Panel members were invited to explore the following questions:
Briefly describe your involvement with Ac Lits.
What has the approach offered your work/the work of others? What has it contributed to higher education? What are its strengths?
What are you working on now and what is its relevance to Ac Lits?
How do you see the future of Ac Lits? What would it take for Ac Lits to have a greater impact on the skills/autonomous model/the dominant view of language, literacy and knowledge-making in the university?
Cape Town Panel
University of Stellenbosch Cecilia Jacobs:
Cecilia’s panel input
Rhodes University Sioux McKenna:
Sioux’s panel input
University of Cape Town Moragh Paxton:
Moragh’s panel input
Open University Panel
King’s College Brian Street:
Brian’s panel input
Corinne Boz: Summary Comments
Corinne’s summary notes
with special thanks to Sherran Clarence for compiling) Flip chart discussion notes recorded by Cecilia Jacobs
1. On the disconnect between theory and practice
Part of the reason could be related to how important teaching and learning is in the university, and the space and status it is given. It could also have to do with how lecturers see the world (their ‘worldview’) and how they understand teaching and learning and their ‘job’ as lecturers. AcLits practitioners work a great deal with lecturers or near them, and how teaching and learning is positioned, understood and valued therefore impacts on how the AcLits-based work happens.
Relatedly, it may be less of a ‘disconnect’ and more or a tension or conflict. Dominant deficit discourses and understandings of students as autonomous learners, for example, are powerful in HE. It is not terribly challenging to articulate a position informed by AcLits heuristics/pedagogy/theory when one is outside of these discourses in a space with other like-minded researchers/practitioners, or on one’s own, but when one moves into a disciplinary space as an outsider, and encounters challenges to an ‘AcLits worldview’ it disrupts a more theoretical and clear understanding of what we should be teaching, how and why, and this challenge needs to be navigated and worked out. This process takes time and can be difficult, partially also because of the marginalized position many AcLits practitioners still have in HEIs, and because of the still-dominant view of academic literacy work as ‘remedial’ and for the students who are ‘underprepared’ for HE study.
It may also be partly to do with what Theresa was saying about AcLits practitioners needing to assert their own views and positions, rather than placing these in the background when working with disciplinary lecturers/supervisors etc. We need, as Sioux said, to be bold, and to claim agency more clearly as we ‘own’ our views and our approaches to teaching, assessment, writing and so on and make these a more recognized part of conversations with others we work with. If we background our views, then it becomes harder for others to take them seriously, and easier to disconnect theory and practice in our work.
2. On ‘skills’
There are skills in academia and they are necessary for students to learn and master over time. Perhaps ‘skills’ themselves are less an issue than the way we talk about them and position them. We tend to conflate the use of the term skills with a deficit approach, and decontextualized learning and teaching, and this is a mistake. When you take a ‘literacy as practice’ approach, you are marking out discrete/specific skills and practices that you want your students to master, but these are not necessarily decontextualized because they are called skills. Skills and practices are not mutually exclusive. An example was given of Physics education, where moving from textual to visual to graphic representations of a problem to finally reach an equation and a solution requires skills – such a drawing graphs, drawing sketches – and what might be termed practices, like applying a particular understanding in Physics of moving through different stages of a problem and representing that problem in different ways in order to reach a viable solution. Students ore skilled at drawing sketches and graphs may be more able to solve the problem or may do it more quickly than students less skilled at graph and sketch drawing, even if they apply the problem-solving methods in the same manner.
Relatedly, we also need to think carefully about what ‘skills and practices’ mean in disciplines that are not as text-based, like Physics, Maths and Engineering. We tend to talk a great deal from the Humanities and social sciences, and this is a note on being careful that we are not tending towards a blindness of the ways in which different disciplines approach skills and practices in very specific and different ways.
The toolkit of NLS is being explored, critiqued and complimented – e.g., Actor Network Theory, sociomateriality etc, Cathy Kell’s work on semiotic chains or trajectories that move beyond limited understandings of text or literacy ‘events’ – these moves are forcing us to rethink literacy as ‘practice’ and also the nature of skills (we can and should talk about skills but need to be very clear what we mean and where they fit).
3.On the nature of our work
AcLits work is long-term work, and to be successful it requires the building of trust and relationships of mutual respect between AcLits practitioners and disciplinary lecturers. AcLits specialists are in the position, coming from outside of the disciplines, of needing to earn the trust and respect of the disciplinary lecturers, and a sound way of doing this is to learn about the discipline – what they value, what they teach and why and how, what the knowledges, skills and dispositions and so on are and how these are made part of the teaching and learning space, what lecturers’ own philosophies of teaching and learning are and what their goals for their students are, and so on. It is almost impossible to do good, useful work long-term without learning to ‘speak’ at least some of the discipline with lecturers, and without building a stronger sense of who they are, what their discipline is all about, and what teaching and learning means to them.
We tend to have such an emphasis, in general, on social accounts of literacy that we may have tendency to not see material structures that shape and influence literacy – for example, the institutional context, or the institutional standing of AD specialists, or the material conditions of students. NB to keep a view of both in our work.
There is something quite easy about noting generic kinds of skills in a curriculum (or even more specific things) – curricula can be ‘neater’ than classroom practices and AcLits work is very human and contingent. If a course is given to a new, inexperienced postdoc or even PhD student to teach, there is little of the complexity of developing students’ literacies captured in a curriculum document (even a well ‘aligned’ one). So, how does one capture the complexity of curriculum responsiveness/flexible teaching/tacit acquisition of certain skills and practices and so forth? Perhaps there is a comment here about how we capture the work and research we do, and who we write it for. (There was also a note here about picketing against such inexperienced lecturers being thrown into the deep end!)
4. On drawing on other theory/conceptual frameworks
Social realism/critical realism (Archer, LCT, Bhaskar) are very popular conceptual and theoretical tools at the moment. There was a question here: how does (can) social realism move us away from the deficit discourse? What it can help us do is clearly distinguish between socially constructed knowledge and an external reality that exists independently of our knowledge of it. What it also offers us is analytical dualism in research – this highlights that, while structures, cultures and agents all operate/work together in reality, we can conflate up or down and can confuse or mix things up. Thus being able to pull them apart and see them clearly can help us to avoid conflation and to move us towards different ways of thinking and acting.
What has made AcLits research powerful has been synergies with other approaches – CHAT, CoPs, CDA, multimodalities – there are epistemological matches between these complimentary approaches and AcLits, but there may not be such a match with social/critical realism. For example at UCT, curriculum experts argue for a social realist approach, but the disciplinary experts argue for a more constructivist approach. The issue of match/mismatch is important to think about when bringing AcLits to other, complimentary approaches/theories/conceptual frameworks. We can borrow a useful insight from Basil Bernstein here: we need an allegiance to problems, rather than solutions, and work towards using the tools and theories best able to help us solve the problems we are interested in addressing, rather than trying to shoehorn a problem into an approach we are invested in (and then finding the approach lacking).
There are also methodological resources and tools that can compliment and strengthen the work we are doing, for example linguistic ethnography (Blommaert – ‘ethnography is epistemology’). Ethnographic methodology can be especially important in AcLits work focused on how students/lecturers/academic make meaning, as it enables us to keep the meanings and the meaning-makers connected.
In this work, it is important to keep in our sights the social aspects of meaning-making and knowledge-making, but also to keep in our sights material conditions and structures that are important, and knowledges and knowledge structures as well – what we are making meaning with and of affects how we do so (crudely put).
5. AcLits as heuristic/pedagogy/empirical focus?
Mary Lea in CT recently said AcLits is perhaps best used as a heuristic – but it is used in many ways. The point is not to limit ourselves but rather to be very clear about how we are using the framework and tools, and what problem/issue/question we are exploring with the framework and tools. Context is key – what we choose to look at and how we try to answer research questions is influenced by context – for example the SR/CR focus in SA that is throwing up questions for AcLits here but not in the UK; the use of sociomaterialism and Actor Network Theory in the UK more dominantly than SA.
Pluralisation of ‘literacy’ into ‘literacies’ – some disciplines like architecture and music find a literacy/literacies approach to their curriculum and pedagogy less useful or comfortable because they tend to view their practices as ‘academic’ or ‘semiotic’ rather than as ‘literacies’. What does the pluralisation offer us or lecturers in varied disciplines, and can it help us to work with or around discomfort or resistance?