Academic reading, thinking and writing in the dicisplines
Academic reading and writing are, in many ways, new to students upon entering university. This is largely because the kinds of thinking and reading that have to happen before the writing can start are very different to those that happen at school, and because the writing itself is new. Writing at university happens in the disciplines, and these disciplines are, in essence, communities or ‘tribes’ (Becher and Trowler 2001) with rules, values, knowledges and cultures that shape and inform the way in which thinking, reading and writing happens. This is a very simple account of a layered and complex entity, because within disciplines there are sub-disciplines, and often the differences between disciplines in certain subject areas, like the natural sciences or the humanities may be subtle rather than obvious. However, it is a useful analogy when we think about what students are doing when they come to university and register for a degree in, for example, history. Historians are part of a larger discipline that takes certain marked out ontological and epistemological approaches to the study of their subject. History as a discipline ‘disciplines’ them in certain ways; the ways in which they read, write, think, speak, do research and produce knowledge are all ways that will be familiar to or recognised as legitimate by other historians. When students enter university and join the history department, they become applicants for membership of this ‘tribe’ called History. In order to become members they must become recognisable to established members of the tribe, thus they must learn, over the course of their degree study, to read historical texts and extract information from these and understand it in the proper contexts, think in certain ways about what they have read and debate this knowledge with their peers, and write about it in a ‘historical voice’ and/or style that will render the knowledge they have acquired and transformed through their own understanding recognisable as ‘history’. Students mostly demonstrate their levels of engagement, understanding and learning through their written work, and in order for it to be judged acceptable to people inside their disciplines that written work has to look and sound and feel and read like a disciplinary text. Students, therefore, cannot learn how to write effectively in the disciplines in order to gain membership of their chosen tribes from people outside of the disciplines. Academic literacy courses and writing centres can act as partners in the students’ learning journey to help them learn how to think through their ideas, and how to organise these ideas more logically and coherently, for example, and in many cases they can help students adjust to other conventions applicable to writing, reading and thinking at university. These roles are valuable, and if one considers the South African educational context and the range of related experiences that students bring with them to university study, one may agree that many students need this additional space to receive support and assistance. But, the main work of helping students to become readers, thinkers and writers in ways that are recognised and valued by the disciplines are the disciplinary experts: the lecturers and tutors.
This can be a challenging task because many academic lecturers and tutors are themselves proficient readers, thinkers and writers, but are not always fully able to make explicit the knowledge, skills and competencies that go into make them so. The ways of their discipline have become their ‘ways of being’ in the world (Bharuthram and McKenna 2006) and it is hard for them to put themselves in the shoes of undergraduate students who don’t yet know, because once you know something, like how to write a successful history essay, you cannot un-know it. However, it is not an impossible task, and teaching students in your classes and tutorials to become more capable readers, writers and thinkers in your discipline is also not teaching a ‘skill’ that will threaten to reduce the amount of ‘content’ you can teach. Students have to think about the content knowledge they are learning, and they need to read about it, and to show you what they know and understand, they have to write and speak about it. How will they do all of this successfully if they are not being shown how it is all done in recognised and valued disciplinary ways? Content knowledge and the skills and practices used to learn and demonstrate that knowledge can never be divorced from one another, because they always go together. The task of all good teachers is to find creative, relevant and useful ways to show students what the skills and practices are in relation to the knowledge and how to utilise both to become recognised members of the tribe.
Becher, T. and P. Trowler. 2001. Academic Tribes and Territories. Second Edition. Berkshire: OUP.
Bharuthram, S. and S. McKenna. 2006. ‘A writer-respondent intervention as a means of developing academic literacy’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:4, 495-507.
These resources give some ideas and examples, and some useful references for lecturers and tutors needing some help thinking through and applying strategies to help their own students become more proficient readers, thinker and writers in the disciplines. There are also further resources on the 'Resources' page under 'General Pages'.
Strategies and activities for helping students to become more critical readers
Helping students become more capable disciplinary writers