IATEFL 2012: Developing academic writing skills at MA level

As I’m currently doing my MA and finding the academic reading and writing absolutely hell, I decided to devote my time in the second session timeslot to selfish pursuits, and I’ve just got out of Clare Furneaux’s talk on developing academic writing skills at MA level.

Also on a personal note, Clare Furneaux taught my BA module on ALLT (Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching), way back when I didn’t think I ever wanted to be a teacher and only took them module because I disliked the alternative options more.  I was pleased to see that, while the 2012 me has come along way, the 2012 Clare hadn’t changed that much – i.e. she still gives talks like a stand-up on speed.  I love her speaking and presenting style.  Very interesting, clear and intelligent information is mixed with humour and wit and makes for a very enjoyable session.

Here’s my round-up of some moments and points from her talk that I found particularly interesting/insightful, or which I identified with:

– She updated her slides after Underhill’s sesh this morning: writing is a MESS, not a difficulty.

– Writing is horrible – anyone who thinks they like writing is a LIAR!

– Students on master’s programmes have often been out of study for quite some time.  Coming back to this kind of work is often not wholly enjoyable.

– Product and process writing is covered by EAP.

– Academic literature seen as social activity.  But our students do NOT, contrary to our beliefs, want to join a discourse community of which we are part.  They mostly do not want to do a doctorate, do not want to be lecturers, do not want to join a community of academic practice!

– It’s important to TALK through writing with students – Clare’s research sometimes found that “what we thought they thought, they didn’t think!”  Unfortunately, in researching what was going on between tutors and students when it came to writing performance and feedback, she found absolutely no commonality in the results.

– TOPIC in writing is really important – students don’t have the luxury of time to keep changing.  Choose a topic, then stick to it.

– Students are often TERRIFIED of plagiarism.  We need to get beyond this – yes, talk about it, but also need to understand how to read other people’s work and develop it into your own.  Synthesis is also very important – not beads on a string (so-and-so said this, what’s-his-name said this, etc.).

– “New ideas” in MA writing don’t need to be new THEORIES!  MA students’ experience is their unique selling point.  It’s OK for them to bring this into their writing.  But just generally, this issue of what content is acceptable in an essay is frightening for students.

– Genre is also really problematic.  Showing students examples of academic writing gives them a model, but actually universities want students to write in their own way, ‘run in their own direction’.

– Students’ getting feedback on OUTLINES (if this is possible) is very useful, even if/though they haven’t done all their reading yet.  It gives them a guide as to what direction they’re going in, how they’re thinking about the topic.

– Students often neglect the reader!  They often write to meet the criteria, answer the topic, and so on – but don’t consider the reader.  Clare says this is tutors’ fault (at least in her study).  None of them said in feedback “I couldn’t understand this part” or “I found this unclear” except for one tutor, who used it to mitigate negative comments (e.g. “I wonder if you could…”) etc.

– Morals to Clare’s story (or what I want to remember when doing my MA essays):

1. get feedback on outlines

2. draw on own experience

3. synthesise but don’t plagiarise

4. the READER is very important

My stance remains what it was at the beginning of Clare’s talk – I hate academic writing!  I can’t wait for it to be over.  For me, it ruins the learning experience – I would much rather orally discuss the academic issues than discuss them in writing.

But the points I took out from Clare’s talk (summarised above, obviously) reassured me that I think I’m already mostly doing these things and will hopefully get out of the experience alive & with decent marks!

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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