Monday, November 21, 2011

the monster in my head...academic writing

I don’t have an image of monsters except for the ones in cartoons and the story books I’ve read. And in spite of my active imagination, as a child I was never indulged to “believe in” monsters even though I read about them a lot. So the monster I have in mind is a different kind. It’s the intangible mental block that writers don’t talk about. In academic circles, writing is assumed as something students will learn in university and become better with over the years. Almost 6 years later and the monster of academic writing has become strongly established in my mind...a month before I am supposed to hand in the Masters thesis.

I have never been taught how to write academically. I first became aware of academic writing in my second year while doing Philosophy 2 and English 2. Initially I thought I was stupid and would never make it to third year and my whole life would unravel before my eyes. What was worse, I seemed to be the only person carrying this shadow and monster with me into every tut where I was required to hand in written work. All the students in my undergrad classes had mastered the “smart swag” where everyone except me, knew how to speak and write Philosophy. After conversations with a trusted friend about my angst and bursting into tears in a lecturer’s office because in my mind I heard “you can’t write”, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I told my Philosophy tutor and she tried to allay my fears. The action plan we put together required me to hand in any writing I had to do a week before the deadline and she would check it and talk me through my thoughts and “tighten the wording”. I would then go back to her comments and rework the writing afresh for handing in. Throughout the process, I missed the memo that writing is a process that requires work. Instead I convinced myself I was stupid. The process was repeated again while doing English 3 when a friend’s mom assisted me (she had known me since Grade 1 and had an understanding of some of the struggles of aspiring writers).

What I didn’t realise was that even though I was planting seeds for the hard work that is academic writing, there are still many assumptions in the process of becoming a writer. And now I am sitting with the process of doing the process again, but something is amiss. The problem with academic writing is that it is one of those assumed practices in university where everyone always tells me “it will come together, you’ll see”. The other assumption is that if one is the model student who does the necessary reading and can articulate their ideas verbally, they will eventually find the rhythm of the expected kind of writing. And this is a dangerous assumption. There’s nothing normal about building an argument. It is mental work that requires some kind of apprenticeship or guidance, beyond the reading that students are expected to do.

Then there is the conundrum of adding my voice to academic writing. I want my writing to sound like me and I have learned that every time I do this, I am told I’m too wordy or the writing is woolly and difficult to follow...in other words, verbosity. And perhaps that’s how my voice is—too much. I am invested in the process of writing not purely as an academic exercise but writing has always helped me make sense of my ideas and place in the world, but somehow when it comes to formal academic writing, I fall short.

The irony is that I have written many articles for newspapers and people who read my work have warned me of my errors but have worked through them with me and I have been able to develop as a writer. Those who read the final product are always excited about what I’ve written and perhaps this adds to the confusion of what it means to be a writer: because this suggests that when I write for myself, I write with a different tone, when I write for people, it’s another tone and when I write essays, it’s another voice. I am aware that writing pithy opinion pieces is different from writing a thesis and that’s okay. But something’s got to give...why is academic writing made to seem like it is a mountain that needs perseverance? And once one has been to the top of that mountain, they may decide to stay up there with their smugness of smartness or discover there’s another mountain to climb, Mount PhD!

The added anxiety has been through listening to friends who have sailed through doing Masters in a year, others have managed to do 2 Masters back to back, others have swiftly moved from writing a Masters into their PhD in record time. And I consider that almost two years later, I still struggle with the writing.
Yes, this is a pity party blog post because I need some enlightenment about what the problem is. Is it the Englishness coupled with learning to structure my thoughts in a language that is my primary language but still doesn’t come easy?

I know I am not the first person to have this angst, but I get the feeling there’s shame in not being able to write academically so those who have struggled with this keep quiet about it because no-one wants to look like they can’t make it in academia, with all the pressures of deadlines while trying to construct an argument and choosing the correct words. The truth is though, I can’t decide if academic writing is a myth in academia or the monster and shadow I have carried with me while trying to master the university code of understanding the process of knowledge production, or simply trying to show that I know what I’m writing about.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ndisihloniphile isikolo...an aha moment with my education!

Ndisihloniphile isikolo...After yet another long meeting with my supervisor, analysing and pouring over the curriculum documents relevant to teaching reading in the Foundation Phase, it finally dawned on me: education reform is a process. I have always taken this for granted...or this has never been important to understand as I have always sailed through school and achieved accordingly with no conception of the hardships that some peers may have had with understanding their learning. I have never had to contemplate what gradual progress and growth really mean in the context of education. It’s only been through the Masters that my personal experience of learning as well as looking at the process of change in the curriculum reform in South Africa that it has begun to sink in: change is a process. And meaningful change is an arduous and even painful process.

On the level of the curriculum analysis: I have analysed the Revised Curriculum Statement from 2002 tracking the level of focus on reading relevant to teaching reading where isiXhosa is the LoLT. After looking at documents from the Foundations for Learning Campaign (2008), I realised that there has been a gradual recognition in the curriculum for the errors in Curriculum 2000 when curriculum reform was first introduced. In 2000 there was a need to recognise the change that needed to happen in education, a process that began in the 1990s when the new South Africa was about to be born. We amalgamated over 10 departments of education into 1 education system. And whether critics like it or not, in the context of South Africa’s history, this was a milestone.But there were glaring omissiona about the reality of many schools in marginal areas in South Africa.

This led to problems with interpretation. The basics of teaching reading were jettisoned in many schools leaving us with the OBE curriculum that was misunderstood by teachers in the 2000s. The introduction of OBE assumed that teachers would embrace the new curriculum, the wonderful values it espoused and great results would be guaranteed for all. What was forgotten though, was that education reform happens within a social context where individuals such as teachers, parents and learners who have a vested interest in education are part of a society in transition. With a vision of where education can be in this country-where it can be about social justice and equality-we didn’t have a sense of the process it might take to get there. The birth of South Africa meant that growth had begun, not that we had arrived and the same applies with the curriculum: having a new curriculum from a divided system of education was only the beginning. So OBE had the learning outcomes and the assessment standards, but without the recognition that starting with the outcomes in mind also means having a vision of how to get there. And without the recognition of this transition that we are still making in South Africa, the curriculum has not been a tool for liberation because siye saphanga ubude (we bit more than we could chew), in isiXhosa we say “we gulped down growth/expectations”.

And so we sit with an education system that appears to be at a standstill because the assumption is that another curriculum shift is underway. But the new curriculum known as CAPS is an attempt to address the process of achieving the outcomes and supporting teachers further. I’m anticipating this shift to have it’s own costly mistakes, but it is part of the process of learning and getting things right in this country’s education.

On a personal level: I have taken my own growth for granted and have been learning through the Masters “it takes a lifetime to know who you are” (from Stimela’s song, Go on). Somewhere while growing up I missed the memo that I am on a journey (and I’m still not sure about the destination) and journeys have detours. I have agonised with life and trying to “find my feet” in the midst of trying to understand the topic I chose for my Masters project to the point where I convinced myself I would not finish and not finishing would mean I am a failure.

So I persevered and I am still not finished with the thesis and the deadlines I set seem to be going awry, and that’s okay. Life happens and it’s allowed to happen. My education for the past 2 years became fused with my own growth that I’ve never given myself the chance to do because I have been too concerned about keeping things together. And when things fell apart it took me a while to be okay with things falling apart, but somehow, they’ll come back together again, and fall apart again and the journey will keep unfolding.

I once told someone I was trying to find my feet and his response seemed so trite, but in retrospect it was true. He told me that while trying to “find my feet” I’ll realise that I’ve always had them and they’ve been firmly planted to the ground. Clich├ęs are often viewed with derision and taken for granted, but somehow, this is where some truth lies in understanding what life might be about: Life is a journey...enjoy the ride!