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Academic literacies and disciplinary knowledges: in search of a shared ontology

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Sherran Clarence

on 21 May 2015

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Transcript of Academic literacies and disciplinary knowledges: in search of a shared ontology

A snapshot of 3 disciplines
Anthropology confronts the challenge of culture in a diverse contemporary social world,
seeking ways to
understand the different perspectives, values and experiences of people and communities of divergent
. Without this ability to comprehend where other people are “coming from”, the hope for
active, creative solutions to social problems
– be they managing diversity in the workplace or developing
social policies that best suit changing needs – will remain unfulfilled. Anthropology seeks to contribute
to these solutions by a
sking questions that are not generally asked, eliciting the profound complexity of
ordinary life and common sense and the ways these impact on relationships

Unlike the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like engineering and computing which prepare students for broad
careers in similar fields, Anthropology enables you to create your own niche of expertise by helping you to develop your fields of interest.
Anthropology qualifies students for almost any job that requires intelligence, critical thinking and the ability to ind information
. Anthropologists are useful to prospective employers because they are able to draw on
comparative information about societies across the globe to challenge conventional wisdom and therefore to provide creative alternatives
. (UCT 2015 Handbook)

Critical and social realism
CR: depth ontology - essentially means it has the tools to 'clear away the cobwebs' and look beneath the surface to ask what tendencies, mechanisms or structures exist to cause what we see and experience on the surface
What is 'academic literacy/ies'?
Two 'definitions' to bring together:

1.Lillis and Scott (2007):
'critical field of inquiry' - own epistemology and ideology

2. Lea (Lea and Street, 1998):
'heuristic' - tool for thinking about pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, in HE
AcLits practitioners are often disciplinary 'outsiders' (for a range of reasons). This can be a useful and even powerful position in terms of 'seeing' the discipline differently to those for whom it is no longer 'strange' (Trowler). BUT, it can also push us towards vagueness, genericism, and disempowerment if we cannot 'speak' the discipline with lecturers and tutors for whom the specific is more valuable than the generic and the vague.
Academic literacies and disciplinary knowledges: in search of a shared ontology
Three strands I want to pull together here:
We need to be BOLD, but how?
Legitimation Code Theory
SR translation tools: conceptual and theoretical - focused on knowledge and knowing, and on disciplinarity
Sherran Clarence
CHERTL, Rhodes University

It is NOT:
- individual stand-alone courses trying to remediate students' 'lack' of literacy
- tools and skills that can be dicretely 'imparted' to students for them to use in a range of disciplinary contexts
- generic, value-free or simple
Strand 1:
Cecilia Jacobs (2013)
- Call for a shared ontology in AcLits work in SA - in face of 'fragmented', 'chaotic', 'untheorised' work that is often overly context bound
- suggestion that placing (disciplinary) knowledges at the centre of our work could be a step towards a shared ontology
Strand 2:
Lillis and Scott (2007)
- need for AcLits to be clearly defined and marked out - what is it and what is its work - critical field of inquiry with own epistemology and ideology: literacies as social practices, and transformative rather than normative ideology
- need to be far more focused in our work on being critical in the shift from the normative (socialisation) to the transformative (literacues)
Strand 3:
McLean, Ashwin and Abbas (2013)
- Disciplinary knowledge and ways of knowing shows greatest potential in terms of transforming the ways students see themselves as social actors/agents, and the ways in which they see the world around them.
SO: in order to find a shared ontology such that we can lift our work out of local contexts, and theorise across contexts to create shared theoretical, conceptual and practical tools, heuristics and frameworks for AcLits work, we need to consider disciplinary knowledge and ways of knowing in more particular, clarified ways such that we can 'see' these knowledges and how they shape (and are shaped by) literacy practices.
Even though we are positioned outside or or alongside disciplines, we can specialise to a certain extent; often AcLits practitioners work with a few similar disciplines. We can thus better position ourselves to learn more about the ways in which these disciplines consider knowledge and coming-to-know in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.
Danger in our work of being pulled into uncomfortable conversations with lecturers - where we are talking in deficit terms, commiserating about 'lazy' students, or bolstering rather than challenging the autonomous or 'skills' discourses.
How do we find a bolder voice? How do we anchor ourselves in a language, ways of thinking and theorising our work that give us
rhetorical integrity
We need a
shared ontology
, and we need to be able to see and theorise the role of disciplinary knowledges in shaping literacy practices and what counts as the 'social' in which these practices are done.
So, what ontology then?

Need one with 'depth', one that can see beneath surface practices of reading, writing, thinking, arguing etc that can ask 'why is it like this?'
provide useful insights and answers, a way forward towards questioning these practices and understanding why, as well as what they are and how to master them
SR: tools for putting the depth ontology into practice - translation tools. Have the capacity for analytical dualism - to analyse and see two deeply intertwined things - like knowledge and the knowing of it - separately so as to avoid conflation and blindness to one or the other
AcLits work tends to focus on practices and texts - the knowing rather than the knowledges that are becoming known - and thus is in danger of conflating the two and being blind to the specificities and peculiarities of disciplines
We need to be able to see how KNOWLEDGE is structured and how it shapes and is shaped by literacy practices

WHY? Because this is at the heart of disciplinarity - it is not just content; it is how disciplines evolve their identities, practices, debates, issues, skills, competences and so on; it is the organising principles that underpin the development and evolution of disciplines, and what and who they produce
One dimension:
Specialisation (Maton 2007, 2013)

Asks, in essence, what makes a discipline 'special', or on what basis a discipline specialises knowledge, ways of knowing, and knowers.

The answers to these questions have profound implications for literacy practices: for the how of these practices, the why of them and the who and what that is being produced through them.
Two parts to Specialisation:
ER - epistemic relation - objective 'what' that is being known (knowledge)
SR - social relation - subjective 'who' is doing the knowing (knowers)

We can map relative strengths and weaknesses to look at what the basis of each discipline is, and what this could mean for what the discipline values, and what it is trying to aim for through its curriculum design, pedagogic practices and assessment strategies.
The first thing you need to know is that History is much more than dry dates and petty events. It is a
way of making sense of the world
. What do we teach you at the Department of Historical Studies? Apart from everything else,
we teach you how to engages and intervene in debates
how to makes (sic) informed and reasoned decisions
how to substantiates (sic) your claim against the contending views
how to express yourself in a clear, concise and compelling narrative
. We help you appreciate every facet of life as part of a broader and more complex context. Where others see chaos, confusion and randomness,
History students recognise patterns, processes and interconnections
. Along with very useful technical skills, students of this department develop
a remarkable aptitude for original thinking. Cogent reasoning, persuasive writing, and critical analysis
. This allows them to become some of the most sophisticated decision-makers of their age-group.
It is no surprise therefore that
different kinds of employers
– law firms, media houses, advertising agencies, NGOs, government bodies, even finance companies, look so favourably upon Historical Studies graduates. (UCT 2015 Handbook)
We enable you to
use legal materials effectively,
we teach you to
assess, interpret and apply the law
and, most importantly, we
equip you with the historical, comparative and jurisprudential background
that is essential for a critical understanding of law and legal institutions. (UCT 2015 Handbook)

Writing and research skills
are key components of a law student’s education. They are also essential for practising law. You cannot become a good lawyer if you cannot r
esearch the law and write the necessary legal documents
. You will not be able to
provide your clients with high quality legal services if you are unable to
express their arguments precisely in language which is clear, correct and convincing.
Therefore, you must try and master the art of researching and writing the law as soon as possible.

Remember always that
words and their correct usage
are, as Lord Denning put it, ‘a lawyer’s tools of trade’. Other professionals have specialised instruments or machines or tools to enable them to do their jobs.
Lawyers have nothing but words as their tools
! Other people’s lives or livelihood may well depend on your ability to use words correctly
and effectively. Therefore, you must aim to become
a wordsmith
as quickly as possible. (UWC 2015 Handbook)
In spite of understanding what it is not, generally, and also having a sense that Lillis, Scott, Lea, Street and others are right about what it is, academic literacy/ies is still misunderstood or misappropriated in HE, and this presents us with challenges for doing the work we want and need to be doing.
Most of the AcLits work, in terms of helping students and lecturers to uncover and work with the 'rules and conventions' of their disciplines happens at the level of the 'normative' (Lillis and Scott 2008) or 'academic socialisation' (Lea and Street 1998). We are not yet working in the more challenging, critical disciplinary spaces effectively (Clarence 2012, Jacobs 2013).
The problem
AcLits practitioners:
- often work in marginalised spaces
- are often in disempowered, low-status positions
- are often seen as 'making work' for overworked academics
- tend to take on the 'skills' work while lecturers deal with the (more important) 'content'
- struggle to assert their own theoretical, conceptual and practical positions with regards academic literacy/ies
Picking up the final point
How do we 'see' knowledges (especially if we are not 'in' the discipline)?
Why would a shared ontology like social realism be good for AcLits?
IF: we have tools that help us speak with more specificity to disciplinary lecturers and tutors about what they are teaching, why and how
THEN: we will be able to be bolder in asking challenging questions, and helping lecturers find answers and solutions that make sense in the context of their disciplines underlying aims and principles
IF: these tools are informed by an ontology that is shared by AcLits practitioners such that we can move up out of our local contexts and constraints to theorise our work and build the field of AcLits research and practice cumulatively,
THEN: we will be, as a field, less fragmented, chaotic, ad-hoc, and able to be marginalised as easily
IF: our shared research and growing rhetorical integrity can be turned into more particular, focused and collaborative work with lecturers, tutors and students in and across the disciplines,
THEN: we can start to move, collectively, towards a more transformative approach to literacies, where we not only surface the 'norms and conventions' of the disciplines, but also see the 'whys' and 'hows' in ways that truly give students epistemic and ontological access to their disciplinary Discourses, and the professional and personal possibilities that transformative education enables
Clarence, S. 2012. Making inter-disciplinary spaces for talk about and change in student writing and literacy development,
Teaching in Higher Education
, 17(2), 127-137.
Jacob, C. 2013. Academic literacies and the question of knowledge.
Journal for Language Teaching,
47(2), 127-140.
Lillis, T. and Scott, M. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy.
Journal of Applied Linguistics,
4(1), 5-32.
Lea, M., and Street, B.V. 1998. Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies
Studies in Higher Education,
23(2), 157 - 173.
Maton, K. 2007. Knowledge-knower structures in intellectual and educational fields. In Christie, F., & Martin, J.R. (eds).
Language, knowledge and pedagogy: Functional linguistic and sociological perspectives
. London: Continuum , 87–108.
Maton, K. 2013.
Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education
. London: Routledge.
McLean , M., Abbas, A. and Ashwin. P. 2013. The use and value of Bernstein’s work in studying (in)equalities in undergraduate social science education.
British Journal of Sociology of Education
, 34(2), 262-280.

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