University writing groups provide an unexpected space for change

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By   Kirstin Wilmot, PhD Candidate at University of Sydney and Sioux McKenna, Director of PG Studies & Higher Education Studies PhD Co-ordinator at Rhodes University


In a seminal paper on what constitutes quality in education, scholars Lee Harvey and Diana Green argue that a “quality education” is one in which a student experiences a “personal transformation” as a result of enhancing and empowering mechanisms.

They claim that students are “enhanced” when they are positioned at the centre of the learning and assessment process, and are “empowered” through being involved in the decision-making around their own transformation.

Such transformation conversations, especially in African contexts, almost always include contested debates on curriculum. Notably, scholars have highlighted how the problem is not only what universities teach – that is, the curriculum – but also the way they teach it. This refers to ways of teaching that can sufficiently engage with and problematise “normal” practices in higher education spaces.

So the question becomes: what can universities do to enhance both personal and curriculum transformation?

We set about answering this question in a study about university writing groups. These groups are inspiring and empowering spaces run by and for students. Here, students use feedback from peers to develop their writing practices. It’s a collaborative and collegial environment.

Writing groups might also have unexpected benefits for transformation, as our research has shown. In South Africa, calls for the decolonisation of university practices and curriculum have dominated transformation conversations. Writing groups provide a space where students can learn and engage with these complex issues.

Our study focused on a writing group programme at a research-intensive university in South Africa. Data from the initial pilot programme as well as the 13 current groups were collected through anonymous reviews and interviews with participants. The groups are multidisciplinary in composition although we made a general divide between the Natural Sciences and Humanities. Each group consists of between six and eight students with meetings co-ordinated by a PhD student or post-doctoral fellow.

Our findings show that writing groups can play a key role in transforming students by providing a space where their own “voice” can be developed in their writing. Developing a sense of voice is a difficult part of academic writing and takes a lot of practice. The regular, constructive and encouraging feedback from peers and the long-term, ongoing interaction provides a consistent and supportive network that students value. This suggests steps towards transformation in both the way we teach academic writing and the individual student’s writing practices.

We found that the collegial “safe space” offered by writing groups allows for students’ emotional well-being to be actively supported by a committed community of scholars. Being untied from evaluation, students can engage freely without risk of judgement. Writing groups are also seen to provide a space for students to experiment with, and explore their changing identities.

Altering practice

The teaching structure of writing groups is also important; these are not “top-down” spaces. Rather, they are organised, maintained and led by the students themselves; creating an egalitarian setting where students can develop their practices in a flexible, supportive environment.

But perhaps of most interest was the ways in which the writing groups also played a key role in transforming practice.

Multidisciplinary groups are particularly useful for making disciplinary practices explicit to students because they highlight how academics in different subjects write in different ways.

Challenging and negotiating the choices made in their writing exposes students to how writing reflects disciplinary norms and values – that is, particular ways of being and doing in academia. This enables students to start recognising that there is not only one way of “doing”. It incites them to start challenging the norm.

For example, Natural Science writing tends to be more objective and detached. Humanities tends to be more subjective, with claims being justified according to the theoretical perspective being used. The differences in the kinds of knowledge being made in different fields plays out in myriad differences in style and tone.

Writing groups also provide a space where many of the “rules of the game” of academia became revealed to students. They provide invaluable opportunities for these different rules and conventions to be debated, unpacked and challenged by students in ways that standard learning platforms or teaching spaces cannot achieve to the same degree.

Questioning and challenging

Our research suggests that writing groups provide an ideal space where personal transformation can occur. They not only provide support for student writing through feedback activities, they also put the onus of writing support back into the hands of the students themselves. This enhances students by putting them at the centre of decision-making around their learning and empowering them to take a proactive approach in their development and transformation into academic scholars.

While writing groups are not a panacea for the complex academic literacy challenges students face in transforming university contexts, they can and do play a valuable role in providing a transformative space for postgraduate students to learn, question and challenge.