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A relational approach to building knowledge through academic writing:: Facilitating and reflecting on peer writing tutorials

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Abstract

In 1984, Stephen North wrote a paper in which he argued that writing centres need to focus on the writer, rather than more narrowly on the writing tasks students seek their help with. This now-famous paper in the writing centre field speaks about an approach to writing support and development that focuses on who is doing the writing, and what they are learning about writing both in the context of each task they are working on, and also more conceptually in terms of looking at their writing from a ‘macro’ level as well. North essentially contends that students will find growing as a writer and a thinker in higher education difficult if they are not enabled or encouraged to think about writing both conceptually and contextually. This chapter picks up on that argument to look at how this might be achieved in writing tutorials, where writing tutors sit outside of the disciplines, and act as students’ critical friends who prompt, question, guide and advise student writers, focusing ideally on both the writer and the writing. What is conceptual about writing? How can a more conceptual understanding of genres, forms, or the purposes of academic writing be useful in terms of drawing our focus in writing centres from the texts, to the writers and their writing practices at a more macro level? Using a tool drawn from Legitimation Code Theory, Semantics, which can be used to look at movement between conceptual and contextual learning and knowledge, and how to enable students to move more effectively between the two. Data drawn from writing tutors’ reports written following writing tutorials with undergraduate students, this paper applies Semantics to consider how tutors’ conversations with students about their writing move between the very local context of their essay and more conceptual notions of the forms and purposes of genres or parts of genres, like reports or essays. This chapter will conclude by arguing that equipping writing tutors with analytical tools, like Semantics, that can help them see what is contextual and what is conceptual in the writing they are working with, and move between the two in their conversations with students, can provide them with powerful tools for enabling a focus on the writer as well as the writing.
This is a pre-print version. For the full version please see the book, available here:
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Cite as: Clarence, S. 2017. A relational approach to building knowledge through
academic writing: facilitating and reflecting on peer writing tutorials. In Clarence, S.
and Dison, L. (eds). Writing Centres in Higher Education: working in and across the
disciplines. Stellenbosch: SUN Press, 49-65.
CHAPTER THREE
A relational approach to building knowledge through academic writing:
facilitating and reflecting on peer writing tutorials
Sherran Clarence
In 1984, Stephen North wrote a paper1 in which he argued that writing centres need to focus
primarily on developing the capacity of students as writers, rather than only or mainly on
polishing the writing tasks students seek help with. This now-famous paper in the writing
centre field speaks about an approach to writing support and development that focuses on
who is doing the writing, and how they learn to write effectively over time. This learning is
grounded both in the context of each task writers are working on, and in levels of abstraction
away from specific tasks towards a more long-term, versatile proficiency in academic writing
that can be adapted to a range of writing tasks. In essence, North contends that students will
find growing as a thoughtful writer difficult if they are not enabled or encouraged to think
about writing at two levels: one where approaches to writing are related to the context of a
specific task, such as a technical report; and another where writers can move beyond specific
tasks to see writing patterns, practices and approaches more generally or abstractly so as to be
more successful at learning and constructing different genres down time. This is encapsulated
in his exhortation for writing centres to work with the writers, rather than only with the
writing (North 1984).
This chapter picks up on that argument to look at how this might be achieved in
writing centre tutorials, where peer writing tutors2 sit outside of the disciplines, and act as
students’ critical friends to prompt, question, guide and advise student writers, focusing
ideally on both the writer and the writing. Although writing tutors generally do not act as
disciplinary specialists (Robinson 2009; Thompson 2009), they must recognise the nature of
the tasks students are working on, and conceptualise their role in helping students to see how
their writing and reading is bringing them further into disciplinary academic discourse
communities (Robinson 2009). Thus, rather than trying to be mainly general or generic in
their talk with students, peer writing tutors need to move between the general and the more
specific, task-related writing concerns. This would enable students and tutors to talk together
about particular disciplinary or subject-related tasks, while also building a more general
proficiency in and understanding of what successful academic writing is, and what it requires
of the student.
But, what is generalisable, or ‘conceptual’ about writing? I define ‘conceptual’ in this
chapter as writing patterns, practices or approaches that are not context or task-bound. How
can a more conceptual understanding of genres, forms, or purposes of academic writing be
useful in drawing our focus in writing centres between the texts themselves and the writers
and their writing practices at a generalised level? How do more generalised or conceptual
understandings of successful writing develop through writing itself, in specific contexts and
for particular purposes? In responding to these questions, this chapter advances an argument
about writing centres playing a vital role in helping student writers to build knowledge about
writing, both in generalised and context-specific ways. It further suggests a theoretical tool
that can be applied in thinking about writing, useful for both peer writing tutors and student
writers.
Using a tool drawn from Legitimation Code Theory, called Semantics - in particular
semantic gravity and the notion of gravity waves - the chapter will explore how peer writing
tutors can reflect on their tutoring practices more critically with a focus on enabling students
to move between these two levels in their writing. The tool, as will be demonstrated, enables
tutors to guide students to more overtly connect context-independent understandings of
academic writing with their more context or task-dependent realisations in written texts. Key
to the understanding and application of this tool in peer writing tutorials is the notion of
movement between - to avoid getting stuck either on high level conceptual conversations
about the purpose and execution of academic writing forms, or on a localised focus on just the
assignment in front of the tutor and student. Semantics offers us a tool that can focus our
thinking and doing on connections, and movement between a more generalised understanding
of, for example, the principles of writing a good introduction, to helping the student revise
their text effectively, gaining a deeper understanding of what introductions do in a specific
piece of writing.
Data drawn from writing tutors’ narrative reports, generated in a writing centre within
a historically disadvantaged university3, and written after their writing tutorials with
undergraduate students, form the basis for this exploration. Applying the conceptual and
analytical tools drawn from Semantics to these data, the chapter will consider how tutors’
conversations with students in a university writing centre do move between the local context
of their essay and more conceptual notions of the forms and purposes of genres or parts of
genres, like reports or essays. Rather than arguing that this movement is not already
happening in writing centre tutorials, the chapter will offer a conceptual and practical analysis
of existing tutoring practice - fairly typical of many writing centres in South Africa and
abroad - that can assist writing peer tutors and writing centre directors with realising critical
and forward-looking reflections on the work they are doing. On this basis, they can develop a
different kind of consciousness about the conversations they could and do have with student
writers. This chapter concludes that equipping writing tutors with analytical tools such as the
one provided by LCT Semantics, as a form of explicit praxis (Maton, Carvalho & Dong
2015), can enable robust and versatile conversations between writing tutors and students in
the writing centre. This chapter will show how theorising writing centre work more overtly
with tutors is a necessary move leading to changed praxis with student writers in this context.
The chapter begins by locating writing centre work within the discourse of Academic
Literacies as a critical field of inquiry and pedagogy, and then moves to consider how
Semantics can offer us new ways of seeing and thinking about the work we are doing within
this framework.
Developing a writing centre pedagogy: Academic Literacies
Writing centres, globally and in South Africa, have worked for many years in what Andrew
Rijn (2008) has termed borderlands. Essentially, we are there for the university, but we are
also there for the students, and we are there with our own philosophy, goals and pedagogical
approaches for opening up emancipatory spaces for students to talk about, think about and
work on their writing (Carter 2009; Grimm 1996; North 1984). In many instances, the
emancipatory, student-centred goals of writing centres are at odds with wider understandings
within universities about the nature of academic writing, where writing well is construed as a
skill, and something that students should either already have or be able to master within an
extra-disciplinary space such as a writing centre, or a writing/literacy development course.
Grimm captures this well when she argues that writing centres are often seen as
handmaidens of autonomous literacy - a value-free, culturally neutral notion of literacy”, that
although strongly challenged by writing centres is still a conception at work in higher
education today (Grimm 1996:524). Therefore, there are writing centres in these borderlands
that lean towards trying to teach students how to write in ways that construe writing less as a
meaning-making, contextualised, value-laden practice that shifts depending on the context
that students are writing within and about, and more as a decontextualised set of skills that, if
applied well, will lead to success (see Archer 2010; Nichols 2011). Conversely, though, there
are many writing centres that focus their work around literacy as social practice (Carter 2006;
Lillis 2001) and work to help students write effectively within the social and academic
context - usually a discipline or subject - they are studying. Within the field, therefore, there
are different understandings of what a writing centre is, should be, or could be, and writing
centres are positioned differently within their university or college contexts depending on
which understanding is employed to shape that writing centre’s vision and mission.
The understanding of writing centres employed in this chapter, and of the writing
centre it uses as an illustrative case study, is grounded within a notion of writing as an
academic literacy practice that develops over time, and within the disciplinary and academic
contexts in which meanings and knowledges are produced and debated. Writing centres that
ground their approaches to writing development within the discourse of Academic Literacies
(Lillis and Scott 2007) view writing as a particular kind of literacy practice that is infused
with certain values, and shaped by particular conventions. These values and conventions
indicate not only what counts as legitimate knowledge, but also what counts as legitimate
ways of presenting, debating, critiquing and disseminating that knowledge to the discourse
communities in which one is working and writing.
Understanding writing as a social practice in this way leads writing centres to develop
related approaches and strategies for engaging both students and faculty members (teaching
staff) about how academic writing can be done well, why some forms and methods of
producing written texts are more valued than others, and whether and how texts can be
produced differently. For example, peer writing tutors focus on creating conversations with
students that are, ideally, focused less on correcting errors and more on exploring, with
students, how they have understood the task they are responding to, and how they need to
make and clarify meaning in their writing in appropriate ways (Hutchings 2006; Robinson
2009). The student’s voice and ideas are the focus of the conversation, with the peer tutor
using their own experience as a writer, and their critical insight into the kinds of revisions the
student’s writing may need, to ask questions that prompt the student to think about their
writing in productive ways. Typical initial questions in this kind of writing tutorial might
include:
What do you think the lecturer is asking you to do with your writing here? Are
you creating an argument? Are you writing a descriptive report or a narrative?
How do you understand the purpose or point of this piece of work?
How have you gone about writing this draft so far? Where did you start, and
what are you stuck on now that you’d like some help with?
What would you like to achieve with this piece of writing - what kind of
feedback or result would you like from your lecturer?
It would be impossible to argue that peer writing tutors working in writing centres
informed by an Academic Literacies framework such as this never talk to students about
spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, long sentences or referencing conventions. However, it
would be important to acknowledge that writing tutorials informed by a discourse that sees
writing as a value-laden, rhetorical practice rather than a set of decontextualised skills does
provide a compass point for resisting the dominant conceptions of writing as ‘skill’ that hold
sway in higher education.
Academic Literacies, as a framework for writing centre work, creates a firm, helpful
ideological ‘holding structure’ within which writing peer tutors and consultants can work
effectively to resist correcting or instructing students. It enables us to theorise our work, and
create writing interventions and conversations that cohere with a social practice view of
writing. However, I would argue here that Academic Literacies doesn’t necessarily give us
firm, practical tools within which to reflect on, and reshape, our work with students within
this context. Particularly, it does not yet give us effective tools to think about knowledge -
knowledge in the disciplines, and also knowledge about writing in academia - and how this
could be built over time. Put differently, although an Academic Literacies approach does
enable tutoring that can ask questions not just about how we do things, but also why we do
them differently in specific discourse communities or disciplines, it does so in what we could
term a “soft focus” way (Maton & Chen 2015:42). A concern is that what we may miss with a
soft-eyes approach to meaning-making through writing using this approach alone is a more
nuanced understanding of how we can build knowledge, about academic writing specifically,
cumulatively (Maton 2009) over time. Questions that expose the social, constructed nature of
writing by themselves do not necessarily enable us to see how we cumulatively build meaning
or understanding through writing over time, and how we do so across disciplinary contexts.
This is especially so if we do not have a conceptual ‘toolkit’ that can enable interrogation at a
deeper level of what we are writing about, why, and how.
This chapter proposes one dimension of Legitimation Code Theory, Semantics, as
part of a complementary writing ‘toolkit’ for writing centres. It turns to this now to consider
what this approach can add to Academic Literacies in terms of focusing writing centre work
on how and where it can enable a more overt focus on cumulative development of knowledge
about writing in higher education.
Semantic gravity and the notion of ‘waving’ through writing
Legitimation Code Theory, or LCT, is described by its founding author, Karl Maton, as a
realist sociological ‘toolkit’ that extends the prior work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre
Bourdieu in the main, specifically Bernstein’s code theory and Bourdieu’s field theory (for a
fuller account please refer to Maton 2014, chapter 2). Important to note for this chapter is
LCT’s over-arching concern with uncovering and characterising the underlying organising
principles of fields, such that we can understand what values, norms, intentions and so on
drive, shape or challenge the practices and actors we observe and engage with on the
‘surface’. LCT is relational; in other words, it does not see fields as ‘either/or’ sets of choices
or binary positions, but rather as ‘both/and’ sets of practices or positions that need to be
understood as continua involving contextualised choices and movement between one and
another position. For example, a popular debate in Academic Literacies, especially regarding
writing centre work, which happens in extra-disciplinary spaces, is whether we should aim to
be either more generic or more specific in our approaches to working with student-writers. A
relational approach such as that offered by LCT would argue that we should rather be asking
which elements of our work are generic and which are specific, and when and how we could
employ both, moving perhaps between the two rather than trying to squeeze our work into
one or another ‘box’, lauding one and vilifying the other.
Semantics is one of five dimensions of LCT and it reveals one set of organising
principles that shape and inform what academic disciplines do with knowledge and ways of
knowing. A key focus of this dimension is how to move between more context-independent
meanings or understandings (for example, an abstract notion of the form introductions take on
in written texts) and more context-dependent or applied meanings (for example, looking at
one specific Introduction and discussing its features in the context of the longer text) (see
Maton 2014). Semantics would argue that having an ‘either/or’ approach to teaching students,
in this example, how to write an introduction may limit their ability to do so ably in further
writing. For example, if students were only given an abstracted list of features of a good
introduction, such as the steps it should contain, they may struggle to realise this in their own
writing. Yet, by the same token, if they were only taken through an analysis of the
introduction they are currently writing and shown how to make it better, they may only be
able to improve in this one instance, and lack the understanding to repeat the learning in
further essays. What would be more helpful would be to weave both approaches together into
a discussion about what, in general, makes an introduction good, and use that knowledge to
analyse a specific introduction to strengthen it and reinforce the general understanding or
principle of introducing an argument in writing. To build understanding and practice over
time, students need to be able to move, in ‘waves’ (see Figure 2.1, below), between more
abstracted, generalised meanings, and more contextualised, connected applications of those
meanings. This back and forth waving would build their knowledge and practice
cumulatively, rather than in a segmented, piece-by-piece fashion (Maton 2014).
There are two organising principles within the dimension of Semantics, but the small-
scale project this chapter reflects on used only one of the two for purposes of simplicity, and
because of time constraints within the peer tutor development programme within the writing
centre. The two organising principles are semantic gravity (SG) and semantic density (SD),
but only semantic gravity, and gravity waves, will be used in the analysis of the data
discussed here.
Semantic gravity (SG) describes the degree to which meanings are tied to their
contexts (Maton 2014). Weaker semantic gravity describes a situation where meaning is less
dependent on context, for example where one is working with abstract or highly conceptual or
theoretical knowledge. Stronger semantic gravity describes a closer relationship between
knowledge and the context in which it is used, for example when theory is being applied to a
problem or task (Maton 2014). The ability to accumulate knowledge and move it between
and across contexts and tasks is compromised when teaching and learning leans too far
towards weaker or stronger semantic gravity to the exclusion or limitation of the other. In
other words, if learning is only/too abstract or only/too context-dependent, students may
struggle to and use knowledge to make meaning differently in other contexts.
This movement is captured in LCT in the form of a gravity ‘wave’ (see Figure 2.1
below). The point of entry (higher or lower) can depend on the teaching and learning context,
but for the purposes of writing tutorials, peer tutors often start with the task and student in
front of them, indicating a lower or more context-dependent entry point. The idea is not just
to move up toward a more decontextualised meaning or understanding but to come back
down carefully, and then build back up again, repeating and varying the ‘steepness’ or
‘frequency’ of the waves. This variation would depend on the task the student and tutor are
working with, the student’s level of comfort and confidence with their task and writing, and
an acknowledgment of the learning needs of the student in relation to the task. Thus, these
waves need to be used as a guiding tool, rather than a uniform template all tutorials should
strive to emulate.
Figure 3.1: generic semantic gravity wave for a heuristic writing tutorial
From workshop to peer tutorials: methodology
This small-scale exploration of what Semantics, and the semantic gravity wave in particular,
offers peer writing tutors in terms of both reflection and changed tutoring practice began with
a workshop in 2014. The workshop was an hour long, held during a regular team meeting
time within the writing centre, and was led by the coordinator of the centre (also the author of
this chapter).
SG-
SG+
task analysis
genre of task
student’s text
introductions
student’s intro
argumentation
and ‘thesis statements’
The workshop began with a brief description of semantic gravity, specifically the
notion of cumulative learning understood as students having the ability to wave between
stronger and weaker semantic gravity in their writing practice. This was then connected to
peer writing tutorials using examples drawn from the tutors’ prior experiences in the writing
centre, as well as previous semester reports they had written. We spoke in the workshop
specifically about essay writing as a dominant form of text-production within the university
(Lillis 2001), although in its conceptual form semantic gravity can be applied and adapted to
working with students on any form of text. The peer writing tutors were encouraged to think
about their own tutoring practice - typical writing tutorials they facilitate with student-writers
- and speak to one another about whether and how semantic gravity waves might provide
them with new insights into how they are working, and how they might work differently in
future tutorials. Specifically, they were asked to do a light touchsemantic analysis of a
recent peer tutorial they had facilitated, using the concepts of stronger and weaker semantic
gravity, and the semantic gravity wave. The feedback from the tutors was then captured by
the coordinator on the whiteboard (see Figure 2.2), and as a group we discussed how we
might use this tool in upcoming tutorials, as both a way of being more conscious of how the
conversations with students could be structured, and as a reflective tool in their narrative
reports (which are written after each writing tutorial).
Following the workshop, the tutors were asked to make use of this tool to inform their
practice, although how they made use of it was left to them to decide, using their judgement
within each tutorial and with each different student. They were asked not to share the tool
explicitly with students, as this would be unnecessary at this stage, but rather to use it to
become more aware of moments when they may be stuck too much in the local essay context
(stronger semantic gravity) without lifting the conversation ‘up’ to achieve a less context-
dependent understanding (weaker semantic gravity) of the issue the student needs to work on
(or vice versa). Framed already by a strong Academic Literacies approach, the semantic
gravity wave was introduced to tutors to add depth to their conversations with students
through focusing them on how students were able to construct knowledge cumulatively (or
not) about academic writing. Thus, students would have hopefully benefited from its tacit
influence on the tutors’ praxis.
Figure 3.2: example of the tutors’ initial analysis captured on the whiteboard
The tutors in this writing centre write brief reports on each writing tutorial, detailing
what they have worked on with the student. In addition to providing basic information, such
as prep time and task type, they are also asked to reflect in a short narrative on how they feel
the session went, which can include their own personal feelings about the session, notes on
the level of the student’s participation, and details about the task itself and the kinds of issues
grappled with. Below is a basic example, with student and tutor names excised.
Figure 3.3: example of a peer tutor report on a writing tutorial
T
Tutors, as may be seen from the above (fairly typical) example, are encouraged to be honest
in their reflections, and to think about what went well and what did not go as well as it might
have done, as this is not just a reporting tool but also an opportunity for ongoing learning.
The data discussed in this chapter are drawn from the tutors’ narrative reports written
in August and September 2014, after the workshop. The narrative reports selected for this
Student: XXX
Staff or Resource: XXX
Date: September 19, 2014, 10:00am - 11:00am
Assignment (what was the student working on): Essay
Preparation time: less than 15 mins;
Areas you worked on together: task analysis; argumentation style; introduction;
conclusion; referencing;
Comments (your reflection on how the session went): The session went well though
i was anxious looking forward to my graduation. The student wanted me to check
her work and advise her accordingly. We discussed the work and most of her
challenge was in text referencing. I took her through referencing and all techniques
she wanted to know about referencing. However, i was pushed to kind of editing
because that was the biggest gap in her work.
data set were purposively sampled from all of the reports captured in the writing centre’s
online reporting and booking system, WCOnline, and only reports written during August and
September were downloaded and collated. Within this subset of reports captured in the
system, further selection for the dataset involved reading all the reports to determine whether
there was sufficient detail to analyse using semantic gravity. Reports that were too brief (for
example, some simply noted that they enjoyed the session, or that the student found it helpful,
without any details about the nature of the session beyond that) were excluded. What
remained were 40 reports that were analysed initially to get a sense of whether and how
semantic gravity waves could be ‘seen’ in tutors’ reports, and then in more detail. Through a
careful coding of these reports using stronger semantic gravity (SG+) and weaker semantic
gravity (SG-), I mapped illustrative waves in tutoring practice with the aim of understanding
how tutors were trying to make use of the tool in reflecting on their conversations with
students about their writing practices.
Semantics in action
The claim that this chapter is making is that semantic gravity and gravity waves are a tool
which can enable writing tutors to firstly, distinguish between more context-dependent and
context-independent meanings within the process of creating written texts, and secondly, to
wave between these meanings and weave them together into a cumulative understanding of
texts as written artefacts involving both kinds of meanings. The reason why a conceptual and
analytical tool like semantic gravity is helpful to peer writing tutors, and indeed to anyone
involved in student writing development, is twofold. In the first instance, the notion of
waving and weaving in tutorials provides an accessible and recognisable visual representation
of what we could strive for in terms of a successful tutorial. In the second, having a tool like
this to guide both reflection on past tutorials and action for future tutorials can provide tutors
with an additional compass to that provided by Academic Literacies, to orient them when
they are pressured by students and lecturers to ‘fix’ bad writing rather than focus on helping
students become more capable writers.
This part of the chapter discusses two main findings of this small-scale study. The
first finding speaks to the ways in which tutors were able to think about the distinction
between more and less context-dependent meanings in students’ writing, and how reflections
on their tutoring practice indicate waving between stronger and weaker semantic gravity in
forms of semantic gravity waves. The second finding considers the challenges tutors grappled
with in applying the notions of waving and weaving in their conversations with student-
writers. This second finding is useful to consider in refining and extending tutor development
in writing centres.
Semantics in the context of facilitating and reflecting on peer writing tutorials
As indicated in the previous section, the selected 40 narrative reports were read several times
to obtain an initial sense of the semantic waving in the tutors’ accounts of the writing
tutorials, before they were more decisively coded. The tutors’ comments were marked as
indicating downward shifting towards stronger semantic gravity, understood here as the
students’ written text or task itself (SG+), or shifting upwards towards weaker semantic
gravity, understood here as lifting the conversation out of the context of the text to speak
about principles or forms of academic writing more generally (SG-). The selected extracts
here are illustrative of whether and how semantic gravity waves can be seen in tutors’ reports
on writing tutorials with students, post-workshop. All tutors have been assigned a number as a
form of pseudonym.
In the following extract we can see the tutor starting, fairly typically, with task
analysis. Many students, coming from one way of thinking and writing in high school into
quite different ways of doing so at university, struggle to work out what is expected of them
in terms of thinking, reading, research and writing at this level (Kapp and Bangeni 2005).
Here, in talking to the student about the meaning of the task in terms of the ‘content’ words
(e.g. gender inequality) and the ‘direction’ words (e.g. Discuss), and then how the essay
question could be approached, the tutor implies a semantic gravity wave. The wave starts with
the task as a point of relatively stronger semantic gravity, and then shifts up to weaken the
semantic gravity in talking more abstractly about ‘culture’ and ‘gender’ connected to the
student’s research. Although this is related to the task at hand, it exhibits weaker semantic
gravity in this moment because this part of the discussion could be broader than the chosen
meanings the student will use in the essay. The tutor then indicates a strengthening of
semantic gravity again, moving the conversation to the student’s cultural context, and how the
concepts discussed could apply within the essay at hand. Finally, the tutor indicates a
weakening of the semantic gravity again as the student is encouraged to respond to the task by
drawing implications of examining gender equality in her culture. Again, although this
conversation is all focused on the task the student is working on, there are moves towards and
away from this one specific essay question. The student is being encouraged to interpret
particular task words in relation to this task (i.e. What is gender? What is culture?) (SG+) and
also analyse the task in ways that could be carried on to future tasks (i.e. unpack key terms in
general; relate these key terms to the focus of the essay task in general) (SG-).
X was expected to discuss the positive and negative implications of gender equality
or inequality in her culture, however, she simply identified and described gender
roles. Therefore, the session was focused on interpreting the task properly. We spoke
about the meaning of keywords in the question such as; culture and gender and she
was able to describe her culture and identify some of the positive and negative
implications of gender equality in her culture. (Tutor 3)
Figure 3.4: semantic gravity wave for Tutor 3
In this next extract, we see the tutor making a conscious decision to shift the
conversation up towards weaker semantic gravity -- here the differences between written
genres -- and remaining in that space to talk about introductions outside of the immediate
context of the student’s essay. Thereafter he draws the student down to talk about feedback on
her previous essays, and how to address this through writing an introduction that satisfies the
needs of this task, and her other academic tasks more generally. This process enabled the
opening out of the conversation into talking about aspects of writing that would take the
student further towards her second draft.
The student’s challenges ranged from interpreting questions, task analysis and writing
introductions. Time was allocated to clarify the difference between a report and an
essay, and a normal essay from an argumentative essay. Assuming that the student
understood these concepts, I asked her to list the components of an introduction
which she struggled to do. Further interaction proved that comments on her previous
essays were that, they were either too short or too long, but all wrong. The student
was assisted through the process of identifying requirements for an introduction while
making links to the task requirements given by the teacher. This created an
opportunity to talk about paragraphs that were not available in the draft. (Tutor 2)
SG-
SG+
task
student’s response
meanings of key terms
applying meanings to essay
implications
Figure 3.5: semantic gravity wave for Tutor 2
In this final extract we can see Tutor 5 trying to implement her idea of an ideal wave,
and, by her own reckoning, succeeding, possibly due in part to the student’s strong written
draft. We see her starting, again where tutorials tend to start, with the student’s work and her
understanding of the task thus far. The tutor then shifts the conversation up the wave by using
‘the funnel metaphor’ to talk about introductions more generally, before shifting down
towards the student’s introduction, to analyse it anew, and look for ways to make
improvements. It does seem, from the tutor’s account, that there may be a break in the wave
between the discussion on the introduction, and the discussion on paragraphs that follows a
similar wave, and this can be the case in writing tutorials, where sections of the essay can
seem segmentalised (first the task, then introductions, then paragraphs, then conclusions).
Thus, Tutor 5’s attempt to consolidate the conversation at the end, more abstractly, could
contribute towards bringing all these segments together into an understanding of writing an
essay as a process of working on all the parts to create a coherent whole.
The piece was well-written and I was able to move from the conceptual to the
concrete aspects of her writing fairly easily. We started off discussing her topic and I
was immediately able to gauge how knowledgeable and comfortable she was with the
topic. We then moved to conceptual understandings of introductions - I used the
funnel metaphor which worked really well. After that we spoke about her
introduction specifically and moved to conceptual understandings of paragraphs,
following the same format till the conclusion. At the end of the consultation I tried to
consolidate by speaking about writing as a process and the goals of the writing centre
in terms of providing ways of understanding academic writing as opposed to merely
imparting skills. (Tutor 5)
SG-
SG+ task
genres and dierences
between them
introduction
+listing
student’s feedback
and intro
paragraphs
Figure 3.6: semantic gravity wave for Tutor 5
What the semantic gravity wave has offered peer writing tutors, seen in these three
extracts, is both a new way of facilitating their conversations with students as a powerful form
of ‘tacit praxis’ (Maton, Carvalho & Dong 2015), as well as a new language for reflecting on
their tutoring practice. I am not contending that tutors only started using this dialogic
approach with students after the workshop on semantic gravity waves; the tutors have been
taught to work in these ways in this writing centre since 2009, and the way we work mirrors
the ways in which other South African and international writing centres work (Archer 2010;
O’Neill et al. 2009). These kinds of conversations are shaped by the Academic Literacies
approach we have chosen to use in our student-facing work. I am contending, though, that
learning to use semantic gravity, even in this simple way, has facilitated new kinds of
conversations about peer tutoring in the writing centre, and a way of analysing peer writing
tutorials such that we can talk more clearly about how students can build knowledge about
academic writing practice more consciously, and cumulatively.
Using this tool, focused on building knowledge and meaning in higher education in
cumulative and connected ways over time, is not without its challenges in a place like a
writing centre, where tutors do not usually see the same students over and over with
successive writing tasks. The second finding speaks briefly to the challenges, before the
chapter concludes.
Breaks in the waves: limitations encountered in waving and weaving with students
As with all tools for thinking and action, as much as there are possibilities and exciting
options for change and improvement, there are also limitations that can frustrate progress and
change. In the data available from tutors’ reports, it is clear that there are two significant areas
of frustration: one is students’ level of progress on the task by the time they come to the
writing centre, which affects their ability to engage with the tutors in a give-and-take
conversation about aspects of their writing. The other is the ad hoc nature of writing centre
tutorials, with many students coming for follow-up tutorials with the same or new tasks, but
an equal or greater number coming only once or twice, thus limiting the potential for
cumulative knowledge-building from the writing tutors’ viewpoint.
In this extract, the tutor reflects on the difficulty of this particular tutorial because of
the student’s struggles with expressing his ideas in English (not his mother tongue). The tutor
thus made the decision to keep the wave for this tutorial fairly low overall, focused on making
sure that by the time he left the student would have a clearer understanding of his task, and
how he could revise what he had written to create a stronger second draft. Although she
mentions talking about aspects of academic writing ‘more generally’, the impression from
this narrative is that the tutor’s judgement was against pushing the student too far up the wave
as she deemed this inappropriate given the student’s level of progress with his writing thus
far.
In this consultation it was particularly challenging to move from the concrete aspects
of the writing task to the conceptual principals [sic] of writing for a number of
reasons. Firstly, English is not the student’s first language and this came through in
his writing. The student also had difficulty understanding what the question required,
therefore I spent a lot of time analysing the task and asking probing questions to try
and draw out the critical analysis that the task requires. I made the decision to focus
on the content and ensure that the question was being answered as opposed to getting
hung up on language. Rather, I used the opportunity to talk generally about concepts
like academic writing and the reasons for referencing. It was a tough call to make and
I feel like there was a lot more I could have done given the time, but unfortunately
that was not the case. (Tutor 5)
Figure 3.7: low semantic gravity wave for Tutor 5
In this final extract, Tutor 1 highlights a perennial problem for writing centres:
students coming right before their due date, and rushing to ‘fix’ their writing before handing it
in. While the tutor has tried to draw the student up out of the context of her essay towards a
more general understanding of how to write clear paragraphs and why these matter, it seems
that overall he was frustrated in his attempts to keep drawing the waves up and then down
again due to the student’s anxiety about ‘fixing’ her paper before submitting it. He does note,
though, as many tutors do in these reports, that this session has helped the student to see the
value of talking through their writing, and learning more about writing on a general, as well
as specific level. This realisation has prompted her to promise a return visit further ahead of
her next assignment’s due date.
…The student struggled to construct clear sentences. She wrote long clumsy
sentences. Also, her paragraphs did not have a clear point with evidence and clear
explanation of the evidence provided. As such, I deemed it necessary to discuss how
to write a proper paragraph. Unfortunately, though, because the student’s work is due
tomorrow, she was only concerned with what she called ‘fixing her paper’. …On a
good note, though, she promised to come some other time for a proper dialogue on
essay writing and paragraphs. (Tutor 1)
In spite of challenges such as students coming to tutorials stressed before a due date,
and having made little progress on their writing ahead of the tutorial, it is becoming evident
that this tool is adding a useful dimension to the Academic Literacies approach tutors are
SG-
SG+
task
aspects of student’s writing
slight generalisations
already invested in. By focusing their awareness on how students are learning from past
feedback and writing, and where possible gaps in this learning exist, this additional, theorised
approach within writing centres can help us better construct praxis that helps students to build
their longer-term knowledge about writing. In other words, this approach can enable us, in
concert with academic literacies approaches, to focus on the writer and the writing, without
excluding one or the other.
Conclusion
All writing centres work towards an ideal of a successful writing tutorial in which student and
tutor can converse generatively about the task at hand. Central to success is improving the
immediate written text while also building the confidence and ability of the student to tackle
future writing tasks using lessons they have learned from the current task. This ideal, in
whatever form it takes based on different writing centres’ philosophy, resources and
institutional context, is necessary. If not for the ideal, what would we be working towards?
What would we use as a compass point in the face of pressure from the university and from
students to ‘fix’ their essays, correct their grammar, or teach them ‘writing skills’?
Student demands, lecturer demands, and the kinds of timeframes writing tutors often
have to work within, with students coming for help close to their writing deadlines, can
undermine the use of a tool like semantic gravity for reflection and action. Segmented, rather
than cumulative, learning tends to be a more common mode in higher education (Maton
2009) given the ways in which curricula and assessment tasks are modularised and broken
into ‘units’ of learning. Overcoming segmentalism by enabling cumulative, relational learning
is essential to providing the conditions for students to succeed in higher education (Maton
2009, 2014).
Thus, rather than being put off by the challenges we may confront when using such a
tool as this, we need to continue to work towards the ideal, which references a more
cumulative, ongoing form of learning about writing itself, and what it demands of writers in
the process of thinking, writing, revising and so on. Semantic gravity, and the accompanying
notions of waving and weaving through conversations about writing, provides both a
conceptual and practical tool that writing centres can utilise, adding depth to current
approaches to student writing development, in this case those shaped by Academic Literacies.
We need to help students starting from where they are, rather than where we think they
should be, and we would be irresponsible not to do so. But are we not also irresponsible if we
ignore opportunities to challenge and push students further where we can, giving them greater
insight into and access to the ‘rules of the game’ so that they can begin to play on more
confident terms? I believe we would be.
Rather than bowing to the pressures exerted from within an understanding of writing
and student learning as a decontextualised, autonomous, value-free process which underpins
the ‘skills discourse’ so pervasive in higher education, writing centres have a powerful role to
play in resisting these pressures, understanding that we would not be helping students to
become more successful writers within their disciplines or fields in the longer-term if we did
not resist. Instead, we can help peer writing tutors, using explicit praxis shaped by tools such
as semantic gravity and the notion of gravity waves, to navigate the relationship in their own
tacit praxis between working with the writer and working with the writing, such that both
grow and develop. Tutors themselves need tools that give them both a conceptual
understanding of tutoring writers, as well as practical, contextualised means for achieving the
deeper, long-term goals that form the vision and mission for writing centres.
References
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Routledge, 72-92.
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Robinson HM. 2009. Writing center philosophy and the end of basic writing: motivation at
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Notes
1 North, S. 1984. The Idea of a Writing Center. College English, 46(5): 433-446.
2 While I acknowledge that many North American, UK and South African writing centres
tend to call their staff ‘writing consultants’, at the University of the Western Cape we chose
the terms peer writing tutors, and writing tutorials, because we feel they speak more
closely to our aims of academic, peer-led, conversation-based writing guidance, whereas
‘consultant’ is a term often used in management discourses which we would rather avoid
invoking.
3 Although the data has been generated in one writing centre, within a particular university
context - a traditional, historically black university - the focus of the chapter is on theorising
all writing centre practice and is not locked into a specific context.
... Brooke, 2019;Kirk, 2018;Szenes m.fl., 2015), men perspektivet kan lika väl tillämpas på tidigare utbildningsstadier (Macnaught m.fl., 2013;Meidell Sigsgaard, 2015) och även muntlig undervisning (t.ex. Clarence, 2017;Nygård Larsson, 2018). Dess potential som didaktiskt redskap, inte minst inom undervisning om akademiskt skrivande, har också lyfts (t.ex. ...
... Skälet till det är att det i flera tidigare studier visats vara tillräckligt att analysera tyngd (t.ex. Clarence, 2017;Szenes m.fl., 2015), något som också stöddes av en mindre pilotanalys för vårt material. 2. En tidigare föreslagen svensk översättning av "semantic gravity" är just kontextbundenhet (Landqvist & Karlsson, 2018, s. 151 ...
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Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write. Michel Foucault I am a conflicted person by nature. I don't often feel like I fit in, even in places where I really want to. I feel like a charlatan, an impostor, because I am always critiquing the very institutions I become a part of. This facet of my personality leads me to seek out other people and places that don't quite belong, spaces that represent the "borderland," people with whom I can share my sense of "in-betweeness." Maybe these impulses were what first led me to my campus Writing Center, where I have worked as a peer tutor for three years. The Writing Center—not quite classroom, not quite student union—represents that borderland I am always on the lookout for. And that job title, "peer tutor," gives me one more conflict to embrace. Even my school itself is conflicted; the largest of Kent State University's eight regional campuses, Kent State Stark is a commuter campus located in Canton, Ohio, and serves about 4000 students. Our student body is het-erogeneous; though not substantially diverse racially, we do have a significant population of "non-tradi-tional" students (students over the age of twenty-five). As a twenty-four year old undergraduate, my position Although the title denotes a single tutor, this pa-per could not have been completed—let alone started— without the help and support of my fellow tutors. Our work, and our rapport, is based on collaboration, and it is to that outlook which I accredit my perspective. as both "peer" and "tutor" is a confusing one. And yet, this conflicted identity is valuable to me. As a tutor, I try to help each student as best I can, and as a student, I empathize with their jammed schedules, incoher-ent professors, and vague assignments. By moving between the academic and student worlds, I find I can more easily recognize the borders and limitations of each. Being on-hand with students as they succeed, or sometimes fail, in their writing, I now have a more clear vision of when students are served by their insti-tution and when they are not. For instance, there is the widely contested con-cept of standardized testing. Incoming freshmen in the fall of 2008 were only eleven when the "No Child Left Behind Act" was passed 2 . While the move to assessment-based education was already well in place before the Act, it codified such programs and outlined punishments for schools which do not perform. The students we now see entering college are products of this education, and younger students grew up in an educational environment geared towards standardiza-tion. Writing center director Joe Essid describes "this new demographic, coming to us at the same time as creeping corporatism" as being made up of students 2 Passed in 2002, this Act institutionalized the use of standardized testing throughout the United States. It ties school funding to achievement, punishing schools that do not meet federally mandated scores by cutting funding. This focus on scores leads teachers to shift class time away from "extraneous" material, and focus narrow-ly on tested subject matter. The Act also allows military recruiters access to student records.
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In this microanalysis, a university writing center conference with an experienced tutor and a student he has never met before is analyzed for the tutor’s use of direct instruction, cognitive scaffolding, and motivational scaffolding. Along with verbal expressions of scaffolding, this analysis also considers the tutor’s hand gestures—topic gestures, which operationalize instruction and cognitive scaffolding, and interactive gestures, which operationalize motivational scaffolding. As defined in this analysis, instruction is the most directive of the three strategies and includes telling. Also directive, cognitive scaffolding leads and supports the student in making correct and useful responses, while motivational scaffolding provides feedback and helps maintain focus on the task and motivation. The microanalysis points to the importance of the student’s cognitive and motivational readiness to learn and the need for the student to control the agenda throughout the conference. It also contextualizes admonitions against tutor directiveness.
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These quotations are typical of remarks made by a group of twenty first-year students whom we interviewed (as part of a case study) three months after their entry into the humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In some ways, the students' experiences echo those reported in studies about the transition from school to university in many parts of the world. The students find the new discourse constraining and demanding in its many rules, its formality, its requirement to engage in close analysis and to consider the views of others in producing an argument. And yet the quotations also bear the quite specific imprint of the South African legacy of apartheid. Despite the many changes in the political system, the majority of "black"1 working-class students are still educated in print-impoverished environments, often characterized by teacher-centred, predominantly oral classroom cultures. In a context where close to 90 percent of students study through the medium of English (their second language), literacy practices take on an instrumental character, functional to the externally set examinations that students have to pass in order to gain a school-leaving (matriculation) certificate (see Kapp 2000 for detailed description). These students are nearly all the first in their families, sometimes the first in their communities, to attend university. Yandisa and David's statements also allude to the fact that like many students who enter the academy from traditionally marginalized communities, these students feel constrained by the cultural and intellectual context of the university, where many of the norms and values are different or at odds with their own experiences. When they enter into the humanities, students from such backgrounds thus have to negotiate a chasm that is not only cognitive and linguistic in character, but also social and affective: They "navigate not only among ways of using language but, indeed, among worlds" (DiPardo 1993, 7). In the words of new literacy studies theorist Gee they are entering into new discourses (he uses a capital D), a process entailing new ways of using language that are intricately connected to disciplinary processes of knowledge construction. Entering the discourse is a social and affective process because students have to negotiate a sense of self in relation to new ways of "behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking and . . . reading and writing" (1990, xix). In this chapter we will describe why and how we use a genre approach to help students "navigate" their entry into the disciplines in their first semester in Language in the Humanities, an academic literacy course that is situated alongside a range of disciplinary-focussed introductory courses and is designed to address the needs of students from disadvantaged school backgrounds.2 We focus on our use of the social science essay as a tool to open up a conversation about the nature of the discourse. Our data are drawn from course material from our teaching in 2002. We also use data from our case study of twenty students who took our course in 2002. These comprise extracts from student essays and interviews (conducted during their first and second semesters), as well as informal discussion. Our chapter illustrates the ways in which we have used genre theory alongside process and academic literacy approaches to suit the specific needs of our context. Through an exploration of its strengths and weaknesses, we argue that while a genre approach is a key resource for providing metaknowledge of the discourse conventions, it does not provide the necessary exploratory talking and writing space to enable students from outside the dominant discourses to become critical participants.
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Scholarship on writing centers often relies on validation systems that reconcile tensions between equality and plurality by privileging one over the other. According to feminist political theorist Chantal Mouffe, neither absolute equality nor absolute plurality are possible in any democratic system, a conflict she calls "the democratic paradox" and insists is the essence of a "well-functioning democracy" that supports pluralistic goals. The following article argues that a similar logic shapes writing center work and, therefore, any attempt to promote change must likewise embrace the democratic paradox as it manifests itself in the writing center: "the writing center paradox." © 2009 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.