. I stopped asking them to go back and fill in their missing citations because most of them didn’t have a citation to fill in.

And besides, what is an “uncited section?” A sentence? A paragraph? What if they just put the citation at the end of the paragraph? Does that mean that everything earlier in the paragraph is uncited? Or did the one citation intend to cover the whole paragraph (insufficiently)? Now I just tell them it isn’t sufficiently cited and I move on.

And I started teaching my graders in first year to notice the signs of writing that was just a student rambling off the top of their head as if they were expert enough to make the point. Often those paragraphs were full of simplistic thinking, grand sweeping claims, and non specific statements:

Alcohol is a big part of our society. For young adults alcohol can be a big struggle when it is being introduced into their lives. It is very common for people to turn to heavy drinking, also known as binge drinking when trying to destress and have fun [sic].

This paragraph was the first 3 sentences of an introductory paragraph written by a first year student. There is so much wrong with it. It’s vague — how many people in society? What people? Who says there is a connection between binge drinking and de-stressing? And where are the citations to support the accuracy of these claims? The comment in the image to this blog, is what I had typed on this student’s paper.

Is this plagiarism? No. This is a student writing what she knows about binge drinking off the top of her head, maybe as a summary of what she read or from her own personal experiences with it.  Her following paragraph(s), detailed and cited many of the points made here. So my feedback to her was to delete the whole first paragraph. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was poorly written and redundant. A waste of words in a 3-page paper.

I once dealt with a suspected case of plagiarism where the student had copied one paragraph of her paper from a website. Her paper was about urinary incontinence and the one paragraph, maybe in the 50 to 100-word range, turned out to be a paragraph from a website about fecal incontinence. She didn’t copy the paragraph word for word. She did make some inconsequential changes so there is no doubt that what she left unchanged was somewhat deliberate, or at the very least, lazy.  On top of it all, she put an incorrect citation. The citation she put was not the website she copied from. She also had a couple other spots in her paper where she had used or poorly paraphrased 5 or 6 words in a row from one of her sources. Her grader had even highlighted spots where she had used two words in a row from a source.  The vast majority of her paper, however, was paraphrased. The intent to paraphrase was clear in every spot but this one place. From reading her work, my sense was simply that she didn’t give a damn about the assignment or the quality of what she was handing in. Maybe she spent a couple hours writing the paper and submitted it as it was. Maybe she wrote it at at 4 a.m.

Not academic misconduct, I told my team leader and the instructor.  Arguments ensued.  The one paragraph, the one from the fecal incontinence website: Bad. Stupid. Dumbass even.  The student deserved to be hauled in and given a good slap on the wrist. Certainly a reduced grade was in order.  She didn’t deserve to have academic misconduct stamped for life on her transcript.

To be honest, if I hadn’t been cued to check. I doubt I would have caught that case of plagiarism to give her that slap on the wrist. I’m not sure, and I’ve wondered since, if that matters. The paper was very poorly written and not cohesive. It was a difficult read. A poor grade would have been the outcome anyway. I’m not sure that the instructors, in this case, would have found that paragraph either except that conditions made them check. The instructors had found one incidence of plagiarism in one student and decided to go back and check the entire class, as if one case meant a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over their eyes, to take them as fools, was underway.

Here is the crux: if you go looking for something. You will find it. You may even begin to redefine it, to prove yourself right. To solidify your case. In order to indict someone, no stumble, no matter how minor, can be left unmentioned. Finding one sentence that is 90% copied from a source suddenly then means that every time the student uses the same terminology as an original source, even medical terminology which shouldn’t be changed, you will mark it as plagiarism. Suddenly, one word, two words, three words in a row, can count as plagiarism — if you have declared it should be so and if it justifies your anger over that one sentence. You may even feel a little giddy while doing this because you’ve caught them. Now you can solidify your case that plagiarism is rampant among students and the student with the one sentence or the one paragraph is now a villain. Call yourself a hero now, maybe.

But I call it witch hunting. Policing. Confirmation bias.

I found this sentence in one of my student’s papers last year: how powerful losing weight can be. Six words in a row from the original. Common words, common idea. I highlighted it in the student’s paper and left it. The rest of her paragraph was well paraphrased. Put that phrase into google with quotes around it and the student’s source pops up as the first item along with 2 other media sources that picked up the article. Not plagiarism.

This scenario, which came under discussion on Twitter the other day, however, is very much plagiarism.

Melania Trump likely used less words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech than my fecal incontinence student used in that one paragraph. Did Melania Trump plagiarize? The bulk of her speech was “her own” or written by hired speech writers, so at the very least original in wording, if not original thinking. You bet your buckets she plagiarized.  Melania’s words were being delivered to millions with the intention of influencing them. She stole the words (and one can argue, the values) of another woman making a speech in the same context 8 years earlier and those words had helped Michelle Obama’s husband get elected as President of the United States, something Melania, perhaps, also desires for her husband.

My student wrote her paper for an audience of one in a learning environment. Her teacher. Context is everything.

There are so many reasons why a student may paraphrase poorly or not cite.  Is it really helping the student with this occasional mishap or bouts of lazy writing to crucify them with the label of academic misconduct?  Or would talking to them and understanding why it happened help you understand their writing fears and their feelings of low self-efficacy and the fact that they are just trying to survive a gruelling nursing program? Maybe what you have instead is a teachable moment? I’m a great believer that finding ways to look students in the eye while they’re in their paper preparation phase is the best plagiarism prevention of all. Some “plagiarism” is just bad writing that needs to be corrected. We need to be sure we know the difference.

 

 

 

The Writing Empathy Exercise

It was a bit of a rough year to say the least in my department when it came to issues of student academic writing.  There were whole classes that revolted about assignments and many grade appeals. I, the so-called writing expert (are any of us really “expert” at this?) felt I was being called in to put out fires about every two weeks. Problem solving these issues consumed my entire third term and sometimes my restful sleep.

The situations that arose created a lot of negativity from instructors and students alike. And the truth was that all these issues could have been prevented with the right discussions occurring at the right times.  So in order to build some capacity in instructors both seasoned and novice, and to encourage some degree of consistency in our department, I was asked to create a workshop about writing assignments across the curriculum.  One thing I sensed in the many meetings I attended was there was a degree of amnesia about what it was like to learn to write as a student.  I saw the workshop I was asked to do as an opportunity to take my colleagues back in time to when they were new nursing students and having to write for the first time in our discipline.

I also had a myth busting agenda.  In the midst of trouble shooting student revolts and appeals, I’d had far too many conversations with both students and my colleagues this term that indicated a very narrow view of citation and paraphrasing was floating around and it was affecting how students were being graded and the advice they were getting from other instructors.  I sensed there was a pervasive belief that every sentence a student wrote needed to be cited, and that if a citation was present, the teacher should be able to go back into the original article and find the exact point or fact associated with that citation.

The problem was that we as academic writers cite the work we borrow for many more reasons than straight-up paraphrasing. More problematic was that expecting every sentence in a student’s paper to be a paraphrased version of words written by someone else limited the students’ ability to argue, be creative, or have any semblance of coherent thought they could claim as their own.

Thus I created the empathy exercise. This exercise was not unlike the exercises I often gave my first year students in their introductory writing course: I chose three passages from three different sources and told my colleagues to write a short paragraph using the three sources and to be sure to cite those sources using correct APA format.

I needed to pull them out of their comfort zone but not too far out of their comfort zone. The three passages were not about nursing, they were about being a woman and riding a bike. I confirmed that all of them had at one time in their lives ridden a bike. I wanted there to be some personal experience they could draw from when they wrote their own paragraph. I made sure that the sources contained some unfamiliar “cultural” terminology about bike riding, and that at least one of the sources described riding in a peloton (like the Tour de France riders) — something I was sure that none of my colleagues had experienced. (Note: the linked passages are to the three sources I gave the group.)

So the group wrote their paragraphs and we put them aside until later.  I had a whole morning’s worth of writing instruction lessons to give before I made them scrutinize their own work, hoping that the information I was about to provide them would make them better equipped to examine their own writing with an open mind. I was looking for a paradigm shift in writing that day — one where there was more of a focus on critical thinking than on grammar, and a bit more flexibility with students being allowed to have a voice and be an expert about what they had researched.

When we were done for the day I posted the following slide and asked them to mentally check off how many of these situations were present in their own paragraphs.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.23.09 PM

I didn’t make any one stand up and read what they wrote nor did I make anyone declare their short comings.  I saw the exercise as a time for reflection on their own paraphrasing methods. If they were allowed to extemporize, build paragraphs inspired by the original text but not exactly paraphrased from the original text, or occasionally use the exact words in the form of terminology or other critical or unmodifiable  information, then students should be allowed to write that way as well.

I saw a few lights turn on in the room that day. I recognize that it is a difficult learning curve to be grading and also be able to diagnose the intention of a student’s citation without the student present to explain.  I told my colleagues my motives were to enhance their empathy in the student experience. I wanted to remind them of what it was like to be learning the language of a profession, so I had given them a topic to which they had some vague lay person knowledge and then immersed them in the lingo of those who live and breath the experience of cycling on a daily basis. There is some discussion in the literature that when we grade student writing in the disciplines, that we are expecting a fluency in the discourse of that discipline before we’ve taught them the discourse of a discipline.

But what I really wanted them to understand was that citation of sources was more than just ensuring that everything written was easily locatable in the source cited. That to paraphrase well, you have to be well read, experienced, and insert a bit of yourself into the mix.

“So, in other words, what you are saying, is you want us to lighten up,” one of my colleagues, clearly on to me, said to the group.

Yes. Yes, I do.

 

Starting a ‘movement’ of voice

I go to conferences sometimes.  I always present something because I don’t see any point in going unless my name is on the docket and — reality — it is now the only way to get money to go. There are always hot topics in nursing education; the past couple years it’s been simulation and NCLEX prep (the translated American to Canadian nursing registration exam). Transition from student to grad nurse seems to be everywhere these days as well. Years past, grade inflation was the big topic. I have often — no. Correction — always — had little interest in whatever has popped up as the hot topic of the decade, which has always made me feel a bit like an anomaly. Off and on for 10 years I’ve been going to conferences and presenting something about writing. And I am the only one talking about the subject. I have moderate sized audiences, though, and the attendees usually want to bitch about how bad students write and how big a problem it is.

(As an aside, I am also anomaly in feeling our student writing isn’t that bad at all — most of them anyhow — they write just fine when they feel their writing is valued).

At the last conference I was at, one senior administrator (no, not my own) raised her hand and said, “I would like to thank you for taking this on.”  Thanks. I need some friends. In my discipline, I feel pretty alone.

Nevertheless, every once and a while nursing does something brilliant about writing in the published literature.  There are only spots of brilliance in a pool of the mundane and superficial. How do we say that in academic voice?  There is a paucity of literature on this subject and what exists in the published literature is primarily anecdotal and refers to local contexts. For all the style guides that warn of the weakness of euphemism in writing, academic writing is really good at sophisticated euphemism: anecdotal and local contexts, vs. mundane and superficial. The latter is a little mean, isn’t it? The article I quoted in the image (Ryan, Walker, Scaia, & Smith, 2013, p. 297) is an exception and far ahead of the curve of where actual thinking about writing currently stands in the nursing discipline. That quote is the reason why I wanted to start this blog. There is so much that can be said when you aren’t governed by the need to cite everything — and you can use slang and contractions and funny punctuation like double-dashes, ask rhetorical questions, drop the occasional four-letter word, and sometimes even fragment sentences are OK (if for emphasis). Ironically, the ellipsis in the quote is a citation I removed (rebel!). There is a good chance it was cited more because it inspired the point rather than because it made the point.

I’ve never been one to be very good at not just saying out loud what I think. It’s got me in trouble on more than one occasion. I find blog writing easier because I can share my reflections that can’t go into my papers in their raw form, and I can write in a semi-controlled stream-of-conscious style. It is freeing to let go of structure and rules — neither of which I am very good with in real life anyhow. But paradoxically I find academic writing easier because of the ability to hide my real voice which is sometimes contemptuous, sarcastic, and critical. Like most women, I’ve been socialized that I should never make others feel bad, not even accidentally or if by telling the truth. Sometimes my real voice sends me into a tail spin of anxiety and embarrassment.

I wrote these sentences into a recent and pending paper I am working on:  Nursing students’ devaluation of writing can only exist because their instructors and their programs allow it to. While the importance of writing skills for nursing students is emphasized in every publication, the wider profession devalues its importance. 

Those phrases never made it past the first draft. I never send my first draft to my co-authors. So while they never got to read those sentences, they did get to read my track changes side comment a paraphrase of which was: I wrote (paraphrase of above sentences) in the first draft. I took it out because I’m not sure the world is ready to hear it yet. One of them, bless her soul, I love her, wrote back: “I agree!”

But let’s look at a sampling of evidence.

“Writing is not merely the responsibility of the English department, but of the entire academic community” (Luthy, Peterson, Lassetter, & Callister, 2009).

“Student competency in writing …. is often assumed rather than explicitly taught” (Miller, Russell, Cheng, & Skarbek, 2015).

“Students may actually view writing assignments as a burden, as they struggle with trying to determine what an instructor wants in a particular project” (Schmidt, 2004).

“nursing faculty … feel they do not have the time to grade written assignments” (Luthy et al., 2009).

“Many nurse educators do not write academically themselves and yet they expect their students to” (Whitehead, 2002).

“academic writing may not be perceived as a legitimate part of clinical nursing practice” (Whitehead, 2002).

“The central question here is why do nursing students have to write essays? … the emphasis on essay writing (and the failure to succeed even in that) is highly symbolic of the mess in which nursing education finds itself” (Cottingham, 2005).

Now I recognize that every one of the above quotes have been pulled out of context and with the exception of the last one (although, I may argue a devil’s advocate subtext is present here because the author is clearly a great writer himself), every one of these authors supports writing as valuable to nursing. Most of them say nursing could benefit from allowing students to have a voice and not locking them into academic conventions.  Creativity and individual personalized expression are valuable too.

But the message is clear. We have a problem with writing in nursing.  We suspect our profession would rather pass the buck on writing instruction to someone else (English departments) rather than be responsible ourselves, and that tendency affects our students’ understanding of what we are asking them to do. We have better uses of our time than grading (ubiquitously bad) writing assignments. We don’t do enough writing ourselves. Writing may not be important to clinical practice.

We are the only discipline that even questions why we write (that I’ve noticed). I’ve read about writing across many disciplines (with psychology, education, libraries, writing centres, and history being the most prominent). That students have to write and that instructors need to be a part of that learning process is a foregone conclusion.  But in nursing, not so.  We are the profession that published the article by Cottingham, which can also be read as an ironic and sarcastic piece,  proposing the question of why do we bother to teach writing at all?  “There is not a skerrick of evidendential connection between good essay writing and good nursing (or even intelligence, come to that!).” It made my blood boil when I first read it but, damn it!, he’s not wrong.  We haven’t provided any evidence at all. Does writing make nursing students better critical thinkers and clinical practitioners, as every article claims in its review of the literature as justification for their work, or is it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all? Does it matter? Does having evidence even matter?

I’m trying to do the work to find out. I may be alone in that mission. I recognize there is irony in my discussion of the need for us to step outside from behind the comfort of academic voice, show our real selves and say what we mean, while I write this blog not yet revealing who I am.  Right now I’m just putting out feelers. In due time, my readers, in due time.