Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

Reader and Writer Relationships in Academic Writing

I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels while on break between the end of one PhD course and the start of the next. It’s been glorious. I’ve been neglecting my fiction reading as of late in favour of academic articles, partially out of necessity and time but partially because I’ve been finding it harder and harder to connect with novels and get into them — it is hit or miss if I’ll find the writing compelling. I have also found it to be more of a regular occurrence to read a novel and have most of it be good and then the author ruins it with a cheap plot cheat that comes out of nowhere, like an act of God, and solves all the protagonist’s problems. I walk away from books like that feeling ripped off. Once upon a time, I used to insist on reading books from start to finish, even if I didn’t like them. My time is too valuable for that now.

And yes, I am a literature snob. I like a strong voice and strong voices are hard to find.

I also like strong voices in academic writing, and those are even harder to find.

But my Twitter feed keeps filling up with reminders of how important creative writing is to the mind and soul. They say that voracious readers are also good writers. Whether this is scientifically backed up is debatable, but reading, at the very least, gives you the skills to recognize good writing. What you read, says a lot about you as a person. Your ability to articulate your passion for what you’re reading also says a lot too. Because reading is relationship building, and having a passion for what you’ve read means that the relationship was successful. Here’s an untested hypothesis for you: It is possible that writers who are voracious readers, are best able to understand the needs of readers when they write.

In my academic reading, I’ve been examining the social construction of writing and one of the components of writing as a social construction is the relationship that a writer forms with a reader. This is a complicated relationship because intertwined  within it is the identities of both characters, and they never (or rarely) come face to face. The writer has to envision a reader as they write which means they have to guess what that reader knows and understands already, and what they will need to know to understand the argument. They have to guess what emotions that reader may be having. They have to accept the consequences that the reader may interpret what is written in a way that was never intended.

Having an intimate knowledge of your reader is one of the greatest challenges of writing. We see our undergraduate students fail at this time and time again.  I’m convinced this is one aspect of student writing that we mistakenly identify as poor grammar. Undergraduate students believe they have no knowledge or authority and, thus, that everything they do know must be common knowledge. This leads to them writing statements out of their head without citation. This issue also contributes to a lot of lack of clarity in their writing and the giant holes present in their description of their arguments.  Their teachers, to them, are all knowing beings. Why should they have to define that term or make that connection overtly for the teacher when the teacher is already the expert? I have had students come back to question a grade and when they provide their explanation as to why they deserve more marks, they fill in those holes they failed to explain in their original paper. Explaining what you meant after the fact doesn’t change the lack of clarity in the orignal.

Stephen King in On Writing talks about having an ideal reader in your head as you write. For him, it is his wife Tabatha. For an academic writer, it may be a teacher, or a editor, or anonymous reviewers. For a PhD student it may be an advisor or other opinionated committee member. When you are an undergraduate student only writing one paper for a particular teacher, sensing what a teacher defines as good writing can seem a daunting and impossible task. What pleased one teacher in the past may be lambasted by another. When writing for peer reviewed journals, it isn’t much different. What pleases one reviewer, another reviewer will tell you to cut as being a waste of space, or too editorial in nature. These issues can prey on your writing self-efficacy. And influencing writing self-efficacy runs as deep as preying on your identity  (or lack thereof) as a writer.

On the side of the reader, you are continually trying to imagine the person behind the writing. I have read academic papers that have sent me to google to search more about the author and their work or sent me back into the library databases to find other articles they’ve written. This is extremely rare. Yet, in the creative field, we all have favourite authors where we devour everything they’ve written. If a writer has done their job, you will demand to know more about what drove the work. When I was a teenager and in transition from Sweet Valley High to Stephen King novels, one of the things I liked best was his afterwords to his books which told the stories behind the stories of writing his novels. It was his way of inserting himself into his work and connecting with readers — until he got to the end of The Gunslinger series and he LITERALLY inserted himself in his novel, which really didn’t work for me…… but I digress.

The other component of relationship building on the side of the reader is the act of reading and interpreting what is being said. This is the risk that a writer faces when they send their work out into the world to be devoured, critiqued, or even ignored. Good writing will inspire the next idea. It should instil critical thinking. The reader will be making constant connections between what they have read and their own identities, and things going on in their lives.

In academic writing this means that when a writer cites another author, it could mean many things. It could be a direct paraphrase, a misinterpretation, it could be an inspiration, or it could be a leap in thinking to the next great discovery. All of us who have published, have experienced seeing our work cited and thought, “that’s not what I said.” And this is OK, in my opinion. It just means the writer as reader was inspired in some way by what you wrote. Argument building depends upon that inspiration. I’ve often said that citation in academic writing is like a sophisticated game of telephone — a game I remember playing as a kid, sitting in a circle and whispering a sentence from one to the next and seeing how it changes by the time it reaches the last person in the loop. The game itself is a lesson against gossip, but in academic writing, the cycle of reading, writing, and interpreting, and coming to the end of the loop with a new idea, is how knowledge is made. We don’t learn what we know prior to sitting down to write, we learn what we know as we write, and this is where the magic happens.

When I say, all writing is creative writing, I, in part, am talking about this reader/writer relationship building and the writing-reading interpretation loop. Connecting with a reader requires imagination and ideas that inspire, so that a reader takes those words into their world, imbeds them into their own identity and makes meaning.

 

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