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Developing academic literacies through understanding the nature of disciplinary knowledge


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Much academic development work that is framed by academic literacies, especially that focused on writing, is concerned with disciplinary conventions and knowledges: conceptual, practical, and procedural. This paper argues, however, that academic literacies work tends to conflate literacy practices with disciplinary knowledge structures, thus obscuring the structures from which these practices emanate. This paper demonstrates how theoretical and analytical tools for conceptualizing disciplinary knowledge structures can connect these with academic literacies development work. Using recent studies that combine academic literacies and theories of knowledge in novel ways, this paper will show that understanding the knowledge structures of different disciplines can enable academic developers to build a stronger body of practice. This will enable academic developers working within disciplinary contexts to more ably speak to the nature of coming to know in higher education.
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London Review of Education DOI:
Volume 15, Number 1, March 2017
Developing academic literacies through understanding the
nature of disciplinary knowledge
Sherran Clarence* and Sioux McKenna
Rhodes University, South Africa
Much academic development work that is framed by academic literacies, especially that focused
on writing, is concerned with disciplinary conventions and knowledges: conceptual, practical,
andprocedural.Thispaperargues,however,that academic literacies worktendstoconate
literacy practices with disciplinary knowledge structures, thus obscuring the structures from
which these practices emanate. This paper demonstrates how theoretical and analytical tools
for conceptualizing disciplinary knowledge structures can connect these with academic
literacies development work. Using recent studies that combine academic literacies and
theories of knowledge in novel ways, this paper will show that understanding the knowledge
structures of different disciplines can enable academic developers to build a stronger body of
practice. This will enable academic developers working within disciplinary contexts to more
ably speak to the nature of coming to know in higher education.
Keywords: academic development; academic literacies; disciplines; higher education;
knowledge; knowers
research, arguing that it was a critical eld of inquiry, and that it had both a recognizable
epistemology – that of literacy as a social practice – and an ideology – that of transformation.
literacies research and practice is moving as it grows and develops. In particular, Cecilia Jacobs
(2013)drawsonLillisandScott’sargument toargueforthe need tondasharedontology
and practice into closer connection. She postulates that this may enable cumulative building of
the knowledge we have generated through both practice and research across local and global
Jacobs suggests that, to develop a shared ontology, disciplinary knowledge structures and
characteristics should be centred in conversations about what being academically ‘literate’ is in
different contexts within universities. This would allow academic literacies development work
to be done in and across the disciplines in ways that build an increasingly shared basis for future
research and practice. She argues that this is central to how academic literacies practitioners
can help both students and lecturers to develop relevant literacies over time (Jacobs, 2013).
(Academic literacies practitioners refers here to faculty members who work in academic
development or teaching and learning development units, or within faculties, whose particular
role is to work with lecturers and students to develop students’ academic literacy practices,
* Corresponding author – email:
©Copyright 2017 Clarence and McKenna. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
London Review of Education 39
This paper agrees with Jacobs that a useful focal point to build the eld of academic
development would be the disciplinary knowledges with which students and lecturers work.
In this paper, disciplinary knowledge is not taken to mean the ‘content’ of the curriculum in a
narrow frame, but rather denotes both what students learn about (the content) and how this
content is organized, sequenced, expressed, assessed, and valued (see Bernstein, 2000; Dowling,
1998). Academic development practitioners need to adapt their practice and research to work
effectively with students who are creating varied disciplinary texts, reading within specic
disciplinary ‘canons’ or bodies of knowledge, and learning to think using methods that differ
from one discipline to another. Broad areas of study, such as the humanities, do share similarities
around methods of inquiry, use of terminology, and even text-based genre forms, such as the
essay. However, there are differences that stem from how each discipline imagines and constructs
itself, how it has developed, and how specialists within it continue its growth and development.
Thus, in order to be effective, academic development work needs to aim towards two
sociohistorically and socioculturally informed practices, shaped by particular sets of values and
example, Barton and Hamilton, 2005; Gee, 1989; Lillis, 2001). This work would entail sensitizing
contexts and values. The other goal the focus of this paper would orientate students and
lecturers more overtly towards the structure of knowledge in the disciplines from which
thenorms,values,and textual practices emanate.This work entails a specic focus on what
constitutes knowledge and how it is built and critiqued within the discipline. Conating the
structure of disciplinary knowledge with the norms, values, and literacy practices that bring that
knowledge to life puts academic literacy development at risk of missing important nuances that
impact on how knowledge is created by students, and how it is taught and assessed by lecturers.
Much academic literacy development focuses on developing literacy improvement tools,
practices, and approaches for students and lecturers that take into account the context in which
they are working. Examples include approaches to reading, unpacking, and understanding written
texts, or essay drafting and revision strategies that address particular assessment briefs. But
what counts as context, and who determines this? Why are contexts different in terms of their
underpinning ‘rules’ across, or even within, disciplines? In accounting for context, knowledge
needs to be seen as an object of study that emerges from socially situated and value-laden
contexts such as academic disciplines, but it cannot be reduced to these (Maton and Moore,
2010). Simply put, knowledge itself acts to shape and determine what counts as context, and how
one needs to read, write, think, and act within such contexts. Thus, seeing knowledge structures
as distinct from, but always connected to, processes of knowing or producing knowledge is an
important part of academic literacies development work.
Academic literacies research and practice
Mary Lea and Brian Street (1998) argue that approaches to developing students’ academic
on correcting students’ decient writing, usually using methods to teach essay writing as a
conclusion,references).The second approach,which subsumesthe rst,they term‘academic
socialization’. In this heuristic frame, students are shown the ‘rules of the game’ that they are
third approach is termed ‘academic literacies’, and further subsumes the two prior approaches.
40 Sherran Clarence, and Sioux McKenna
‘Academic literacies’ is presented as an ideal to work towards, where literacies in the disciplines
are viewed as multiple, contested, and socially constructed according to different, often tacit,
Academic literacies researchers in South Africa and elsewhere have long lamented the
dominance of the ‘study skills’ and ‘academic socialization’ approaches to literacy development
work in higher education (Boughey and McKenna, 2015; Boughey, 2013; Clarence, 2012; Mitchell,
2010). Many advocate moving towards the more critical and challenging ‘academic literacies’
for example, there is a range of approaches that are broadly termed ‘academic literacy support’,
from writing-intensive courses where lecturers take on the responsibility for teaching students
disciplinary literacies, to embedded ‘modules’ within courses co-taught by lecturers and academic
literacies practitioners, to stand-alone courses that teach students ‘study skills’ and essay-writing
practices that are only loosely connected to the disciplines in which students need to use them.
Notable is the ongoing and persistent presence of an autonomous model of literacy development
that places the responsibility for becoming appropriately literate primarily on the shoulders of
Much academic literacies development work is practically focused on supporting lecturers
and students located within disciplinary contexts, yet academic literacies practitioners come into
these contexts from outside of the knowledge-making practices. This may mean that they are
not intimately acquainted with how these practices work to include or exclude certain kinds
of knowledge and knowers. Coming into these contexts from a relatively ‘naive’ (Rai and Lillis,
2011: 4) outsider position gives academic literacies practitioners a distinct advantage, because it
enables them to ask questions that can make the familiar ‘strange’ (Trowler, 2011) to those on
the inside. Asking these questions of lecturers and students can open up spaces for talking about
the whys and hows of knowledge- and meaning-making. Such questions can enable a more overt
understanding of why students are asked to write in certain ways, and how they can adapt their
When academic literacies practitioners work with students, especially, they are often talking
to them about the ‘rules’ or conventions of their discipline, and attempting to make these clearer
so that students can come to know, and more successfully show that they know (Paxton and
Frith, 2013; Bharuthram and McKenna, 2006). The advantage of being in a position to ask naive
questions enables academic literacy practitioners to make explicit the socially constructed nature
of literacy practices. However, when it comes to getting at the heart of disciplinarity in terms of
what, precisely, the underpinning logics and drivers of the disciplines could be, academic literacies
practitionersmaybenetfromdrawingonadditionaltools thatgettotheactualstructureof
the knowledge.
If academic literacies development work is located, by necessity or strategy, outside of the
discipline, academic literacies practitioners need to acknowledge a lack of full understanding
of the knowledge being produced, and what the deeper point of the knowledge-production
processes is, even if they work closely with disciplinary lecturers. Working in collaborative
ways(Jacobs,2007),academic literaciespractitioners oftenleavethe ne-grained disciplinary
knowledge issues to those in the discipline, and focus their efforts on asking questions that help
those inside the discipline to see more clearly and critically what their teaching and assessment
demands of students. Further, they focus on changing literacy practices and understandings in
ways that enable students to learn how to know, and show what they know, more successfully;
this is what Lillis and Scott (2007) may term academic literacies’ transformative goal.
To accomplish these more critical, challenging, and discipline-focused collaborations, and to
enable academic literacies practitioners to ‘get’ the disciplines they work with in clearer ways,
London Review of Education 41
we need conceptual and analytical tools with which to probe the structure of the knowledge in
deeper ways. Why, for example, does philosophy create arguments in that particular rhetorical
form? Why is political science, which shares commonalities with sociology, not like sociology in
particular ways, and more like it in others? We can answer these questions by stating the obvious:
and social sciences, and as such they play by different rules. In academic literacies terms, these
disciplines use different forms of genre (Swales, 1990), the argumentative essay for example,
to shape students’ dispositions, or ways of acting, being, and knowing. But how does academic
literacy development work account, in detail, for why argumentative essays in political science,
philosophy, and sociology enact different forms of meaning-making?
Perhaps there is a bridge we have yet to cross here, between the outside and the inside of
the disciplines, one that could help academic literacies development work to move closer to
working in a sustained ‘academic literacies’ frame (Lea and Street, 1998). This bridge would help
practitioners to characterize the literacy practices within a discipline in terms of the nature,
goals, and ‘drivers’ of the disciplines and its knowledge structure, and enable movement between
Academic literacies practitioners would still be asking naive questions with the goal of exposing
and exploring literacy practices critically, but would be able to ask more pointed questions that
could push lecturers and students further towards critique and challenge of the rules of their
rather than generic ways. Further, if academic literacies practitioners can, in Jenkins’s terms:
‘work with the vast majority of staff … to recognize, value and build on staff’s concern for their
discipline’ (Jenkins, 1996: 15), perhaps the power differentials and marginalization of academic
literacy development work can be further disrupted and lessened.
Building a bridge
There are many theoretical approaches that can enable a rmer focus on the structure of
knowledge itself. One set of theoretical and practice-oriented tools with which we can build the
bridge is Legitimation Code Theory (LCT). Developed by Karl Maton, this ‘practical theory’ is a
conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ (Maton, 2014: 15) that subsumes and extends parts of the work
of both Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu. LCT’s principal aim is to explore the underpinning
knowledges and practices, both cumulatively and inclusively.
way in which we can build a stronger bridge in academic literacies development practice between
an understanding of the socially constructed nature of literacy practices and an understanding of
the structure of the knowledge from which they emerge.
Specializationasks a fairly straightforwardquestion ofa eld:what makesthis eld,and
those within it who count themselves as belonging to it, ‘special’? In other words, Specialization
examines the underpinning organizing principles of a eld that legitimate that eld, and the
knowers within it. To answer this question, Specialization considers two sets of relations that it
the object that is being known or the knowledge itself, and social relations (SR), which denote
relations to the subjectofthatknowledge,thepersonorpeoplewhoaretheknowers.Allelds
of practice will have both epistemic relations to the object of knowledge and social relations
to the subject of knowledge, but the strengths of each can vary independently such that a
42 Sherran Clarence, and Sioux McKenna
and a stronger or weaker focus on the aptitudes, dispositions, and ways of being of its knowers
(SR) (Maton, 2014). In simpler terms, there is always knowledge and there are always knowers,
elevated in importance over the other, either tacitly or explicitly.
Both the social and epistemic relations can thus be relatively stronger or weaker along a
continuum, and they combine to create what are known as specialization codes, which are used
to represent the underpinning organizing principles of a discipline. There are four specialization
codes: (1) a knowledge code (where what you know is emphasized and legitimated); (2) a knower
code (where who you are is emphasized); (3) an elite code (where both are emphasized); and (4) a
relativist code (where neither is emphasized). As an example, where there is a stronger emphasis
on developing students’ technical, procedural, or theoretical knowledge, and a weaker emphasis
on developing students’ dispositions or attitudes, this would denote stronger epistemic relations
(ER+) and weaker social relations (SR–). This represents a knowledge code (ER+, SR–). Physics
and law have been shown to be examples of knowledge codes (Conana, 2016; Clarence, 2014).
Conversely, where there are stronger social relations (SR+) and relatively weaker epistemic
relations (ER–), this discipline would represent a knower code (ER–, SR+), where developing
students’ ability to think critically, and approach problems with an inquiry-focused and creative
examples of knower-code disciplines (Christie, 2015; Martin, 2015).
The four codes are represented graphically in LCT terms in a Cartesian plane (see
Figure 1), to enable researchers to capture the underpinning organizing principles of disciplines
topographically; essentially to capture more than a static representation of a discipline as a ‘code’
or context (for example, political science as a knower code) but also to capture nuances within
the discipline between different subdisciplines, areas of study, or modules that shift what counts
as legitimate knowledge or knowing throughout a degree programme (see Steyn, 2012 for an
Figure 1: Specialization plane
Maton, 2007: 97
London Review of Education 43
studies in which the literacy practices were investigated alongside an analysis of the knowledge
structure. In all three studies, the aim of bringing a focus on academic literacies together with
a focus on knowledge was to understand not just what the literacy practices were or could be,
but why and how the literacy practices had been chosen and developed in these ways, and thus
Crossing the bridge: Three case studies
Why is focusing on both knowledge and knowers potentially valuable in terms of moving our
academic literacies development work further away from skills and socialization, and closer
to critical and ‘transformative’ (Lillis and Scott, 2007: 12) literacies? Three recent PhD studies
completed in South Africa used the Specialization dimension of LCT and an academic literacies
lens together to explore aspects of disciplinary teaching and learning: the anecdotes drawn from
thesestudies focuson assessment in the rst case,on thelink betweenclassroomteaching
and curriculum in the second, and on the development of teaching innovations in the third. In
all three studies, the analytical tools offered by Specialization enabled a deeper, more nuanced
exploration of the underlying organizing principles of the discipline, and surfaced otherwise tacit
aspects of the literacy practices. This had useful implications for academic development practice
in all three disciplines.
Knowledge and knowers in public management and administration (assessment)
Lück’s study (2014) looked at the structure of the knowledge legitimated in the rst year
of public management and administration (PMA) programmes by analysing study guides,
characterized by ongoing tensions around the desirable focus of the programme, and concerns
about a ‘theoretical vacuum’ (Masemurule, 2005; Gildenhuys, 2004, both in Lück, 2014). PMA
professionals are deemed to have a particular role to play in South Africa’s young democracy in
mediating between the policies of the state and the experiences of the public; in other words,
However, Lück’s analysis found that the practices legitimated in the programme were not
directed towards developing the requisite practices and dispositions. While there was much
mention in her data of workplace demeanour and behaviour, and students were informed that
passionate’ (Lück, 2014: 246), Lück found that guidelines in this regard ‘were linked to functions
and processes rather than particular dispositions and were presented in a fairly generic manner’
(Lück, 2014: 246). That is, students were told of these attributes and expected to be able to list
them, but not inducted into their practice and development through more relevant forms of
assessment and learning.
focus on facts and skills rather than on the development of a disposition, as would be the case if the
that the PMA curricula had relations to knowledge as the primary means of legitimation, whereas
the profession was calling for stronger development of students’ dispositions, or relations to
44 Sherran Clarence, and Sioux McKenna
Furthermore, her study raised the concern that ‘The form that this specialised knowledge
took was primarily low-level procedural knowledge of skills, processes and functions … There
was very little evidence of higher order conceptual and theoretical knowledge being valued’ (Lück,
2014: 241). Even where disciplinary terminology was used in textbooks or called for in student
writing, the underpinning concepts were fairly commonplace rather than theoretically strong.
This meant that the students were unable to construct increasingly sophisticated or complex
who have a deeper grasp of the principled knowledge that informs professional practice.
Lück’s analysis of the literacy practices that students needed to use to demonstrate success
in the PMA programmes indicated that ‘Students were expected to show understanding of
knowledge through paraphrasing and retelling Evidence from marked student assessments
showed that mastery of technical features, rather than argumentation, was the focus’ (Lück,
2014: 241). Yet, in examining the knowledge structure of PMA, as indicated in the requirements
more usefully directed at working with lecturers to deepen their own theoretical engagement, to
encourage them to become knowledge producers themselves through active research projects,
and to develop critical curriculum development capacities.
For Lück, this was a social justice issue because even where the literacy practices expected
of students align to the espoused curriculum, if ‘the required knowledges are at lower levels
and involve retelling and if surface technical features are valued’ (Lück, 2014: 248), the students
are not being given access to powerful knowledge within this context and the underpinning
principles by which it is made. Thus, in this case, a focus on the structure of the knowledge itself
showed a mismatch between what is valued in assessments and feedback in the curriculum on
the one hand and what is truly valued in terms of the underpinning principles of the profession
on the other. This mismatch, and this deeper understanding of the context in which students
will one day work, could now be more clearly addressed by both lecturers and academic literacy
practitioners in future collaborations.
Knowledge and knowers in political science (curriculum with classroom
Clarence’s (2014) study explored approaches to classroom teaching, or pedagogy, in law and
political science; the latter is focused on here. The study was concerned with whether and how
lecturers were aligning their teaching with their planned curriculum to educate graduates for
dened eld as is the case with PMA. Rather, political science graduates can become policy
analysts, researchers, NGO workers, academics, and so on. Therefore, lecturers are educating
students for a wide range of future careers, and this makes connecting the curriculum with
teaching and orientations towards the world beyond university a particular kind of challenge.
How should lecturers account for their context, and for the kinds of knowledge and knowing
that matter within it (Clarence, 2014)?
In political science, students spend a great deal of time reading the work of different theorists,
both historical, such as John Locke, and contemporary, such as Achille Mbembe. Students are
required to learn what concepts such as power, freedom, democracy, liberalism, and the state
mean conceptually and how they can be applied in different ways depending on one’s ontology
or epistemology (the way one sees the world, and what one claims is true or real on that
London Review of Education 45
basis). Clarence’s study found that, within the (fairly standard) political science undergraduate
curriculum that she analysed, there was a signicant focus on learning what these concepts
meant, and how to apply them in analyses of contemporary political events, such as the Marikana
Massacre in 2012 in South Africa (Clarence, 2014). On a surface level, it seems as if what is
legitimated is learning the theory and concepts well, and the application of these in a particular
wayto create strong arguments.In other words, itseemsatrst as if whatisemphasizedis
knowledge, and the processes related to engaging with knowledge in procedural ways.
reading and conceptual learning. Yet, what is more valued by lecturers is students being able to
use the concepts and theory to think in more analytical, critical ways about not only political
issues or events, but about society’s composition and social challenges more broadly (Clarence,
2014). In other words, having knowledge of political theory and concepts is less important than
students developing critical, inquiring dispositions and a consciousness about, and interest in,
political and social issues. Political science graduates are deemed successful if they can select
relevant theory or concepts they have learned, such as power, to puzzle out aspects of an issue
for example, the war in Syria and then construct and defend a strong argument related
to advancing their thinking about it. Simply knowing what power is and all the ways in which
the focus may be on theory, conceptual learning, and reading the ‘canon’, this is all in the service
of developing particular kinds of knowers.
This study combined an academic literacies approach looking at the value-laden and
situated nature of literacy practices in political science and LCT Specialization looking at
what is legitimated in assessment and curriculum. This showed lecturers that their aim was, in
fact, less focused on students learning, and writing essays on, canonical texts, and more focused
on students learning to use the texts to develop the thinking, writing, and argumentation ability
that the discipline values. This research can enable a shift, so that lecturers cultivate a more
conscious orientation towards what they regard as legitimate knowledge and knowing through
their teaching, and the ways in which they unpack and model literacy practices. This insight can
questions and problems.
Knowledge and knowers in dental technology (teaching innovations)
In her study of dental technology teaching, Vahed (2014) considered the ways in which the
useofeducational games enabled epistemologicalaccess for rst-generation learners.Dental
technicians require adept practical facilities in order to construct dentures, inlays, bridges, braces,
and the like. To this requirement of practical expertise is added an in-depth understanding of oral
anatomy and physiology, and tooth morphology. Vahed et al. (2014) argue that a key characteristic
of dental technology is that it has both ‘theoretical (or know-why) and practical (or know-how)
knowledge’ (Vahed et al., 2014: 123). Vahed et al.’s study responded to a concern that students
were often unable to bring together their theoretical and practical knowledge to respond to
problems set out in the classroom.
Drawing on literature that espoused educational games as a means of making pedagogy
more student-centred and of enabling students to connect theory with practice (Oblinger, 2004;
da Rosa et al., 2006; Wideman et al., 2007, all in Vahed, 2014), Vahed developed two interactive
games to be used in class by her students, the tooth morphology board game and the oral
anatomy multimedia game.
46 Sherran Clarence, and Sioux McKenna
Vahed analysed qualitative and quantitative data regarding the implementation of these
games to consider the extent to which this innovative pedagogy was enabling students to acquire
the literacy practices required for success in the dental technology programme. In her analysis
of observations, students’ focus group discussions about the games, and evaluation surveys
completed by the students, Vahed was able to conclude that the games had indeed increased
epistemological access and assisted students in making links between the knowledges of different
It was her analysis of the structure of knowledge in the dental technology curriculum, and
that of the games, that provided particular insights into how the games were working and what
aspects needed further development. Using Specialization from LCT, Vahed analysed the dental
technology course guides and established that what was legitimated was the acquisition of
hierarchical knowledge in the form of stronger epistemic relations. There was very little in the
curriculumregardingthedevelopmentofaspecicdisposition.Thegamesdid enable certain
social relations to come to the fore, such as valuing collaboration and the sharing of information
in the teams playing the tooth morphology board game, but the predominant focus of the games
was the ability to rapidly select and apply knowledge and skills. Vahed argues that while games
have the ability to engage students deeply given their fun and interactive nature, it is only through
the careful alignment of the knowledge structures of the game to the knowledge structures of
the curriculum that they can enable epistemological access and the development of relevant
academic literacies.
In all three cases, the complementary analysis using academic literacies (following Lea and
Street (1998) and Lillis and Scott (2007)) and Specialization from LCT gave these researchers
stronger tools with which to dig beneath a surface view of literacy practices evidenced in
teaching, curriculum, assessment, and materials design. This digging revealed tacit dimensions of
the literacy needs and practices that were directly connected to the knowledge structure of
knowers. This analysis enabled researchers to make these dimensions more explicit and visible,
which will have a direct and empowering impact on academic literacy development work, and on
lecturers’ ability to see their disciplinary practices afresh with a view to making changes where
necessary (see Clarence, 2016; Vahed et al., 2014).
This paper has argued that academic literacies development work provides an overt focus
on texts as social practices, situated within value-laden, ideologically shaped contexts within
with prior home and school backgrounds (McKenna, 2004). Bringing a focus on the structure
of knowledge to this academic literacies approach sharpens the ability of academic literacies
development work to make sense of the ways in which the practices of the academy emerge
with, think, read, and write about, with the disciplinary conventions that they need to follow
makes these conventions seem less arbitrary.
Jacobs (2013) provided part of the impetus for this paper when she argued that academic
literaciesdevelopmentcould benetfroma moreovert,nuanced way of thinking about and
working with disciplinary knowledges. But it is difcult to think about and work with these
knowledges in nuanced ways if academic literacy practitioners are located as outsiders in relation
to both students and lecturers. Therefore, a bridge is needed between outsiders and insiders that
brings together what academic literacies offers in its analysis of literacies as social practices, and
London Review of Education 47
what can be added through theoretical approaches focused on knowledge, such as that explored
in the three case studies offered here.
Ultimately, this paper concludes that academic literacies development work within higher
educationcanbenet from engaging in complementary analysis usingapractical theorysuch
as LCT because it offers academic literacies development a new avenue for generative thinking
and development. Through its conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’, the dimension of Specialization
explored in this paper provides academic literacies with a richer language for getting at what
drives academic disciplines, and what characteristics those working within the disciplines
possess that marks them out as legitimate or successful. The value of this for academic literacies
development is a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the kinds of literacies that students
need to master and the knowledge and knower structures from which these literacy practices
emanate. This understanding can then create the means to better connect academic literacies
research and practice with lecturers’ (and students’) concerns for their disciplines, and can build
from there.
Notes on the contributors
Sherran Clarence is a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Higher Education, Research, Teaching,
and Learning at Rhodes University in South Africa. Her research presently focuses on academic staff
development in social science education, specically using aspects of Maton’s and Bernstein’s work to
enhance pedagogic practices. She also contributes to two blogs on academic writing and doctoral study.
Her recent work is published in Teaching in Higher Education, the Journal of Education, and Assessment and
Evaluation in Higher Education.
Sioux McKenna is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University. She also runs a PhD programme
in Higher Education Studies and is the manager of a national initiative, Strengthening Postgraduate
Supervision, which supports novice supervisors. Her research interests include the contribution of higher
education to the formation of a cohesive and just society and the extent to which our universities serve
the public good.
D., and Tusting, K. (eds) Beyond Communities of Practice: Language power and social context. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 14–35.
Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, research, critique. Revised edition. Lanham,
Bharuthram, S., and McKenna, S. (2006) ‘A writer-respondent intervention as a means of developing academic
literacy’. Teaching in Higher Education, 11 (4), 495–507.
Boughey, C. (2013) ‘What are we thinking of? A critical overview of approaches to developing academic
literacy in South African higher education’. Journal for Language Teaching, 47 (2), 25–42.
Boughey, C., and McKenna, S. (2015) Analysing an audit cycle: A critical realist account. Studies in Higher
Education. iFirst DOI:
Christie, F. (2015) ‘Secondary school English literary studies: Cultivating a knower code’. In Maton, K.,
Hood, S., and Shay, S. (eds) Knowledge-building: Educational studies in Legitimation Code Theory. London:
Routledge, 158–74.
Clarence, S. (2012) ‘Making inter-disciplinary spaces for talk about and change in student writing and literacy
development’. Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (2), 127–37.
–– (2014) ‘Enabling cumulative knowledge-building through teaching: A Legitimation Code Theory analysis
of pedagogic practice in law and political science’. PhD thesis, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
–– (2016) ‘Exploring the nature of disciplinary teaching and learning using Legitimation Code Theory
semantics’. Teaching in Higher Education, 21 (2), 123–37.
48 Sherran Clarence, and Sioux McKenna
Conana,C.H.(2016)‘Usingsemanticprolingtocharacterizepedagogicalpractices andstudentlearning:
A case study in two introductory physics courses’. PhD thesis, University of the Western Cape, South
Dowling, P. (1998) The Sociology of Mathematics Education: Mathematical myths/pedagogic texts. London: Falmer.
Gee, J.P. (1989) ‘Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction’. Journal of Education, 171 (1), 5–19.
Making the tacit explicit’. Journal of Education, 41, 59–81.
–– (2013) ‘Academic literacies and the question of knowledge’. Journal for Language Teaching, 47 (2), 127–40.
Jenkins, A. (1996) ‘Discipline-based educational development’. International Journal for Academic Development,
1 (1), 50–62.
Lea, M., and Street, B.V. (1998) ‘Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach’. Studies
in Higher Education, 23 (2), 157–73.
Lillis, T.M. (2001) Student Writing: Access, regulation, desire. London: Routledge.
Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4 (1), 5–32.
Lück, J. (2014) ‘Knowledge and knowing in the public management and public administration programmes
at a comprehensive university’. PhD thesis, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
Martin, J.L. (2015) ‘Musicality and musicianship: Specialization in jazz studies’. In Maton, K., Hood, S., and Shay,
S. (eds) Knowledge-building: Educational studies in Legitimation Code Theory. London: Routledge, 193–213.
Maton,K.(2007)‘Knowledge–knowerstructuresin intellectualandeducationalelds’.InChristie,F.,and
Martin, J.R. (eds) Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy: Functional linguistic and sociological perspectives.
London: Continuum, 87–108.
–– (2014) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.
––, and Moore, R. (2010) Social Realism, Knowledge and the Sociology of Education: Coalitions of the mind.
London: Routledge.
McKenna, S. (2004) ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities’. South African
Journal of Higher Education, 18 (3), 269–80.
Mitchell, S. (2010) ‘Now you don’t see it; now you do: Writing made visible in the university’. Arts and
Humanities in Higher Education, 9 (2), 133–48.
Paxton, M., and Frith, V. (2013) ‘Implications of academic literacies research for knowledge making and
curriculum design’. Higher Education, 67 (2), 171–82.
Rai, L., and Lillis, T.M. (2011) ‘A case study of a research-based collaboration around writing in social work’.
Across the Disciplines, 8 (3), 1–9.
Steyn, D. (2012) ‘Conceptualising design knowledge and its recontextualisation in the studiowork component
of a design foundation curriculum’. MA diss., University of Cape Town.
Swales, J. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Trowler, P. (2011) ‘Researching your own institution’. British Educational Research Association. Online. www.
(accessed 27 September 2016).
Vahed, A. (2014) ‘Ensuring the quality of pedagogy through games in dental technology at a selected
University of Technology’. PhD thesis, Durban University of Technology, South Africa.
––, Singh, S., and McKenna, S. (2014) ‘Examining the quality of pedagogy through a tooth morphology
board game’. European Conference on Games Based Learning, 2, 576–85. Reading: Academic Conferences
International Limited.
London Review of Education 49
Related articles published in the London Review of Education
In this issue
This paper was published in a special feature on academic literacies, edited by Mary Scott. The
other articles in the feature are as follows:
Ávila-Reyes, N. (2017) ‘Postsecondary writing studies in Hispanic Latin America: Intertextual dynamics and
intellectualinuence’.London Review of Education, 15 (1), 21–37.
Blommaert, J., and Horner, B. (2017) ‘An epistolary interaction: Horner and Blommaert on academic
literacies, mobility, and diversity’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 2–20.
Clarence, S., and McKenna, S. (2017) ‘Developing academic literacies through understanding the nature of
disciplinary knowledge’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 38–49.
Harvey, S., and Stocks, P. (2017) ‘When arts meets enterprise: Transdisciplinarity, student identities, and EAP’.
London Review of Education, 15 (1), 50–62.
Huang, C.-W., and Archer, A. (2017) ‘“Academic literacies” as moving beyond writing: Investigating multimodal
approaches to academic argument’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 50–62.
Kaufhold, K. (2017) ‘Tracing interacting literacy practices in master’s dissertation writing’. London Review of
Education, 15 (1), 73–84.
tutorial’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 85–100.
Scott, M. (2017) ‘Academic literacies editorial’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 1.
Wargo, J.M., and De Costa, P. (2017) ‘Tracing academic literacies across contemporary literacy sponsorscapes:
Mobilities, ideologies, identities, and technologies’. London Review of Education, 15 (1), 101–14.
... This paper explores a strategy for academic literacies practitioners to conceptualise how knowledge is valued and organised into hierarchies of meanings in a specific discipline. In line with Clarence and McKenna (2017), academic literacies practitioners in this context refers to those involved in developing the writing practices of their students in the disciplines. To do this, the paper draws on Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (Maton, 2000(Maton, , 2009(Maton, , 2011(Maton, , 2013(Maton, , 2014a(Maton, , 2014b(Maton, , 2016. ...
... Semantic gravity was first introduced in Maton (2009Maton ( , 2011 and more fully elaborated in Maton (2013Maton ( , 2014aMaton ( , 2014bMaton ( , 2016. It is becoming more widespread in a variety of academic contexts (Clarence, 2016;Clarence & McKenna, 2017;Deng, 2018;Maton & Doran, 2017) and has been used to teach various subjects such as Journalism (Kilpert & Shay, 2013), Nursing (McNamara, 2010), English (Macken-Horarik, 2011), History (Macnaught, Maton, Martin, & Matruglio, 2013;, Physics (Georgiou et al., 2014), Biology (Macnaught et al., 2013), and Chemistry (Blackie, 2014). Semantic gravity is further elaborated in Section 2.2. ...
... 335). These practices downplaying knowledge have been lamented in studies across faculties (Clarence, 2014(Clarence, , 2016Clarence & McKenna, 2017;Georgiou, Maton, & Sharma, 2014;Szenes, Tilakaratna, & Maton, 2015;Yates & Collins, 2010) and criticised for their "knowledge blindness" (Maton, 2013(Maton, , 2014. As Clarence and McKenna (2017) point out, strategies developed to explain the knowledge that a curriculum values need to be clear so that students can be guided to use the knowledge successfully. ...
This study draws on Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), particularly semantic gravity waving, as a strategy for academic literacies practitioners to conceptualise how knowledge in their field might be organised and presented. Students can be guided to notice meanings related to context-dependency at the discourse and lexico-grammatical levels through the presentation of semantic gravity waving profiles. For this study, semantic gravity waving profiles have been found useful for explaining the rationale of a genre pedagogy approach, the structure of an Introduction-Method-Results-Discussion (IMRD) genre, and teaching both lexical coherence for a theoretical framework section, and accurate use of determiners with non-count abstract nouns such as “research”. Therefore, semantic gravity profiling seems to provide explanatory power as a pedagogical tool in the classroom. Findings from a mixed method survey with sixty students as well as extracts from student texts before and after semantic gravity waving profile pedagogical interventions are provided.
... This approach enables tutors to develop effective strategies to assist students writing development and learning process. This agrees with Clarence and McKenna [16] the transformative goal of academic literacies model which "focuses on changing literacy practices and understandings in ways that enable students to learn how to know, and show what they know, more successfully." ...
... Indeed, in more recent times the use of Emails, MS Teams, Whiteboard, Zoom and other online platforms have become prevalent, and one would argue that the adoption of these platforms in the Writing Centre consultation context is quite innovative. This agrees with the academic literacies model the vision of conceptualising and reconceptualising integrated writing support offered by Writing Centres and the need to develop effective strategies to assist students writing development and learning process [15,16]. Moreso it is pertinent to see that these platforms have relatively allowed the participants as Writing Centre professionals to successfully carry out their task of assisting students remotely during COVID-19 times. ...
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Writing is a core staple of academic and discipline-specific discourses. Students, therefore, having entered the university, are required to demonstrate a minimum proficiency in academic writing as well as the potential to build upon effective academic discourse. Academic writing is thus vital to students' academic access, performance, and success. Writing Centres play an important role in supporting students in the successful completion of their academic journeys through integrated writing support. The study discusses how peer tutors at the selected University of Technology Writing Centre adapted their pedagogical practices during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift from face-to-face, physical location to blended support meant that peer tutors needed to reconceptualise strategies on how they strive to provide a learning environment that enhances students' academic writing experiences. Tutors' experiences during hybrid consultations and their reflections in written reports are used to explore the pertinent challenges and opportunities for Writing Centres. Adopting a reflective approach, the study interrogates the need for the development of innovative techniques that enhance substantive remote tutoring experiences and academic writing development. The study adopted the academic literacies model as the underpinning theoretical framework. Data from this case study indicates that tutors reflect on pedagogical practices as well as blended learning environments when engaging with students. This study concludes that Writing Centres need to devise hybrid support strategies that are responsive to students' needs for tutors to effectively support all students.
... This is one way of making the ways of knowing in the disciplines or put differently, rules of the game explicit and so, the support work could benefit immensely if it was located within the discipline(s) in order to get the 'insider' know how for effective student support. Otherwise, we run the risk of teaching students 'study skills' [13] and thus provide essay writing practices that are only loosely connected to the disciplines in which students need to use them [8]. If support is loosely offered, we put the responsibility of being appropriately literate primarily on the shoulders of students, which is of course, a challenge for most students [6]. ...
... The ideological model enables us to see that there is not one 'academic literacy', and that there are many literacies present in the world which are underpinned by particular ideas of what is valued (Boughey & McKenna, 2021). If we understand academic literacies as a set of social practices which are contested and socially constructed, this means that literacy practices are best learned within the discipline, as disciplines have different ways of engaging with texts and of constructing knowledge (Lea & Street, 2006;Clarence & McKenna, 2017). ...
Full-text available
Academic development research supports embedding academic literacies development in disciplinary teaching. This enables students to experience reading and writing as disciplinary academic practices. However, few lecturers have the language knowledge and the pedagogical expertise to do this. The Reading to Learn pedagogy provides a scaffolded methodology that lecturers in higher education can adapt. We reflect on our own experiences of using these scaffolded academic literacy practices in three cases: with first year biology students, biochemistry Honours students and Masters in Education students. We argue that scaffolded academic literacy practices are useful because they emphasise both the reading and writing of texts in the discipline, provide an educational approach to plagiarism by modelling how to meaningfully paraphrase academic text, and support learner engagement. Additionally, the professional learning opportunities help academics to develop both knowledge of language and a clear methodology which can be adapted to a range of disciplines and levels.
... We focus on definition in research articles because definitions are considered as representation of disciplinary knowledge (Clarence & McKenna, 2017) and, more importantly, consensus has been reached that definition is of particular significance in scientific discourse. For example, Trimble (1985) points out that definition is one rhetorical function that is typically performed in English science and technology discourse. ...
Local grammars have been shown to be useful for accounting for discourse acts (e.g., exemplification, evaluation) in academic writing. Focusing on the specific discourse act of defining, this study develops a local grammar of definition in Linguistics research articles and further discusses its implications and applications for EAP writing research and pedagogy. Using a corpus compiled from published research articles, the study searched for a set of lexicogrammatical markers to retrieve instances of definition and the subsequent analyses identified 36 local grammar patterns of definition. The pedagogical implications and applications are then discussed in relation to EAP course design and the development of local grammar informed EAP teaching materials. The study concludes that systematically developing local grammars of discourse acts of importance in academic writing is a worthwhile undertaking and the findings of such research can usefully inform EAP writing pedagogy.
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The current study aims to explore the differences in disciplinary-socialized (DS) and disciplinary-naïve (DN) students' writing process conceptions in the two distinct disciplines of humanities and natural sciences. A mixed-method research design was adopted. A writing process questionnaire and a verbal report were used for data collection. 80 graduate and postgraduate students from human sciences and natural sciences were sampled and asked to fill out the questionnaire. 20 of them were also interviewed to obtain their verbal reports. ANCOVA and VPA were conducted to analyze the quantitative and qualitative data respectively. Findings revealed a significant difference in writing process conceptions between students of humanities and natural sciences. It is concluded that DS and DN students differ greatly in terms of their writing conceptions.
In 1998, the paper ‘Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach’ by Mary Lea and Brian Street reinvigorated debate concerning ‘what it means to be academically literate’ (1998, p.158). It proposed a new way of examining how students learn at university and introduced the term ‘academic literacies’. Subsequently, a body of literature has emerged reflecting the significant theoretical and practical impact Lea and Street’s paper has had on a range of academic and professional fields. This literature review covers articles selected by colleagues in our professional communities of the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE), the association for lecturers in English for Academic Purposes (BALEAP), and the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing (EATAW). As a community-sourced literature review, this text brings together reviews of wide range of texts and a diverse range of voices reflecting a multiplicity of perspectives and understandings of academic literacies. We have organised the material according to the themes: Modality, Identity, Focus on text, Implications for research, and Implications for practice. We conclude with observations relevant to these themes, which we hope will stimulate further debate, research and professional collaborations between our members and subscribers.
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Traditionally, formal training in research methodology begins in postgraduate programmes; however, potential exists to embed high-impact research skills during the undergraduate programme to develop learning by inquiry, promote critical thinking and engaged scholarship. Identifying factors that affect students’ research engagement can provide important practical implications to effectively encourage and facilitate undergraduate research opportunities. This exploratory qualitative study investigates the undergraduate student experience of the research process embedded in collaborative industry-based projects, through focus-group discussions. Using predefined domains from the interview guide, key themes emerging from the focus group discussions included a process-orientated approach to research, knowledge synthesis through data collection and handling, data collection experience, and students’ experience of a collaborative and deep approach to learning. Key enablers of the research engagement included funding for undergraduate research and transfer of research skills into higher levels of study whilst key barriers were limited foundational research knowledge and the impact of emergency situations. Other emergent themes included knowledge transfer through early initiation of research in the undergraduate programme. Institutional and programmatic engagement is required to support undergraduate students with the rigours of becoming knowledge co-constructors for their graduate destination or continuation of postgraduate studies.
Experiment Findings
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PHD dissertation in Linguistics
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This paper reports on a qualitative study investigating the experience and perspectives of students using English as an international language studying transdisciplinary master's degrees related to culture industries at Goldsmiths, University of London. The particular focus of this paper concerns their experiences of writing several different genres on their degree programmes, including a category of written assessment that, in keeping with the transdisciplinary project of opening up disciplinary borders, transgresses typical genre parameters. We argue that (increasingly popular) transdisciplinary programmes of this kind challenge preconceived expectations about academic writing and require a high tolerance of ambiguity on the part of both students and EAP lecturers: established genre conventions may be destabilized and writing become a precarious yet inherently creative process. Our findings highlight the significance of students' identities with regard to negotiating these written assessments; they support the view that academic literacies' emphasis on student perspectives enriches text-oriented EAP pedagogy, and that insights gleaned from small-scale ethnographic studies of this kind enhance the embedding of subject-specific EAP academic writing development.
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Research on academic literacies has predominately focused on writing practices in higher education. To account for writing practices in the digital age, this paper emphasizes the importance of extending the focus of academic literacies beyond writing to include multimodal composition. Drawing on social semiotics, we put forward a framework for understanding and analysing multimodal academic argument. This framework views argument in relation to features that make up text, namely mode, genre, discourse, and medium. We also look at ways in which multimodal resources are appropriated into argument through citation. Becoming more explicit about the ways in which academic argument is constructed is important for enabling student access into the discourses and practices of academia.
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This paper discusses feedback for developing L2 writing. It presents data from a serendipitous audio-recording of one L2 master's student's tutorial with her dissertation supervisor at a UK university, which is extracted from a 13-month linguistic ethnography. Following 'academic literacies' scholars, I view the tutorial as a 'literacy event' (Heath, 1982: 83), which, I argue, takes place in a 'backstage' (Goffman, 1959) social learning space where student–teacher power relations and identities may be asymmetrical, contested, and fluid. In line with the tenets of linguistic ethnography (Copland and Creese, 2015: 13), the discourse analysis of the tutorial considers how the interaction here is 'embedded in wider social contexts and structures'. I identify dominant institutional discourses and discuss how these create power relations that interact with language, identities, and agency in the student's experience. These data are triangulated with post-recall interviews with the two participants, the dissertation draft with the lecturer's written feedback, the summative feedback, and course documents. Findings demonstrate that, while the student was interested in developing argumentation, the supervisor focused on other aspects. I relate this to recent literature on knowledge transformation and argumentation in academic writing, and discuss its implications for L2 master's students by drawing on Bourdieu's notion of 'right to speak' (1991).
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As texts enact historically situated ways of making knowledge, intertextual analysis through citation patterns can shed some light on a community's epistemologies. The present research seeks a deeper understanding of the theoretical trends, the influences, and the emerging disciplinary configuration of the writing studies community in Latin America. Findings confirm the existence of an extremely diverse theoretical landscape, with a strong influence of Englishspeaking authors, followed by locals. A network analysis model for co-cited authors reveals two well-differentiated approaches. This kind of analysis constitutes a useful input to further the discussion about disciplinary epistemologies and ideologies of the field in the region.
Academic literacy practices are increasingly varied, influenced by the diverse education and language backgrounds of students and staff, interdisciplinary approaches, and collaborations with non-university groups such as business partners. Completing a master's dissertation thus requires students to negotiate literacy practices associated with different domains. To enable an investigation of conditions for such negotiations, this article extends the concept of literacy practices by combining insights from Academic Literacies, New Literacy Studies and Schatzki's (1996) social practice ontology. The resulting framework is applied in a case study of a student who negotiates academic requirements and entrepreneurial goals in completing a master's dissertation.
Locating itself broadly within the 'sociolinguistics of mobility' (Blommaert, 2014) and taking heed of Stornaiuolo and Hall's (2014) call to 'trace resonance' in writing and literacies research, this article works to trace academic literacies across the emerging 'literacy sponsorscapes' (Wargo, 2016a) of contemporary culture. Despite its variance and recent resurgence (Lillis and Scott, 2007), academic literacies continues to be reduced to: (1) an instrumentalist and pragmatic pedagogy, and (2) the ability to navigate academic conventions and practices of higher education (Lea and Street, 1998), in particular the writing classroom (Castelló and Donahue, 2012). This centred focus, however, is limiting, and silences the more innocuous and less tangible sponsors of academic literacies: mobilities , ideologies, identities , and technologies . Set against the backdrop of globalization, and grounded in two case studies, this article considers how academic literacies are not an 'and' but an 'elsewhere', thereby emphasizing the importance of sociolinguistic space in academic literacy development. In it, we chart new directions for scholarship and underscore how ideologies shift with mobilities (Pennycook, 2008; Pennycook, 2012), are indexed by identities (De Costa and Norton, 2016; Hawkins, 2005), and extend through technologies (Lam, 2009; Rymes, 2012). By outlining a literacy sponsorscapes framework for studying academic literacies, this article highlights the purchasing power of seeing academic literacies not solely as a field or set of practices, but rather as a locating mechanism for studying a range of hybridized repertoires that are shaped and constituted by the physical and social spaces that contemporary youth inhabit.
INTRODUCTION We work in Literacy Studies and approach the notion of community of practice to see how it can strengthen or challenge what we do. The field of literacy studies has developed in parallel with communities of practice work over the past twenty years. The two approaches have common roots in the work of Scribner and Cole (1981), but then the fields of situated learning and situated literacies largely developed separately. Our overall point is that the framings provided by theories of language, literacy, discourse and power are central to understanding the dynamics of communities of practice, but they are not made explicit in Wenger's formulations. These ideas form the basis of this and the following chapter. Our own work has examined the literacy practices of everyday life (as in Barton and Hamilton 1998; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanič 2000), and here we see that most social interactions in contemporary society, including those covered by Wenger, are textually mediated; this shapes, structures and constrains them. We will argue that the concept of reification in the communities of practice work is key to making the link with literacy studies. In this chapter, we start out from the vignettes that form the data for Wenger's work in his 1998 book. We examine them through the lens of literacy studies, demonstrating the centrality of literacy practices and arguing that a textually mediated social world is revealed.