Taking Academic Writing Back to School
By Payal Singh
Having been brought up in Panipat, Haryana, studying English literature as the subject of my undergraduate education in Delhi proved to be a big and fortunate decision given the common neglect that reading as an activity suffers back in my town. In this paper which is about academic writing, I find it inevitable to begin by reflecting on the general attitude to reading in the place where I come from. I myself never got inclined towards reading and writing partly because of how insignificant my own family and people, in general, find the reading of literature. Studying English literature in a college in Delhi helped me in finding my interest in reading and knowing the varied possibilities of comprehending texts and ideas. Currently I am a postgraduate student of English literature in Jawaharlal Nehru University but I continue to get advice from my parents, though less frequently now, on reading something knowledgeable rather than novels. Relatives and neighbours who listen patiently to what my course is about end up confusing it with a course on learning the English language.
Despite a change in my own attitude towards reading in terms of realising its significance as knowledge, I realised that my approach to writing had remained largely unchanged since I was a school student. This realisation came only recently after taking a course on academic writing in the third semester of my post-graduation. This was the second time I felt the impact of my location on learning in academia. The first time being the early years of studying in college. If my undergraduate education has helped me learn the importance of reading, the recent course on academic writing in the MA coursework has shown me that good academic writing organically follows from reading closely. The classes in this course took me back to my school days when I was a student sitting in my English class and it made me think about the need for initiating such an approach to academic writing from school itself.
By recounting my experience as a student at a convent school in the small town of Panipat and as a postgraduate student of an academic writing course in the diverse space of a well-known public university in Delhi, I would like to think about the need to begin creating a revamped environment of learning writing in schools that would help students become better learners. Given the interactive nature of the spaces that schools potentially are, the activities and exercises that were a part of the writing course which encouraged a self-reflexivity among the students, could possibly help transform the general attitude to both reading and writing in schools in Haryana.
It happens often that memories of some events come back to us almost as vividly as a re-happening of the event itself. The first class of the academic writing course brought to my mind one such memory. When I was in class eight or so, our English teacher was conducting an oral test in the class from the chapter on direct and indirect speech from our prescribed grammar book. We had been asked to learn the rules of converting direct speech into indirect speech and vice-versa and each student was being asked to answer a question about the rules. I remember getting appreciated for giving the maximum right answers because I also answered those that other students could not. But back to my first academic writing class as an MA student, what I was actually being taught at that moment was completely different. The professor of the course, Dr. Anannya Dasgupta, was talking about doing away with comparison with the work of others, giving up the fear of grades for our academic papers, and how to stop treating the process of academic research as cumbersome and tedious by creating an environment comfortable for writing. The most rewarding part of this course was that there were no claims without demonstration. But back to the first day of our class with her, for someone like me who learnt writing in an entirely rule-based manner in school, here comes a professor who says, “Here is a picture on the board, write a description of it.” Saying this, she left the task to the students completely. As someone who, since school, was accustomed to writing so carefully that an invitation for creativity shouldn’t have mattered, I felt uneasy when I was suddenly asked to write in a carefree manner. I realised when some time had passed for us to settle into the course that knowing all the rules of a chapter from a grammar book, which made me happy back in class eight and the internalisation of that logic till now, does not actually comprise learning writing. What makes us good writers, including academic writing, is our trust in ourselves as able readers.
It is the ability to read closely that this course tried to inculcate in us as a part of its teaching methodology which was unlike my experience in school. I have memories of myself in school reading each chapter of my literature books twice or thrice before exams in order to memorise what was happening in the story. When I was in class five, our English teacher would ask students to read the chapters loudly followed by her own intermittent remarks on the events that took place in the chapters. The answers to questions that followed each chapter were dictated to us to be written down. This is what close reading had come to mean to me: pay close attention only to the story of the text. The approach to reading in school till I reached classes eleven and twelve was completely devoid of the idea of reading between the lines.
It is in retrospection that I realise that the problem was in keeping the activities of reading and writing as mutually exclusive. In school, I was taught to read the prescribed literature for its content alone and never for its structure. At home, the inclination for reading anything apart from the school books was never cultivated. In most of the places, like my town in Haryana, in the recent years there is a greater possibility of education for girls, but no thought is given to whether the ways of teaching need any improvement. When I reached the eleventh standard, my English teacher then had a slightly different method. Even though her classes were very interactive – we had discussions as a class unlike the summary-based monologues of the earlier years – the element of reading critically was missing. By critical reading, I mean noticing carefully how the narrative progresses in terms of its structure and staying alive to tiny details such as the construction of a sentence. Despite changes in technology that have taken place between my own time at school and my younger sister’s schooling now, the approach to teaching reading and writing has stayed the same. Reading solely for the content continues; in fact, with the coming of projectors as part of smart learning, making students write pre-digested answers has just become easier. My sister, who is in her tenth standard now, always carries her Literature Companion – a supplementary book which contains readymade answers to the exam questions for her literature course.
When I think about those classes in school now, I wish we had read as well as written following from the idea that reading and writing draw from each other. While rethinking the approach that schools adopt towards learning in general, the process of grading the performance of students has to be considered. The writing exercises that I did in school were functional and aimed to teach us how to write notices, formal and informal letters, articles, reports and so on. We were supposed to be very careful about the format and had to mention all the required facts and had to fit them strictly in a given word limit. Looking back at an incident in class five, I realize how rigid our classrooms were in terms of what we could write or say. The teacher asked two class “toppers” to read out the formal letter in front of the whole class. I was called first but I couldn’t do it because I panicked and lost confidence. When the other student addressed the letter to the right person along with the correct facts, I was reprimanded and shown an example of what I should have learnt to do. The certainty of what is right and what can strictly not be done characterised the way of teaching writing skills in school. This long past incident got imprinted in my memory as an instance of comparison to measure my academic performance. Since then, as a student, I have always worried about grades and my performance in exams and as I wrote papers in college and university.
But, this course on academic writing I was taking as an MA student had, as one of its fundamental premises, the idea of helping us write without the fear of being graded. Here, I will elaborate on the grading criteria of this course which did not seem like evaluation in the sense we understand in educational institutions. For evaluation, we were asked to maintain a journal at the very outset of the course to record our reflections about writing. It turned into a document of the evolution of our own style of writing now that we see it from the very first entry in the journal. In the whole course, we were made to focus only on four readings – one academic essay, one long form journalistic essay, one personal narrative essay and one literary essay on a poem by a poet read closely by another poet. We were asked to write two academic essays in several drafts on rather broad topics, such as the work of description with only these texts as the sources. This task was quite tedious initially because we had to read the same texts repeatedly and closely to be able to forge connections between them. For this purpose, we had sessions in class where we devoted time to learning how to make connections between ideas. All these elements made up the assessment; along with the journal; this made the methodology of assessment for this course flexible. What was actually heartening for us as students of this course was the professor’s belief in our collective efforts in the form of peer reviews and her reassurance that each student learns at a different pace. She constantly asked us to work on turning our academic essays into narratives that a reader would enjoy reading. We were taught structural requirements of an academic essay but at the same time also shown possibilities of playing with these once we got a command over them. The experience of learning writing for academics through this course underlines that academic writing is not exclusive of creativity. This creativity takes place in the narration of our argument in writing.
My access to these new ideas in the field of academic research had initially left me on the sharp edge of a keenly felt divide because of the duality of my location as a public university student in Delhi and a native resident of Haryana. How I have described the teaching of reading and the state of writing in schools is not so different in the regional public universities there; whereas, what I was encountering in Delhi, in a public university was so different. To have educational change in small towns, the idea that academic research and writing need not be dry and isolated has to travel there. My academic writing course was a method in recognising and finding creativity and enjoyment in academic learning.
The schools, especially in regions like Haryana which face social problems like gender discrimination and lack of literacy, can become the places to change the common understanding of education among the people. It will happen if students have the self-awareness of knowing what they are learning and have the confidence to explore further. Completely replicating a methodology as that of the academic writing course I took will be challenging for the schools given practical reasons like the large number of students in each class. But, at least the spirit of such an approach to learning can be adopted in the teaching method. The most basic of which is to understand that reading and writing are not independent of each other. Their dependence is indispensable; hence, the teaching methodology of teaching could keep the content-form symbiosis in mind.
The spirit of learning lies in tracing one’s own path of learning and not in competition. The schools could actually begin by creating an environment where the spirit of learning is inculcated in each student. Organising activities that give students time and space to think on their own, devoting time to writing about seemingly random things and revisiting their writing from time to time will help foster an emotional bond with the process of writing that is so valuable. This emotional connection between students and what they write will require teachers who are sensitive to the process of teaching writing. If schools and colleges pay greater attention to teaching reading and writing, it will ease the transition to higher education and to the process of understanding the spirit of academic research which is that of careful exploration of ideas in reading and writing.
“Piles of French Novels” Vincent Van Gogh, Source Van Gogh Museum
Payal Singh hails from Panipat, Haryana and is currently a postgraduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She completed her school education from St. Mary’s Convent Sr. Sec. School, Panipat and her graduation from Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University.
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