Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional

Author(s) Janet C. Richards, Sharon K. Miller
Publisher Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc,US
Published 2005
Pages 256
Price £13.18
ISBN 0805848401
Reviewed by Mr Jonathan Tummons
York College
Review published 15 January 2007

In my work as a teacher educator for the learning and skills sector, I often work with trainees (as the DfES likes us to call them) who find it more or less easy to write academic essays and reports. Sometimes, though by no means always, this is a reflection of their prior academic careers. More often, it is simply because of the particular academic writing requirements of the teacher training programme itself. Teacher training, and education studies more generally, require trainees to write in a number of different genres, frequently drawing on their professional lives. And this is not always a straightforward process. The use of the first person, for example during a passage of reflective writing, is discombobulating for some. For others, the use of an impassive third person voice takes time to acquire.

I subscribe to a view of literacy as being socially situated (the New Literacy Studies) and therefore found this book illuminating and encouraging. Taking the specific writing requirements of a range of student writers in education as their focus, Richards and Miller have produced a convincing and informative account of some of the tribulations and triumphs that these student writers encounter. This book convinces because it is so thoroughly rooted in the personal experiences of these writers: the different strands of the book are illustrated with a rich variety of examples, and the different writers involved reflect both honestly and critically on their own progress as they encounter a range of writing genres: reflective writing; dissertations; articles for publication. In addition, a number of case studies are used to explore the different stages of the writing process, eschewing a transferable study skills approach (at no time is it suggested that if you can write in one context or genre, then you can automatically write in another) in favour of a number of pen portraits that are used to provide broad, though by no means proscriptive, categories of writer. Through these personal texts, Richards and Miller construct a broader narrative that takes us, as readers, through the ups and downs of writing.

So far so good. The real question is: what to do with the book? At one level, I feel inclined to recommend it to several of the trainees that I work with. It has an encouraging tone, facilitated by the language register of the book as a whole (always friendly, avoiding excessive academic jargon) and by the writers whose pen portraits illuminate the text (many of whom are far from traditional undergraduate or graduate writers, if it can be said that there is such a thing). Any book that challenges the view that simply assuming that trainees who have (varied) experiences of academic writing can transfer these skills into the context of an education course without problems, is to be welcomed. And the overall voice of the book, personal and situated in the real world, is highly accessible. But many trainees simply do not have the time needed to add yet another book to their reading lists: like it or not, the pressure to meet the next assessment deadline leads many trainees to approach their reading from a highly selective and strategic point of view, and the relevance of the work done by Richards and Miller may not be apparent.

For teacher educators in the post-16 sector, this book has a more immediate relevance. As qualifications in the sector undergo another period of revision, driven by both the new professional standards published in December 2006 by LLUK and by the consequent introduction of literacy and numeracy testing for trainee teachers, anything that supports teacher educators to support, in turn, their own trainees is to be welcomed. Teacher educators are not necessarily literacy specialists and are not always comfortable in providing meaningful study support to trainees who themselves have to provide literacy support to their own learners. So what this book provides is a resource that teacher educators, and perhaps other lecturers and tutors working with “non traditional undergraduates”, can draw on in their own practice.

The other thing that this book provides is a coherent and persuasive account of reading and writing that stresses the situated nature of both practices. The academic writers in this book are graduate students and practitioner-researchers in a variety of education contexts. The world in which they are working and writing is vividly portrayed and provides a more compelling read than the generic study skills manuals that tend to be relied on by both tutors and learners. There is a cautionary note to be drawn, though: this is a specifically transatlantic context, and some expressions may cause a little confusion (“freshman”, “elementary school”, “first-grade”), but this is a relatively minor complaint. Overall, this is an honest, refreshing and informative collection of narratives, and recommended for both students, if time permits, and tutors.