Academic literacy workshop

School of Public Health (19 November, 2009) Sioux McKenna

A brief history of academic development in South Africa: Changing understandings of the “student problem”

Defined by CHE as a field of research and practice that aims to enhance quality and effectiveness. There's a difference between equity of access and outcomes (e.g. successful progress through the system).

Different models of academic development:

  • Academic support programmes in the 1980's → a need for white universities to “cope” with black students → a superficial understanding of disadvantage to mean “don't have stuff”, began to question curriculum parameters that catered for priveledged students
  • Academic development (1990's) → focus on institution rather than student (transformation to a new political order), not about “fixing” students who can't keep up → think about the problem differently. Not a mindshift, just cchanged the words → developed teaching methodologies to address needs of students, asked questions about ourselves
  • Higher education development → today, related globalisation and neo-liberal policies at a higher level, questions around universities' role for the public good (and social justice), or is it about profit / producing skilled labour

Different models of discourses:

  • Support → assumption that there is a deficit within students (weak), and that universities / curricula / teachers are great (strong)
  • Policy → criticacisms around how policies are designed to maintain the status quo, problematises the student, rather than question ourselves
  • Capacity → uneven higher education terrain in terms of resources (human, physical) → university is not first and foremost about producing skilled labour, it's about transforming a country

What was learnt through these discussions?

  • Equity cannot be atttained until mainstream HEI developed the capacity to accommodate students from all communities and educational backgrounds, knowledge structures. Not enough to blame high school “We get bad students”. “How can we support unprepared students?” Shift the locus of control onto ourselves.
  • Must recognise the systemic nature of the problem. It's complex and not something that only a few can fix.
  • Educational disadvantage is not a minority problem → reconceptualise the problem, can't just keep tacking on small scale “fixes”

There is futility in focussing on the high school system Need for change is at the level of mainstream structures and practices

Equity of access → ← Equity of outcomes

Equity of access (to higher education) seems to be good at a superficial level:

  • Success in opening doors to higher education
  • No. of black students has doubles since 1993; BUT
  • Gross participation rates are low (16% enrollment in population of 20-24 year olds)
  • 60% white, 51% indian, 12% coloured and black (registration, not pass rate)

Equity of outcomes (from Scott, Yeld and Henry, 2007):

  • 50% will graduate from a 3 year degree in 5 years
  • 38% who made it into HE will drop out

Models of Foundational programmes (looks like it's going to become the norm):

  • First Foundational provision (1982) → made up of key subjects to fill the “articulation gap” between high school and HEI, absence of state support, successful initiatives were forward looking (“bridging” programmes look back i.e. what didn't they learn at high school) → as opposed to “what do I need to be a successful …”? Seen as a necessary but not sufficent to address equity
  • Second → curriculum remains untouched but htere's an additional few subjects
  • Third → initial foundational module but curriculum remains untouched and there's no integration
  • Fourth → foundational programme is completely integrated into a longer, modified curriculum

Moving forward? → more flexible curricula

Activists or academics?

  • In South Africa, there is an ongoing lack of research in teaching and learning (fall back on stereotypical, “common sense” understanding of the “student problem”)
  • Need for a critical mass of academics to do research in teaching and learning
  • Using part-time and junior staff for student development is a bad idea, rather use experienced staff to do that work
  • Move away from the idea that our structures have to change → it's not always the students who are the problem. It's comfortable to accept that the student is the problem

Academic literacies

“I don't believe in academic literacy, only literacies”

We are not a tribe of academics, there are many tribes and we don't all belong to all of them, we cannot belong to all of them, because we don't understand all of the tribal practices. But we do belong to more than one.

Remember that the tribes we belong to are the tribes that our students are trying to get inducted into. Our tribal practices are largely unknown to the students but we expect that they know them (or learn about them independantly). First year students are not necessarily interested in the same tribes as fourth year students. A discipline is a set of tribal norms that are mysterious, and those mysterious tribal rules are not made overt to students. Our job is to induct students into the discipline.

Practices emanate from values, so if students are not inducted into the value system of that tribe, why should they emulate the practice? Value systems underpin the way we construct our texts. Useful idea for teaching human rights.

“Skills” are things you teach, whereas “practices” are things you are inducted into. We teach students skills and give them facts. That doesn't make them physiotherapists. We don't graduate physiotherapists, we graduate people who have a set of skills and knowledge / information, but it takes years for them to induct themselves into our tribe. We unconsciously understand the subjects / practices / values of our tribe, but how can we make it explicit to our students who don't understand our tribal culture?

Passive writing techniques mean that the action is the most important part of the “story”, not the subject or actor. It should be devoid of social class, it has nothing to do with “the hand that did it”. It has more to do with the value system that lie beneath it. The focus is on the external action, rather than the internal values. Passive writing helps to showcase objectivity.

Socio-economic status is the most direct correlating factor related to failure i.e. if you're from a working class background, you're more likely to fail. Indictment of higher education…how are we a social good if we stratify students through entry requirements / costs. If someone does manage to get in who can't afford to, they're more likely to fail.

Students trying to crack the code of academic language → another tribal practice that they don't necessarily understand. Figure out the “ways of being” in a university. It's less foreign for some than for others.

Middle class students more likely to come from a home where parents read, there are books, newspapers and magazines available. But, reading is not a neutral skill, it has a cultural practice associated with it.

“Humanities” reference 5-8 times more than the “natural sciences”, and the referencing is done in fundamentally different ways, with different purposes. Novice academics read papers differently to experienced academics. Novices read the abstracts, experienced academics read the reference lists first.

Academic language is elevated. We ask students to write in their own words, but penalise them when they don't use “our/academic” words: “Kids from broken homes turn to crime” is not acceptable in academia; → “According to (citations), children between the ages of 9 and 14 living in households where the relationships into which they were born has been disrupted tend to become involved in instances of petty crime such as shoplifting” The above sentence highlights academic value systems

What is the “culture of knowledge” in your department?

  • Lecturer expectations can be “mysterious”
  • First generation students are disadvantaged by the “academic literacy by osmosis” model
  • All of our expectations cannot be completely transparent, but we must figure out ways that we can make accessible with some thought

Different disciplines = different practices = different teaching and learning practices

First year level is about scaffolding (review this concept) access to tribal / disciplinary practices. However, we try to shove in as much content as possible, while largely ignoring the scaffolding (lots of small developmental and incremental tasks with lots of feedback)

What is more important, to give an exact replication of the textbook definition, or to explain in poor academic language what the definition means. Disciplinary practices are unique to the discipline…there are rules to follow / hoops to jump through / play the game e.g. students must use the language that is required by the discipline. Most students are not there to question, they are there to pass.

When we ask students to “discuss”, we need to to provide context. “Discuss” can be a lazy way to add marks to a simple “concept” question.

You can only critique a discipline when you're an insider. But if you wait until you're an insider, you might be consumed by the Borg.

Beware of “talkback” as opposed to “feedback”.

As an experienced academic you can subvert the tribal practices / discourses. You can bring in the personal components. Only when you're a member of the tribe, can you subvert it. We can write in a way that brings in other perspectives / discourses because we know the tribal practices and therefore subvert it.

Universities are spaces that can lead to societal change (we're not sure if they still do), but only if discussion and debate are encouraged.

“List the 5 principles of good management” (why is this an example of a poor question?) List = verbatim, is about jumping through hoops, not engaging Are there only the 5 listed in the textbook? What does “good” mean?

Make sure that students know that the course content is not a “canon” of knowledge to be revered, with no other alternatives. Students, especially first years, struggle with the idea that there can be many “truths”. It comes back to identifying value systems early on, so that students know there isn't a universally correct truth, and that we're OK with that.

Advocates a constant critique of practices. Who's interests are being served / ignored?

Autonomous vs Idealogical? All texts can be looked at from these two approaches (a text can be anything, even a person) Most of the time, we use an autonomous position to understand a “thing? Autonomous → meaning resides in the text, and we decode the text to get at the meaning (how does this compare to connectivism) Idealogical → meaning is socially constructed, we apply meaning to the text, thus we cannot separate the texts from the people who are using them, the text is just a collection of shapes i.e. people contstruct meaning

Student development from the autonomous model: Fix students ability to decode It's about skills, technical ability Focus is on surface correction → getting the message right in terms of it's structure Can be generic and outside of the mainstream “Students” are responsible for not decoding properly, therfore I don't have to change my practice, it's the student who must change

Student development from the idealogical model:

  • Inducting students into discipline specific practices (taught within the discipline)
  • Recognition that such practices are socially constructed but are essential for “discourse insider status”
  • Assist students in “cracking the code”, through explicit discussion and practice thereof
  • We need to critique the teaching methods and learning materials → changes are at a curriculum level

Academic literacy:

  • Not a skill, but a change in a set of practices
  • Not generic, but is discipline specific → not one academic literacy, but many academic literacies (can differ by discipline, region, country)
  • Many other literacies (outside the institution) that students bring with them e.g. workplace and social literacies. Do we make space for those literacies? Do we value them? Do we encourage them? Are students “allowed” to integrate those literacies into their academic literacies?
  • Not overt but is subtle and subconscious

Are we trying to get students to “learn stuff” or are we trying to get them to “become learners”?

academic_literacy_workshop.txt · Last modified: 2009/11/20 23:08 by Michael Rowe