Towards a shared ALL praxis of reading student writing

I find myself constantly returning to the thought that Academic Language & Learning support seems to be drifting further and further away from any sustained attention to language itself or to the language problems students face in grappling with academic discourse and its protocols.

In relation to language, ALL seems to have settled on attending to the two extremes of the spectrum of issues students are juggling: generic structure as the shape of a larger textual units, detailed conventions ruling citation and punctuation; and a  micro-grammar of such matters as tense and articles. What is missing from this three-fold optic is any attention to the actual movement, rhetoric, flow and patterning of both wording and meaning at a more intermediate plane. Language has been sidelined as a key element in the progress of students by the institutional, social and cognitive features of students, features that are more accessible to data collection. In fact I don’t think it unfair to claim that there has been a fairly systematic erasure of language as a key medium for addressing and redressing the academic progress of students. (And when language is considered, it is often with a quite simplistic or reductionist framing.)

I am encouraged by the scattered but still weak signs pointing towards a renewed interest in matters of style and invention, that is, a renewal of what was the dominant focus of the field prior to the disruptive intrusion of ‘Theory’ in the 80s. Thirty years later, having had time to engage with, digest and learn from the theoretical concepts and dispositifs of philosophical and social critically reflection, surely we can once again take up a renewed, reinflected and richer engagement with language issues facing students. To me it seems time to fumble our way towards a more shared toolkit of ways to attend to, make visible, proffer advice, and demonstrate practical tools/ resources for students to explore and deploy in writing or re-writing academic text.

In short, what we need now is to develop a pedagogic stylistics, a rhetoric of academic discourse that can function as both diagnostic and praxis.

Defining Academic writing

Notes towards a critique of Genre Theory

When I think about defining academic writing, it is easy to shift too quickly to thinking in terms of SFL grammatics, and to define it in terms of features like grammatical metaphor, abstraction, technicality, etc. Or in terms of the genres deployed in assignments such as essays, reports, etc.

But this ignores the ‘rhetorical situation’ contexting academic writing.

I do not believe that the SFL notion of genre captures what is happening in academic writing. It’s notion of ‘institutional purpose’ is too thin, and there has been no real effort to thicken it up over the years – despite using phrases like ‘configuration of meanings’.

There are two issues: one, thickening the description of the institutional scene; and, secondly, acknowledging that educators are focused on the individual text and what it signifies about the understanding of the student author.

Re one: Genre theory has no category ‘above’ genre with which to describe the institutional context and its history of language games

Re two: Genre theory focuses on types, the generic case, not the unique or individual case.