Academic writing in higher education provides a prism through which student can develop cognitively, socialise into the culture of higher education as well as negotiate identity and power (Lea, 1998; Lea & Street, 2003, Lillis, 2003). To be proficient in academic writing, a student should be able to apply myriad human skills and organise their thoughts coherently and cohesively, while applying specific discipline instructions and conventions. It also “involves negotiating social relationships, attitudes and values” in one literacy activity (Valentine 2006: 90). Academic writing is a movement through different writing stages and social experiences, which often require reflective and critical thinking. Quality academic writing in higher education therefore depends solely on students’ ability to read critically, interpret, analyse and synthesise ideas in a very methodical manner (Perin, Keselman and Monopoli 2003; Gambell 1987, Kelder 1996, Kinsler 1990).
In the context of CPUT, producing academic writings which apply these characteristics and conventions is still incredibly challenging to many students. This is because the students of this university are richly diverse especially in term of linguistics and and educational backgrounds as well as social orientations (Leibowitz, 2004). However, the majority of them seem not to be academically and/or emotionally prepared for higher education. This unpreparedness is often blamed on a basic education system which continually disconnects high schools from universities (Archer, 2010; Pineteh, 2012). These students are predominantly scholars from very dysfunctional high schools, so they enter university with “a baggage of experiences, attitudes and skills that are not properly suited to university work” (Afful 2007:143). Seemingly, CPUT attracts this quality of students not because of their practical approach to teaching and learning but because well established traditional universities like University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria and University of Stellenbosch still attract mostly top matriculants in the country. I am not insinuating that all students in CPUT are not very proficient in academic writing or that second and third language speakers of English cannot write. By contrast, I am arguing that the poor quality of academic writing can be blamed on a slew of factors, including the quality of students. I discuss these factors succinctly in the following section.
Mindful of the role of academic writing in higher education and dynamics of South African universities of technology, the first main problem with academic writing in this context is the attitudes, apprehensions and misconceptions that students bring to this literacy practice (Pineteh, 2012; Gizik and Simsek, 2005). Here, student performance in writing tasks clearly suggests that these mental configurations have severe implications for their commitment to academic writing across different disciplines. For instance, academic essays, technical reports and term papers that I have evaluated, the following error types recur in student writing activities. Firstly, the academic papers are usually superficial in terms of development of “problem, theory and argument” (Gambell 1987:501). Here, students are unable to conceptualise the topic using knowledge from different sources. Inadequacy of research and/or the lack of meta-cognitive skills to read, interpret and synthesis different texts usually culminate in papers with a paucity of ideas, which are often devoid of evidence or unsubstantiated (Gambell 1987; Lea 1994 and 1998). Secondly, despite the paucity and superficiality of ideas, most of them lack careful organisation. Here, the design of the paper is fragmented with no structural connection between the introduction, body and conclusion. Students often grapple with or fail to apply the concept of coherence and cohesion whereby they “select and order ideas to lead to a sound and well argued conclusion” (Gambell 1987:502). These papers are usually disconnected from transition devices which enhance coherence and cohesion in academic writing. They are written with no clear statement of purpose or thesis which develops from the topic and permeates through out the paper. Thirdly, the papers are usually fraught with mechanical weaknesses, especially in areas like paragraph and, sentence construction-grammar and syntax as well as style. Sentences are often truncated and convoluted and students still struggle with grammatical aspects such as noun-verb agreement, tenses and spelling. These weaknesses recur because students construe academic writing as a product and not process which requires drafting, editing and re-drafting (Henning; Lea 1994 and 1998). Finally, social media has also affected the way students in CPUT write. Because they spend endless hours on facebook, emails and twitters, they unconsciously transfer instant messaging style into academic writing. Their academic essays are usually fraught with inappropriate register, slang and encrypted phrases not suitable for an academic audience. Moreover, easy access to “the internet allows [students] to cut from a huge range of texts and paste into their own work” (Asworth, Freewood & Macdonald 2003: 258). Their writings invariably ignore important characteristics of academic writing such as audience, situation purpose and context.