Although there is a paucity of literature precisely on how CPUT students write, there is avalanche of general literature on student writing in higher education around the world. I do not intend to explore this vast body of knowledge in its entirety but simply to highlight topical issues that have informed this article. I am particularly interested in the conceptualisations of academic writing in higher education and curriculum issues in articles like Fairclough 1992; Ivanic 1999; Lea & Street 1998 & 2006; Lillis 2001 & 2003 and Street 2004. These articles have been at the epicentre of debates about the usefulness of academic writing in universities and new literacy studies (Street 2004). They have also been concerned with new epistemologies in higher education and the “radical rethinking of what counts as literacy” especially in this age of increasing access to university education globally (Street 2004:10). Although, the articles address student writing in higher education from different perspectives they however provide a prism through which academics in other universities like CPUT can interrogate academic writing.
For example Lea & Street (1998) locate student writing in higher education within the broader context of academic literacies, moving away “from a skilled-based, deficit model of student writing, [concentrating on]… the complexity of writing practices that are taking place at degree level in universities” (157). For them, academic writing is not naively a repertoire of writing techniques but it is also a cultural and social practice, which involves negotiating power, authority and identity within the landscape of universities (Lillis, 2001; Kelder 1996). Student writing should therefore be understood as a space for the development of study skills, a process of academic socialisation within academic disciplines and as academic literacies (Street 1984 & 1995; Kelder 1996). This means university students should be able to use academic writing to access university culture, understand disciplinary discourses and negotiate power relations as well as construct their individual identities, new generic and discipline specific knowledge (Jones, Turner & Street 1999).This literacy practice provides “the link between students’ entry into disciplinary communities and their acquisition of the formal conventions associated with the academy…”(Leibowitz, Goodman, Hannon & Parkerson 1997:5). These multifaceted interpretations of academic writing have somehow remained invisible in student writing at CPUT for years. This is because students and academics of this university often minimise the role of student writing in enhancing teaching and learning in higher education.
Nevertheless, Lea and Street’s model for approaching academic writing has continued to forerun or to provide a framework to critically unlocking student writing in different contexts. In attempting to read student writing in the United Kingdom (UK) as dialogic rather monologic practices, Lillis (2003) uses Street (2004)’s premise as her point of departure. She explicitly frames her thoughts around the binary co-dependent: critique and design. For her, conventional pedagogies in universities are still rooted in “monologic-dialectic perspectives on meaning making” which inextricably ignores the voice of the student (Lillis 2001:204). Drawing on Bakhtin’s Dialogic Imagination, she represents student writing as an interactive, dynamic and reflective process which helps students to learn through interactions with peers and lecturers. In academic writing, this dialogue stimulates meaningful participations from both students and lecturers, which often results in knowledge development (Gee & Green 1998; Van de Ven 2009). For her the monologic model is a deficit model which is rigid and undermines reflectivity, progression and cognitive development.
Essentially, the monologic model is product-oriented and minimises the potential of academic writing to develop students cognitively through the dialogue between student and writing tutor (Lillis 2003; Yong, 2010). She therefore proposes a dialogic approach and discusses how this approach can be brought to bear on the development of pedagogies of academic writing. For this dialogue to be meaningful to both the student and writing tutor, we should concentrate on ‘talkback’ not feedback, which involves “focusing on the student’s text in process, an acknowledgement of the partial nature of any text and hence the range of potential meanings…” (Lillis 2003:204). Lillis’s model encourages us to read student writing as heuristic, creatively expressing student experiences, backgrounds, emotions and ideological frameworks. Here, the concept of dialogism suggests that “pedagogic practices are oriented towards making visible/challenging/playing with official and unofficial discourse” (Lillis 2003:193). Although I would like to subscribe to this model, I also need to be aware of the “mismatch of values and expectations concerning writing” in CPUT (Gambell 1987: 506). For example, while some academic development lecturers at CPUT are obsessively concerned about the use of language, some are more concerned about the argumentation and the overall thinking put into the writing process. So, what constitutes a good of piece of academic writing depends largely on the lecturer’s expectations. Also, the massification of South African universities and the ensuing large classes inhibit the application of ‘talkback’ when assessing student writing. Ultimately, to understand the reasons for poor quality academic writing in this context, we need to pay close attention to the linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds and literacy experiences of students. Leibowitz (2004) captures this situation neatly when she analyses the educational policies that are “intended to increase equity of access to education, and democratise the management and governance of schooling”.