Fleshy Academic Literacy
Authors: Rob Garbutt, Southern Cross University
Meredith Kayess, Southern Cross University
Introduction: this paper and our method
Amongst other things, we both teach academic literacy. We applaud the way that, in a more democratic Australian higher education sector, universities no longer assume students come equipped with academic literacy. Instead resources are devoted to developing students’ skills in that area. Nevertheless, we struggle with depoliticised and deracinated versions of academic literacy that are purely operational, sucked of life to the point of dryness. In our teaching we aim to put academic literacy back in its context of a cultural practice that is far from normal: that as well as being learnt, deserves to be made strange and opened up to question. We are interested in people doing academic literacy as part of having a scholarly affair, of knowing its moves, its games: we wish to propose a fleshy academic literacy.
In this paper, then, we are interested in suggesting some renovations to academic literacy as “skills” and harness it for different ends. We ask: can academic literacy be better understood in terms of its cultural politics within the academy? Whether it is better conceptualised as practices and performances that are not only confined to academic products in response to assignments or as representations of our research, but are embodied? And whether academic literacy can be taught in ways that meet institutional needs by equipping students with the skills needed to navigate their studies, but also begins with and values students’ literacies and lived experiences, and thereby might offer an “irresistible invitation” to scholarship: a process of engaging with a scholarly comportment towards the world?
One answer in the midst of these questions, that calls us to write, is to propose a fleshy academic literacy as the ability to “read” the academy and to express oneself meaningfully within the academy. The paradox for us is that we also propose that the academy, and it is not unique in this, is not completely readable or expressible in words. The fleshiness of the academy exceeds a strict sense of literacy. Its body aims for such readability, but any legible surface tells a part of a story to which there are shadows, openings, twists and senses: illiterate expressions that refuse “reading” and “writing”. Thus, we use the term “academic literacy” through convention and because that is the literature we wish to engage with. We are cultural studies scholars who recognise this as a strategic position, but at the same time we are concerned with imposing a literacy which purports to be able to read and write the world it is about and emerges from, the academy. We are sceptical of viewing a world as entirely knowable through proliferating forms of “literacy”.
But this is not where we began. We began in the midst of practice, with a passion for practice, within the constraints of the early-twenty-first-century university in Australia. We began with a contract – a contract as casual employees to write a unit and teach a unit entitled Written Communication . For five years we have been teaching this core first year, first session unit, within the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University in regional Australia. It is a unit taken by students from degrees ranging from Psychological Science to Social Science to Arts and Humanities to the Creative Arts. It is a unit that some students leave till the end of their degrees if they can, postponing an engagement with the tedious world of academic writing. Most enter without excitement, subject once more to learning something that is good for one’s (student) health, as is a needed tooth extraction.
We begin here in part in order to establish our method. This paper arises out of practice, and together reflecting on practice. We could propose it as an instance of practice-led research, an appropriation from creative arts research. Such research emerges from “an enthusiasm of practice” (Haseman 100). In this instance, our academic literacy teaching practice began with an institutional desire for academically-literate students and we got swept up in that and the problems it raises. And from that, without research intent, we brought ourselves into, and were caught in, this flow of desire with our beliefs about tertiary education as critical and transformative: “A Freirian pedagogy […] based on a dialogical process of ‘learning with’ the other by constructing an ability to ‘speak one’s own word’ through critical literacy” (Robinson and Tormey 40, quoting Freire (1972)). This practice is largely the core of our methodology, however, there is a feedback loop that this paper represents: the feedback from thinking about our teaching practice, at first individually and also together in a series of free-flowing conversations; then a symposium presentation, which we could see as part of our own ongoing entanglement with, and learning about, academic literacy; then as a presentation back to the students taking Written Communication to engage with their take on this topic; then this paper; and then infusing classroom teaching with the ideas we are working on here. And around again. Thus as a piece of
practice-led research we might say there are two expressions resulting from the one situation: one expression is our teaching, the other this paper. Only the paper needs the other in order to make sense, though developing the paper is influencing, and now part of, our teaching. Theory and practice have become entangled, and throughout this paper we are attempting to show our practicing and our theorising together (Borgdorff 24–25).
In professional terms, these discussions are a form of peer-review of, and critical reflection on teaching: meeting around our teaching practice. But this peer-review does not take a path such as in action research, a typical method of the reflective practitioner (Schön). There are no patterned cycles of planning, doing, checking, and acting. Instead the method is much more free-flowing and open to circumstance. At the base is practice, that of two “teaching and research scholars” in the corporate university, set amidst a range of obligations, constraints and spaces of freedom. In this way, the life of practice is the pattern of our method. There are resonances in our research process with bricolage as method (Kincheloe, McLaren and Steinberg), however, the centrality of practice and our view that the events in the classroom are a research product, jointly produced with students, and that research products need not be confined to traditional written forms, leads us to side more with a practice-led description of what we are doing. From the midst of this milieu emerged the questions with which we began this introduction. But prior to those questions the main thing we grappled with was whether our cultural studies “backgrounds” brought something particular to our practice of writing and teaching Written Communication, and if so what that
was. We were also, as already mentioned, not enamoured with academic-literacy-as-skills. This emerged as the problem “what do we do when we do academic literacy, and how might we describe this object of our research”? Our practice-led method, we claim, both produces and engages meaningfully with, these problems.
The idea for writing together crystallised with a Call for Papers for the CSAA Intermezzo Symposium: Cultural Studies and the New Uses of Literacy at the University of New South Wales, April 4–5 2014. Between the call and the symposium we had about six months to meet and think about our teaching, as well as teach the unit we are thinking and writing about. During this time we swapped literature, started thinking, talked together, developed ideas, gave lectures and tutorials, marked assignments, created YouTube videos for distance students, engaged on unit discussion boards, managed the unit delivery. We summarised our conversations into a presentation running sheet. That running sheet structures this paper. Either of us could have written this paper and it
would be co-authored, but we have attempted to write together by drafting separate sections alone and then weaving them into a finished product. We were committed to thinking together, presenting together, writing together as core to our method. And then, it was a chance to enjoy time thinking about a practice we are stimulated by and enjoy talking about over a cup of tea. Just as with teaching, the paper is created around hospitality. This approach is an attempt to avoid “one’s own inevitably, because insular, point of view” (Bignall and Patton 10). Our desire to present the crux of this paper to students taking Written Communication is bound up in this commitment. It helps us create something through (limited) conversation with those around whom this whole enterprise is organised.
As you can tell, we circle around things quite a bit.
The situation: Written Communication and its context
Contexts are typically intended to describe the local situation and its connection with global flows. We have already said something about this in our introduction — teaching academic literacy in the academy, our dissatisfaction with “academic literacy” in its deracinated form, reflecting on classroom practice — however, here we will be a little more concrete about those local and global connections. To begin we wanted to start with two images.
Our first (Figure 1) comes from SCU Communications and Publications. The situation is intended to be clearly readable, and in terms of academic literacy we might “read” into the image such things as friendships, attention, discussion, textbooks and online content. The photograph is staged at the Gold Coast campus of SCU, one of the university’s three main campuses. The others are at Lismore and Coffs Harbour.
The second image (Figure 2) is taken during a Written Communication tutorial. Again we can read it, but in creating such an image our intention is also to depict the fleshiness of academic literacy, and in doing so point out that there is something unreadable and unsayable about this situation. As Deleuze points out there is no direct translation or tracing of what is visible and what is sayable about what we see (in Chow 65–66). What is visible opens onto a multisensorial space that words cannot totally dominate. We see contexts in this way. With that pre-amble, here is our context.
We teach at a twenty-year-old regional university in Australia. Our three main campuses are in the northeast corner of New South Wales and the borderlands of south-east Queensland. There are approximately 13,500 onshore students with nearly forty per cent learning via distance education (Southern Cross University). Students come to SCU for a range of reasons. Many live in the geographical “footprint” of the university and, as such, it is a university of convenience. Some will be here because they have not attained high school results that gain them entry to institutions with higher academic esteem. We are sometimes described as a “springboard” institution that students use to make the jump to those universities, should they demonstrate their ability to attain good grades. There are many other reasons of course. All come to access higher education.
What we might say is that Southern Cross University is part of the democratisation of tertiary education that opens access to “non-traditional students”. The language says a lot. In the School of Arts and Social Sciences, two-thirds of the students are the first in their family to come to university. The national figure is forty-eight per cent. Two-thirds are “mature-aged”, or over twenty-five years old, compared to twenty-one per cent nationally. And twenty per cent are from a low socio-economic status background measured by postcode, with fifteen per cent the average on a national basis (personal communication, SCU Planning, Quality and Review). We are unsure what the “traditional” student might look like in statistical terms, but the impetus for the increased focus in higher education on academic literacy is often explained as being a consequence of “non-traditional” students entering the academy (Black and Rechter 457). Students’ levels of academic literacy are constituted in terms of lack: a lack of skills, and a background lacking in the cultural capital of the academy. To fill the lack, thinking in terms of Freire’s (46) banking concept of mass education, universities have created a field called academic literacy; organisational groups are devoted to providing academic literacy, and units of study, or subjects, in academic literacy are created.
At Southern Cross University there is a specific organisational group that is charged with helping students develop their academic literacy, currently called Academic Skills Development. One of us, Meredith, teaches in that group. In addition, within a number of our degrees – the Media, Arts, and Social Science degrees are most relevant to us – there is a unit of study devoted to academic literacy. We have been and are involved in writing and teaching that unit, Written Communication. In this way, we, students, our institution, the academy and academic literacy are entangled in continual encounters in a very specific context that is also structured through large-scale forces.
We aren’t arguing that being explicit about academic literacy and its many aspects is a bad thing. We do wonder whether this development is really only about the needs of “non-traditional students” though, and whether students from a “traditional” background were and are equally perplexed by the academy’s ways. And we also resist the idea of students being constituted through a lack of skills when each comes to university with a fund of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll and Amanti) that is a starting point for engagement and development. In terms of debates over the pedagogy of academic literacy, Written Communication is an example of incorporating academic literacy into the curriculum, rather than leaving it for students to work out for themselves, or handing sole responsibility for academic literacy development to a specialist, central, unit within the university. Instead, academic literacy is viewed as having a specific disciplinary context, and that it is part of disciplinary knowledge (Black and Rechter 468). Written Communication is an integral part of the meal rather than an optional side order. Nevertheless, and to use yet another metaphor, the unit can be regarded by some colleagues as a one-time inoculation of “being-academic” rather than as part of an ongoing process of “becoming-academic” across the curriculum. Part of the “mission” that we develop in this paper is to view academic literacy as an ongoing and never complete process of becoming-academic that is common for all of us in the academy.
In our discussions on academic literacy and its practice, the question of where Written Communication came from, and, maybe, what conditions made it possible, made us acutely aware of units of study as accretions. An earlier unit, Learning Technologies in the Academy (1994 – 2007), had existed in a previous version of the Bachelor of Arts. The substance of this unit dwelt on the university as historical and as a “teaching machine” deploying learning technologies. Feminist theory pervaded the politics of the unit, however, “academic skills” were also a major component.
When the School of Arts and Humanities merged with the School of Social Science, the humanities focus of Learning Technologies became unsuitable for a large, school-wide academic literacy unit. Written Communication was developed as something of a compromise, with the pedagogical politics of the academy no longer the focus of the unit and instead, as the name implies, writing took this central place. The unit description promises it:
Introduces students to active practices of reading and writing, different forms of writing and critical reading strategies that will enable them to analyse and critique meanings in the written word. Reading and writing skills are introduced with a particular emphasis on critical thinking and essay writing as forms of academic practice.
In our discussions one revelation was the degree to which, despite the new content and intent, we had circled around in our practice to explicitly examine the academy, though now we less overtly examine the politics of the institution and instead take the academy as a contested cultural site. Fragments of Learning Technologies linger on. Nevertheless, we wondered if the previous unit, that was born of the daughters of May ’68, was too politically raucous for the conservative, neoliberal, vocationally-oriented academy of the late noughties in Australia.
Written Communication, then, is seen as more “practical” than Learning Technologies. The assessment is designed to scaffold the development of an argumentative essay. This form of essay is another compromise, and an accommodation of the linear argumentative needs of the social sciences, rather than the circling ways of the humanities. One strand of the assessment involves critical reading and constructing an annotated bibliography, while a second involves writing a paragraph, an essay plan and a completed essay. The content follows the Western historical and cultural development of writing, beginning with oral cultures and finishing with future literacies. A number of aspects of writing were also included in the content: censorship, jargon, rhetoric and persuasion, and writing across the disciplines. Assignments focus on readings related to this content.
As with many units at Southern Cross University, the delivery mode includes a distance education mode and an on-campus mode. All students work according to a Unit Information Guide that describes the unit, its weekly topics, and the assessment. Distance education students have a study guide that takes them through each topic, and access to online discussion fora with tutors who engage with them on the weekly topic, readings and each assessment task. Distance students also have access to recordings of lectures and YouTube videos where each assignment is introduced. On-campus students attend eight one-hour lectures and twelve two-hour tutorials as part of their structured learning. These take place on each of the three SCU campuses. As a unit, then, Written communication has many “faces” and students will experience it differently according to their geographical setting and attendance mode. There are many commonalities of course, however, we are acutely aware that what we discuss in this paper is Written Communication according to Meredith and Rob: a specific configuration of possible unit implementations. Most importantly, here we are discussing our on-campus implementation of the unit, a reflection on a configuration that enables us to fashion and discuss our ideas face-to-face with students who are engaged with “becoming-academic” on-campus.
Within these limits, Written Communication is, while critical, a unit that is relatively conservative in its politics. It fits comfortably in an increasingly instrumental and vocational tertiary education sector. Its focus on supporting students with academic literacy is easily seen as unquestionably “doing good”. And in being unquestionably good, a crack opens in the neoliberal institution. As critical cultural studies scholars, Written Communication presents a valuable sanctioned space that can be used for a more transformative and subversive agenda than intended: a space where the role of the academy in the twenty-first century can be examined; where the purpose of one’s education is open for discussion; where the operation of power in the production of knowledge invites an ethical enquiry; where students’ funds of knowledge from their past and present educational encounters can form a crucial basis for discussion and analysis of the “rules of the game” that govern daily practices in the academy (Tapp 324). Preceding this questioning is the work of facilitating learning environments that are hospitable and invite such questioning.
Written Communication in the flesh
The most concrete way of discussing what we think of as fleshy academic literacy, is to enter the classroom through a case example or two. In the following section Rob reflects upon two learning encounters via the lens of fleshy academic literacy. The examples are chosen because they are good illustrations. They are not necessarily typical of our classes, but are what we are aiming for. Both examples derive from the closer interaction of tutorials, where the topic of each week is discussed at some length.
Example 1: Walter Ong and the love of study
The first weekly topic in Written Communication is “Orality and Literacy” and uses an excerpt from Walter Ong’s 1980 book of the same name, now in its second edition. This reading is contrasted with chapter 1 of Kalantzis and Cope’s Literacies from 2012. For now, however, we concentrate on a short passage from Ong (8):
Language study in all but recent decades has focused on written texts rather than on orality for a readily assignable reason: the relationship of study to writing. All thought, including that in primary oral cultures, is to some degree analytic […] But abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not “study”. They learn by apprenticeship—hunting with experienced hunters, for example—[…] not by study in the strict sense.
The class discussion begins with Janis, a young woman of thirty who has decided, after a tumultuous life to date, to start a Bachelor of Arts. I hand the excerpt above around. “This is exactly what I hate,” says Janis. “Why does learning have to be about dry, impenetrable writing?” I have a sinking feeling but persist. “I know,” I empathise, “but let’s see how we go. It’s good to work with a text”. I’m a bit surprised by Janis, because I’ve forgotten what academic writing looks like to new students. We pull the words apart and put them back together. At first this hinges on that list of things: “abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of stated truths”. I use the example of light: how we might know the light in an embodied way, through going outside and feeling the heat of the (Australian) sun on our skin and its glare in our eyes. And then the example of an abstract explanation that could involve electromagnetic radiation and the nuclear physics of stars–of how that explanation, Ong claims, can only come through an ongoing written examination of the phenomenon of light.
It isn’t long, though, before the class turns to what this “study” business is all about, about what study is and what it isn’t. One student summarises our discussion in terms of “head learning” and “doing learning”, and this morphs into questioning why, later in the reading, “head learning”, seems to be valued by Ong over “doing learning”, or apprenticeship. The politics of knowledge production enters, as does a postcolonial critique, though the class does not use this word. At this point I bring in a little of the discussion on the same topic by Kalantzis and Cope, especially their ideas of “first language” cultures who have “synaesthetic civilisations” (27). And then we talk about academic conversations and how they develop as “sequential examinations”. What has happened in the thirty-five years between Ong’s writing and Kalantzis’ and Cope’s? Older members of the class contrast the general public’s awareness of Indigenous Australian cultures in 1980 and now, and wonder whether we should judge Ong harshly for what would be regarded in contemporary Australia as racially-biased ideas.
And as conversations do in tutorials, someone starts to reflect on what we are doing: how we are discussing a reading in a circle; how we are enjoying the written and the oral together. How we can draw on each others’ knowledge, and what a privilege this is, how rare this is, this space for slow and thoughtful discussion. “Yeah,” says Janis, “I know this sounds a bit new age-y, but I feel like it’s about the love in this circle”. Now that is why I recorded this discussion in my notes. This is the same Janis who started with a visceral outpouring against impenetrable academic writing. Love? Who talks of love in a tutorial. “Love Janis?” I question. “Yeah, you know,” she replies, “like, taking care and stuff.”
Somehow we have taken care of Ong and taken care with Ong. He has provoked us and we have needed to learn to read him. Slowly. Judging his attitudes harshly, then finding measures of “forgiveness”. From productively engaging with the text, slowly, in a circle, develops a sense of what we are doing here at university when we say we are studying. This was unexpected, though seems obvious in retrospect. In the tutorial planning I intended that we would be breaking the code of meaning in the passage, and I would model close reading, not begin an enquiry into study. Such happy but unexpected outcomes are cause for joy. I don’t think, for a moment that in this instance we in the tutorial group have “cracked” the code of study, but I do feel like the enquiry has
begun. Not only have we broached the topic of study, and started to wonder about a word that is taken for granted, but also we have started to think about reading: reading as entering into a scholarly conversation that runs, in this instance, between Ong and Kalantzis and Cope. We have engaged with difficult language that began by provoking disgust and ended with feeling love. This is the fleshy academic literacy of affect: this is not just about skills. And when it comes to skills of study, we might propose to Ong that there is something of an apprenticeship going on here, the doing of study together that does not separate head from shoulders, is not an isolated individuated endeavour, but is marked by complex “intra-actions” (Karen Barad in Dolphijn and van der Tuin 55) between scholars, texts, and the subjects and objects of study.
Example 2: “What are we doing here?”
It is week five of a thirteen-week session of study. The nerves and excitement of the first few weeks are over, the first assignment has been submitted and marked. The routines are becoming established. This is a week when taking stock of where we have been and where we are going comes to the fore.
Marciano comes to me in the ten-minute break between lecture and tutorial to request an extension on the second assignment. That dealt with I ask how he is going: “I’m just not sure what we are doing here,” he says. That is just a summary of his concerns. We discuss this a little. I have some standard routine responses to run in such situations. Then I go for my usual between lecture and tutorial walk to recompose myself and prepare for the move from one teaching mode to the next. On “gut instinct” I decide to discard my planned tutorial and come back to Marciano’s question as a class discussion. When I return I quietly ask Marciano if he would be willing to repeat to the class some of what he said privately to me in the break. “Yeah, OK. I think I can hold back the tears”. A pause. “Only joking”. But I have a clear sense of the emotion that accompanies the concerns. I hadn’t noticed this before.
And so Marciano kindly says a few words and finishes with “I’m just not sure what I’m doing here”.
The group of about eighteen students responds to this provocation in large-group discussion over the next forty-five minutes. The feelings vary. Some are excited by the class and what they are learning, others similarly feeling lost, or biding time, but no longer alone in that. Questions begin and I answer as best I can. “Why is Written Communication compulsory?” “Why does our degree include core units? Who decides what is good for us?” I tell them about non-traditional students, about participation rates at university and the workforce needs of a neoliberal “knowledge” economy, and how “academic literacy” is seen as important in this context.
Then there are the questions about becoming-academic. “The lectures are interesting but sometimes I understand only a third of what you say. The rest is like another language.” We talk about learning languages, about scholarly performances, about writing like a scholar and writing with one’s own voice. “But don’t we have to sound academic in what we write?” We discuss imitation and authenticity, about “being a good student” and “being ourselves”.
And eventually we come to the Humanities and its continual questioning, even a question such as “Why am I here doing Written Communication?” which is sort of where we started. “Why is everything up for questioning all the time? It does my head in.” And at the risk of exhaustion I point out that that is a question in itself that we could now discuss. The class is split on this.
We move on to the topic of the week which revolves around whether there is a place for critical literacy in early childhood education. Only fifteen minutes left to discuss it. We run over and take thirty. The class has opened up and a bridge seems to have been built and crossed: that bridge of group-ness and trust. Stories of learning as a child, of students’ children’s experiences, of race and disability, tumble across each other: of the world we are born into and our individual spirit, of performing gender, of early lessons on learning to be a good student.
And we circle back to the performance of being a scholar, the frustration that wells up at continually questioning, the tears that almost flow when less than half of what is being said is understood, of sitting through that and coming back for more week after week, of language acquisition by immersion, of the discipline of sitting still, of concentration, of how “the library freaks me out”, of emulating scholarly yabbering rather than writing in one’s own words, of confidence in the routines of the institution and its forms of evaluation, of doing things that aren’t exactly what one wants to do, of the joy that arises when “this topic is actually interesting” or the despair when “I’m not sure I want to major in psychology anymore. It’s not what I thought it would be about.” “These feelings are hard, this stuff is hard, but I thought it was just me. I’m not alone.”
This tutorial discussion is what a unit such as Written Communication can do, that any unit can do, but that Written Communication legitimates by being about academic literacy as an everyday encounter and an object of scholarly attention: a “communal practice of raising […] consciousness” (Giardina and Newman 183). This consciousness raising is not confined to the individual but becomes knowledge we share in making together, even if each takes their individual meanings from it. I finish the discussion by sharing some of this research paper with them: We are here to learn academic skills in context, and to “try on” a comportment towards the world as humanities scholars, to develop an embodied sense of what that is, a sense of belonging in this place, and an understanding of the game. We have the privilege to be here to develop this knowledge for our own purpose and for those we care about. Becoming-scholar is something I struggle with to this day, in many situations, such as throwing out a tutorial plan and heading into a space I’m not in total control of (which is why I’m wrapping this up as if I knew the destination all along). I still wonder if I’m a “real academic”. Our aim is to be as aware as we can of the performance, the game, the power plays, and what is important to us.
The class finishes and it feels like a transformative moment. Which is another way of saying that it was, for me.
For fleshy academic literacy, with some qualifications, and concluding
It is because of this potential of Written Communication, when brought into relationship with a pedagogical approach that is both critical and informed by cultural studies, that we have come to see academic literacy, taught as skills, as in need of renewal. Perhaps this is not something that would be shared across the disciplines. Perhaps ours is an approach to academic literacy that is only of interest to cultural studies or Humanities scholars. But putting these uncertainties aside, we argue that academic literacy is never just about skills but always about the production and embodiment of an identity, about performances, about practices that are worth examining.
From our discussions about fleshy academic literacy with students we know that skills are at the core of their concerns, and from our colleagues we get the same message. Loud and clear. Our mission must be to begin the development of the academic literacy skills students need to at least function in the university environment, if not prosper. However, as with functional definitions of literacy that ignore an analysis of power relations and leave the status quo unquestioned, so too we argue that academic literacy must be open to question: that the forms of essay we teach, indeed the forms of referencing, the way of writing that privileges the third person, are understood as having a politics to them, even if the politics is incompletely understood; that the rules of the game have been created for a reason that is not neutral, and privilege rationality and positivism though we might not use those words straight away. And this leads us to open up the politics of the classroom, of the construction of courses and units even when this is uncomfortably exposing our own complicity in these pedagogical decisions. And finally this leads us to acknowledge with students that the discipline of scholarship is not only of the mind but also of the body. Our examples have been drawn from tutorials on-campus, however, we also argue that students’ scholarly embodiment is as much a function online as face-to-face. Academic literacy is an aspect of becoming-scholar that is never finally achieved: it is part of the doing of the scholarly identity. These aspects of academic literacy, from its skills to its politics to its embodiment, deserve discussion so that students understand the ways the academy is calling them into a new performance of self.
Having made a case for the importance of, and need for, a fleshy academic literacy, we want also to point out the knottiness, slippages, and tensions that characterise our attempts to flesh out academic literacy in the first year core unit Written Communication. We understand for example, that as educators we are implicated in that which we hope to change, and our desire to be change agents may not necessarily be appreciated by all students. We are also keen not to render either the figure of cultural studies practitioner, or cultural studies pedagogical approaches, as inherently subversive. Instead, exploring some of the tensions and slippages we have encountered may offer more promising terrain.
Strangely, it may be the very “insideness” of cultural studies that lends it a particular utility when teaching academic literacy to new students in the Humanities. As Ien Ang (433) recently noted, cultural studies has become an essential part of the Humanities, and is “first and foremost an academic practice, making its impact in academic contexts”. In terms of fleshy academic literacy, it is the very insideness of cultural studies, its status as an intellectual community, rather than its credentials as a “radical project” (Ang 433) that seems to make it useful, at least in the context of Written Communication. As a core unit for the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Written Communication plays an important role inducting students into their studies in the Humanities. While the unit does not explicitly teach cultural studies theory it does use some elements of cultural studies pedagogy by framing writing as a cultural practice shaped by historical and cultural contexts and caught up in power relations. In this way, the insideness of cultural studies as an academic practice affords opportunities for students to perform ways of thinking and talking about topics common to performances of academic literacy in the Humanities. In this instance at least, it is not the “radical project” of cultural studies, or its “otherness” that is significant. Its imbrication in the Humanities makes it a valuable approach when teaching fleshy academic literacy in our School.
Understandably perhaps, we have witnessed slippage between our goals as educators, and those of students who are mostly the first in their family to attend university. We, as cultural studies practitioners, aim to make conventions, norms, and expectations within the unit, course, and university explicit, and facilitate learning opportunities that scaffold students’ performances of academic literacy, and help them navigate their studies with a sense of the game at play. In conversation with students in the unit it quickly became apparent that familiarity with a new learning context, and becoming academically literate enough to comply with expectations are key priorities during a student’s first session of study. At least, this is our sense of things, but we have not surveyed the students to ascertain their experiences and opinions. That our goals do not align with students’ is not necessarily a surprise, or even a cause for concern. Our investment, as educators, in opening spaces to make academic practices strange is part of our own cultural studies project.
Recognising the mismatch between our own goals and those of students does present us with an opportunity to articulate the contours and limits of our role and impact as educators. Our narrative, especially through the examples we have given, may position us as the heroes of transformation, when we recognise that any transformative moment of learning, indeed any moment of learning, involves a world of actors beyond and within the academy from classroom colleagues, to friends, acquaintances, other lecturers, the radio, and we could go on. Cultural studies’ pedagogical strength has been to acknowledge that the “everyday culture of students” (Turner 465) when combined with tools for understanding the everyday can be transformative. The transformation occurs in the in-between spaces, while the narrative tendency of cultural studies to proclaim itself as a “radical practice with the aim to change the world” (Ang 433 citing Grossberg) can lead us to place ourselves, as educators, in the central hero’s role.
In teaching academic literacy in Written Communication there is also the risk of reproducing power relations we aim to trouble, and our invitation to engage in scholarly conversation could congeal into the prioritisation of compliance with academic conventions. Assessment tasks in the unit facilitate quite traditional performances of academic literacy, including an essay plan and argumentative essay. In this way at least, the unit invites students to repeatedly perform specific academic writing practices which prioritise articulation of a linear writing structure and logical argument. However, repetition does more than reinforce and reproduce existing practices, power relations, and norms, it sows the seeds of change. Repeating academic practices and conventions also opens them up to change. Fraser and Valentine (166) ask “is repetition ever just repetition?” Every time we repeat academic practices and enact performances of academic literacy, elements of change are introduced. Repetition is never perfect. When students in Written Communication generate their essays they vary significantly from each other, and from any idealised performance of an argumentative essay. This is one small example of the way academic literacy is constantly becoming, always being made and re-made, or performed and re-performed in varying contexts. It is not that academic literacy and its teaching in Written Communication is somehow free of cultural politics, but rather, repetition is an engine for both reproduction and change (Fraser and Valentine). Academic literacy is neither fixed nor coherent, and as students and academics repeatedly perform academic literacy they shape it, as it in turn shapes them.
These caveats aside, we propose developing academic literacy beyond skills into an irresistible invitation for students and educators alike. This invitation begins by noticing with students, the life, routines, rules and practices that are part of attending university. It begins, in other words, by attending to the politics of the everyday university culture in which we are immersed. This everyday cultural focus is, we have argued, an orientation that cultural studies can contribute to academic literacy scholarship and pedagogy. We have formulated the term “fleshy academic literacy” to describe this everyday, contextualised and embodied notion that values academic literacy as a form of academic cultural capital that does more than help meet expectations for assignments or representations of research. Fleshy academic literacy opens the way for discussion of the expectations, the politics of the academy and the power relations at play, where academic literacy is not siphoned off to specialised units but viewed as integral to becoming an aware scholar within the context of a disciplinary space. Fleshy academic literacy makes strange what we do in the academy. At the centre of these strange practices, these flows of power, is an embodied and enquiring person, who finds herself or himself entangled with others and objects of study in the life of an institution built not for them but for purposes of knowledge creation and legitimation. Within this context, fleshy academic literacy describes a set of practices, performances, feelings, and the comportment towards the world of a becoming-scholar for whom these very things are objects of critical examination. In the flesh.
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About the Authors
Dr Rob Garbutt is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Written Communication at Southern Cross University. His research interests focus on the intersection of place, identity and belonging, as well as pedagogy and cultural studies. His first book, The Locals was published with Peter Lang in 2011, and in 2014 Rob was on e of five co-authors of Inside Australian Culture published by Anthem.
Meredith Kayess works in Academic Skills Development at Southern Cross University supporting students as they make the transition into university studies, and is lucky enough to occasionally tutor in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at SCU.