I am reading a couple of books in-between other things and whilst travelling. The first is by Becker (2007) and is to do with how social scientists write or rather how they should write. The second is by Savin-Baden (2008) and concerns the context, time and place in which people learn - what she calls 'learning spaces'.
Both place a lot of emphasis on the need for researchers to write on a regular basis. Savin-Baden highlights how when and where we learn has changed dramatically over the years, as the nature of learning has changed (less information transfer, more applied knowledge in practice; less individualistic, more social) and technology has advanced (social networking; any place and time connectivity) to support boundless learning. She refers to 'liquid learning' and whereas the term sounds rather like new marketing hype, the message behind it is clear - lifelong, lifewide learning unhindered by physical or temporal constraints; moreover, learning that is 'characterised by emancipation, reflexivity and flexibility' (2008, p.26).
Savin-Baden refers to constrained learning spaces ('striated'), such as a traditional lecture theatre or VLE, and contrasts these to more open, flexible spaces ('smooth spaces'):
Students here would be encouraged to contest knowledge and ideas proffered by lecturers and in doing so create their own stance towards knowledge(s). Yet the movement is not towards a given trajectory, instead, there is a sense of displacement of notions of time and place so that the learning space is not defined, but becomes defined by the creator of the space' (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.14).
She also refers to 'writing spaces' and addresses the challenge of a Ph.D. student writing up their thesis (a challenge that I can easily associate with!):
Writing up a thesis is often a large writing challenge and for many this is a space in which they learn to write and develop an academic voice. Yet, as academic tradition goes, the textual voice of a thesis must not be too strident; there must be a sense of humility in the writing, since one is not yet deemed to have 'arrived' (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.37)
In describing writing spaces, she writes refreshingly about the problems that writers often have in getting started. Mistakenly they look to others for the magic formulae for overcoming 'writers' block' as if it were some external agent or force, rather than an individual challenge.
There seems to be an assumption that there are hints and tips about how to go about creating writing spaces or the task of writing itself; short cuts that help to avoid the struggle and pain. Yet this is one of the main challenges of being in a writing space that no one else can create or inhabit. As writing spaces are our own spaces where we also have to deal with our own disjunctions (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.40-41)
Moreover, writing spaces should be places where we adopt our own stance, find our own voice so that we may offer our opinion on what we have read. This, for me, is the real challenge and this is where I turn to the other book by Becker (2007). He too writes about the problems that individuals have in writing; in this case, social scientists. They are characterised, he says, by writing that is too hesitant to take a stance and uses all sorts of convoluted ways of getting to the point. However, he posits that the reason for doing this is the fear of rejection, of criticism by others, of not being perfect. Hence these writers will go to great lengths to emphasise that their writing is a first draft, a work in progress and something that still needs refinement. Furthermore, they may take pride in using a special language that sets them apart as an academic
While I personally find scholarly writing boring and prefer to spend my time reading novels, academic elitism is a part of every graduate student’s socialization. I mean that academic writing is not English but written in a shorthand that only members of the profession can decipher. . . . I think it is a way to. . . maintain group boundaries of elitism. . . . Ideas are supposed to be written in such a fashion that they are difficult for untrained people to understand. This is scholarly writing. And if you want to be a scholar you need to learn to reproduce this way of writing. (Becker, 2007, p.30)
This reflects some of my own experience with academic writing, which is often written in the third person, with convoluted expressions and a propensity to create new words to describe something that has been said before but may be perceived to be old fashioned or unsophisticated. I should add that I see this often in my own institution where departments will use different terms when referring to the same idea in order to mark their territory. As Becker suggest, power and identity seem to play an important role.
Living as an intellectual or academic makes people want to appear smart, in the sense of clever or intelligent, to themselves and others. But not only smart. They also want to appear knowledgeable or worldly or sophisticated or down-home or professional—all sorts of things, many of which they can hint at in the details of their writing (Becker, 2007, p.31)
My reading of the two books continues, however I already feel humbled by having a mirror held up to me.
Becker, H. S. (2007) Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article, University of Chicago press.
Savin-Baden, M. (2008) Learning spaces: creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life, Open Univ Press.
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.