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Papers from the Colloquium

Theme 2: Identity, Language and Writing
Dr Colleen McKenna, UCL

In my response, I’d like to address three ideas of Prof Mathews and in the spirit of the main theme of the colloquium I’m going to make a transition to writing in and into universities, thinking about conventional notions of student writing as well as communication in online environments. The three ideas are – the metaphor of the frame, identity and dialogue . Within these, I’d like to raise questions about how student writers (and academic writers generally) experience transition.

The metaphor of the frame

Writing is the primary way we make and share knowledge, express understanding and the medium by which academics and certainly students are usually judged. In many ways, as Lea and Street have argued, writing is inseparable from students' intellectual development (Lea and Street 1999).

And yet anyone who has ever moved across disciplines (and I’m aware that a number of people in this audience have done so) will be aware that different subject frames are in operation – such that writing practices valued in one discipline may be at the very edge of the canvas or indeed completely outside the frame in other subjects. And there are not just subject frames which determine in part how students engage with writing but also institutional ones (in higher education the essay and exam writing are examples) and increasingly spatial ones (as in online spaces).

So I would wish to ask - are the practices within these frames (and possibly the frames themselves) invisible while simultaneously being critical to an understanding of how to engage with a subject?

Theresa Lillis has examined the "language "of disciplines and suggests that the discourse of academic writing is often "hidden" yet taken as being " given" (and certainly not as being ‘constructed’). She refers to this as the "institutional practice of mystery" arguing that academic who have been “socialised” into essayistic writing are familiar with it but that students – particularly those engaged in certain types of transition-making are often very unsure about conventions and how to go about developing an academic voice.

Lea and Street who have also explored in their important work in academic literacies have advocated the building of bridges between where students are coming from and what the discipline demands.

It’s worth acknowledging that writing can be framed differently within disciplines. Psychology students, for example, may find that they are expected to communicate in a sort of scientific discourse in some contexts and social science discourse in others. I'm currently collaborating with academics and students in an intercalated BSc in International Health-where we've been exploring the shift they're making from years of scientific medical writing to a more social science discourse informed by politics, sociology and economics. Part of what we are exploring is what it means to write critically in this new discipline, what constitutes evidence and analysis, and what are the written shapes that are expected. Such transitions would seem to be both stimulating and also anxiety-inducing for the students.

Where in HE do we address what it means to write differently across or within disciplines and between institutions? Do we need a language – or at least a space - to talk about what is inside the frames if we are going to engage in inter (or trans) disciplinary writing?

But this is not to say that the dominant modes in which writing is framed should be seen as fixed or unable to be challenged. As Jonathan Monroe observes in Writing and Revising the Disciplines, accepted forms of writing often change as new theoretical approaches or practices become prominent. Think back on your own discipline 30 or 40 years ago. It’s quite likely that what passes for successful academic scholarship has changed considerably, as Toni suggested yesterday.

And so, on the one hand while our writing is often a product of the field in which we’ve worked, it can also be a site of challenge to that field. Writing of Stephen Jay Gould (shortly before his death), Monroe says that

‘the place he is … carving out for his ideas within his chosen field is inseparable from the ways geology as a field has been written, the stories it has told itself, the myths and metaphors that have shaped it from both inside and outside. He is aware at the same time of the difficulty of revising the dominant stories, and of the necessity of doing so to keep the field and its writing (which he understands as virtually one and the same) alive.”

Writing is thus a site of creative struggle within disciplines as well as across them.

Finally, what about the ways in which writing is spatially framed and the ways in which transitions are made from paper to screen.

  • How does one produce an academic argument in a non-linear, hypertext space? (My colleague Claire McAvinia and I explored this issue with great interest last term with student on a course we run.)
  • How do text and image (and sound and video) interact in meaning making?
  • How is identity constructed in online spaces? Sian Bayne at Edinburgh is doing very interesting work on students’ construction of self in virtual learning environments.
  • What is writing like when multiple voices interact in online conferencing spaces? Again, Mary Lea has argued that that knowledge construction happens differently in online environments than in other academic written forms.

So, I certainly think movement into cyberspace is another exciting site of transition in terms of writing, language and identity.

Writing and identity

How does the student writer develop an academic (or disciplinary) voice? How does any writer construct a textual identity? To what extent is this linked to one’s other conceptions of identity.

The past five years have seen several important studies in the area of student writing and identity. Ivanic (1998) considers "discoursal constructions" of identity (that is, the way a writer conveys a sense of self in written texts) with particular reference to adult learners. Lillis (2001), also researching adult learners in HE, offers a critique of current discourses on academic writing, arguing that they often undermine a widening participation aim because they ignore the range of cultural and social experiences students bring to their academic writing. In other words, there’s some research that suggests that awareness of a link between writing and identity might help enable certain types of transition.

Taking another perspective… work that I’m currently engaged in with Dr Ann Evans of the Eastman Dental Institute , has looked, in part, at how Oral and Maxillofacial surgeons responded to the introduction of reflective writing (about their surgical practice) into their MSc programme. One participant spoke of the merging of the ‘human’ and the ‘surgeon’ through the act of reflective writing – “you are a surgeon and at the same time you are a human being. It puts together the human aspect of you as a surgeon in what you're doing.”

And I think that this way in which writing and identity might be usefully linked is increasingly an area of exploration in medical writing.


When it comes to writing - in both printed and online forms - dialogue between writer and audience is everything. To quote the literary theorist MM Bakhtin:

I give myself verbal shape from another’s point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is a territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor.

So in other words, thinking about the influence of readers upon academic texts is very potent, not least because, as Bakhtin also tells us, dialogues are inscribed by power relationships which have a significant impact on what can and is written; this is certainly the case in student-tutor relationships as well as in many situations where writers are moving across boundaries.

So – framing, identity and dialogue…

These issues come into play at various times when we write - but they are particularly acute at points of transition – whether into the university, out of the university, across subject boundaries (and even within) and, increasingly, into new spaces such as online environments.


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