How a pair of sunglasses mortified gender students

Honing writing skills can unlock academic voices or expose sexual stereotypes, writes Matthew Reisz

July 8, 2010

Everything from "playing with gender" to the development of "visual dissertations" can provide ammunition in the perennial struggle to hone student - and academic - writing skills, a conference heard.

The 13th biennial international "Writing Development in Higher Education" conference was hosted by the Write Now Centre, a partnership between three universities, which uses peer mentoring as a core method of student support.

Opening the conference last week, Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, explained that writing skills were prized by employers but were also crucial to personal development.

"If you can't write," he said, "a part of you has not been discovered or unlocked - your voice. It's all about finding your creativity within a verbal domain."

Speakers explored developments in the study of "academic literacies", ways of overcoming exam phobias and the choice between teaching generic writing skills and embedding them within particular disciplines.

Howard Riley, head of the School of Research and Postgraduate Studies at Swansea Metropolitan University, noted that requirements of "academic rigour" meant that art students had to produce a lengthy dissertation. Some proved most effective when they developed their argument purely through imagery and then hung the text on to this frame, he said. Mr Riley and his team had therefore developed the concept of the "visual dissertation", while ensuring it could not be dismissed as a soft option. One student printed the text over faded photographs to illustrate her analysis of photography and memory.

Rowena Murray, reader in education at the University of Strathclyde, described a "writing consultation" programme designed to help academics "address the challenge of prioritising writing over other academic roles".

This used "one-to-one motivational interviews", which focused on scholars' "writing goals, barriers they face in achieving them and strategies for overcoming them".

In an evaluation funded by the Nuffield Foundation, participants claimed that the process had enabled them to "lose that constant feeling of low-grade failure".

Lisa Clughen, an academic support coordinator from Nottingham Trent University, reported on a third-year module about Reading Gender and Sexuality.

Many students were able to parrot the ideas of the American feminist Judith Butler without in any way internalising them. They often "physically recoiled" when asked to explain her notion of "the lesbian phallus", Ms Clughen said.

One solution, the conference heard, was to use a technique common in creative-writing courses. Asked to speculate about a huge pair of black sunglasses, students decided that they belonged to a hippy journalist called Marian who was living in Brighton - but could not possibly have a male owner.

Although they were "mortified to discover they had policed gender through clothing", Ms Clughen said it helped them "bring gender theory into the context of their own world" in a way that discussion or written assignments never could.

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