The transitional experiences of lower postgraduate students at a South African university: implications for epistemological access
In attempting to widen students’ access to the ways of learning and engaging with the Discourses of their disciplines, academic literacies research in South Africa has typically focused on the transition from school to university. In outlining the nature of the problems plaguing the first year experience, Scott (2009) rightfully maintains that significant attention needs to be given to the foundation level in order to address the obstruction in the pipeline to postgraduate studies. Notwithstanding this, the area of postgraduate studies has, due to concerns around performance and participation, demanded increased attention over the years, making research on the transition into this level of study equally necessary. The National Plan for Higher Education’s (NPHE) strategic focus on postgraduate education is mainly conceptualised in terms of improving research output at Masters and Doctoral levels (see DoE, 2001). By doing so, the NPHE effectively overlooks the lower end of the postgraduate spectrum, namely the Honours degree which represents an important stepping stone toward a Masters qualification and/or a professional career and the postgraduate professional diplomas, which offer a viable alternative to graduates aiming to complement their undergraduate degrees.
In this presentation I draw on an academic literacies approach in my attempt to draw out the meanings which postgraduate students in transition attach to the forms of knowledge they encounter within the applied disciplines of Law and Management Studies. I draw on data yielded by two research projects, namely: my doctoral study, as well as a post-doctoral research project located in the Law faculty. While the latter sought to gain insights into the experiences of a group of postgraduate students as they make the transition from undergraduate studies in the Social Sciences into postgraduate diplomas and Honours in Law and Management Studies, the post-doctoral project explored the textual practices of postgraduate LLB students who were in possession of an undergraduate Social Science degree (see Bangeni & Greenbaum, 2013). These projects thus focus on a specific type of transition; the transition from disciplines where conceptual knowledge is prioritised, to professional disciplines which are characterised by a strong leaning towards contextual knowledge which places emphasis on the application of theory to professional contexts as well as practical experience (Muller, 2009). The main objective of the research projects was to understand students’ perceptions of their engagement with dominant genres which reflect the professional nature of these disciplines through their simulation of key workplace practices. The second objective was to consider the ways in which these perceptions manifest in their actual writing and engagement with the disciplinary dominant discourses through a close analysis of their argumentation within the texts they produced. In the context of disciplinary enculturation from an academic literacies point of view, a discourse would include the knowledge forms, epistemologies and ways of knowing which are associated with the reading and writing of the discipline’s genres.
In this presentation, I hope to illustrate the links between students’ struggles with writing and their (dis)engagement with the knowledge validation practices or “truth strategies” (Donald, 1995:10, Luedekke, 2003) valued in applied disciplines. While students’ writing demonstrated struggles with working within the boundaries dictated by disciplinary and genre-specific literacy practices in constructing arguments (Bangeni, 2009) as well as mismatches between disciplinary specialists’ and students’ conceptualisations of key disciplinary concepts (see Bangeni, 2013), I show how these could be traced to broader struggles with the epistemological grounding of these disciplines. In doing so, I illustrate how an academic literacies approach, which values the meanings which students attach to their literacy practices, allows one to see that what disciplinary novices find problematic is, to a large extent, the process of coming to terms with the nature of knowledge within a discipline rather than a struggle with disciplinary theory as is typically assumed.
However, their struggles were not totally disempowering. As part of my presentation, I illustrate how the students exercised agency in their questioning of the ways in which knowledge is (re)constructed in both legal and business argumentation and the empowering effect it had as they were able to claim a part of the learning space where they could reflect on these disciplines’ knowledge construction processes and the dominant discourses therein. Based on this, I argue that the findings of these research projects make a compelling case for the meaningful articulation of the nature of knowledge within a discipline. In envisaging ways in which to concretise this, disciplinary specialists together with academic literacy practitioners are encouraged to create enabling spaces or environments where postgraduate students can critically reflect on their epistemological assumptions and the implications of this for their writing. This would mean that the act of casting a critical gaze on a discipline’s truth strategies is not consigned to the later years of postgraduate studies but is perceived as constituting a legitimate means of understanding the communicative purpose of its key genres and the discipline as a whole. In this presentation therefore, I hope to facilitate discussion around the ways, or perhaps more importantly, the extent to which academic literacies work at the postgraduate level can include, as part of its agenda, a sustained focus on ways of knowing within a discipline to demonstrate the ways in which its academic literacies have evolved out of particular views of knowledge.
Bangeni, B. (2009). Negotiating between past and present discourse values in a postgraduate law course: implications for writing. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. Vol. 27(1): 81–92.
Bangeni, B. (2013). An exploration of the impact of students’ prior genre knowledge on their constructions of ‘audience’ in a Marketing course at the postgraduate level. English for Specific Purposes. Vol. 32: 248-257.
Bangeni, B. & Greenbaum, L. (2013). An analysis of the textual practices of undergraduate and postgraduate novice writers in Law. Per Linguam. Vol. 29 (2): 72-84.
DoE (Department of Education), (2001). National Plan for Higher Education. Pretoria: Department of Education.
Donald, J.G. (1995). Disciplinary differences in knowledge validation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 64: 6-17.
Film clips, storyboards, logos and websites: exploring texts and practices in vocational higher education
Academic literacies research is commonly described by its focus on student writing in higher education. Typically the contextual focus of this research has been located within the traditional university setting where writing and particularly essay writing has come to be the primary mechanism through which students are required to demonstrate their disciplinary learning. However, the reach of the academic literacies perspective has continually extended beyond this original research setting. Researchers working in the vocational higher education and further education sectors have increasingly relied on this framework to explore and understand student writing and learning (Coleman, 2007, 2012, 2013, forthcoming; Jacobs,2005; Ivanič & Satchwell, 2007; Michelle et al,2000; Satchwell & Ivanič, 2007;). Recognising this significant shift in its site of application, Lea has persuasively argued that ‘Academic literacies has now moved beyond its initial concern with undergraduate writing practices to embrace a diverse range of contexts in and around the academy’ (2012:108). In my research I have brought an academic literacies perspective to bear on vocational academic contexts where written assessments, like essays, are less prominent and learning is typically demonstrated through the creation of a range of different visual, audio-visual, multimodal and digital texts.
The contemporary higher education landscape has been significantly affected by the impact of two general trends, the role and impact of the professions and the increased recognition given to multimodal texts and resources. As a result the nature and forms of texts associated with everyday teaching and learning practices have changed. Thesen and van Pletzen (2006) assert that meaning and learning in higher education are increasingly being expressed through literacies and textual forms other than written language. While Ivanič and Lea (2006) suggest that a consequence of the expansion of vocational and professional courses in higher education has been the reframing of what counts as knowledge in the academy. Students are therefore being required to demonstrate this knowledge through a diverse range of written and non-written assignment texts (Lea, 2013). The primacy given to written assignments, especially the essay, has therefore become somewhat dislodged. In vocational higher education settings, privileged assignment texts are those that bear a direct resemblance to the types of textual products produced in professional practice. My research looks at the vocational higher education context where these two trends are amplified and have particular consequences for assignment practices.
A significant characteristic of the vocational higher education environment is the stronger focus placed on the development of skills and knowledge directly related to the professional context. Thus the curriculum actively attempts to engage students with the kinds of professional practices associated with their future careers (see for example Pardoe, 2000). A key consequence of this requirement, to attend to professional knowledge and practice within the academic context, is that the manner in which learning is demonstrated is not limited to the traditional essay and assignments can include a range of written and non-written forms. This is especially the case in course environments where my research is located; the visual communication and media fields like film production, graphic design and multimedia. In these courses the assessments require students to produce the kinds of textual artefacts that are relevant and resemble those used in professional practice, for example, film clips, storyboards, posters, logos and websites. New Literacy Studies scholars, especially those aligned to the New London Group (2000) have provided the theoretical basis for the acknowledgement that language is merely one of the modes of communication, representation and meaning. Thus even within the traditional university context researchers have highlighted how academic writing is only part of a more varied range of the socially and culturally constructed language and communicative practices in higher education (Archer, 2006, 2008; Thesen,2006 and Thesen and van Pletzen, 2006). A prominent focus of the vocational higher education settings is the validation of the kind of texts privileged in the professional settings, which Lea and Stierer (2000) aptly note relies less significantly on the written forms and practices once dominant in higher education.
As a result of accommodating the professional environment and its knowledge, practices and texts, particular challenges and contestations have surfaced within the vocational higher education context. My research highlights the consequence, particularly for which literacy practices are given status in curricula and assessment, when professional and academic knowledge and practices are brought together in the educational context. These underpinning tensions have also been raised by academic literacies researchers like Archer (2006), Mitchell et al (2000) and Thesen (2001) who have highlighted the impact on assignment practices when students and lecturers have to manage course environments that rely on the construction of both written and other forms of assignment texts (Archer, 2006; Mitchell et al, 2000; Thesen, 2001). In certain instances the curriculum and pedagogic approaches have been able to harness and embrace the multimodal affordances of different textual practices and draw on the semiotic resources that students bring to the learning environment (see Archer, 2006). However, the challenge, as Mitchell et al found when researching the essay writing practices of dance students, remains that dominant or privileged literacy practices associated with writing continue to ‘function to legitimate…the conventions of the academic largely text-based institution’ (2000:90).
In my presentation I will illustrate how an academic literacies perspective has been generative for the exploration and understanding of how students in various vocational higher education visual communication and media courses produce their assignments. In particular I highlight how the concept of literacy practice can productively be used in a conceptual and analytical manner to explore and understand how meaning and learning is constructed and demonstrated in academic contexts where essayist literacies are merely one aspect of a wider, multimodal communication landscape. My presentation will also lay bare the continued tensions that exist between written and other textual modes. In particular I highlight the specific role of writing in this context, as a carrier for theoretical knowledge. This role reinforces and legitimates the sustained dominant position assigned to writing, and especially essay writing. A final consideration I raise through my presentation is the significance of theorising the specific context of vocational higher education, an area that is somewhat under-theorised by the academic literacies perspective. I propose a possible avenue through which such theorisation could be directed drawing on the curriculum theory of knowledge recontextualisation (Bernstein, 1996, 2000).
Archer, A., 2006. Change as additive: harnessing students’ multimodal semiotic resources in an Engineering curriculum. In L. Thesen & E. van Pletzen, (Eds). Academic literacy and the languages of change. London: Continuum, pp. 130–150.
Archer, A., 2008. Cultural studies meets academic literacies: exploring students’ resources through symbolic objects. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), pp. 383–394.
Bernstein, B., 1996. Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique. London: Taylor & Francis.
Bernstein, B., 2000. Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity: theory, research, critique. Revised Edition, Lanham, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Coleman, L., 2009. Student academic literacy practices in a South African vocational web design higher education course. Unpublished MRes dissertation. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Coleman, L., 2012. Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(3), pp.325–338.
Coleman, L., 2013. Literacy practice and curriculum context: exploring the production of assignments in a South African vocational higher education institution. Unpublished PhD. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Coleman, L., forthcoming. How drawing is used to conceptualise and communicate design ideas in Graphic Design: exploring scamping through a literacy practice lens. In Lillis, T; Lea, M.R; Mitchell, S and Harrington, K (Eds) Working with academic literacies: research, theory, design. United Kingdom: Parlor Press
Ivanič, R. & Lea, M.R., 2006. New contexts, new challenges: the teaching of writing in the UK higher education. In L. Ganobcsik-Williams, (Ed). Teaching academic writing in UK higher education. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillian, pp. 6–15.
Ivanič, R., & Satchwell, C., 2007. Boundary crossing: networking and transforming literacies in research processed and college course. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4,(1), pp.101–124.
Jacobs, C., 2005. “On being an insider on the outside: new spaces for integrating academic literacies”. Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4), pp.475–487.
Lea, M. R. & Stierer, B., 2000. Editors’ Introduction. In M. R. Lea & B. Stierer, (Eds). Student writing in higher education. New contexts. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University, pp. 1–13.
Lea, M. R., 2013. Reclaiming literacies: competing textual practices in a digital higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(1), pp. 106–118.
Lea, M. R., 2012. New genres in the academy: Issues of practice, meaning making and identity. In M. Castelló & C. Donahue, (Eds). University writing: Selves and texts in academic societies. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 93–109.
Mitchell, S., Marks-Fisher, V., Hale, L., & Harding, J., 2000. Making dances, making essays: Academic writing in the study of dance. In M. R. Lea & B. Stierer, (Eds). Student writing in the university: new contexts. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press, pp. 86-96.
New London Group, 2000. A pedagogy of multiliteracies. Designing social futures. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis, (Eds). Multiliteracies. London: Routledge, pp.9-36.
Satchwell, C. & Ivanič, R., 2007. The textuality of learning context in UK colleges. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 15(3), pp. 303–316.
Thesen, L., & Van Pletzen, E., 2006. Introduction: The politics of place in academic literacy work. In L.Thesen & E. van Pletzen, (Eds). Academic literacy and the languages of change. London: Continuum, pp. 1-29.
Thesen, L., 2001. Modes, literacies and power: a university case study. Language and Education, 15(2), pp. 132–145.
Thesen, L., 2006. Who owns this image? Word, image and authority in the lecture. In L Thesen & E. van Pletzen, (Eds). Academic literacy and the languages of change. London: Continuum, pp.151-179.
Academic literacies and the question of knowledge
In this seminar I will attempt to map the terrains of academic literacies work as it has evolved in South Africa. Drawing on the New Literacies Studies I will explore how academic literacies as a body of work defines itself in South Africa and the range of conceptualisations that inform such definitions. I will also explore how different contextual agendas drive academic literacies work, as well as the different frameworks that academic literacies work in South Africa draws on to theorise this field, and some of the premises underlying our thinking and informing our practices. Finally I will turn to the question of knowledge and its place in debates about how to develop academic literacies.
Facilitating access to academic literacy: insights from longitudinal research
This presentation draws on findings from two collaborative qualitative longitudinal studies which tracked the experiences of students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds over the course of their undergraduate years. Drawing on post-structuralist theories of literacy and identity, the presentation will describe and analyse a) how the participants interpreted their environments, b) the strategies they used to appropriate what they considered to be appropriate academic identities and c) how they re-positioned themselves over the course of their undergraduate years as they negotiated the ambivalence occasioned by the (often constraining) subject positions and ways of using language offered by their home and disciplinary discourses.
I will argue that the participants’ paths through the institution were non-linear, and that their complex (and sometimes traumatic) negotiations of multiple discourses were largely invisible. They were positioned by contradictory national policies around language and literacy, as well as competing institutional discourses around access, equity, graduation rates and the notion of excellence. Within their disciplines, they were often constructed as passive outsiders, and many of the instrumental approaches to English, literacy and learning that were acquired at school were reinforced by assimilationist and quick-fix approaches.
The longitudinal perspective of the research has enabled us to situate students’ language and literacy attitudes and practices in time and space, and to engage with the complexity of their learning journeys. The participants’ unfolding and changing perspectives on their first-year of university have also challenged our notions of the school to university transition. The presentation will end with a consideration of the implications of the findings of this research for the manner in which we conceptualise and situate academic literacy work at the first-year level, as well as how we facilitate students’ multiple transitions.