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Prof Christine Winberg on Teaching Learning with STEMs and APLs

STEMs and APLs: Academic and professional literacies and interdisciplinary collaboration

Communication lecturers are often called on to teach academic, professional or technical literacies in professional programmes, using their skills to provide a means of bridging the gap between different professions, and between lecturers and students within those professions. But generic communication skills may not be applicable in all disciplines – and that’s where true collaboration needs to take place, according to Professor Christine Winberg.

Prof Winberg, Director of the Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, delivered a talk on Academic, professional and technical literacies and interdisciplinary collaboration at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Public Health on 17 September 2014. The talk was hosted by UWC’s Directorate of Teaching and Learning and the Faculty of Arts.

The seminar examined how academic literacy practitioners can be of service to other disciplines, and how these practitioners can be employed as more equal partners in the academic teaching process – especially when working with academics in the sciences and engineering-related fields. APLs – academic literacy practitioners – are often not well-equipped to understand the communications needs and conventions of STEMS (those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“STEMs centre their values around proof, accuracy and measurement, and that’s a very different world from the one APLs usually inhabit, where methodologies are much more qualitative, and focused on the people side,” Prof Winberg noted. “And when it comes down to communications practices, those differences become very, very obvious – not only is the jargon different, but STEMs often communicate through data directly. Teaching generic reporting doesn’t really work – and trying to teach those generic skills can add cognitive load for students rather than helping them.”

What’s needed, she noted, is a conceptual framework for interdisciplinary collaboration and communication.

“Communication doesn’t happen in the void,” she said. “You have to communicate to someone about some purpose. Similarly, you can’t just get together and collaborate; there has to be something to collaborate around.”

That something, called a boundary object, could help create a transaction space – a safe space where different practitioners could ask each other questions, and figure out just one thing they have in common, and proceed from there.

They may seem simple, but those insights were hard-earned. Prof Winberg drew on a number of case studies to show how re-conceptualising the work of communication lecturers can enhance collaboration between communication and content lectures and, ultimately, contribute more meaningfully to the language development of students enrolled in professional programmes.

In one case,  her group was brought in to help students prepare for a capstone presentation for engineers presenting their work to a joint panel for consideration. Communications lecturers are then brought in to help the students correct errors and polish their communications. But too much polish can be problematic.

“That first time I was very proud,” Prof Winberg explained. “We had the presentations all set up, and we practiced and practiced. But I didn’t realise that these presentations are not about outshining everyone else’s work – they were just about explaining the scientific basis of what had been done, and why. The academics just cringed at these marketing-heavy presentations.”

Another case, a collaboration around making medical terminology a bit easier to grasp, went off a little better. “Here the APLs could bring in their skills, helping the STEMs explain themselves. But simplification was not always appropriate when working with scientific and medical language which may have reason for being as it is, and I came to have a greater appreciation for the difficulties involved.”

And then there was a much more successful case, where everything finally came together. We had better funding and a bigger team of both STEMs and APLs. But more importantly, we planned well in advance. We came in with the knowledge that we needed to learn from each other before teaching others, and we all tried to understand each other’s worlds a little – and that made all the difference.”