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Supporting Academic Writing Practices

in Postgraduate Studies

A theoretical and practice-based overview of


academic writing support approaches and initiatives
Version 1 | 2015

Author:
Kirstin Wilmot

Contributors:
Sioux McKenna, Carol Thomson, Caroline van der Mescht,
Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Centre:
Centre for Postgraduate Studies
Rhodes University

Funded:
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Illustrations:
Tammy Griffin

Design:
Sally Dore

Photographs:
Ruan Scheepers

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Note on contributors
Many thanks go to Professor Sioux McKenna (PhD Programme Coordinator, CHERTL), Dr Carol Thomson
(Research Associate, CHERTL), and Dr Caroline van der Mescht (Lecturer, Academic Literacy and English
Language Training, Education Department) for their contributions of case studies of support pedagogies
in practice.
Thanks also go to Professor Chrissie Boughey (Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic and Student
Affairs) for allowing the Centre for Postgraduate Studies access to, and use of, her academic writing
workshop programme and for being a critical friend in this project.
Thanks go to Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka (ELRC), for her input in designing this overview, together with
its corresponding source book.
1 See the University of Minnesotas Writing-Enriched Curriculum at: http://wec.umn.edu/
2 See the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell University:
http://www.arts.cornell.edu/knight_institute/
3 Full details of the Pomodoro technique can be accessed via: http://pomodorotechnique.com/get-
started/
4 Acknoweldgement to Matt (IWR Masters, digital) for his mind map contribution
5 A writing circle is one kind of writing support pedagogy, based on a system of peer review. This
pedagogy will be elaborated on in the following Situated Postgraduate Writing Pedagogies section.
6 The scholar category of non-English speaking background (NESB) in Case Study 2 and 3, as well
as Section 3 Writing Consultations, are directly quoted from the papers in question; they are neither
endorsed by, nor form part of the lexicon of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies.
7 Writing advice on the blog can be accessed at: http://www.phd2published.com/topics/writing/
8 Blog can be accessed at: http://thesiswhisperer.com/
9 Blog can be accessed at: http://patthomson.net/
10 Full blog post can be accessed at: https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-
fiction/seven-upgrade-strategies-for-a-problematic-article-or-chapter-3c6b81be9aa2
11 See: http://www.phd2published.com/2013/10/09/announcing-acwrimo-2013/

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TABLE OF

CON T EN T S
Introduction 2
Academy Writing in the Current Higher Education Landscape 02
Theoretical Orientations to Academic Literacy 6
and Language
A socio-cultural orientation to academic literacy 06
Conceptualisations of language within a socio-cultural
orientation to literacy 07
What does this mean for scholar writing in higher education contexts? 07
Conceptualising Academic Writing Pedagogies: 13
Implications for Theory and Practice
Scholar writing practices in higher education 13
Current tensions in South Africa with regards to writing support 14
An academic literacies approach: does theory speak to
pedagogy and practice? 15
Writing in the Disciplines 16
Suggested best practice techniques 19
The notion of the peer 19
Generative writing strategies/techniques 25
Situated postgraduate writing pedagogies 29
Writing Groups 29
Writing groups in practice: select case studies 33
Challenges associated with writing groups 36
Diagnostic Assessment Profile 38
Writing Consultations 40
Writing consultations at Rhodes University 43
Writing Workshops 44
Writing workshops at Rhodes University 44
Informal support initiatives 46
Writing blogs 46
AcWriMo 48
AcWriMo at Rhodes University 49
Reflections on vignettes of writing support initiatives at 50
Rhodes University
Looking ahead: suggestions for a South African Higher 53
Education context
References 55
Introduction
Introducing this Theoretical and Practice-based Overview
This overview of postgraduate academic writing support was developed to inform the academic
writing support programme for postgraduate research scholars at Rhodes University. The aim of
this overview is to provide an in-depth scoping of academic writing practices as found in the current
higher education landscape, both within South Africa and internationally. It gives insights into the
different orientations to academic literacy in general and academic writing pedagogies in particular;
and, drawing on theory and current research, it justifies the need for supporting academic writing
practices in universities.Academic writing is a specialised higher education practice that, like research
methodologies and other dimensions of scholarly practice, has to be learned and supported as part
of a postgraduate education. Support for academic writing practices should not be seen to be an
anomaly in postgraduate studies teaching and learning programmes, but should rather be mainstreamed
into normal academic practice and scholarly engagement.

The goal of this overview is to reflexively engage with theory


on writing practices-in-practice, and, drawing on selected
case studies and vignettes of writing practice developed at
Rhodes University, it aims to illustrate how postgraduate
writing support programmes can be conceptualised in a
South African higher education context. It provides
demonstrable examples and seeks to catalyse a process of
expanding these practices at Rhodes University into the
normal, everyday practices of postgraduate education and
learning. Leading out of this in-depth overview, a more
practice-orientated source book has been developed. The
source book pulls out key issues in academic literacy debates
and provides practical tools and activities to be used for
supporting postgraduate scholars with their writing endeavours.
The source book, together with this more in-depth overview,
will be used with staff and postgraduate scholars to support
a collective engagement with the concept and processes of
academic writing at Rhodes University. This overview and
source book are therefore developed as a Version 1
deliberation tool to stimulate both dialogue and practice.

Over time we hope to deepen our understanding of this


core academic practice, and add further examples of academic writing practices that are developed at
Rhodes University, leading to an improved Version 2 of the two materials. As universities become more
research oriented, as publishing options broaden, and as high quality published outcomes produced by
more people become key features of higher education practice, there is need to strengthen reflexive
engagement with academic writing practices.

Academic Writing in the Current Higher Education Landscape


Higher education, both in South Africa and internationally, has and continues to experience many changes,
with stakes being raised and increasing demands, especially for published research results, being made.

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As South African universities strive to address a context-specific social agenda, many lessons can be learned
and shared from this experience. However, the challenges we face are not unique, and important lessons
can also be learned from engaging with contexts other than our own.

With increased access to higher education, together with the expanding scope and demands of university
education, higher education institutions across the world are accommodating a wider range of scholars
than ever before. Higher levels of mobility have led to expanded internationalism and massification, which
in turn has enriched universities with higher levels of scholar diversity in scholarly communities (Aitchison
& Lee 2006;Thesen 2013; Woodward-Kron 2007; Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Wingate & Tribble 2012;
Lillis & Scott 2007). Scholar diversity brings with it the need for all to engage within multilingual environments,
and to respect and value diverse life, disciplinary and cultural experiences, and histories. With higher
numbers and greater diversity comes the contemporary demand for adequate and transparent support
for scholars to become familiar with the historically constituted conventions and measures that characterise
successful academic practices. This does not mean that these cannot be challenged; however, in order for
these to be challenged and changed they also need to be understood and made transparent.

Education doctoral scholars at a Rhodes Education Doc Week, together with their Swedish exchange colleagues

In many contexts, scholars face additional challenges of learning in their second or third language, and of
adapting to the dominance of a particular language of learning which, due to historically constituted forms
of dominance, still prevail. In South Africa, English tends to be the most widely used language in university
education. The hegemony and associated challenges brought on by the use of English in higher education
has long been acknowledged in literature (see for example Lillis & Curry 2010; Aitchison 2009; Allison,
Coley, Lewkowicz & Nunan 1998; Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011). While this challenge is often erroneously
seen by many as a problem of the under-prepared scholar (Boughey 2002:295) in the South African
context, it is evident elsewhere in the world. In South Africa, and elsewhere where discriminatory histories
and perceptions prevail, this problem is also often racialised and/or gendered. An example of the
phenomenon of linguistic dominance can be found in Hong Kong where the University of Hong Kong is
an English-medium institution situated in a non-English speaking cultural context (Allison et al. 1998:202).
In addition to this, 50 per cent of the academic staff are not first language speakers of English, despite the
fact that they have to supervise their postgraduate scholars in English (Allison et al. 1998:202). This is
not unlike many universities in South Africa.

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Pressures to increase scholar numbers in institutions and to provide competitive research outputs are
increasingly apparent on a global level. Under influences of globalisation and the recent trend towards
quantifying knowledge productivity under a knowledge economy, governments and stakeholders are
demanding more from universities in terms of graduate numbers, the timeliness of scholarship and the
quality of knowledge production; outputs which are often measured in publications (see, for example
Aitchison 2009; Allison et al. 1998). Such demands are often placed on universities without the provision
of adequate support structures and funding to help ensure that these targets can be met (Li &
Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Allison et al. 1998). These pressures are part of a wider trend, and are
present in many countries, including South Africa, who has a specific set of quantifiable targets for
2030, as set by our governmental National Planning Commission. Included in these are: an increase
from 34 per cent (in 2010) to 75 per cent of all university academics to hold PhDs by 2030; an increase
in graduation rates to more than 25 per cent by 2030; and for South African universities to produce
more than 5,000 PhD graduates per year to achieve the desired target of 100 PhD graduates per
million per year for 2030 - even though in 2012 we only produced 1,878 (National Planning Commission,
2011:267-278; Cloete, Sheppard & Bailey 2015:79). Increased outputs of this magnitude cannot be
achieved without systematic, sustainable and effective suppor t mechanisms being put in place.

In light of the changing higher education landscape and the pressure universities around the world are
facing, academic writing has received increasing amounts of attention in recent years. As Thesen (2013:104)
explains regarding the formal recognition of research: There is no research without a written, recognisable
product that can travel beyond the laboratory or research site and translate insight into knowledge that
makes a difference.

Writing is thus considered key to express ways of knowing and understanding


(Lea & Street 2000) with the link between language and knowledge production
being foregrounded in research (Aitchison & Lee 2006).
The emergence of research on the importance of writing for the generating of new knowledge has
sparked a trend of enquiry into the support structures needed to ensure academic writing success,
especially at the postgraduate level. In South African Higher Education, this is relevant as teachers and
researchers are critically reconceptualising the purpose and nature of student writing in the academy
(Curry & Lillis 2003:6).

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Research on academic writing is not without its problems,
particularly evident in a lack of conceptualisation of writing as
a research pedagogy (Aitchison & Lee 2006). Not all is problematic
however, and adding new interest to this trend towards giving
increased attention to academic writing in the academy is the
effect of internationalisation which brings with it more mobility
between languages, countries as well as domains and disciplines,
raises awareness of the challenges of writing in new styles,
languages and genres, as scholars and young researchers transition
between contexts" (Thesen 2013:104).

Successful writing support has been embraced for many years


in North America, most notably through their various forms
of Freshman Composition courses (Aitchison & Lee 2006).
Despite this, it is only beginning to be addressed in many
universities outside of the USA. Numerous different approaches
to providing academic writing support have, however, been
developed and offered in the last decade, and continue to evolve.

Significantly, research is showing that it is not only speakers of languages other than the dominant language
of instruction (e.g. English) who request and benefit from academic writing support, but all scholars (see,
for example, Wingate & Tribble 2012; Larcombe, McCosker & OLoughlin 2007; and Lea & Street 2006).
This trend challenges a common-sense view that academic writing support is not a mainstream activity;
rather, it should be given due attention in postgraduate studies amongst all scholars.

In South Africa, theoretically robust and well informed academic writing support programmes (Boughey
2013; Jacobs 2013) are in their infancy and are only just beginning to emerge (ibid). Questions and issues
of 'what is contextually feasible', as raised by Weideman (2013) have been taken up by scholars such as
Jacobs (2013:131), who contends that we should start pushing the boundaries that these constraints
impose on us. Jacobs (2013:131) argues that if the contextual situation is informing the approaches we
offer rather than current theoretical thinking then we need to be shifting the research lens... towards an
interrogation of those factors at a macro level which allow some approaches to be more easily implemented
than others. In a similar vein, questions surrounding the relevance of engaging with contexts other than
our own, such as the United States, which is considered to be light-years removed from the South African
language situation (Weideman 2013:16) have been raised in the South African context. This narrow
viewpoint, together with other general feelings of unease on how to proceed, has initiated this theoretical
overview. Academic writing support concerns and perceived challenges have been considered in relation
to current understandings of literacy, particularly academic writing support initiatives, in the formation of
this Version 1 overview.

In deliberating on an approach to writing support for postgraduate scholars at Rhodes University, this
overview considers the different approaches being trialled and adopted across higher education internationally,
and begins to critically evaluate their effectiveness, relevance and appropriateness for a South African
context (NOTE: Such a project is much more expansive than what is possible in the scope of this overview,
and can be the subject of at least one PhD project!).

The 'Version 1' overview also engages at an introductory level with macro level institutional factors which
influence the viability of different approaches on offer; again these require more extensive research. In
order to begin the journey of adequately theoretically contextualising academic writing and support
approaches, this document provides an overview of existent theoretical orientations to academic literacy
and writing. It then reflexively engages with some of the available theory underpinning different writing
pedagogies. Using situated practices-in-practice, it contextualises emerging dimensions of some academic
writing support programmes, allowing for their objectives, strengths and weaknesses to be tangible and
accessible for active engagement and further expansion.

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Theoretical Orientations
to Academic Literacy and
Language
A socio-cultural orientation to academic literacy
Understandings of literacy, especially academic literacy in a higher education context, have experienced
substantial shifts in its conceptualisation in the last few decades. Singular, insular and autonomous
forms of literacy have, and continue to be, increasingly contested, with a more ideological, context-
dependent, socio-cultural conceptualisation of literacies being foregrounded. This has been an
important theoretical step in understanding learning in higher education, which is dependent on a
mastery of academic reading and writing.Writing is of particular relevance as it is through this social
practice that knowledge is accessed, internalised, and produced. The turn to a socio-cultural
understanding of literacy allows one to conceptualise the cultural and situational context of the
learner-scholar, and also allows for scholars' own literacies to be incorporated into the theorisation
of how scholars learn.

One of the founding movements which advocates


for a socio-cultural conceptualisation of academic
literacy is the theoretical development of literacy
through the work in New Literacy Studies (see
Street 1984, 1995; Gee 1996; Barton 1994).The
key thesis of this movement is the conceptual-
isation of literacy as a social practice, not as a
set of skills one needs to acquire (Street 1984).
Within this understanding, literacy is no longer
limited to the singular, but is rather conceptualised
in its plural form, to take into account the existence
of multiple literacies, which vary according to
time and space and are contested in relations
of power (Street 2003:77). In order to understand
the notion of multiple literacies, Street (1984)
distinguishes between autonomous and
ideological models of literacy.

In the autonomous model of literacy, literacy is conceptualised as a set of cognitive, technical and neutral
skills, which will, in turn,have effects on other social and cognitive practice (Street 2003:77).The fundamental
problem with this kind of understanding and treatment of literacy is that it disguises the cultural and
ideological assumptions that underpin it so that it can then be presented as though they are neutral and
universal and that literacy as such will have these benign effects (Street 2003:77). In addition, the
autonomous model of literacy is problematic as it imposes western conceptions of literacy on to other
cultures or within a country those of one class or cultural group onto others (Street 2003:77).

The ideological model, in contrast, views literacy as a social practice, and as such, offers a more nuanced
view of different literacy practices within different contexts (Street 2003:77). Pointedly, the ideological
model conceptualises literacy practices as inextricably embedded in socially constructed epistemological
principles; that is, the ways in which people address reading and writing are themselves rooted in
conceptions of knowledge, identity, and being (Street 2003:77). The ideological nature of literacy is thus

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due to the social characterisation of it and the inevitable nature of both its meanings and practices being
contested due to this social sphere. Drawing on Gee (1991) and Besnier and Street (1994), Street
(2003:77) claims that versions of literacy within this model are always ideological, they are always rooted
in a particular world-view and in a desire for that view of literacy to dominate and to marginalise others.
In relation to this conceptualisation, Street (2003:77) goes on to add that [t]he ways in which teachers
or facilitators and their students interact is already a social practice that affects the nature of the literacy
being learned and the ideas about literacy held by the participants, especially the new learners and their
position in relations of power.

Conceptualisations of language within a socio-cultural orientation to


literacy
Christie (1990:8) reports on a tradition in past research on literacy in English-speaking cultures which
considers language as a neutral commodity which, once learned, simply becomes a kind of carrier... by
means of which various forms of content or information are conveyed. Within this conceptualisation
of language, language is seen as independent from the modes through which it is expressed, and even
more problematically, from the knowledge it expresses, which is seen to exist independently, outside of
language. Language, then, is seen to just clothe (Christie 1990:8) the knowledge being produced and act
as a vehicle (Christie 1985:298) for its expression. It is through this thinking that Christie (1990) contends
that the problematic dichotomies between form and content, form and function or process and product,
come to exist in language education and research (Christie 1990:8). Instead of focusing on the meaning-
making potential of language, these dichotomies cause educators to focus on the surface features of
language, such as syntax, grammar and spelling.

What does this mean for a South African context?


Can South African universities successfully address equity challenges if they impose the
(often hidden) norms of a dominant (Western) culture upon all South Africans through
a model of autonomous literacy practices?
Can South African universities avoid this if we align our thinking and conceptualising of
literacy practices and student writing in particular with an ideological model of literacy,
that recognises that the ways that people address reading and writing are themselves
rooted in knoweldge, identity and being? (Street, 2003: 77)

In contrast to this conceptualisation, Christie (1990) posits the opposite understanding of language;
advocating for language to be conceptualised as a resource (Christie 1985:299). In her view, language
is one of the oldest ways in which humans have evolved to build meaning and to impose some kind of
order upon experience (Christie 1990:8). Similar to a New Literacy Studies positioning, Christie considers
language to be a social practice, and significantly, a social practice which is never neutral, as it is centrally
involved in the ways in which information, thought, feeling, attitude, are established (Christie 1990:9).This
understanding of language and knowledge construction in relation to scholar literacy practices has
implications for how academic writing can be conceptualised in a higher education context, discussed
next.

What does this mean for academic writing development and support in
higher education contexts?
Changing from a re-active to a proactive approach
As Lillis and Scott (2007) contend, as long as the primary means of assessment in higher education remains
that of writing, so the foregrounding of academic writing in literacy theory will remain. Despite this focus,
Lillis and Scott (2007) go on to caution that many conceptualisations of writing within academic literacy
theory have remained reactive (with a focus on identifying problems with language) rather than proactive.

A grammar correcting approach to academic writing may not be the most proactive approach to academic
writing support. More useful is a meaning-making approach.

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Lillis & Scott (ibid) suggest that more proactive
approaches to academic writing involve
research and pedagogies which seek to en-
compass the broader array of representational
and communicative resources that are at play
- actually and potentially - and at stake in higher
educational contexts (ibid:17). Proactive
approaches might consider the range of
semiotic practices (ibid:17) involved in, and
which contribute to, writing practices. These
could include reading practices, institutional
cultures, scholar dispositions, and multimodal
learning opportunities within the university
space, among others. The theory offered in
New Literacy Studies makes a valuable
contribution to achieving this proactive nature
with regards to the conceptualisation of scholar A grammar correcting approach to
writing. academic writing may not be the most
proactive approach to academic writing
Making explicit the links between language, support. More useful is a meaning-
writing and knowledge construction
making approach.
New Literacy Studies, by adopting a viewpoint
which considers academic literacy in its plural
form, within a social practice framing, one is then able to make explicit the links between language and
knowledge creation, as stipulated by Christie (1990).The idea pertaining to this linkage, however, illustrates
the dialogical relationship between knowledge building and writing, and is thus especially pertinent for
writing practices in higher education contexts. The idea of these two literacy practices being interlinked
also demonstrates that the practices of language use and writing, in the creation of new knowledge, are
interdependent. The adoption of this theoretical position has sparked a new trend with regard to
conceptualising scholar academic writing and support initiatives thereof.

How is language used to construct knowledge across different disciplines?


To demonstrate how language is used differently, in different contexts and across different
disciplines, we now turn to an example showing two abstracts. The abstracts are taken
from HIV/AIDS journals and deal with issues of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. While
providing content on a similar topic, it becomes clear through comparison, how language
is used differently, to construct and build different forms of knowledge. It also reflects how
writing genres between academic disciplines differ.

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EXTRACT 1
Scientific perspective, taken from the journal Human Vaccines
& Immunotherapeutics
Pilot study on the immunogenicity of paired Env immunogens from mother-
to-child transmitted HIV-1 isolates
Abstract
Recent studies have reported that founder viruses play unique roles in establishing
HIV-1 infection. Understanding the biological and immunological features of envelope
glycoproteins (Env) from such viruses may facilitate the development of effective
vaccines against HIV-1. In this report , we evaluated the immunogenicity of gp120
immunogens from two pairs of clade B and two pairs of clade C mother-to-child
transmitted (MTCT) HIV-1 variants that had various levels of sensitivity to broadly
neutralising monoclonal antibodies. Individual gp 120 DNA and protein vaccines
were produced from each of the eight MTCT Env antigens included in the current
study. Rabbits were immunized with these gp120 immunogens by the DNA prime-
protein boost approach. High level Env-specific antibody responses were elicited
by all MTCT gp120 immunogens. However, their abilities to elicit neutralizing
antibody (NAb) responses differed and those from relatively neutralization-resistant
variants tended to be more effective in eliciting broader NAb. Results from this
pilot study indicated that not all MTCT Env proteins have the same potential to
elicit NAb. Understanding the mechanism(s) behind such variation may provide
useful information in formulating the next generation of HIV vaccines.

EXTRACT 2
Social Science perspective, taken from Journal of Children
and Poverty
Mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS in Uganda

Abstract
With nearly 40 million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide,
preventing a further expansion of the disease lies in part with curbing vertical
transmission from mother to child. After a brief outline of the epidemiological
data on MTCT (mother-to-child transmission), the biology of transmission, and
available therapies, this paper narrows its attention to Ugandas history in containing
its AIDS crisis. After assessing what drug protocol is most suitable for Uganda, we
will evaluate three key sets of barriers inadequate infrastructure, limited patient
access, and transmission risks of breastfeeding that prevent rapid resolution of
the MTCT problem. Ultimately, this paper aims to demonstrate two conclusions:
first, Uganda would be wise to dedicate resources to the prevention of vertical
transmission since an effective campaign would further reduce Ugandas incidence
rates, be far more cost-effective that treatment programs, and serve as a platform
for future health initiatives: second, a successful MTCT prevention strategy should
consider widespread distribution of safe delivery kits with nevirapine, greater
reliance on traditional healers, reduction of government cost-sharing schemes,
and qualified encouragement of breastfeeding. Through preventative, narrowly-
targeted MTCT campaigns, developing nations can build the broad capabilities
and external confidence required to attract funding, secure drug price discounts,
and ultimately adopt a successful and far-reaching treatment strategy.

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In the South African context, theoretical alignment between the practice of writing and the creation of
new knowledge has been advocated by many scholars (see, for example, Boughey 2002, 2013; Jacobs
2013 and Thesen 2013). Boughey (2002:300) argues that many of the approaches to writing support
adopted in South Africa have not taken cognisance of the fact that it is through language, which is reflected
in writing, that meaning is discovered, and that coherence in writing will only develop when there is
coherence in thought. Thus, the development of support programmes has often been informed from
an understanding of language as a neutral instrument of communication. In this view, problem scholars
are seen to have language problems, which are often attributed to their status as second language speakers
of English (Boughey 2002:301). Crucially, it is this problematic understanding of language and writing which
causes the misconception that writing problems are as a result of scholars inability to manipulate the
forms of the additional language in a way that will allow them to receive and pass on the thoughts
developed in the disciplines, and not because of their lack of familiarity with using language to construct
thought in new and unfamiliar ways (Boughey 2002:302). This misconception, Boughey (2013) argues,
has resulted due to the many changes which have occurred in higher education in South Africa since the
early 1990s. In her opinion, commonsense assumptions about language and literacy have come to inform
many of the practices on offer today (Boughey 2013:37).

By adopting a socio-cultural lens, as Boughey calls for, the emphasis and focus
of inquiry is returned to the social practice of meaning-making and knowledge
construction, which opens up space to move beyond a deficit model of
literacy.
Conceptualising literacy practices: three hierarchical
models

Building on New Literacy Studies, Lea and Street


(2006:368) describe how previous understandings
of literacy and educational research have focused
on the dominant deficit model; essentially on how
one can teach scholars to adapt their literacy
practices to conform to university standards.
These standards are most often assumed as
common-sense, and are not often, if ever, made
explicit to learners. In light of this, Lea and Street
(2000) argue that before one can even begin
to address scholar literacy practices, it is
necessary to first gain an understanding of how
both the scholar and the academic staff Did youknow?
conceptualise their own literacy practices.These Past education research has produced
conceptualisations are imperative to gain, as three hiearchical models for academic
without them, one cannot judge which literacy
writing:
practices will be effective or even appropriate
for the scholar (Lea & Street 2000:33). Allowing 1) the skills study model
space for these considerations gives credence 2) the academic socialisation model
to the fact that the understandings may not only
differ but might in fact be in opposition to one 3) the academic literacies model
another. A socio-cultural viewpoint is crucial,
The models are not mutually exclusive.
especially when addressing difficulties with
literacy practices, as it foregrounds how meanings
Each model encapsulates the one above
and different understandings may be contested. it. In general the academic literacies
By viewing literacy, and especially academic writing, model (3 above) has been neglected in
as a set of socio-cultural practices, rather than the academy (Lea & Street 2000:33).
within the deficit model of a set of autonomous Working with all three provides a more
skills, one is not only able to gain deeper and holistic and socially situated approach
more meaningful insights into how scholars learn,
to academic writing.
but academic writing is able to be conceptualised

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at the level of epistemology within academic contexts (Lea & Street 2006:368).

Lea and Street (2000, 2006) contend that past education research has conceptualised scholar academic
writing into three hierarchical perspectives or models, namely: the study skills model; the academic
socialisation model; and the academic literacies model. The development of curriculum, instructional
practice, as well as research, has, according to Lea and Street (2006:369), been guided by the first two
models, with little attention being paid to the academic literacies model. While the authors privilege the
academic literacies model, they contend that each model is not mutually exclusive, but rather that each
model encapsulates those above it (Lea & Street 2000:33). In this understanding, by incorporating elements
of both the study skills model and the academic socialisation model into the academic literacies model,
this privileged model gives a more encompassing understanding of the nature of scholar writing within
institutional practices, power relations and identity (ibid:33).

The study skills model considers writing to be a purely cognitive, Study Skills Model
instrumental and technical set of skills which are autonomous of
In the Study Skills Model lecturers generally
context and which, when learned, can be easily transferred from
tend to focus on fixing grammar, punctutation
one context to another (Lea & Street 2000, 2006).The focus here
and sentence structure. This is inadequate as
is on the surface features of writing such as grammar, punctuation
it pays no attention to context and is based
and sentence structure. The model is problematic as little or no
on a dominant deficit model.
attention is paid to context and it relies heavily on the dominant
deficit model in literature, as explained above.

The academic socialisation model adopts a student orientation to Academic Socialisation Model
learning and is concerned with acculturating scholars into the
In the Academic Socialisation Model lecturers
discourse of the subject and the different necessary genres (Lea
assume that induction into the discipline and
& Street 2000, 2006). This model is problematic as it assumes
its norms is an adequate way of supporting
that disciplines and institutions are homogeneous, and that by
academic writing. This is inadequate as it fails
learning their norms and practices guarantees access. By doing
to address deep language, discourse and
this, the model treats writing as a transparent medium of
literacy issues that characterise the practice
representation and so fails to address the deep language, literacy
of academic writing.
and discourse issues involved in the institutional production and
representation of meaning (Lea & Street 2000:35).

literacies model is the model most closely aligned with New Literacy Academic Literacies Model
Studies, and, rather than treating literacy and associated learning
and writing problems at the level of skill or socialisation, it addresses In the Academic Literacies Model the lecturer
literacy on the level of epistemology (Lea & Street 2000), privileging will focus on the meaning making processes
practice over text (Lillis & Scott 2007). It is concerned with meaning and how writing can facilitate these. The shift
making, identity, power, and authority, and foregrounds the institutional is away from text to practice, and lecturers
nature of what counts as knowledge in any particular academic will recognise that academic writing is a social
context (Lea & Street 2006:369).The inclusion of issues of scholar practice essential to the creation of new
identity in this model is resultant from the social and ideological knowledge. It includes an understanding of
orientation of New Literacy Studies (Lea & Street 2000:35). In how power relations influence writing, the
addition, this model does not limit literacy practices and demands contested nature of academic writing
of practice to that of the discipline and institution, but also conventions, and sees writing as ideologically
incorporates how other forms of literacy outside the institution inscribed knowledge construction with generic
(for example, government, university bureaucracy) impact on what academic and discipline specific characteristics
is required of the scholar to learn (Lea & Street 2006:370). and conventions.

advocating for a shift in focus from the text to practice, the academic
literacies model allows for a number of significant issues to be foregrounded which would otherwise be
excluded in other models.These include the impact of power relations on student writing; the contested
nature of academic writing conventions; the centrality of identity and identification in academic writing;
academic writing as ideologically inscribed knowledge construction, the nature of generic academic, as
well as disciplinary specific, writing practices, and interest in an archaeology of academic practices (Lillis
& Scott 2007:12). By conceptualising writing practices in this way, the academic literacies model can offer
us a transformative approach to writing practices rather a normative one (ibid:12).This transformative
approach encapsulates all the concerns of a normative approach, but takes these issues one step further

11
in the consideration of the following (ibid:13):
a) Locating such conventions in relation to specific and contested traditions of knowledge making;
b) Eliciting the perspectives of writers (whether academic scholars or professionals) on the ways in which
such conventions impinge on their meaning making; and
c) Exploring alternative ways of meaning making in academia, not least by considering the resources that
(scholar) writers bring to the academy as legitimate tools for meaning making.

This theoretical position allows for scholar writing problems to be contextualised and problematized
within a socio-cultural perspective, thus incorporating the many relevant issues beyond the traditional
identify and induct approach offered by normative approaches (ibid:14).

In light of Lea and Streets conceptualisation of literacy into three models, Baynham (2000:19) makes the
argument that we should not lose touch with the sharply focused specificity which text-based studies
[study skills model] provide. He argues that although it is imperative to recognise the (often contested)
contexts in which literacy practices occur (in line with the academic literacy, or as he refers practice-
based approach), one cannot do so without a clear and precise understanding of language form and
structure.

What does this mean for scholarly writing in a South African Context?
Can you assess which of the three models you tend to privilege in the way you engage with scholarly
writing?
Could you work on broadening your approach to engaging with scholarly writing?
How would you go about broadening your approach to engaging with scholarly writing to align with
the latest developments in research which point to the significance of a socio-cultural orientation or
academic literacies model for guiding scholarly writing development and support?

Such criticism of the academic literacies approach is not isolated. Lillis and Scott (2007:21) echo the
concerns expressed by Baynham (2000), in that academic literacies, in its quest to dislodge the texts as
linguistic objects as the primary means of focus, has resulted in a lack of attention to texts as linguistic
and cultural artefacts in the model.This criticism is relevant to consider, as the argument for the maintenance
of a textual or language focus, according to Baynham (2000:19), is underpinned by the belief that language
is a major means (if not necessarily the only means) by which disciplinary knowledge is constituted,
reproduced, contested, added to, and learned.This is especially prevalent in higher education globally and
in South Africa, where many institutions are faced with a scholar body consisting of high numbers of
second or third language English speakers. One can presume, therefore, that not all scholars will be entering
into the university space equipped with the same necessary linguistic (English) skills that are required by
current academic conventions to succeed in higher education. Theorisation such as this is important, as
it makes academic developers and writing specialists aware of the need to play a balancing act between
providing the richness of a socio-cultural new literacies approach, and one which incorporates elements
of a study skills approach to enable scholars to gain the linguistic tools needed to access academic
literacies.

The next sections of this overview provide further insights and practical strategies for addressing the
questions above.

12
Conceptualising Academic
Writing Pedagogies:
Implications for Theory and
Practice
Scholarly writing practices in higher education
All scholars in higher education are impacted by academic writing, as it remains the primary means
of knowledge production and assessment, as previously discussed.While scholars for whom English
is a second (or third, fourth etc.) language are generally considered the more vulnerable candidates,
research is showing that this is not necessarily the case, with all scholars benefitting from academic
writing support programmes. Significantly, these problems are not limited to any one context, but
are seen to be internationally prevalent in various different contexts catering for a wide range
(linguistically and culturally) of scholars.

In the academic staff-scholar writing relationship, one of the biggest problems with scholar writing is
accounted for in the problematic relationship between academic staff expectations of scholars, in relation
to their writing practices, and the interpretations of scholars in terms of what is involved in the writing
process (Lea & Street 2000). Building on this problematic, Baynham (2000:30) asserts the need for making
concerns of disciplinarity, disciplinarization and consequent writing positions central to all scholars
(academic staff and student-scholars), so that this disjunction can be avoided. Linked to the importance
of being explicit about disciplinarily and writing positions in teaching, Lea and Street (2000) and Baynham
(2000) make the argument that scholars are often confronted with the need to switch between disciplinary
boundaries, which cannot be conveniently treated as homogeneous, as in the past. With this in mind, Lea
and Street (2000:39) argue that it is not valid to suggest that such concepts [argument and structure]
are generic and transferable, or represent common sense ways of knowing (Fairclough 1992), as the
reference to writing problems frequently implied.

The supervisor-student relationship has received much attention


in the past decade, in relation to writing problems or difficulties,
due to the hierarchical structure and nature of the relationship.
Aitchison and Lee (2006) argue that the complexity of the
writing process is often unable to be sufficiently addressed due
to the one-on-one hierarchical relationship. There is often little
or no space for the broader questions of thinking, learning,
knowing, engaging, positioning, becoming, which are intimately
tied to writing, to be addressed in this formal relationship setting
(ibid: 268). Another weakness of the supervisor-student
relationship is described by Lea and Street (2000), who comment
on how, in their research, supervisors were successfully able
to identify good pieces of writing, but were not able to identify
the features within the writing itself (a textual analysis) which
gave the piece its favourable status. The appropriateness of
scholar writing then, according to Lea and Street (2000:39),
"has more to do with issues of epistemology than with the
surface features of form to which staff often have recourse

13
when describing their students writing. Thus, on the one hand, if problematic areas of writing cannot be
explicitly indicated and explained, the scholar will be unable to address weak areas and improve in future
writing tasks. On the other hand, even if weakness are able to be flagged, not all scholars have the necessary
language and other interpersonal skills to activate advice from their supervisors (Allison et al. 1998:199).
Furthermore, advice from supervisors may not be as comprehensive or holistic as it could potentially be
from an academic writing perspective, further exacerbating the problem.

Closely related to this problem, and a point which is significant to consider in a South African context, is
that the already problematic hierarchical relationship is compounded when supervisors are themselves
second or third language speakers of English, or when supervisors who are first language English speakers
know little about writing practices themselves. Similar to some scholars, not all supervisors have the
necessary language knowledge and skills needed to identify and explain problematic features of academic
writing (Allison et al. 1998:200). It is for this reason that we have focussed in this overview and corresponding
source book on scholars rather than students only as scholarly academic writing development is often
as relevant to supervisors as it is to scholars i.e. all who are engaged in the practice of scholarly writing.
The overview therefore seeks to support supervisors academic writing support practices as much as it
seeks to support postgraduate scholars academic writing practices.

The attention which the supervisor-student relationship has received in recent research shows how this
relationship often cannot provide all the support the scholar needs in order to succeed in higher education.
While an essential relationship for knowledge production, it is also problematic in that the single supervisor
may often be the only support structure on offer at many institutions internationally. While important,
the single supervisor cannot always sufficiently consider how the university at a wider level, and department
structure and culture at a more micro level, support postgraduates with their research endeavours or
not (Motshoane & McKenna 2014). This reality emphasises the need to develop academic support
structures which can work in a parallel and in mutually beneficial and dialogical ways with mainstream
supervision structures. Crucially, however, the support offered should not take the place of, be in competition
with, or undermine, the role of the supervisor.

Current tensions in South Africa with regards to academic writing support


As discussed in the introduction, there has been notable uncertainty and unease on a way to proceed
in South Africa with regards to developing appropriate academic writing support programmes. While
exceptions do exist and there is some excellent work emerging within the framework of New Literacies
described above, many of the support programmes adopted continue to be informed by the study skills
model above, effectively limiting these to a skills-based, deficit
model of academic literacy (Boughey 2013).These practices,
due to staff changes and shifts in university composition
over the last twenty years, are often underpinned by
commonsense assumptions (Boughey 2013:37) and
generic understandings of literacy and literacy teaching
(Jacobs 2013:132). Jacobs (2013) recommends that colla-
borative approaches need to be adopted, with discipline
specialists working alongside language practitioners in order
to make explicit how different disciplines structure their
knowledge bases and produce knowledge (Jacobs 2013:132).

In addition to collaborative relationships, Jacobs (2013) also


asserts the need to engage with current theory on best
practice approaches, rather than adopting practices which
are considered practical and logistically easier than others,
as previously discussed. In particular, Jacobs (2013) reflects
on how few approaches currently offered in South Africa
embrace a transformative academic literacies model which
takes into account meaning making, identity, power and
authority and foregrounds the institutional nature of what
counts as knowledge in any particular academic context

14
(Jacobs 2013:128). It is indeed worrying that some South African scholars are advocating the view that
[c]urrent debates concerning ideological vs. autonomous approaches, integrated or embedded modules
vs. stand-alone modules, generic modules vs. discipline specific modules etc. do not seem to contribute
to responsible decision making (van Dyk & van der Poel 2013:60). In a similar vein, it is not enough to
insist that we should focus on supporting our students academic acculturation process rather than their
academic literacy development (ibid:59). As this discussion, and the discussion in Section 2 of this overview
has indicated, language is a key resource for gaining access to not only the academic genre but also in
building and contributing knowledge in this space. To push for acculturation at the expense of linguistic
perspectives within a socio-cultural orientation, could appear to be irresponsible and short-sighted, given
the vast expanse of research showing the importance of this perspective. Instead, we contend that rigorous
analyses, critique and engagement with relevant theories available should underpin our practices. Thus, in
line with Jacobs view, we now turn our attention to the academic literacies model, and critically evaluate
whether such an ideal can be translated into a writing pedagogy.

An academic literacies approach: does theory speak to pedagogy and


practice?
The academic literacies approach to academic writing, privileging a socio-cultural orientation to literacy,
in line with New Literacy Studies, has received heavy criticism in recent years on a number of perceived
flaws. These flaws will be considered in turn, in reference to the South African context.

First, as already noted in the discussion above,


the academic literacies model, in privileging the
socio-cultural components in its approach, has
been criticised for losing the textual component
entirely.This, Baynham (2000) and Lillis and Scott
(2007) comment, is a flaw in the approach, as
one cannot entirely ignore the language-specific
problems of academic writing.This is particularly
pertinent not only for second or third language
speakers of English, but first language speakers
of English as well, who often also display language-
specific problems in their academic writing.
Ultimately, one can endeavour to create
epistemological access through purely socio-
cultural components, but if the scholar is still
unable to access and use the conventions of the
English language, they will continue to be excluded
from academic discourse. As local access to
Higher Education is widened, and as inter-
nationalisation trends expand, this language
demographic will no doubt continue to grow. It
is therefore imperative to seek an approach which
is theoretically sound and informed by issues of
socio-cultural inclusion, but which also remains
realistic in terms of what it can offer on a surface level, to address the language (English)-specific issues
many scholars face.

The second issue which Lillis and Scott (2007) raise relates to the methodology of the academic literacies
approach; in particular, the small-scale ethnographically framed research which has come to characterise
it. This kind of research, the authors contend, is due to its suitability for the lone researcher wanting to
engage critically with the context in which she is working (ibid:21). While the value of doing such
ethnographic research is well documented, especially for research dealing with inequality, the small scale
studies often focus on non-traditional scholar groups (Wingate & Tribble 2012), and can be serendipitous
rather than selective in design, which may result in inhibiting empirical and theoretical developments
of the field (Lillis & Scott 2007:21). Echoing this view, Wingate and Tribble (2012:483) call for the need
for larger scale of specifically designed research... to provide a systemic and representative account of

15
student experiences with academic writing. This is particularly pertinent to the South African context
where traditionally, small-scale research has dominated the field of education (Deacon, Osman & Buchler
2009; Levin, Qi, Edelstein & Sohn 2013). It is also important to consider in a South African context where
there is a strong and necessary focus on issues of social justice and inclusion in higher education. One
should remain cautious, however, to follow a line of enquiry which seeks to address these more macro
issues at the expense of other more micro linguistic issues.

The third issue, raised by Wingate and Tribble (2012), is the ability of the orientation and approach to
offer a realistic writing pedagogy, especially in a postgraduate space in higher education. While they point
to some instances of pedagogical practice, such as Lilliss (2001, 2006) focus on dialogues between scholars
and tutors, Leas (2004) attempts to incorporate academic literacies principles into course design, as well
as Lea and Streets (2006) workshops with law scholars and pre-university scholars, they comment that
an appropriate approach is not easily accessible. The approaches described above have been successful,
but in very specific contexts, which are often privileged in terms of resources (such as Oxbridge in the
United Kingdom). Thus the often labour- and contact-intensive approaches, requiring a sophisticated level
of discipline expertise, have worked with varying degrees of success. In a South African context, many of
our universities do not have a wealth of resources for support initiatives, nor do they have the small
numbers which allow for one-on-one rich interaction with tutors.This is especially prevalent in a postgraduate
space, where many scholars are off-campus (often residing in different cities).

One approach which can potentially counteract the limitations of both implementing a socio-cultural
orientated approach while at the same time not losing sight of the more micro-linguistics issues, is a hybrid
of an academic literacies approach and English for Academic Purposes (EAP): the Writing in the Disciplines
model. EAP, given its structure and its history of catering for (primarily) scholars for whom English is a
second or third language, is often viewed as embodying a deficit model approach. From a practical
perspective, EAP has a long-standing history with academic support initiatives, due to its targeted approach
of equipping scholars with a particular level of language skills so that they may subsequently engage with
subject material (Jordon 1997, Hyland 2006). These skills are typically learnt outside of the discipline in a
course component offered by language experts, usually housed within a university language centre (Jordon
1997). Writing in the Disciplines, in contrast, has a socio-cultural orientation in that it embeds writing and
language skills within the discipline; collaboratively incorporating elements of EAP with a more practice-
centred approach (Wingate & Tribble 2012).

Writing in the disciplines


Writing in the Disciplines is perhaps the best realisation of a socio-cultural writing support programme.
This approach embeds the very essence of writing within the discipline, reinforcing and cultivating writing
skills throughout the scholars progression through the university system.

By embedding writing within the different disciplines, scholars are quickly


able to see the importance of communicating through writing, and even
more importantly, the link between writing and knowledge construction
(Somerville & Crme 2005).
Crucially, in a parallel development, writing becomes normalised and natural for scholars, thus building
confidence and skills gradually and cumulatively throughout their university career. The different kinds of
writing experienced within the different disciplines also engrains onto scholars what remains incommensurable
and irreducible in writing practices both within academic fields and from one field to the next (Monroe
2003:4), thus exposing them to, and developing their sense of, different discipline genres, repertoires and
audiences.

Many institutions have adopted the Writing in the Disciplines programme, particularly in the United States
(see for example, the University of Minnesota1 and Cornell University2, which have particularly good

1
See the University of Minnesotas Writing-Enriched Curriculum at: http:/wec.umn.edu/
2
See the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell University: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/knight_institute/

16
programmes).This particular orientation to academic writing has informed a new project being undertaken
at Rhodes University, the Writing Intensive Project (WIP). Currently in its third year of implementation
(with extended funding for a fourth year), this project is still run on a voluntary basis across the university.
An outline of the project can be viewed in the inset box below.

The Writing in the Disciplines approach to writing support has clear benefits,
as it both fits within a socio-cultural orientation to literacy and it provides
opportunity for support of the micro (linguistic) issues through contact
sessions.
This approach, however, is primarily suited to an undergraduate scholar cohort, and may not be entirely
feasible when considering a postgraduate cohort of scholars.

The ongoing, cumulative development which this programme provides,


when implemented successfully, is unprecedented in terms of the learning
opportunities for scholars.
The aim, therefore, would be for all postgraduate scholars to arrive at Honours, Masters and Doctoral
levels having already been immersed in such a programme. The reality of many contexts (particularly in
South Africa) is that for many postgraduate scholars, no prior experience of such support exists. Without
the consistent contact time which characterises an undergraduate education, seen in daily lectures and
tutorials, together with opportunities for a number of writing assignments to develop the necessary
academic writing skills, this form of support is difficult to implement. Most universities in South Africa have
a large cohort of off-campus postgraduate scholars. Contact sessions are thus few and difficult to coordinate
with differing schedules, particularly for those scholars who are studying part-time.

Due to the clear benefits of such a programme, particularly when implemented at an institutional level,
such a form of support could not be excluded from this discussion. While this programme is not ideally
suited to a postgraduate cohort of scholars, due to the issues mentioned above, engagement with the
approach is still beneficial. Drawing on the University of Minnesotas well developed Writing-Enriched-
Curriculum programme, a number of ideas have been developed for a South African context. Particularly
pertinent in this engagement is drawing on the programmes use of questionnaires which unpack discipline-
specific writing characteristics from the academics themselves, as well as the scholars. By making these
(often common-sense assumptions) explicit, we can gain a richer understanding of what is expected of
scholars, and whether or not those expectations are consistent at the departmental level.This engagement
will enhance the kind of support we develop as a Centre. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly,
it will enable the Centre to work in a productive way in providing a bridge between academic staff
expectations and scholar interpretations.

Writing Intensive Project at Rhodes University


Carol Thomson, CHERTL

The Writing Intensive Project (WIP) at Rhodes University is funded through the Teacher
Development Grant (DoHET) and reflects the Writing in the Discipline model identified above.
Constructed as one response to the need for supporting student writing, the project began in
the Humanities Faculty in 2013 with the voluntary participation of six individual academics in
six different disciplines (Sociology, Linguistics & Language, Psychology, Political Studies, English and
Journalism & Media Studies). At the beginning of 2015 its presence has grown to include the
Pharmacy, Commerce and Law Faculties.The principle underpinning the writing intensive element
of the project is that it is only through writing more often, with a focus on shorter pieces which
contribute to the development of a complete assignment/ essay/ report etc. that scholars will
acquire the discourses and academic literacies relevant to the disciplines to which they belong.
The project thus subscribes to the literacies as social practice view outlined earlier in the overview.

17
The number of lecturers now actively involved in re-visioning curricula, tutorial tasks and assessment so as to
integrate more writing into the courses they have selected to make writing intensive, has grown from six to 25.
In addition, 120 scholars have tutored in the programme and 3317 scholars have experienced a writing intensive
course in one or more disciplines since 2013 at Rhodes University.

How to integrate intensive writing into an existing course curriculum: Where to start?
When an individual academic and/or a whole department decide to engage in the principles underpinning the
project and introduce more writing into a course, this is a very exacting phase. This is because invariably a new
and/or different lens must be turned on habituated beliefs and practices. However, it is only when one begins to
engage with what is, and then ask questions of why it is, how it is, and what should change, that the depth of
the habitual becomes apparent. Most often a course curriculum will need some re-visioning, for example, what
counts in terms of the content might have to be reconsidered, and long standing reading loads concomitantly
reduced to allow innovative, short, formative writing tasks to be introduced. These writing tasks ideally should
relate directly to a) inducting the scholars into the discourse and literacy practices of a discipline; b) how knowledge
is made and legitimated within a discipline; and c) assessment within a course. Planning for such a change takes
time, as does seeing the fruits of ones labour. Both processes can be fraught with tensions and unpredictable
events and consequences, but to date the experiences of academics in the project who have all voluntarily joined,
suggest that the hard work has been worth it. Scholars and tutors, particularly those who are into a second year
of the project (in one or more disciplines) are beginning to note a new awareness around writing; for example,
the claims/evidence structure fundamental to academic writing and being part of a conversation between scholars
in a knowledge community, a better understanding of the reasons for citing sources accurately and honestly, and
so on. This is significant for postgraduate scholarship because lecturers who are involved in the WIP at undergraduate
level also supervise and support postgraduates.

Large class implementations


In 2014 and 2015 academic co-ordinators of first year courses in Linguistics 1, Psychology 1 and Management
Studies 1 have had writing intensive elements in all courses in their first year programmes. These are the only
disciplines so far where writing intensively has been fully integrated into an entire first year programme. These
are remarkable achievements, particularly in the cases of Psychology 1 and Management Studies 1, as their numbers
have been approximately 550-600 each year. By implication this has meant a parallel increase in tutor appointments,
development and support, together with the management of departmental micro-politics in the face of what
have been some radical changes. What these initiatives demonstrate, however, is that large classes need not be
synonymous with poor pedagogy or insurmountable problems in terms of student learning and development.

Emerging findings
Although a writing intensive element can be introduced into any course in any term at any year level (and this
is already the case), what is emerging from the project, mostly through tutor feedback, is that the first year level
is perceived as the most critical point of departure. This does not mean that this is the only level at which writing
intensive courses should be considered as part of a degree curriculum. In fact, the pedagogic principle of regular,
shorter pieces of writer (underpinned by the theoretical premise that in writing is the learning) should ideally
characterise every year of a degree programme. Nevertheless, many tutors who are only now becoming immersed
in the explicit teaching of academic writing through learning how to unpack texts and give constructive, helpful
feedback, indicate a longing that they had been taught all this in their first year and are capitalising on their own
growth as academic writers through participation in the project. If viewed against a wider, long term backdrop,
those tutors, and with more time the scholars too, who link to this project should move through their degrees
with greater academic discourse competence and confidence than is historically, and presently the case.

The Writing Intensive Project is managed through the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and
Learning (CHERTL).

18
In light of the above discussion, despite the fact that the academic literacies approach has received criticism
in recent years, and while the contextual reality of South Africa provides obstacles for the adoption and
implementation of such an approach, it should not deter us from the rich insight it offers (as suggested
by Van Dyk & van der Poel 2013 and Weidemann 2013). Rather, we need to be pushing the boundaries
on what is possible in our context and use theory such as academic literacies to design support
programmes for scholars, adopting the necessary socio-cultural orientation but not losing touch with
the linguistic reality and needs of the majority of our scholars.

Suggested best practice techniques


A number of best practice techniques and writing support practices have been suggested in recent
research on writing support pedagogies, including, but not limited to: peer learning (see, for example,
Chihota & Thesen 2014; Aitchison 2009; Crocker & Trede 2009; Aitchison & Lee 2006; Boud & Lee 2005;
and Curry & Hewings 2003), peer review and feedback (see, for example, Ivanic, Clark & Rimmershaw
2000; Lillis & Swann 2003; and Lea & Street 2000), scaffolding (see, for example, Woodward-Kron 2007
and Lillis & Swann 2003) and free/generative writing/drafting (see, for example, Smith & Coyle 2009; Curry
& Hewings 2003; and Boughey 2014). These perceived best practice approaches have come to inform
many of the writing support programmes currently offered, both internationally and in South Africa. Select
case studies demonstrating this will be explored in the Situated Postgraduate Writing Pedagogies section
of the overview.

The notion of the peer


In traditional understandings of pedagogy within higher education institutions, development of scholar
knowledge construction, and hence writing (particularly in postgraduate years), is seen to be embedded
in the hierarchical relationship of supervisor or teacher and scholar. This unproblematic assumption is
increasingly being challenged, however, with a growing body of literature advocating the value of peer-
orientated learning opportunities. This discussion will first review the bad practice problems associated
with scholar interpretations of supervisor feedback (the sole provider of scholar writing development
and support, in a traditional understanding), as outlined by Ivanic, Clark and Rimmershaw (2000). It will
then introduce and describe the learning potential of peer-orientated activities, and how peer learning
and peer review can counter many of the feedback problems associated with one-on-one hierarchical
supervisory relationship. It should be noted here that one-on-one supervisory relationships are not
necessarily limited or problematic, especially when supervisors adopt a broad approach to their supervision
and engage with care with the scholars work in supportive and creative ways.

In line with a socio-cultural orientation


to academic writing practices, Ivanic, Clark
and Rimmershaw (2000) elaborate on
the trend of scholar confusion and
misinterpretation of supervisor feedback
in their identification of three possible
meta-messages that scholars may glean
from different forms of feedback. First,
scholars may receive messages about
themselves (Ivanic et al. 2000:60). This
relates to what can often be construed
or enacted in hierarchical relationships
between supervisors and teachers to
scholars (note this need not be the case).
If overpoweringly hierarchical ideologically imbued power or didactic relations are not challenged and
deconstructed within the relationship, with a view to analysing the usefulness of guidance and supervision
in the learning relationship, the feedback given may be interpreted in a similar vein. This may prevent
scholar interaction, debate or challenge. In addition, overly didactic relationships at postgraduate level could
lead scholars to interpret negative reviews as personal judgements of themselves (note: this may not
always be the case, as supervision relations are often diversely nuanced). Ivanic, Clark and Rimmershaw
(2000:61) elaborate on this point:

19
... whatever the tutors intentions, scholars are likely to treat their responses for possible evaluations of
themselves. Not only that, but they are also likely to expect negative evaluations, and to interpret many
tutors comments to mean What you wrote is inadequate and, by extension, You are inadequate.
[Note: this need not be the case, depending on how feedback is mediated and understood within
the learning relationship and process.]

The potential problems associated with this kind of meta-message emphasises the importance of careful
choice of language used in feedback. Feedback should be constructive, but it should also avoid the insinuation
of a personal judgement. Negative feedback should be balanced with positive feedback and feedback
should always have some encouraging element to it with the emphasis being on the productive learning
relationship.
The second meta-message which may be received by scholars is about academic writing itself: that it is
an object to be measured; that it is the only means through which one is able to create meaningful
knowledge; and that supervisors and teachers hold sole responsibility in determining the value of it (Ivanic
et al. 2000:61). To counter this kind of message, feedback should focus on form rather than content,
and it should respond with questions and suggestions rather than use overly evaluative language so
as to facilitate a more open learning-centred dialogue between scholar and supervisor/teacher (ibid:61-
62) or between scholar and the mediation of knowledge in the field.
The third meta-message that may be received is about university values and beliefs (Ivanic et al. 2000:62).
Depending on the type of feedback given, different messages about scholar roles and positions within
the university are created and maintained. Different types of feedback reveal different beliefs about the
role of the student in the academic community, ranging from being a fully-fledged member with authority
and knowledge-making rights, to being on the margins, scarcely a member of the community at all (ibid:62).
To avoid this meta-message, Ivanic, Clark and Rimmershaw (2000:62) suggest that over deterministic
language should be avoided, for example, what counts as sufficient justification for a particular point, what
counts as an acceptable argument, what counts as an adequate explanation. These forms of over
deterministic language may present the institution as omnipotent and unassailable (ibid:63), and may
take away the power of scholarly authority and confidence to generate original knowledge from the
scholar. Conversely, feedback which opens up and encourages debate and allows space for a differing of
opinions and beliefs creates a broader possibility for deliberation and knowledge construction, and thus
also for the possibility of change and/or transformation (ibid). This does not mean that the supervisor
cannot advise scholars on critical pathways in thinking, but it rather emphasises the way in which this is
done.
One of the problems of the above perceived meta-messages, as
contended by Ivanic, Clark and Rimmershaw, is that they focus
on the supervisor-student relation, rather than on the scholarly
processes involved in knowledge production and learning, and
the way in which learning is mediated by more knowledgeable
others (in this case this may be a supervisor and/or peer, or a
combination of both) in a field of practice. In emphasising the
individualised relations (which are viewed by Ivanic, Clark and
Rimmershaw in a narrow mechanistic way) The authors fail to
observe, comment on, or theorise a range of diverse forms of
scholarly engagement which may also be supervisory, and thus
it may be important to consider these in addition to the personalised
relation. In scholarly knowledge production processes, it is also
important to emphasise the epistemological and learning processes
that are centred on the knowledge production process, and not
only on potential power-relations between supervisors and scholars.
Again here power relations also require further theorising as
not all power is oppressive; some power relations are productive.
Similarly, not all power relations between scholars and supervisors
are uni-directional. It is often the case that supervisors too, are affected by a variety of power laden
strategies used by scholars, which may equally disturb the epistemological project of knowledge construction.

20
The concepts of peer learning and peer review are closely linked to the conception of academic writing
as a literacy practice, situated within a specific context and influenced by socio-cultural aspects of that
given context. The emergence of this key form of learning has been increasingly documented over the
last two decades (Boud & Lee 2005), and marks a broadening of interactions in the postgraduate scholarly
journey, beyond only the more traditional supervisor-student relationships. The work of Boud and Lee
(2005) is particularly influential in the field due to its argument for a more horizontal form of pedagogy
within the higher education environment. They call for pedagogy to be reconceptualised as significantly
distributed and horizontalised, with an associated dispersal of responsibilities and of agency (ibid:502).
In so doing, Boud and Lee advocate for a view of pedagogy which incorporates and engages with the
wider research context, taking into account not only the hierarchical (and often privileged) teaching-
learning relationship provided by teachers and supervisors, but rather a holistic account of a wider
distribution of more horizontal (in terms of power relations) learning opportunities with peers, as this
potentially offers wider enrichment and dialogical exchange opportunities.
Boud and Lee (2005:510) comment that while peer learning has been a trend in undergraduate and
postgraduate programmes, there has been little, if any, critical theoretical engagement of peer learning at
a doctoral level, which still relies heavily on the hierarchical one-on-one supervisor-student relationship.
This is perhaps paradoxical when one considers that it is at this level of degree candidature that one is
ultimately becoming peer, through engagement with departmental colleagues, fellow scholars and
supervisors. If the pedagogy of research could be reconceptualised to engage with this horizontalising
of learning production, one could begin to use this powerful means of knowledge production more
effectively when designing support programmes. This is not to suggest, however, that all peers can be
equally and unproblematically distributed on a horizontal plane, nor can it be said that all peer interactions
will result in learning opportunities. Indeed Boud and Lee (2005:511) caution against such assumptions,
indicating that different peer relationships exist and operate under varying dynamics. Peer learning is reliant
on a reciprocal, symbiotic and co-productive relationship (ibid:511) in order to be successful. The push
for peer learning does not mean to discredit or replace the role of the supervisor in doctoral research;
rather, it suggests that supervisory relations can be productively complemented and extended with other
forms of engagements. This can be seen in the more horizontal forms of peer engagement which can
potentially enhance and enrich the opportunities for knowledge production, both within the supervisory
relationship and beyond it.
Inextricable to the concept of peer learning is peer review - learning through feedback.This is particularly
useful to consider when conceptualising approaches to academic writing support. Using the concept of
peer learning, as elaborated above, recent research has shown the crucial role of peer review in this
learning relationship. This is especially prevalent in higher education, as writing is the foremost means of
assessment. The emphasis and pressure placed on writing, together with a particular kind of feedback
offered, often results in a hierarchical and overly didactic relationship (Lillis & Swann 2003:118) between
supervisor and scholar. In such a relationship, a scholar may feel compelled to rely solely on supervisor
feedback, without necessarily agreeing with it or understanding it (Curry & Hewings 2003:40). This can
narrow the possibilities for knowledge construction, as also pointed to above.
Croker and Trede (2009:231) elaborate on how peer review relationships can diversify writing support
outside of the (often) insular supervisory relationship. They comment how being a critical friend and
engaging in peer learning and peer review can enhance writing practices, as the aim is to develop writing
abilities rather than being concerned solely with the products of writing (emphasis added). That is, critical
friends can be used for pointing out gaps in argument, incoherent structure, repetition and common-
sense assumptions, rather than for the assessment of each piece of writing in terms of a grade. Peer
learning and peer review is not necessarily confined and contained within disciplines or dependent on
members being authoritative writing experts' (ibid:232). Rather, any level of critical friend can contribute
to shaping a writer's writing ability, and can be utilised at any stage in the writing process. Although in a
hierarchical supervisor-student relationship a supervisor's feedback may be treated with more authority,
relying solely on this is not always to the benefit of the scholar, as previously mentioned. Breaking this sole
alliance may be harder for some scholars to achieve, depending on the culture of learning which they
bring to the relationship (Lillis & Swann 2003).
In terms of giving and receiving feedback, Lillis and Swann (2003) describe how peer review should be
centred on developing feedback dialogues. Feedback dialogues refer to an approach to feedback which
emphasises an exchange of views, comments and questions (ibid:121).The peer review relationship has

21
to be reciprocal in reference to the positions of the writer and his/her peers. In order for the relationship
to work successfully, the writer must feel empowered to critically discuss the received feedback (Croker
& Trede 2009). The notion of feedback dialogues is also useful when considering the point of feedback:
to scaffold; to help build the scholars writing. Providing feedback which makes suggestions, requests
clarification and seeks the scholars approval will enable this scaffolding process to occur (Woodward-
Kron 2007:262). As Lillis and Swann (2003:122) comment, the lecturers comments should not be seen
as an end in themselves but rather as the beginning of a discussion or dialogue with scholars. In terms
of best practice, this is the type of feedback which is most beneficial for scholars to receive.
Secondary to this, the idea of reciprocal feedback - between the writer and his/her peer - assists critical
friends development of their own writing, reviewing and critiquing skills (Croker & Trede 2009:237). This
not only helps shape writing, but also allows scholars to be acculturated into a context of peer learning
and review, a feature which is common in professional academic environments (Curry & Hewings 2003).
This is significant, as it gives scholars additional opportunities to become familiar with the norms and values
of an institution as they experience it in a peer community. Additionally, in developing this dialogic exchange,
the perceived gap between supervisor expectations and scholar interpretations can be bridged (Lillis &
Swann 2003:122).
Croker and Trede (2009:237) argue that in addition to the relationship being reciprocal it must also be
respectful in order to achieve the desired outcomes. In terms of respect, it is important to take into
account different cultural values and beliefs when administering feedback, as there will invariably be varying
views on the appropriateness of this (Lillis & Swann 2003). While positive feedback is normally well
received, negative feedback needs to be treated with great tact. Crocker and Trede (2009:237) suggest
that if a writer is feeling particularly vulnerable about a piece of work, this should be explicitly flagged so
that peers can act accordingly. Similarly, writers often stress less about critical feedback after a period of
distance from the work. It is often worthwhile to gauge different intervals between reviewing work and
giving feedback to vulnerable scholars (ibid:237). Similarly, people respond better to positive feedback,
therefore a constructive way to give feedback is to start a review session with the positive aspects of a
piece of writing and then move into the more negative aspects. Even more important, however, is being
able to explain what needs improving, why it needs improving and how it can be improved. Simply
flagging problems does not enable a constructive peer review relationship (Croker & Trede 2009).
The view expressed by Croker and Trede (2009), in providing specific feedback rather than merely flagging
a problem, is elaborated on by Lillis and Swann (2003), in their use of the concept of languages of feedback.
Languages of feedback refer to the type of language used in instances of feedback and how different
types of feedback can be used to enhance different stages of the writing process and construct or
maintain hierarchical or collegial relationships (ibid:118). A common problem identified in past research
relates to an inability of teachers and supervisors to explicitly describe features which make good writing
good (Lea & Street 2000:39). Misinterpretations and confusion often result from ill-developed feedback,
to the detriment of the scholar. Knowing what kind of feedback to provide as well as the form that feedback
should take are crucial aspects to consider when developing scholars writing practices.

Languages of feedback
An account from Gina Wiskers book, The Good Supervisor (2005:127-8)

Didactic The abstract should be only 500 words and you must ensure it is concise, clear
(teaches) and accessible to your examiners. Look at these models and try to produce a draft
version following one of them

Prescriptive
(prescribes No, dont cut the results part away from the discussion and interpretation.
a solution) They need to be woven together

Informative
(provides It needs to be referenced - using the Harvard system
straight forward Ramsden & Entwistle would be good researchers to follow up here
information
about, e.g., dates)

22
Confronting
(used if there is a Really, how do you think you are going to access this sample?
problem or issue You have not yet made a realistic suggestion - there could be problems - how are
which the student you going to them?
several suggestions The statistics so far dont answer your question. has not tackled after
from the supervisor) You must re-design the research for the next phase

Tension relieving
(often after a difficult Oh no! Not more of those bar charts!
exchange, at the How are you fitting all these interviews into your busy holiday schedule?
start and finish of
a supervision)

Encouraging and facilitating


(developmental I see you have written about how Virginia Woolf engages with inner thoughts. Is
comments to move this just a formal experiment in your view? Or is she saying something about self,
the student on) experience, and the ways we perceive and express it?
You have shown how widening participation agendas appear in government
documents and in university mission statements. Do you perceive any contradictions,
paradoxes or problems with the equally popular comments about fee payments?

Eliciting
(this draws out If you wanted to observe the children, how might you do this without affecting
further comments) their behaviour?
Could you just explore what these different interview categories suggest in terms
of your argument about disclosure?

Supporting
(these comments This is an impressive participation rate.
support a good idea The work is going well; you have responded critically and evaluatively to the results
by positive responses of your interviews and fed these into changes in your proposal. Good!
and help nuture a
growing argument)

Summarising
(these comments It seems you have found a range of themes here and have analysed and discussed
help to mark a stage them according to the categories you have developed.
in the development So, as you have argued, Lacans mirror phase is challenged from a feminist perspective
and ownership of the by Kristevas essays as quoted in your second chapter
research. They pull
together and agree
on work so far)

Clarifying
(these comments Are you arguing from your results in the two classrooms you observed, that it
support the student seems girls are more likely to tidy up than boys? If so, you probably need to ...
in clarifying terms, Im not sure what youre saying here about the effectiveness of that procedure
arguments, elements on re-growing coral - could you revisit the data and then explicitly link it to your
of the design or argument?
expression, etc.) What do you mean here by the term postcolonialism? Is (a) in opposition to the
colonial, or (b) after the colonial?

Collegial Exchange
(as colleagues and This is a fascinating argument - have you looked at the work of Lave and Wenger
equals, students and on communities of practice? Because its absolutely central to what youre saying
supervisor discuss, here. Theres a conference on the Gothic coming up in Liverpool in the summer
reading, ideas, research, - had you thought of giving a paper? Yes, this is the same kind of result I came up
differences, agreements with after running the experiment 12 times - what did you do to get over
about interpretations) that problem about the water filter?

23
When considering scholar writing support in light of the meta-questions raised and in relation to the
discussion of the learning potential that peer learning and peer review can provide for scholars, the impact
and value of a community cannot be overlooked. Peer learning and peer review are intrinsically tied to
broader social-cultural dimensions, in its conceptualisation of literacy as a social practice, embedded within
a specific community. The key feature is that learning occurs through the interaction with peers in a
horizontalised, reciprocal and co-productive relationship. It is dependent on mutual respect and
engagement, and can have long term effects beyond the impact on writing practices, such as the acculturation
of scholars within an academic community. Peer learning and peer review allows for an (often) non-
threatening space for ideas to be introduced, challenged, debated and developed. It is a space where
writing is not produced to be graded but rather can be reconceptualised as a means for developing
ideas and knowledge. Most importantly, when facilitated correctly, it provides a supportive community
for the scholar, which can counter the effects of loneliness, often expressed by scholars undertaking
postgraduate research.

Cultivating Peer Communities at Rhodes University


One example of how creative academics at Rhodes University are cultivating peer communities
of practice can be seen in the Education Facultys Doc Weeks, which are co-ordinated by
members of the Centre for Higher Education, Research,Teaching and Learning, the Environmental
Learning and Research Centre and the Education Department.
Many PhD scholars within the Education Faculty are part-time scholars who hold full-time
occupations in the field. Contact with these scholars is thus mostly limited to the one-on-one
supervisory relationship.The idea of the Doc Weeks stemmed from a need to not only provide
additional support for these scholars, but to also create a peer community of practice, where
scholars can engage with peers and be exposed to multiple positions, theories, methodologies
and so forth.
The Doc Weeks generally occur three times a year and involve an intense week of rigorous
debate, sharing of work and peer learning. The weeks are divided into sessions of instruction,
seen in the variety of guest speakers who give lectures, and peer-orientated spaces. In the peer-
orientated spaces, scholars are encouraged to share their work, new ideas, problem areas and
so forth, and to get feedback from their peers as to a way forward. The majority of this time in
the Doc Week is encouraged to be a low stakes environment where scholars can feel at ease
to share. The more formal elements (such as the presentation of PhD research proposals) are
also a way to inculcate scholars into the more formal aspects of the PhD process and academia
in general.
While the focus of the Doc Week is on the sharing of theory, concepts, issues etc., there is also
at least one writing-focused session. In the past, this session has included a number of writing
activities, one of which has been the introduction and practice of the Pomodoro3 technique.
This technique is essentially a time-management writing strategy, which helps writers achieve
more in less time, whilst avoiding distractions and burnout.
The Education Doc Weeks are an example of how peer communities of practice can be formed
in universities, providing a supportive peer-oriented space for scholars to develop within.

3
Full details of the Pomodoro technique can be accessed via: http://pomodorotechnique.com/get-
started/

Many lessons can be learnt from engaging with the ideas of peer learning, peer review and good practice
features of feedback. Academic writing support programmes have begun to adopt many of these features.
The role of the peer is particularly pertinent in the development of Writing Groups which are growing
in popularity, particularly in Australia (see, for example, Aitchison 2009; Cuthbert, Spark & Burke 2009;
Larcombe, McCosker & OLoughlin 2007; Aitchison & Lee 2006) and South Africa (Chihota & Thesen
2014; Thesen 2013, Chihota 2008). What is interesting to note, however, in terms of best practice

24
approaches to peer learning and review, seen in Writing Groups and other contexts, is being respectful
of peers time and effort in the review process. Croker and Trede (2009:236) comment that this is essential
for a successful peer relationship, as time needs to be used effectively, often aided with the use of jointly
decided realistic deadlines. In essence, one should not use peers as a dumping ground for written work,
but should rather work in respectful, mutually beneficial dialogisms.

Generative writing strategies/techniques


In her seminal work entitled Writing as a Mode of Learning, Emig (1977) initiated a renewed interest
in the role writing plays in learning. Basing her argument in line with that advocated by Vygotsky, Luria and
Bruner, she contended that higher cognitive functions, such as analysis and synthesis, seem to develop
most fully only with the support of verbal language - particularly, it seems of written language (Emig
1977:122). In Emigs view, language, by its very definition, requires the establishment of systematic
connections and relationships (ibid:126) and as such, demonstrates a unique value for learning (ibid:127).
In line with this argument, Emig (1977) considers writing to be a process-driven tool of analysis and
synthesis for meaning making.The conceptualisation of writing as a process to create meaning and to learn
has informed what has come to be commonly known as generative writing techniques and strategies.
Freewriting is one such strategy, and has been increasingly utilised
internationally in a number of contexts. Elbow defines free writing
as private, nonstop writing (normally for a time limit of ten
minutes) which consists of: not showing your words to anyone;
not having to stay on one topic; not thinking about spelling, grammar,
and mechanics; not worrying about how good the writing is -
even whether it makes sense or is understandable (2000:85).
Elbow (2000) goes on to explain how once freewriting becomes
comfortable for a writer, it can significantly help form ideas during
the exploratory stage of writing, or later, in times of confusion.
According to Elbow (2000), freewriting strategies can benefit a
writer in four main ways. First, the freewriting exercise provides
an easy, non-threatening entry point into writing. Many scholars
report on an initial struggle to start a piece of writing; the actual
putting of pen to paper (Wilmot 2014:6). Freewriting aids this in that it provides a space for (often messy)
initial thoughts which can develop the thinking of a scholar; to be expanded on at a later point.The practice
of writing down thoughts as they enter your head also allows you to activate often-tacit knowledge
(Curry & Hewings 2003:35). One can then move into focused freewriting (Elbow 2000:86) or drafting,
which explores a specific topic in more detail. The second advantage of using freewriting exercises it that
it can improve thinking, as argued by Emig (1977), among others. The act of writing nonstop about every
topic or thought that comes to mind allows space and flexibility for multiple ideas to be considered, thus
resulting in a richness of thinking (Smith & Coyle 2009).Third, because of the energetic nature of freewriting,
it creates space for voice, energy and presence in writing (Elbow 2000:87), a feature scholars often find
hard to locate in academic discourse (Wilmot 2014:6). Lastly, freewriting can help us experience ourselves
as writers in certain deeply transformative ways (Elbow 2000:88).This is significant for scholars, as it helps
to bridge the anxiety felt in entering into a different (academic) discourse. It is for these reasons that
freewriting has come to be seen as a good practice writing technique.

25
Free writing activity
An exercise taken from Claire Aitchisons workshop: Making writing happen: strategies for productivity and
connectedness (Postgraduate Supervision Conference, 2015)

Free writing topic:


If you are at the beginning of the research stage:
My research is relevant because...

If you are busy with your literature review:


The key different differences/debates in the literature are... My position is...

If you are busy with your methods:


My research design is the best one for the job because...

If you are busy with your results/findings:


How do the key findings relate to my research questions/hypothesis?

If you are busy with your discussion/conclusion:


How might my research impact policy/theory/future research?

Stage 1: Generative writing Free write on the topic for seven minutes
Stage 2: Writing as a social practice Discuss your free writing output with a peer
Stage 3: Critical reflection on writing (drafting) Read your piece of writing critically, thinking about
what, if anything, you would change
Stage 4: Redrafting Pick up a pen and make the actual changes
Stage 5: Editing Read the piece over again and make the small editorial
changes to grammar, punctuation, etc.

Following from the initial freewriting stage is drafting. Drafting is another form of process writing which
is considered to be good practice (Boughey 2014). Linked to both freewriting and peer review, the drafting
stage of the writing process provides a space for a writer to expand on ideas elicited in the freewriting
stage. It is also an iterative writing space where a writer is able to engage with various forms of feedback
(peer or supervisor) and build on a piece of writing (Curry & Hewings 2003). The iterative nature of this
stage is important as it allows for opportunities to work with different ideas, develop them through writing,
and later engage with feedback. Such feedback is often better utilised when part of a drafting process, as
it is more likely that a scholar will fully engage with feedback when he/she has an opportunity to rework
it before a final grade is given (Curry & Hewings 2003:37). Mind maps and diagrams can also be useful
in the drafting stage of writing, for organising thoughts and developing the structure of the written work
(Boughey 2014; Curry & Hewings 2003).

Mind maps for organising and developing thought, and for


conceptualising structure in writing
The following mind map4 was developed in a transdisciplinary writing circle5 at Rhodes University.

4
Acknowledgement to Matt (IWR Masters, digital) for his mind map contribution.
5
A writing circle is one kind of writing support pedagogy, based on a system of peer review. This pedagogy
will be elaborated onn in the following Situated Postgraduate Writing Pedagogies section.

26
An important aspect within the drafting stage of writing is not to focus on the textual accuracy of the
work (Boughey 2014; Curry & Hewings 2003). While it is not as free as freewriting, scholars should be
discouraged from critically evaluating their writing in terms of the finer details of linguistic accuracy or
technicalities in this stage as it impedes the development and flow of thought. Rather, the editing process
should be the last element of writing to attend to. Boughey (2014) relates the different stages of writing
to building a table in a useful analogy for scholars, as can be seen in the following:

27
A useful analogy to explain the three stages of writing
(Boughey 2014)

Stage 1: Will it be round? Square? Rectangle?


GENERATIVE WRITING Will it be made out of wood? Metal?

Conceptualising the table Will it be a four-seater? Six? Eight?


Will it have curved legs? Square?

Stage 2: Exploring one design further and then creating the design by adding
the different elements to it, in order to work out which elements are
DRAFTING
needed for a logical, strong structure.
Building the table
Making sure there is enough support for the table to be able to withhold
pressure and weight from external forces.
If the pieces of the table are not fitting together well at this point, it
might be necessary to go back to Stage 1 to work out another approach.
At this stage it would be senseless to polish and refine the table,
as structural changes will most likely need to be made throughout
the building process

Stage 3: Perfecting and polishing the table once you are happy that it fits together
well and that it has a strong enough composition to withstand external
EDITING
pressure.
Polishing the table
Making the table look as good as possible for potential viewers.

Conceptualising the writing process as three distinct but iterative processes is considered good practice
as it helps deconstruct and demystify the writing process for scholars and equips them with tools for
independent writing development. In summary, Figure 1 provides a succinct illustration of the three stages
of the writing process: generative writing, drafting and editing.

Figure 1: The three stages of writing (adapted from Boughey 2014)

28
Situated postgraduate
writing pedagogies
This section critically reviews and discusses case studies of postgraduate writing pedagogies which
have been adopted both nationally and internationally, in relation to the South African context.
Included in the discussion are: writing groups (see, for example, Larcombe et al. 2007; Cuthbert et
al. 2009; Chihota 2008;Aitchison 2009;Aitchison & Lee 2006; Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Croker
& Trede 2009); Diagnostic Assessment Profile (Allison et al. 1998); individual writing consultations
(Woodward-Kron 2007); and writing workshops (see, for example, Boughey 2014; Lea & Street
2000;Wilmot 2015).

Writing Groups
Writing groups (alias writing circles) are not a new phenomenon, however, the valuable role which they
can play in supporting postgraduate scholars in higher education institutions is increasingly being documented.
Aitchison (Aitchison 2009 and Aitchison & Lee 2006) has both led and been a principle researcher of
such initiatives, particularly in Australia. This discussion will build on Aitchison and Lees (2006) outline of
the epistemological and pedagogical problems of research writing, contextualising the practice and justifying
its place in higher education. The discussion will then consider and extend Aitchison and Lees (2006)
conception of the four pedagogical principles of writing groups, with a focus rather on the four key learning
potentials which writing groups create (Aitchison 2009). It will then consider specific case studies, unpacking
how such groups can be set up and run.The discussion will conclude with a consideration of the challenges
facing this kind of writing pedagogy.

As discussed in previous sections, the epistemological problem of writing is founded in the conceptualisation
of writing as autonomous (Street 1984) as opposed to a social practice, inseparable from knowledge
production. Closely associated to this understanding is a deficit model of language and writing pedagogies,
whereby scholars writing difficulties are seen as language problems which can be rectified outside of their
discipline in language/learning courses; in the teaching of a set of autonomous language skills. It is this
epistemological problem which is of concern to Aitchison and
Lee (2006), in their development of writing groups for
postgraduate scholars. In essence then, what is a writing group?

The focus on postgraduate scholars is an interesting one, given Writing groups are inspiring and
that writing groups have been in existence for many years creative places where people talk, write
(Aitchison & Lee 2006). Aitchison and Lee (2006) highlight and learn together because they are
the fact that when writing is conceptualised beyond a language being nurtured, empowered and
deficit model, broader socio-cultural issues can be incorporated stimulated.
and addressed.This is particularly prevalent among postgraduate
scholars who, through research writing, are transitioning between, (Aitchison 2009:261)
and grappling with, different identities as their group membership
into academia begins to develop. Writing groups, in this regard,
are particularly noteworthy, as they have the ability to allow for these broader issues to be revealed and
addressed concurrently with writing support practices in a supportive, non-threatening environment (ibid).
Within this understanding, writing groups are aligned with, and can be framed within, an academic literacies
orientation to writing practices (Aitchison 2009:255), thus making them of particular interest to this
overview.

29
Drawing on Aitchison (2009), in order to map out the structure and function of a writing group, it is useful
to conceptualise writing groups as social, context-embedded sites of multiple forms of learning. That is,
writing groups, due to their particular formation, provide a dynamic space for socio-cultural-orientated
peer-learning potential to be realised. Writing groups depend on peer relationships to operate. Peer
learning, as discussed in the Best practice section of this overview, has gained footing in the last two
decades, in terms of the opportunities for learning it creates and the perceived supervision short-falls it
is able to bridge.The role of this form of learning in a writing group context has recently been documented
in South Africa by Harrison (2012). Our attention now turns to the role of peer learning in writing groups
specifically, and how it opens up opportunities for key knowledge building.

It is through peer learning that opportunities for four kinds of key learning
potential open up: learning about research writing; learning about ideas;
learning about giving and receiving feedback; and learning to love writing
(Aitchison 2009:257-261). This symbiotic relationship potential is illustrated
in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The four key learning potentials created through writing groups (adapted from Aitchison 2009)

Using this four-way learning potential distinction as a starting point, it is possible to expand on these key
areas to demonstrate how issues of identity, community, peer review and normal business, the four key
pedagogical principles of writing groups (Aitchison & Lee 2006), are conceptualised.

(a) Learning about research writing


According to Aitchison (2009:257), writing groups enable scholars to learn about different approaches
to research writing and design, and crucially, taking up a position within that frame. Different perspectives
and approaches to both research design and the structuring of writing differ significantly across disciplines
(ibid). Being part of a writing group enables scholars to learn about and engage with a wide range of
approaches and provides opportunities to participate in the development of peers work (ibid:258).

The aspect of identity in writing often challenges scholars in that it not only involves working within a
particular discourse, but it also often involves complex tensions between scholar identity and the notion
of the self within an academic context. Grappling with conflicts in identity is a common trend in postgraduate
writing (see, for example, Wilmot 2014; Larcombe et al. 2007; Chihota 2008; Chihota & Thesen 2014;
Aitchison & Lee 2006). Through the constructive but supportive peer environment of the writing group,
scholars have an opportunity to be exposed to various identity positions, and can try out or rehearse

30
(Chihota & Thesen 2014:131) particular positions whilst learning about others from their peers.This peer
dynamic lessons the feelings of isolation and provides a space for scholars to develop their confidence
in expressing a sense of self (Larcombe et al. 2007).

Supplementing these two key areas of research writing is the textual component of the writing process.
The facilitator of the writing group (normally a language expert) can provide key support in this area.
Discussion on building an argument, using sources correctly, structuring a dissertation correctly, and so
forth, can be taken up in this space. If common problems persist, or if it is deemed appropriate, some
facilitators like to make style sheets and guides for their members (Croker & Trede 2009). Other facilitators
decide prior to the meeting on one textual feature they will focus on, and once the peer review discussion
is over, the facilitator gives a brief tutorial on developing that feature (Chihota & Thesen 2014).

(b) Learning about ideas


Writing groups enable scholars to learn about ideas as they provide an intellectually stimulating peer
community where multiple positions, ideas and understandings can be discussed and evaluated (Aitchison
2009). The richness of peer collaboration in idea development, as opposed to the (often limited) one-
on-one supervisor-student model is one of the key positive attributes of writing groups.

What is essential to this learning dynamic is that the facilitator of the group is a language, not discipline,
expert. This is crucial as it creates a low stakes environment, where scholars can express themselves
freely, as the learning in this space is untied from evaluation (Aitchison 2009:259), unlike a supervision
meeting. The concept of providing a low stakes peer community, as well as the ongoing nature of the
writing circles, is closely associated with Elbows (2000) view that free and unevaluated writing leads to
a heightened development of ideas. In this sense, writing groups provide a space in which meaning making
occurs as scholars struggle to articulate their evolving ideas through the social acts of writing and discussion
(Aitchison 2009:259).

The nature of peer interaction in writing groups, especially in multidisciplinary groups, helps scholars
to identify common-sense assumptions in their writing. Writing for a specific audience is an important
feature of academic writing and one which scholars often experience difficulty with (Wilmot 2014). The
exchange of ideas and the sharing of writing with multiple peers can illuminate more clearly what aspects
of research can be taken for granted and which need to be explicitly explained and justified than is often
possible in a one-on-one supervisor-student setting (Aitchison 2009).

While this peer community provides a rich and necessary supplement to the supervision model, we agree
with recent literature that writing groups should not be considered as taking the place of the supervision
model (see, for example, Aitchison 2009; Aitchison & Lee 2006; Chihota & Thesen 2014; Larcombe et
al. 2007). Rather, it should supplement this relationship and provide a space for peer learning with the
aim of enhancing and improving not only the scholars writing, but the supervision relationship as well,
through dialogic exchange of idea development.

(c) Learning about giving and receiving feedback


A unifying characteristic of all writing groups is that they operate on the principle of peer learning, most
notably through peer review (Aitchison & Lee 2006:272). The positive attributes of peer learning, which
have been discussed at length in the preceding section, are utilised in a particularly creative way in writing
groups.The writing group peer community-orientated space, if managed effectively, allows for a horizontalised
learning dynamic (Boud & Lee 2005), and is thus able to overcome many of the challenges associated
with the hierarchical supervision model (see, for example, Larcombe et al. 2007; Aitchison & Lee 2006;
Chihota & Thesen 2014). Central to the idea of peer learning is peer review - the act of giving feedback
to, and receiving feedback from, peers, to facilitate learning. The low stakes environment as well as the
trust gained from the ongoing nature of writing groups makes this sharing and receiving of feedback less
daunting than in other academic spaces. Rather, it provides a supportive group which not only builds peers
in terms of writing capabilities but also provides a supportive space where writing confidence can be built.

Receiving feedback is one of the foremost means for scholar writing development (Aitchison 2009).
Scholars learn through constructive feedback, as it allows opportunities for them to build on previous
work. Writing groups provide feedback from multiple different viewpoints (as each scholar provides
his/her own interpretation of feedback). This opens up opportunities for rich, diverse feedback which

31
can then be incorporated into future writing. The ongoing nature of writing groups is particularly useful
for deep engagement with feedback, as through discussion, one is not only able to learn from peers as
to how to use feedback effectively, but it allows space for ongoing redrafting and practice with different
elements of feedback (Croker & Trede 2009).This iterative writing and learning process is seldom achieved
to the same extent within the traditional supervision model due to various constraints.

Key to the peer review process is the art of giving feedback. Writing group facilitators can teach and help
scholars to use good practice feedback techniques (Chihota & Thesen 2014). This not only helps fellow
peers in the immediate group context, but is an essential skill to have if/when the scholar becomes part
of the academy. Aitchison (2009:260) notes that research has shown that the art of giving feedback is a
powerful strategy for learning to write. She comments that as a group matures over time it develops
not only skills for reviewing a range of textual practices but also the ability to identify and articulate the
language-focused critique (ibid:260). Being able to not only identify but also explain why an aspect of
writing should be improved, as well as giving advice for how to improve it, is an essential skill in academia.
If mastered, it will have a positive effect on your own writing practices.

(d) Learning to love writing


Apart from the academic benefits of being part of a writing group, as described above, writing groups
can also provide a space where scholars can learn to love writing (Aitchison 2009). Through the ongoing
interaction with peers, scholars are able to move away from threatening writing contexts and can verbalise
and share the burden and anxiety that academic writing creates with peers who are experiencing similar
emotions. As peers develop these relationships they learn to support each other and work together to
create coping strategies while at the same time building each others confidence (Aitchison 2009; Chihota
& Thesen 2014; Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011). While there is often little space for this kind of emotional
engagement in the supervision model, this is often one of the most valued attributes of writing groups
(see, for example, Aitchison 2009; Aitchison & Lee 2006; Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Chihota & Thesen
2014).

The low stakes environment provided by writing groups, together with the ongoing nature of the groups
allows for what Aitchison and Lee (2006:275) describe as the fourth pedagogical principle of writing
groups - that of writing becoming normal business. This refers to the idea of a writing pedagogy (in this
case, writing groups) becoming incorporated into everyday operations of the institution (ibid:275). In
essence, through a writing pedagogy such as this, writing can come to be seen and conceptualised as an
everyday, situated, social practice, thus achieving one of the main tenants of an academic literacies approach
to writing.

32
What do writing groups look like in practice? Writing
groups in practice: select case studies
Case Study 1: Multidisciplinary writing circles, University of Cape Town,
South Africa (Chihota & Thesen 2014:134-140)
The multidisciplinary writing circles at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been operating
for approximately six years and meet on a weekly basis.The scholars who attend are postgraduates
who are generally new to the university at a Masters or PhD level. As a result, they are often
unfamiliar with the expectations and requirements of research
at the institution. Many of the scholars are internationals, the
majority from Sub-Saharan Africa and they typically comprise What do writing groups look like
of mainly woman who are coming back to a university context in practice?
after careers in service professions. English is generally not a
first language for most of the circle members.

The weekly groups are divided into two parts: peer review and writing skills development. Every
week a group member will offer to bring a piece of work for review. This piece of work is
limited to two pages of text and hardcopies are brought to be distributed among the group.
The circle is premised on the rule that no work may be distributed beforehand and that there
will be no homework or additional readings to prepare before each meeting. This is to ensure
that the group does not become a source of additional stress and added burden for the
members. Different formats of work submitted for review are encouraged (dissertation, article,
conference paper etc.). The group is given 15 minutes to read and review the work (feedback
is encouraged and is written on the hand-outs). A discussion of the work and the various forms
of feedback commences. At the end of the discussion the student collects his/her work.

After the discussion of student work the circle then moves on to the second stage - that of
writing skills development. The topic choice is flexible and is decided by the facilitator before
the meeting. It is either based on common mistakes or on an aspect brought up in the meetings.
It can relate to text-specific aspects such as how to structure an introduction or how to how
to write an abstract, or it can be related to best practice feedback techniques. Techniques for
idea development and overcoming writers block are also explored through freewriting exercises.
Advice is also given on how to deal with your supervisor and how to manage readings.

Membership in these multidisciplinary circles is considered to be nomadic, with scholars coming


and going as it suits them. Loose contact is maintained through weekly emails with members.
Participating members are, however, required to fill in a participant detail form on a weekly
basis. This form includes keywords about the research, what section or aspect the member is
busy with, proposed deadlines for completion of that aspect, and so forth. This form represents
a kind of progress report card which makes members accountable to the group - premised
on the idea that this will aid work ethic and motivation.

Lessons to be learned?
The two-part meeting design: peer review then instruction?
an effective way to incorporate peer learning opportunities with instruction on specific
aspects of writing
Two page review and no homework rule
a good way to control expectations and to avoid making the circle a burden rather than
a supportive community
Participant detail form
a useful tool for encouraging self-improvement and building accountability

33
Case Study 2: Thesis Writers Circle, University of Melbourne, Australia
(Larcombe et al 2007:56-63)

The development of a genre-based writing circle for Education PhD and DEd scholars at the
University of Melbourne was based on two factors: to assist higher degree scholars and to
provide an opportunity for international non-English speaking background (NESB)6 scholars
to mix with 'home' scholars. The Thesis Writing Circle pilot program ran for 8 weeks and
consisted of weekly 2-hour long workshops. The scholars who enrolled in this programme
were expected to attend 80% of the meetings. Two groups were created, each with ten
scholars. Both groups had a facilitator who had experience in teaching writing and English.
Each meeting was divided into two parts: instruction from the facilitator on a textual component
of writing (for example, purposes and readers, academic writing style, etc.) and a peer review
discussion of student work. The topic of instruction was determined by the facilitator based
on the needs of the scholars. Once the instruction was completed, scholars exchanged pieces
of work with each other and made comments on the page, in light of the instruction given
at the start of the workshop. The workshops would end with a question-answer session where
topics covered in the workshop could be consolidated.
Before scholars started the writing circle program they were asked to fill out a pre-workshop
questionnaire to ascertain what they expected from the program and what previous writing
support they had received. Additionally, scholars were asked to provide feedback throughout
the program. At the end of the program, scholars who had attended workshops throughout
were asked to complete pre- and post-course evaluations and a course evaluation. Once these
had been obtained two focus group interviews were held with willing participants to gain a
richer understanding of student experiences and needs.

Lessons to be learned?
Genre-based circles
Scholars might feel more comfortable working with peers from the same discipline
discussions could be more discipline specific
Two-part workshop design: instruction then peer review
Could be a useful technique for scholars to practice identifying and making use of key
textual features identified in a pre-peer-review discussion
Use of evaluations
Helpful for engaging with student needs can design the structure around this to make
it as valuable for scholars as possible
Useful for making improvements to circles in the future

6
The scholar category of non-English speaking background (NESB) in Case Study 2 and 3, as well as Section
3 Writing Consultations, are directly quoted from the papers in question; they are neither endorsed by, nor
form part of the lexicon on the Centre for Postgraduate Studies.

34
Case Study 3: Writing group for non-English speaking background (NESB)
international research students, Western Australia
(Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011)

These writing groups were established to support NESB international scholars attending a university
in Western Australia. There were 38 such scholars who participated in the different groups, all of
whom were PhD candidates, although at varying stages within their degrees.The participants were
a diverse group of scholars, representing 11 different counties. The groups were multidisciplinary
and were facilitated by two lecturers with research education experience.
The groups met weekly for 2-hour sessions. Extracts of writing were elicited and distributed to
scholars before the group, with the expectation that they would be read prior to the meeting.
The number of pieces of writing varied in relation to the size of the group. When the group met,
the selected pieces of writing would be projected onto a screen for all the participants to engage
with. One person would operate the computer and make changes using the track changes function
on Microsoft Word, as and when feedback was offered. After each meeting, a soft copy of the
revised document would be sent to the student in question.
The facilitators role in the group was to create a supportive and encouraging environment in
which the scholars felt comfortable sharing their views. The structure of the group remained
flexible with the weekly agenda being informed by the writing samples sent in for review as well
as particular issues which arose during previous meetings.The facilitator played an important role
in starting the meeting off, managing time, allowing scholars to have equal turns, eliciting comments
and providing a summary and conclusion of the discussions held.

Lessons to be learned?
Working digitally with pieces of writing
it may be easier for scholars to engage with and incorporate feedback that is consolidated
into one document and in digital format

Case Study 4: Writing group for Graduate Researchers in Print (GRiP)


programme, Monash University, Australia
(Cuthbert et al 2009)

The writing group for the GRiP programme at Monash University gives some insight into how
writing groups can have a slightly different focus, but still operate and function in similar ways. This
group was created to help support postgraduate research scholars in their publication endeavours.
The groups were run in 2005 and consisted of 28 participants, 26 of which were current Masters
and PhD scholars and two of which were completed but unpublished PhD scholars.The majority
of scholars were first-language English speakers.
The groups were multidisciplinary in composition.This decision was based partly on the practicalities
of running the sessions considering the diverse range of disciplines of interested scholars. It was
also informed by the view that members of the group would focus on the actual writing rather
than on the discipline content detail. Content, it was decided, should be the responsibility of the
supervisor. Each group consisted of six to nine members and met once a month for 2-hour
sessions. Scholars were required to prepare a draft article or chapter of a book for review for
each session and were required to read and review other pieces of writing during the session.
In addition to the peer review component, the facilitator of each group led sessions throughout
the year on various aspects of academic publishing.

Lessons to be learned?
Differing objectives of writing groups
Writing groups can be designed and implemented to achieve various different objectives,
thus catering for all different stages of the research writing and publication process.

35
Case Study 5: Thesis writing circles at the University of Western Sydney
(UWS), Australia
(Aitchison & Lee 2006: 269-270)

This writing group was set up by the universitys Learning Skills Unit as a result of supervisors
and university management calling for a solution to the problem of scholar writing. The choice
of a writing group was informed by a need to create a support programme that moved away
from a model of crisis management to one which was proactive. The groups which were set
up were multidisciplinary in composition and consisted of a culturally diverse scholar cohort.
They included research scholars at all stages of their candidature and were overseen by a
facilitator from the Learning Skills Unit.

The groups met weekly for three-hour sessions over a period of eight to ten weeks. The
meetings were divided into three sections: a critique of new written work; a discussion of a
particular aspect of thesis writing or generic aspects of thesis writing; and a review of reworked
writing. In terms of reviewing new work, the meetings were limited to three pieces of writing.
The language focus, which formed the second section of the session, was decided ahead of
time by the facilitator. This allowed scholars to focus on that element in their writing in
preparation for the meeting. Topics included thesis structure, argument development, author
voice, and so forth.

The facilitator played an important leadership role in the group dynamic in the coordinating
of activities, developing a sense of trust between group members and providing explicit teaching
and instruction on various aspects of research writing. Teaching scholars how to structure their
feedback was considered key for ensuring a supportive environment.

Lessons to be learned?
Three-part meeting design
Reviewing reworked pieces of writing is a particularly insightful way to determine
whether or not scholars are learning through feedback and understanding how to
incorporate and build feedback into their writing
Teaching scholars how to structure feedback
Important skill not only for building trust between peers but also for ongoing work in
academia and building own writing practices

Challenges associated with writing groups


Despite the documented benefits of writing groups, research has identified various challenges associated
with the support initiative. On a macro level, challenges arise over the responsibility of the programme
within the institution (Aitchison & Lee 2006). Without institutional support for the programme, the
sustainability of the groups becomes a challenge. This is important to consider within a South African
context where support structures are working with very small or non-existent budgets.

Four micro level challenges have been documented in past research, namely: small group dynamics; purpose;
cultural and linguistic diversity; and peer review (Li & Vandersmensbrugghe 2011; Aitchison & Lee 2006;
Cuthbert et al. 2009). Group dynamics and purpose are both intricately related to group leadership,
namely, the language expert facilitator. Managing small numbers and keeping participants engaged and
focused require considerable effort by the facilitator. One has to ensure that all participants are given
equal opportunities to voice their opinions and contribute to the group. In order to sustain group dynamics
it is also essential to keep the group members motivated and enthusiasm levels up. Li and Vandermensbrugghe
(2011:202) make the interesting comment that in terms of group purpose, the challenge is in maintaining
a culture of learning rather than fixing problems.The purpose of a writing group can easily be misrepre-
sented as an editorial station where surface level features can be fixed. This is seen in a heavy reliance

36
on the group facilitator at the start of the programme (ibid). It is important, right from the onset, to
establish the group as a supportive space to learn and practice writing in a facilitated manner. This focus
needs to be reinforced throughout the programme so that the group does not slip into an editorial
dumping ground. This depends on strong leadership and guidance from the facilitator.

The issue of cultural and linguistic diversity is a common challenge in writing groups, and is closely linked
to issues of peer review - the giving and receiving of feedback. Groups which include scholars from a
range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds often find it a challenge to meet all the scholars needs and
to manage group dynamics (Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Aitchison & Lee 2006). What is deemed
appropriate in one culture might be wholly inappropriate for another. Giving and receiving feedback is
often an issue, as this can make some scholars feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable. The ethos of peer
review is also often a challenge, as some scholars prefer feedback from a more authoritative figure, such
as a lecturer or supervisor. In addition, the group might contain a range of linguistic profiles, with varying
degrees of English proficiency. Once again, these group dynamics need to be carefully managed by the
facilitator.

One of the biggest challenges scholars have in writing groups is developing confidence in peer review,
both in the giving and receiving of feedback. Cuthbert, Spark and Burke (2009) comment that a particular
challenge regarding this in multidisciplinary groups is that scholars often feel they are (a) unable to give
appropriate feedback to someone of a different discipline, and (b) scholars often react negatively to
feedback from peers of a different discipline. The key element here is to constantly reinforce and guide
scholars as to the purpose of the feedback - a focus on structure, argument, and flow, rather than on
the content. Scholars need to be instructed on the different types of (constructive) feedback by the
facilitator.This is essential for creating an environment of trust and will help create a supportive atmosphere
which will decrease the anxiety and vulnerability felt by some scholars when receiving feedback (Li &
Vandermensbrugghe 2011). Over time, however, research shows that with the support of the facilitator,
scholars adapt to, and take ownership of, peer review, and come to not only see the benefits of it, but
also start to enjoy doing it as their confidence grows (Li & Vandermensbrugghe 2011; Cuthbert et al.
2009; Aitchison & Lee 2006).

As can be seen from the above, the four micro-level challenges (small group dynamics, purpose, cultural
and linguistic diversity, and peer review) can be overcome by strong and dynamic leadership of the group
facilitator.The challenge going forward with writing groups will thus be in the adequate institutional support
of the instructor, as group collegiality depends solely on the role he/she plays in the group.Therefore, both
macro and micro-level challenges need to be considered when establishing a writing group programme.

37
Writing Groups at Rhodes University - Kirstin Wilmot, CPGS
The Centre for Postgraduate Studies is currently underway with a writing group pilot programme
at Rhodes University. The pilot consists of two writing group formats: the first is a long-term,
weekly group; the second is a short-term intensive programme.

Long-term writing group


The long-term programme is a multidisciplinary group consisting of seven scholars and a group
facilitator from the CPGS. The group members consist of: three scholars from the Institute of
Water Research, two of which are Masters scholars and one of which is a PhD scholar; and four
scholars from the Environmental Learning and Research Centre, one of which is a Masters
scholar and three of which are PhD scholars.

The group meets on a weekly basis for a two-hour period over lunch. The group structure is
comprised of two parts: peer review and language instruction.The order of the structure depends
on the weeks topic and how closely it fits with the piece of writing under review. A range of
different topics are covered in the instruction part of the meeting. In the first instance, advice,
explanation and exemplars of good practice feedback practices was given, to ensure that the
scholars treated the peer review process in a positive and sensitive manner. Other topics covered
have included: free writing exercises; use of tense; structure strategies, including story-boarding;
writing abstracts; transitional words; presenting research; academic hedging techniques; and idea
development strategies, including mind mapping and cubing..

The aim of the pilot programme is to develop a peer-orientated writing support practice at
Rhodes University. It is an interactive and dynamic space where scholar opinions are shaping
the development of the initiative to best suit their specific needs and requirements, and to ensure
that they receive the most out of the sessions. The sessions will be on-going throughout 2015.

Short-term intensive writing group


This writing programme will be launched mid-year 2015. It will be discipline-specific, focusing
on the Commerce faculty and including scholars from the departments of Information Systems
and Management. The group will consist of eight to ten postgraduate scholars and a facilitator
from the Centre for Postgraduate Studies.

The group will meet every afternoon for two hours, over a period of nine days, leading up to
a faculty-led Research Colloquium. The structure of the group will follow that of the long-term
writing group: time will be divided between peer review of scholar work and instruction on
specific language aspects of academic writing.

The aim of this short-term writing programme is to provide a writing-intensive strategy to boost
writing processes and outputs.The programme is designed to help support scholars in developing
good practice writing practices and to assist with creating a non-threatening, community-
orientated space where the academic writing process can be enacted as a social practice.

Diagnostic Assessment Profile


Allison, Coley, Lewkowicz and Nunan (1998) report on a unique writing support initiative undertaken
at the University of Hong Kong (UHK) to aid scholars in dissertation writing. Hong Kong presents a very
similar context to South Africa in relation to both linguistic diversity and large numbers. Thus, important
insights can be gleaned from this project. Significantly, the UHK is an English-medium university in a non-
English cultural context, where 50% of supervisors are second language speakers of English (Allison et
al. 1998). These supervisors are required to assist scholars who are experiencing difficulties with writing
in English. Due to the challenges facing their postgraduate scholar cohort, Allison and colleagues initiated
a project to provide a writing support programme.

Similar to South African institutions, the PhD programme at UHK is structured such that the scholar works

38
with a supervisor and independently to complete the research.This is different to the United States where
PhD scholars have a course-component built into their PhD, which allows for significant contact time with
scholars, thus enabling opportunities for particular instruction in writing. The UHK, at the time of this
reported research, had a writing centre which offered scholars one-on-one consultations with a writing
expert. This approach, however, was considered to be small-scale, expensive, and unable to meet the
requirements of scholars across the postgraduate cohort. It was also apparent that despite this existing
support, large numbers of scholars were still experiencing problems with writing. For this reason, the
researchers were asked to design a wide-scale institutional support programme.

Allison and colleagues (1998) established that in order to design a programme they first needed to gain
an understanding of what the problems in writing were, and whether these problems were experienced
across the disciplines. They thus decided that they would first need to create a profile of difficulty: the
Diagnostic Assessment Profile (DAP). The profile analysis was informed by the following information:
Detailed analysis of extended samples of scholar writing from a range of disciplines
Comments of writing consultants who had worked with scholars
Feedback from supervisors

Four main problem areas were identified from the analysis, including:
Overall communicative success
Substantiation
Discourse elements/features
Editing

Using the DAP as a framework, the researchers embarked on designing a support programme. Four main
concerns were taken into account in this design, namely:
The programme would need to be discipline-neutral so that it could cater for scholars across disciplines
It needed to provide a way for scholars to focus on their own writing and the communication demands
required of such
It had to be recognised that the course would be operated on a voluntary basis
It had to be recognised that scholars of various English-levels and stages of research would attend

Following the framework and taking into account the above four concerns, a writing support programme
was introduced at UHK. The programme was implemented over a four month period, in a series of five
three-hour workshops. Each workshop comprised of a lecture and a tutorial. The four-month time frame
was deemed necessary to allow tutors time to assess and provide feedback on scholar writing. It was
also thought that the time between workshops would give scholars opportunity to become familiar and
comfortable with concepts introduced through the workshops. It would also give them time to practice
these concepts in redrafting (in light of peer or tutor feedback).
Using the DAP as a guiding framework, the lecture component included all the scholars, and introduced
key concepts of dissertation writing in a lecture format. The tutorial component comprised of smaller
scholar groups, led by a tutor. The purpose of the tutorial element was to allow for opportunities for
scholars to discuss and analyse how successful their own writing is with their tutor, based on the lecture
and according to the DAP outlines. The tutor would facilitate discussion and provide feedback on scholar
writing samples. He/she would also provide instruction on how the DAP could be used as a self-monitoring
framework.
After implementation, the programme was evaluated. Negative aspects associated with the organisation
of the workshop and the lecture-style adopted were identified in the evaluation. The first organisation
problem was seen in the high attrition rate of scholars. Only 21 out of the original 105 scholars completed
the series of workshops. This was associated with the time frame and spacing out of the workshops, as
scholars were unable or unwilling to commit to such an extended timeframe. In response to this, the
workshops changed their scheduling and ran in a more intensive mode of once or twice a week or, in
some instances, for six consecutive days. This proved to curb the attrition rates. Another organisation
problem was seen in the complexities of making the workshops applicable to scholars at varying stages
of their research. To counter this problem core texts relating to each lecture were supplied. These
emphasised the value of learning to make one's writing clear for a non-expert audience.

39
The lecture-style adopted for the first part of the workshop was seen as problematic as scholars felt that
the format hindered interaction and negatively impacted on the enthusiasm for discussion in the proceeding
tutorials. To overcome this problem the lecture-style format was altered. Lectures became limited to a
maximum of 40 scholars at one time, and the three hour sessions were broken up into two sections.
Sessions consisted of a short input session, followed by small group discussion. The input session was
team-taught by two or three teachers.

In terms of the positive outcomes of the programme, the DAP framework was a useful tool for structuring
the different aspects of the workshops. It helped to focus the scholars on the textual aspects of their work
needed in order to succeed. It also provided and maintained a clear outline and structure of the programme,
ensuring a focus was maintained throughout the workshops.The different aspects of the DAP framework
also helped scholars and tutors to see the link between the more textual components and the more
general issues such as argument and audience awareness. The extent to which the DAP can be used as
a self-monitoring tool by scholars remains unclear.

Final considerations of the project revealed two further issues for ongoing development: tutor support
and the generic nature of the workshops. Tutors were expected to participate fully within the tutorials
and to give constructive feedback on scholars writing samples.The work-load was considerable, and tutors
needed to be well supported in order for the programme to be a success. The decision to do generic
workshops stemmed from the belief that all academic writing shares some commonalities. However,
feedback from science scholars indicated that not all of the features discussed were relevant to their field.

This programme, particularly the evaluation of it, is useful for consideration in a South African context
due to the many lessons which can be learned from it. Most notably, the Hong Kong context presents
as remarkably similar to that of South Africa in many respects. The DAP framework is a creative initiative
which seeks to overcome many of the problems facing universities, with varying degrees of success. The
biggest drawback of this programme, however, is the generic nature of the workshop programme and
scholar numbers.

Academic writing is not discipline-neutral, and while there is a definite place


for generic approaches, they will inevitably need to be supported by
programmes catering for discipline-specific academic writing conventions.
This is not always possible in contexts with large scholar cohorts and limited financial and institutional
support.

Writing Consultations
The description of a situated example of an individual writing consultation is taken from Woodward-
Krons (2007) study at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Woodward-Kron provides insights into, and
argues for the value of, individual writing consultations for, what she calls, non-English speaking background
(NESB) students.

Woodward-Kron (2007) contends that individual writing consultations have received largely negative
publicity in past research and literature. Negative connotations of consultations include: cultivating a
relationship of dependence for the scholar; a blurring of the lines of responsibility (with supervisors) with
regards to content; the resource-intensive nature of consultations; and a perceived editorial function of
consultations. Despite these perceived problems, Woodward-Kron (2007) argues that writing consultations
still play a valuable role in universities, especially for scholars who are second, third or fourth language
speakers of English.

As has been previously discussed, it is often the case that scholars are unable to utilise the feedback given
by supervisors, and in converse, some supervisors are unable to give adequate feedback for the scholar
to make the necessary changes in their written work (Allison et al. 1998). The writing consultation can
play an important role in acting as a kind of mediator between scholar and supervisor. The consultations
provide a space in which scholars can engage with the feedback, and, through one-on-one interaction
with an advisor, can seek clarification on the feedback at an appropriate level to their understanding
(Woodward-Kron 2007).

40
Woodward-Kron (2007) argues against the often misconceived role of individual writing consultations,
in that they are not an editorial or proofreading facility. Instead, she gives insights into the language work
undertaken in consultations. This will be contextualised through a description of one such consultation
(ibid:258-266).

Writing consultation in practice: a case study


The consultation comprised of a second language English scholar and a language adviser, and was 50
minutes in duration. Like a classroom situation, there was some element of instruction by the adviser, but
it was predominantly characterised by interactive exchange. The interactive exchange was focused around
four main topic areas: seeking information and clarification; clarifying the supervisors comments; directives,
making suggestions and negotiating changes; and jointly constructing and scaffolding text.

The first area of exchange - seeking information and clarifying points - involved many interrogatives
whereby questions were asked (by both the scholar and adviser) about the scholars text. Reponses to
these questions included simple declarative statements and more interactive discussion if further clarification
needed to be sought.The second area of exchange - clarifying the supervisors comments - was characterised
by the adviser reading aloud supervisor feedback and paraphrasing it for the scholar, to aid understanding.
Key to this topic area was the use of extending and enhancing conjunctions to establish logical relations
between clauses, for example, So, the supervisors question is... and Yes, but they want you to... (ibid:259).

The third area of exchange - directives, making suggestions and negotiating changes - was characterised
by directives with high obligation. However, suggestions were mostly negotiated with the scholar, and were
often challenged and debated before a solution and way forward was adopted. Examples of such language
used include: modulated statements with high obligation, for example now youve got to..., as well as
directives with high obligation but softened by the inclusive first person pronoun, for example, We just
have to..., or with the plural imperative, for example, Lets make... (ibid:260). Often a first person pronoun
was used within the directive to create a softening effect, for example, I think... (ibid:260).The fourth area
of exchange, directly linked to the third, is characterised by the joint construction and scaffolding of text
by the scholar and the adviser. Through interactive dialogue seen in the first three areas of exchange, the
scholar and adviser were able to jointly build understanding and co-construct sentences, in light of the
supervisors feedback.

In addition to the type of exchanges between scholar and adviser, Woodward-Kron (2007) refers to the
range of meanings which can be addressed in a one-on-one writing consultation. Drawing on Systemic
Functional Linguistics, she labels this a metafunctional perspective (ibid:263). In terms of ideational
meanings, the consultation was effectively able to clarify: content issues (which were then negotiated and
jointly constructed); register issues (adviser assisted in cultivating an academic register); and clarification
of logical relations between ideas were addressed. A variety of interpersonal meanings were addressed
in the consultation. These included relations between scholar and supervisor, scholar and adviser, and the
dynamic relationship between supervisor-scholar-adviser. Each different role within these relationships had
varying degrees of authority and status, which had to be constantly managed within the consultation. The
supervisor maintained his/her position of status, whereas the scholar and advisers relationship was
characterised by information exchange, in the co-constructing of the text. Often a situation emerged when
there was conflicting advice from supervisors. These issues would be debated and negotiated between
scholar and adviser, in terms of the supervisory role hierarchy, as well as the scholars status as author. In
this regard, Woodward-Kron (2007:264) shows how language work in the consultation also involved
adjusting personal meanings in the scholars writing, as well as negotiating complex interpersonal territory
in order to make decisions about changes to the scholars text. Textual meanings attended to in the
consultation included: genre, in the discussion over which materials should be included in which section;
thematic development, in terms of foregrounding or removing information at the level of the paragraph;
and orthographic conventions, in terms of spelling and punctuation.

Woodward-Kron (2007), in her description of a writing consultation, shows how the interactive learning
which takes place challenges many of the negative perceptions of consultations in literature. She shows
how consultations can address surface-level linguistic errors, but at the same time, can address broader
issues of form and content, seen through the construction and management of ideational, interpersonal
and textual meanings. She also demonstrates how consultations are not necessarily one-sided directives,

41
but can rather be characterised by dynamic interaction, wherein meanings are unpacked, clarified and
negotiated, before being incorporated into the scholars writing. This, according to Woodward-Kron
(2007:265), brings in a pedagogic dimension, in that the adviser scaffolded the scholars writing development
and learning by probing for further information and reformulating the scholars verbal contributions. This
highlights the usefulness of writing consultations in supporting and mentoring scholar writing ability.

While the writing consultation has numerous positive features, within a South African context, given our
scholar numbers, and especially the high volume of postgraduate scholars who are not in residence at
their respective universities, the appropriateness of this writing support programme is questionable. In
order to provide a comprehensive service to scholars, the advisers/consultants would need considerable
support, both in training and in volume. Within the Rhodes University context, which has no established
institutional writing support centre at present, this method of support is most likely not the most efficient
and effective, given our current position.

Writing Consultations at Rhodes University -


Caroline van der Mescht, Education Department
The Education Department at Rhodes University has a lecturing post for academic literacy
teaching.This staff member is responsible for two kinds of student support: firstly, general teaching
with whole classes on reading and writing in academic genres, and secondly, individual help for
Masters and PhD scholars, which is done in 50 - 60 minute consultations. These consultations
are mostly but not always with additional language speakers of English.

At present, scholars do not self-refer for consultations. Supervisors contact the academic literacy
lecturer and describe some of the difficulties the student is experiencing with writing. They may
provide notes or send an annotated chapter, and a consultation time is arranged with the student.

Example:
To illustrate the points I make, I will use the example of Rebeccas writing (not her real name).
Rebeccas Chapter Two, the theoretical context of her Masters thesis, was difficult to read
because ideas, expressed in technical terminology, were tightly packed together.

When Rebecca discussed theory, her style also gave the impression that she had not necessarily
understood the theory and had not related it to the study. In addition, many sentences were
excessively long. She tended to link ideas with the conjunction and in a way that did not
suggest any order in the concepts she was using. She characteristically inserted extra verbs,
for example All these methods are possible means of mediating in the learning of environmental
content knowledge.

The structure of a typical consultation


During the consultation, a three-phase structure unfolds. I prefer to start with surface elements
such as poor referencing, repetition or grammatical mistakes, as these are easy to explain and
to understand.This is a low stakes critique of language or genre elements that the student knows
but has misapplied or forgotten. This first phase serves as a throat clearing before the more
demanding aspects of the consultation are introduced and allows me to build a teaching
relationship with the student, whom I am usually meeting for the first time.

The second phase of the consultation focuses on two or three broad pieces of advice on the
student's writing. For example, in Rebeccas consultation I asked her to read one of the passages
aloud so that she could experience the density of her style. We discussed the issue of clarity
and how that is achieved in English writing. Then I suggested that she could do a number of
things to change this style. First, she could turn long clauses into independent sentences. In each
case she should be careful to re-state sections for clarity, if necessary. Second, she could shorten
sentences to provide a variety of sentence lengths. She should allow each sentence to express
its core meaning by eliminating unnecessary words (e.g. The section presents previous research
findings that show on how educators are responding to the inclusion of the new environmental

42
content knowledge in the South African schools context.). Third, she could add explanations
and synonyms of her own to break the density of the text. Fourth, she could show how the
theory manifested in her study through examples or illustrations from her research. Finally, she
should consider whether and meant in addition or whether there was another connection
between sections of the sentence or of the paragraph. If there was she should consider using
a more appropriate link. This would make each sentence more direct and reduce its concept
load. As I explained each concept, I wrote each suggestion down for her as a list of options which
she could consult as she rewrote the chapter. I typed the changes we made together into the
open document in front of us, discussing options as we went.

The third phase of the consultation flows from the second in that I give more explanations, and
start moving through sections I have already highlighted in the text. I ask the student to apply a
comment I have made by expressing sections in their own words, or supply examples from their
study. In Rebeccas case I showed her how each option for change might be applied to sections
I had previously identified as problematic. As I mediated my explanation I asked Rebecca to make
changes and also checked with her that the meaning of the passage was accurate and aligned
with her intention.

Rebecca left with the list of options, which I had also photocopied for my record of our session.
I emailed the final version of her chapter to her immediately, with all its comments, tracked
changes and coloured highlights, the significance of which I had explained to her.

Explanation
The process outlined above is designed to achieve three learning goals:
1. It is intended to avoid focusing on surface errors by mentioning them briefly and early in
the consultation. These are not the most important aspects of the thesis and can be corrected
before submission by a professional editor.
2. The process is intended to avoid the consultation being a live editing session. The purpose
is for the student to take ownership of her style and leave with an understanding of the
changes she should make throughout the document, not to watch as the lecturer makes
changes.
3. The process is intended to provide a perspective on the students writing which is additional
to the supervisors, not an explanation of the supervisors comments.This perspective answers
Woodward-Krons (2007) concerns about supervisor dependence.

Comment
My brief experience of working with scholars suggests that at postgraduate level most additional
language scholars write correctly, that is, with few grammatical errors. Therefore, focusing on
structure and grammar (topic sentences, for example, or concord errors) will not improve their
writing substantially. Rather, scholars struggle with other aspects of academic style, such as
appropriate lexical choices, making links between ideas clear, citing other research, signposting
the sections of chapters, or indicating the category of evidence they are providing. These are
characterized in the literature as problems of voice or of audience.

A second comment is on the extent to which one should use grammatical terms in explanations
with a student in, for example, Environmental or Science Education. My experience is that Second
Language speakers of English have detailed grammatical knowledge that enables this kind of
explanation. Rebecca, for example, immediately saw that she was using strings of verbs and that
this padded her writing unnecessarily. Home Language speakers of English by contrast may find
grammatical explanations more difficult to understand, as their writing skills were frequently
developed through practice rather than rule based learning.

43
The third comment is on the practice of responding to a sample of student writing, often no
more than five or ten pages. This gives academic writing specialists a manageable work-load and
reduces the apparent editing function of their responses. In my experience, however, problems
with voice often manifest themselves in uneven writing: a few pages, or even a chapter may be
clear and unproblematic, and the next page or section may be difficult to read. I believe this
happens because scholars layer newer sections over older and less well developed thinking.
Because they have not developed a strong voice of their own, they may also unconsciously
imitate the writing style of a mentor or influential thinker in their field. These fluctuations, as well
as any problems with repetition, or laying out an extended argument, can only be picked up by
reading a whole chapter or section.

Writing workshops
Writing workshops have long been used as a support mechanism for scholars. They are an attractive
means of support because they are practical, succinct, focused and can benefit a large number of scholars
at once, making it a more sustainable method than that of one-on-one consultations, for example. Lea
and Street (2006) utilised such a method in their Academic Literacy Development Programme at Kings
College, London, and again for law scholars and staff at the Open University, United Kingdom. Workshops
also formed a key component in Allison, Coley, Lewkowicz and Nunans (1998) programme at the
University of Hong Kong. Although workshops have been criticised for adopting a lecture style which
inhibits interaction and dialogue, they are a worthwhile option to consider, given the limitation of resources
and high scholar numbers South African institutions face.

Writing Workshops at Rhodes University - Kirstin Wilmot, CPGS


Writing workshops have been used extensively at Rhodes University. Previously managed by
the Centre for Higher Education, Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL), workshops are
now being developed within, and coordinated by, the CPGS. While the workshop structure has
been criticised in literature for its lecture-style format and its dependence on generic features
of academic writing, this format has, and continues to be used within a socio-cultural understanding
of writing support at Rhodes University.

Our key concern for writing support workshops is to avoid them being conceptualised within
a deficit model to literacy, essentially as a once-off, fix-it, grammar-based workshop where
students can be sent by their supervisors to have their writing problems solved. Rather, by
working within an academic literacies model, the focus of the workshops is on meaning-making
and knowledge building, with an emphasis on how you only find out what you want to say
through writing.The aim of the workshops is to provide an interactive space where the conceptual
aspects of academic writing can be demystified and made accessible to students. Both generic
and discipline-specific workshops are currently being offered at Rhodes University. The table
below illustrates current workshop themes which encapsulate a socio-cultural orientation to
literacy.

Theme Reasoning

Generative writing Learning to write for yourself, as a process to discover meaning.


Free writing activities are used to demonstrate this writing process.

Critical reading Learning what it means to think, read and write critically.This key
and writing aspect is what distinguishes the academic genre apart from other
writing genres. Without an understanding of this more macro
genre level, students will not be able to engage with their research
in the necessary rigorous manner needed to succeed in
postgraduate studies.

44
Learning about writing This essential part of academic writing is explained to students
for others so that they understand why it is important and how they can
develop this. The idea of engaging in imaginary conversations
(Boughey 2014) with potential readers is particularly useful for
this feature of writing.
Conceptualising writing Unpacking the writing process to foreground the value of writing
to be a three-stage, for oneself (in a meaning-making process), then moving on to
iterative process writing for another in cultivating a voice and making a contribution
(drafting and redrafting) and only moving on to editing at the end
of the process.
Building new knowledge Explaining to students why academic writing is all about making
through creating arguments arguments, based on claims, which are substantiated with evidence.
If a student does not understand this process and the reasoning
behind it, they will not be able to do it in their own writing.
Instruction in using academic hedging techniques to limit/substantiate
claims is given.

Cultivating voice/being Unpacking what this actually means to students - why is it important
authoritative and how you might go about it. Explanation about being a member
of an academic community and taking up a position within that
community of scholars is offered, together with examples of how
this might be done.
Defending your approach This is explained to students in terms of their understanding of
their own position, how it relates to other positions, and why
they have adopted it. This is a crucial aspect of academic writing
and falls under critical scrutiny in the examination process. If the
student does not understand that they have to be able to (a)
take up a position, and (b) be able to justify and defend that
choice in relation to their academic community, they will not be
able to produce a strong piece of research.

The golden thread Unpacking this concept for students to engage with, to understand
the importance of writing coherently and logically in the academic
genre. By explaining the difference between thesis as an argument'
and using argument in the thesis, students can begin to see how
the golden thread (thesis argument) can be weaved throughout
the dissertation, acting as a road map for coherent writing. Linguistic
resources (for example, transitional words) are described and
activities using such features are offered.

Technical polishing Explaining the importance of this, but how it should be the very
final aspect of the writing process. Ideas are given about how self-
editing can be undertaken and the role of using a critical friend
(peer review) is elaborated on.

To date, the various workshops, both generic and discipline-specific, have been well attended
and well-received. One of the perceived limitations of the workshop approach to writing support
has focused on the issue of providing only generic instruction to students. The work being
developed within the CPGS at Rhodes University is attempting to overcome such limitations
through working with academics in different disciplines and subject departments. It is the aim
of the CPGS to build capacity among academic staff themselves, so that ownership and agency
of postgraduate support can, in time, be built and developed within the departments themselves,
with ongoing guidance and support from the CPGS.

45
Informal support initiatives
Writing Blogs
Academic blogs focusing on aspects of academic writing are becoming increasingly prevalent on the web.These blogs offer
advice, guidelines and create a sense of a global supportive community of writers. Such blogs are created by a range of
different authors on a continuum of expertise, ranging from scholars to professors to writing experts. Writing blogs are
easily accessible to all and apart from going on to the web and reading, they do not require any commitment or effort
from the scholar in order to benefit from the advice on offer. A case study of one such writing blog, Writing for Research,
will be reviewed to illustrate the usefulness of such initiatives and how they can be viewed as an informal support for
postgraduate scholars in their writing endeavours. Other particularly good blogs include PhD2Published7, The Thesis
Whisperer8
and Patter9.
Case Study: Writing for Research - Patrick Dunleavy
This particular blog post comes from Professor Patrick Dunleavys (LSE) writing blog Writing for
Research. In Dunleavys words, the writing blog collates some helpful resources for research level
academic writing across the disciplines. The blog post described below is entitled, Seven upgrade
strategies for a problematic article or chapter (July 31, 201410), and is aimed at writers writing
for publication. The seven features he addresses, however, are relevant to all research writing.

Seven key strategies for a problematic article or chapter


1. Do one thing well.
This aspect relates to writers who try to do too much in too little space, which inevitably leads
to confusion or flouting word limits.To avoid this, Dunleavy advises that you keep your content
simple and within well defined (and defended) boundaries.

2. Flatten the structure


This feature relates to the use of a well-articulated structure which flags the reader throughout
the text. A flag-post structure keeps readers engaged and keeps the information exchange
manageable. More specifically, Dunleavy recommends the following with regards to sub-headings.

All articles in social science should be 8,000 words or less and most chapters are similar or
verge up to 10,000 words. Given the attention span of serious, research readers, you need a
sub-heading about every 2,000 words or so thats just four or five main sub-headings in total.
They should all be first-order sub-heads, at the same level, and preferably dividing the text up
into similar-sized chunks, that come in a predictable way and have a common rhythm. If you
have two or three tiers of sub-headings in a hierarchy, make it simpler.

In terms of keeping these subheadings as simple as possible, Dunleavy cautions against the use
of outliner software, which he contends, make it worse by:
adding complex numbering systems (e.g. section 2.1.4.3) to help readers. At an extreme,
an analytic over-fragmentation of the text results, with sections, sub-sections and sub-sub
sections proliferating in bizarre complexity. The text can become like the traditional British
tinned desert called 'fruit cocktail', which contains many different kinds of fruit, but all in
small cubes and smothered in a syrup so thick that you cannot taste at all what any
component is.

7
Writing advice on the blog can be accessed at: http://www.phd2published.com/topics/writing/
8
Blog can be accessed at: http://thesiswhisperer.com/
9
Blog can be accessed at: http://patthomson.net/
10
Full blog post can be accessed at: https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/seven-
upgrade-strategies-for-a-problematic-article-or-chapter-3c6b81be9aa2
46
Dunleavy goes on to add that another way of structuring an article is to base it on the advice of
writing coach, Thomas Basboll, who contends that a typical academic article should consist of
roughly 40 paragraphs:
Five to provide the introductory and concluding remarks
Five to establish a general background
Five to state the theory that informs the analysis
Five to state the methodology
Three five-paragraph sections for the analysis, which will make roughly three overarching claims
Five to outline the implications of the research

3. Say it once, say it right


This feature of advice is on repetition in academic writing, and how it should be avoided.
Dunleavy cautions that it is often bad structure which leads to repetition, therefore to avoid
the one you need to pay careful attention to the other. In essence, then, Dunleavy advises to
make a point once, but make it well, and then move on to the next one.

4. Try paragraph re-planning


Paragraph re-planning is essentially a planning tool for a piece of work which is used once the
first draft has been completed. In essence, you start with your finished text and then resurface
a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that.This allows you to see a succinct view
of your whole text and makes it easier to formulate a better structure or sequence for it.

5. Make the motivation clearer


This aspect relates to writers becoming too embedded in their research and losing the bigger
perspective of why they started the research, why it is relevant and why the findings are worth
reading. In response to this problem, Dunleavy suggests the following:
Trying to achieve a high impact start for an article (or a clean, forward-looking beginning
to each chapter in a book or PhD) can help readers to better appreciate a motive for
reading on.

6. Strengthen the argument tokens


This is a point which is key for all research writing as it relates to the use of sources (whether
it is literature citations, empirical evidence, etc.) to substantiate claims and how best these can
be used to make a stronger argument. Crucially, Dunleavy cautions against the common mistake
about not updating a literature review. This portion of the research is often done right at the
beginning, when your knowledge of the topic is still relatively poor. It is important to go back
to the literature later on in the research process to make sure you have not only correctly
understood the literature and used it appropriately, but that you are using up to date sources
to back your arguments.

7. Improve the data and exhibits


This point addresses both the display of data but also the sign-posting of such data. Visually
appealing, simple images, graphs and tables are essential for data presentation. In addition, it is
vital that such data is flag-posted with accurate, clear headings to aid readers understanding
of your text.

This recount of Dunleavys writing blog illustrates how blogs can be a rich source of information
and support for academic writing. Other blog posts include topics such as writing paragraphs,
writing abstracts, using citations effectively, methodology sections, how to start and end chapters,
choosing a title, story-boarding research, among many others. The advice is easily accessible, easy
to make sense of, and is applicable across disciplines and written genres (article, chapter, dissertation
etc.). It can also be applicable to writers across the continuum of expertise.

47
AcWriMo
According to the popular writing blog, Phd2Published11, AcWriMo is an academic take on NaNoWriMo
(National Novel Writing Month), whereby authors are encouraged to write a book in a month. AcWriMo
is a month-long writing activity which aims at encouraging academics (at all stages of their careers) to
write prolifically throughout the month of November each year. An online community is usually created,
such as through a writing blog like PhD2Published, through Twitter or through Facebook. Academic writers
join an online community and publicly state their goals for the month in the Writing Accountability
Spreadsheet.This spreadsheet captures the members goals for the month, and provides space for weekly
progress updates. The spreadsheet, together with the online interaction with other members, acts as a
support mechanism to encourage participants to achieve their goals. Additionally, it provides a level of
accountability for members to meet their daily targets.

Although AcWriMo is a month-long initiative with the aim of achieving short-term ambitious writing goals,
the long term aims of the initiative, according to Charlotte Frost, writing for PhD2Published, are summed
up as the following:
1. Think about how we write;
2. Form a valuable support network for our writing practice;
3. Build better habits for the future;
4. And maybe - just maybe - get more done in less time.

In order to take part in AcWriMo, a writer needs to follow a series of steps to gain membership to the
online community and to become an active participant. These include:
1. Decide on an ambitious goal for the month of November;
2. Declare it in an online forums Writing Accountability Spreadsheet (whether it is via a blog, Twitter
or Facebook);
3. Design a work strategy outlining how you expect to reach your goals, making sure that you have all
resources needed before you start;
4. Report back on progress, at least weekly. This can be done on the spreadsheet or via the online
platform. Participants in the past have often made use of the hashtag #AcWriMo on Twitter to report
back on triumphs and failures;
5. You must keep the momentum going. It is important not to fall behind as the tips and practices you
acquire in this month will help set the pace for your work during the rest of the year;
6. Declare your results at the end of the month. It is important to not only share successes but also
hardships, as it can act as an educational tool for other writers who might be experiencing the same
difficulties.

The AcWriMo initiative is particularly useful as it provides a fun and dynamic online space to create
momentum, support and inspiration to help participants achieve ambitious writing goals. Although academic
writing is usually characterised by quality rather than quantity, the AcWriMo initiative can help scholars
and academics alike to push through writers block and it can help them overcome a fear of beginning
the writing process. As previously discussed, it also aids getting ideas down on paper which organises and
clarifies thinking, thus enhancing ones academic outputs. Being accountable to an online community is
less threatening than perhaps a community of writers that meet face-to-face each week, therefore less-
confident participants can still benefit from the aspect of community without feeling vulnerable.The online
nature of the initiative means that members can be scattered geographically and still take part. This is
significant when considering the postgraduate community at many universities in South Africa, which is
often off-campus. AcWriMo is also useful as writers at all different stages of their careers, disciplines and
writing genres can join in the initiative. Whether a Masters scholar is writing their literature review; an
academic staff member writing a paper; or a Predoc working on their proposal; anyone can benefit from
the practices developed in this writing initiative.

11
See: http://www.phd2published.com/2013/10/09/announcing-acwrimo-2013/

48
AcWriMo at Rhodes University - Sioux McKenna, CHERTL
The international AcWriMo project was adapted for PhD scholars in the Education Faculty in
November 2014. Scholars were informed of the project at the October 2014 Doc Week and
could volunteer to participate in this initiative. Requests to join that came in from PhD scholars
in other faculties and even from other universities were all accepted and eventually 75 people
became members of the closed Facebook group: AcWriMo Rhodes University 2014. As this was
a pilot experiment, the group worked only through Facebook, though this included a link to a
Google Docs form on which they indicated their personal writing goal for the month. The group
comprised mostly part-time PhD scholars who were undertaking their academic writing in their
homes and workplaces and not on university campuses where they might easily find fellow
postgraduate writers.The group were encouraged to post statuses indicating how they were doing
in meeting their ambitious goals and generally encouraging each other.This also served as a forum
for sharing blog posts and writing tools such as the Pomodoro app. Feedback on the process was
very positive:
I learned a few very obvious things in November which most people in this group would nod their
heads at; for example, I was horrified and amused to note to what extent I allow interruptions of
any description to derail my writing. For me, the most surprising realisation was this: Talk about it to
anyone who is interested. Most of my moments of clarity came from discussions with people not
in my field. I chatted to a friend - admittedly an academic with supervision experience - whilst
walking the dogs, to an extremely well-read artisanal baker, to a philosophy student in the final
stages of her PhD and to my daughter studying interactive media. I know, the point of it all was to
write and I did. The talking fuelled the writing and all of you in this group acted as a very kind
conscience.

Thanks for co-ordinating. It was great to be among the group, sharing the stressing and triumphs
of everyone. Is it November 2015 yet?

I have shifted my whole living pattern. I go to bed at 9, wake at 5 and do a good four hours of study
a day. Thank you for providing this stimulus for change.

I really enjoyed this. Working with others was a new experience and I also did more than I would
have. Chapter almost done!

That was not easy at all. But thanks to AcWriMo I achieved my goal - my draft on analytical tools

It was great to feel like I was writing with others. This journey can be quite lonely. I did not achieve
all the goals Id set, but I am a WHOLE lot closer to having the full PhD draft thesis than I was a
month ago. For that I am grateful:-)

Thanks to all for the collegial support and encouragement ... keep writing!

The general consensus was that postgraduate writing is experienced as a daunting and lonely
activity and that interventions such as AcWriMo provide a collegial supportive space that can
foster better and more output. The plan is to develop a webpage specifically for this project in
2015 and to include a number of related writing suppor t structures to the initiative.

49
Reflections on vignettes of
writing support initiatives
at Rhodes University
In line with Jacobs (2013) argument that we should continue to push the boundaries of writing
support in South Africa, we should likewise continue to self-evaluate and critique our own methods
to ensure that they are underpinned by progressive theoretical orientations to academic literacy.
With this in mind, this chapter briefly reflects on the writing support initiatives currently on offer
at Rhodes University, as indicated in the blue case-study blocks above, highlighting both their
successful qualities as well as their limitations.

Writing Workshop Evaluation


Overall, the writing workshop approach has both positive and negative attributes. The structure of the
workshops is effective as it allows a space for scholar voices to be heard, and for their opinions and
concerns to be explicitly addressed. It also allows opportunity for interactive questioning and debate
during the course of the workshop. The different workshop formats - one-day workshops, generic
workshops (run as part of the Postgraduate Orientation Programme) and the discipline-specific, departmental
workshops - allow for multiple structures, depending on the needs of the particular group of scholars.
The generic workshop series has been a successful introduction to writing support. Although these
workshops have catered for all postgraduate scholars, across the disciplines and levels of candidature, key
concerns of academic writing have been addressed through a variety of different activities drawing on
multiple disciplinary texts. More individualised, discipline-specific workshops, initiated by, and co-produced
with academic staff members, has added a deeper layer to writing support, allowing for opportunities
to delve into the specific disciplinary features of academic writing. One-day workshops have also been
successful, particularly for scholars who are normally off-campus and who visit the university periodically
for a limited period of time to attend a research week, orientation week, research design course, and so
forth.

Scholar feedback from writing workshop evaluations


Insights gleaned from writing workshop evaluations indicate a need to empower scholars within their
supervision relationships. When asked if any writing-specific support had been provided by a supervisor,
the majority of the scholars said they had either never received support or very little support. What
became clear, however, is that many scholars are not aware of how much support they should expect
from a supervisor - what is deemed acceptable to expect out of the relationship - and what support
should be sought elsewhere. For example, one scholar commented that she did receive writing support
from her supervisor in that he/she told her to look at past dissertations to see how her thesis should
be structured. Another scholar commented that she had been supported by her supervisor as he had
told her which authors to include in her literature review. A few scholars commented that their supervisors
had supported their writing through handing out departmental guidelines. While some scholars did
comment that their supervisors had spent time with them explaining how to structure an argument and
how to use source materials to substantiate and make claims, these were in the minority.

It was interesting to note scholar perceptions and understandings of the supervision relationship with
respect to writing. In one particular workshop evaluation, of the 68 evaluation respondents, 33 scholars

50
felt that writing support is the job of the supervisor. In contrast, 21 viewed this support to be outside of
the supervisors role (some indicated that these skills should have been acquired in undergraduate work)
while four scholars said they were unsure. A variety of differing opinions were expressed with regards
to who is responsible for writing support within the university. The differing opinions and often confusion
elicited from the responses indicates a need to make explicit to scholars what is expected from them,
what can be expected from their supervision relationship and what can be provided at a more macro,
university level, in terms of support.This is perhaps a crucial role which the Centre for Postgraduate Studies
(CPGS) can play, in not only supporting scholars with various initiatives, but also empowering them with
knowledge of the university system as a whole.

While the generic nature of the one-day and Postgraduate Orientation Writing Workshop series has
discipline-specific limitations, it is a useful method of writing support when dealing with large numbers.
Ideally, generic instruction should be supplemented with discipline-specific instruction with smaller groups
of scholars. This is one of the short-falls the CPGS aims to bridge, through on-going collaboration with
interested departments across the university. In the short-term co-instruction will be adopted. This will
be increasingly phased out over time, with the responsibility falling back to the individual departments
once capacity has been built with various staff members to enable them to take ownership of writing
support mechanisms. This staff capacity building initiative is another long-term goal of the CPGS.

AcWriMo at Rhodes University


The AcWriMo initiative was positively received at Rhodes University. It presented a new, technologically-
savvy method of writing support which many scholars found innovative and exciting. The main attraction
of the initiative, and its main positive attribute, is its ability to reach far-scattered (geographically) scholars.
The online nature of the community of practice it created meant that all scholars could take part in the
programme and benefit from the support of their peers.

A positive aspect, as well as a limitation, was the online peer community. Many scholars (and staff) found
the encouragement from peers to be beneficial for their writing practices. The online nature of the peer
community also acted as a distancing mechanism, in the creation of a low-stakes writing community. This
alleviated pressure from face-to-face interaction, which some scholars can find daunting. While positive
for some, this distancing also allowed for other scholars to fall through the cracks and go unnoticed. The
peer community was big enough and distant enough to escape accountability to some degree. Those
scholars who have a lot of self-discipline would therefore gain much more out of the initiative than those
who have less.

It would be useful to consider ways to improve this very popular support initiative to make it more
beneficial for all scholars, without losing the fun nature of the initiative. Smaller peer groups could be
formed at the onset, with end goals being set (for example, to complete a chapter, to write a paper for
publication etc.) to increase accountability. This would add an extra pressure to achieve a set task, instead
of merely just increasing writing outputs per day/week. Making these commitments to smaller peer groups
would also increase levels of accountability. Another way to increase accountability would be for these
peer groups to be formed with peers residing in the same area. Writing meet-ups in coffee shops and
cafes could enhance the sense of community whilst at the same time increasing accountability for individual
writing efforts.

One-on-one writing consultations in the Education


Department
The extent to which writing consultations in the Education Department are successful depends, according
to Caroline van der Mescht, almost entirely on the facilitators ability to satisfy the three learning goals,
namely: to not focus purely on surface errors; to scaffold, not edit; and to provide feedback outside of
the supervisory relationship. By creating a scaffolding environment, one is able to illustrate the logic of
the proposed changes, and to work through them with the scholar in a collaborative manner. The
consultation can also flag common errors which may persist in a scholars work, which they can work
towards avoiding in subsequent writing tasks.

51
As alluded to in earlier sections of the overview, the biggest challenge associated with writing consultations
is that of the time- and labour-intensive nature of the support initiative. There is also a risk for the
consultations to become a fixing station for academic writing concerns. Preparation time together with
the time spent in the consultation will thus become quickly strained. In light of this, only a small number
of scholars will be able to benefit from the service.To date, it appears to be manageable in the Education
Department, however, in departments with higher numbers of full-time, on-site scholars, this form of
support will quickly become problematic.

Last, but most significantly, writing consultations are often conceptualised as a reactive rather than proactive
measure.They are often sought after by desperate scholars who are in need of a quick fix.This understanding
does not align with a socio-cultural orientation to writing support, and thus must be carefully managed
through interaction with academic staff members, particularly supervisors. Writing consultations, if used
consistently over time, can be successful in developing scholar writing. Their pedagogical value, however,
is expunged if (or when) treated as an editorial dumping ground.

Overall, writing consultations, whilst playing a crucial role in resourceful departments, as a university-wide
initiative, are not entirely feasible. The time- and labour-intensive, as well as the contact-intensive nature
which characterises consultations, is not a sustainable option for large numbers of scholars. It is also difficult
to implement in departments where the majority of postgraduate scholars are off-campus or part-time
scholars. This will impede the cumulative and consistent learning opportunities which consultations can
provide, if approached and understood within a socio-cultural orientation to academic literacy.

Multidisciplinary Writing Circles


The multidisciplinary writing circles pilot programme has started on a very positive note. Feedback from
scholars indicate that the aims of the circle, including, but not limited to, providing a low-states supportive
peer community and learning through peer review, continue to be met and cultivated on a weekly basis.
The participants value the community of practice enabled by the circle and while some find it daunting
to receive feedback, all have commented on how it has not only helped scaffold their writing, but has also
made them aware of writing conventions which have often been concealed or misunderstood in the past.

In an interesting development, supervisor practices have been highlighted through this group. Many of
the peer review techniques scholars have shown (which they have learnt from receiving feedback from
their respective supervisors) have needed to be addressed. This has been done in an instruction session
on best practice feedback. The awareness this has raised reinforces the need for the CPGS to offer
concurrent courses with academic staff to ensure that a socio-cultural orientation to literacy is adopted
by all across the university, to ensure consistency and best practice' practices.

The main foreseen challenge associated with the writing group initiative is in the continual support of,
and role played by, the facilitator. Currently there is only one facilitator working with the groups. When
the pilot study grows, additional facilitators will be needed.This means that there will be additional financial
implications for the sustainability of the project which will need to be considered going forward.

Overall, Rhodes University has some exciting postgraduate writing support programmes emerging at
present. The academic writing workshops forming part of the Postgraduate Orientation Programme,
which have run weekly throughout Term 2 (to be repeated in Term 4), have been well-received and
attended. This is one of the long-term sustainability programmes being developed by the CPGS.
Supplementary workshops have and continue to be run at a departmental level by the CPGS. It is the
goal of the CPGS to centralise postgraduate writing support initiatives and to provide support (particularly
through building capacity in academic staff) to departments in the running of supplementary discipline-
specific writing workshops. We also aim to build an institutional culture of peer-learning at Rhodes University,
starting with the establishment of ongoing, long-term and short-term writing circles. Our vision, however,
is ultimately reliant on the buy-in of all academic staff across the university to adopt and embrace a socio-
cultural orientation to academic literacy, as outlined in this overview.

52
Looking ahead: suggestions
for a South African Higher
education context
This overview has illustrated the importance of adopting a socio-cultural orientation to academic
literacy, in order to best support postgraduate scholars' writing. It has demonstrated the need to
offer theoretically-informed support programmes which will cultivate a community of practice and
which conceptualises writing as a social practice, embedded within a social context, which is always
contested. This ideological view of literacy needs to replace more traditional deficit models of
literacy in higher education institutions in South Africa.

By adopting a socio-cultural viewpoint, this overview has also demonstrated


how language is inextricably linked to knowledge building.Thus, without the
development of thinking, there will be no development in writing, and it is
through the act of writing that one is able to develop coherence in thought.
This theoretical viewpoint emphasises the need to conceptualise writing development as a practice-based
pedagogy, not as a language problem which can be fixed through a once-off grammar-based workshop.

Taking cognisance of the theoretical orientations to writing support pedagogies explored in this overview,
it is clear that there is no simple way forward, given our current position in the wider higher education
context of South Africa; however, we should not be discouraged. While resources at many institutions
are minimal and large numbers of diverse scholars persist (and grow), there are many writing support
options available for proactive and committed academics to draw on.

Although the workshop structure has limitations, this form of writing support has numerous advantages.
When structured well, it can allow for large groups of scholars to benefit from one session, it can encourage
debate and scholar interaction (avoiding a talk-shop approach), it can address a number of diverse issues,
and it can be scheduled to allow access to visiting scholars.The idea of supplementing generic workshops
with smaller department-led discipline workshops is also essential for supporting scholars, as this will
ensure that scholars are exposed to all aspects of academic writing associated with their discipline. It will
also create more of an awareness of writing support problems and best practice approaches within the
academic community, which will ultimately benefit the scholars.

Taking advantage of electronic means of support is also an avenue for further exploration and development.
As this overview has shown, the use of academic writing blogs as well as innovative approaches seen in
AcWriMo can play a vital role in encouraging scholars to write more, and to help structure their writing.
Using electronic formats is crucial when considering large numbers of scholars, as well as the problem
faced by many South African institutions that have part-time or off-campus Masters and PhD scholars.
Electronic support ensures access to all scholars, immaterial of their geographical location. The use of
electronic systems might also entice more scholars into support programmes, given its modern and
progressive stance.

One of the foremost underutilised resources that universities have, however, are their communities
of scholars. This overview has demonstrated the valuable role peer communities can play in the
development of academic writing. The learning opportunities this dynamic interaction and exchange can

53
achieve are unprecedented when implemented and managed correctly. Scholars are not only able to
develop their writing through peer review, but are able to become acculturated into writing norms of a
university and become more aware of features of writing through engaging with peer review. The low-
stakes environment also ensures that experimentation and learning is encouraged to an extent not always
made possible within the traditional supervisory relationship. Peer learning, as explored in writing groups,
builds an ideological orientation to writing support. Through the ongoing learning opportunities peer
communities generate, writing is constructed as a social practice and is developed through ongoing practice,
review and reworking - a practice which embodies the socio-cultural orientation. Peer learning also
alleviates the support staff to scholar ratios, as the support structures are developed within the peer
groups themselves.This is a crucial aspect which universities across South Africa should be taking advantage
of.

In conclusion, while there is no one right way to approach postgraduate writing support in a South African
context, this overview has outlined the importance of adopting a socio-cultural orientation to academic
literacy practices, and, in conjunction with the corresponding source book, has demonstrated a number
of best practice approaches to utilise in the development of support programmes. The most essential
aspect of developing a university-wide support programme, however, is to ensure that supervisors and
academic staff support adopt a similar (socio-cultural) theoretical positioning to academic literacy. Without
this buy-in, the support ethos will be undermined, to the detriment of the scholar.

54
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