Paying attention to - and through - writing

When she visited Queen Mary in October, Sarah Moore, Associate Vice-president of Limerick University observed that lots of little conversations about writing – what we do with it, how we value it, how we share it with students – contribute to a bigger collective discussion (and perhaps some consensus) about the kinds of students we’d like our university to turn out – put differently, our graduate attributes. 

This semester we’ve been particularly lucky in the conversations about writing we’ve been able to have. Lisa Emerson from Massey University, New Zealand  (main picture) led two public events, and Sarah Moore (who Guy Westwell, SLLF, and I first met in Limerick in April) contributed a third. Lisa in fact spent nearly 3 weeks at Queen Mary extending research begun in Australasia on the writing practices, experiences and beliefs of scientific writers from PhD to senior levels and every time we met she seemed to have just had a ‘fascinating’, ‘enlightening’, ‘remarkable’ conversation with someone from QM’s scientific community. Her research, as she explained, explores what it means to be an ‘expert’ in scientific writing; it has challenged her, she says, to jettison the humanities perspective (dominant in much writing pedagogy) which sees science writing as not particularly sophisticated and as more about ‘writing up’ than about generating new knowledge through the act of writing. Listening closely to mature scientists talk about their writing – what processes they go through, what feelings they experience (…things that, as Sarah later noted, academics often maintain a ‘deathly silence’ about when they teach students), had, Lisa claimed, heavily influenced her teaching of writing. For one thing she was now clear that science writing is best taught by, or in close collaboration with, scientists themselves; she also now works with students first to develop their ability to read scientific writing for the story that it tells; and having noted how experts often spend a lot of time on apparently simple tasks, she values the learning that is possible from setting short writing tasks – what John Bean pithily describes as ‘a large amount of thinking for a small amount of writing’.

The ‘thinking writing’ idea was also in the air when Sarah Moore, a couple of weeks later, described the necessity of promoting writing to students and their teachers as ‘a tool for paying attention’  - attention to what you’re listening to, to what you’re reading, to your own thoughts, experiences  and questions…  This is how many of Lisa’s experts seemed to be using writing - and I guess it’s what I hope our TW website also offers ways into. How the University of Limerick has defined its Graduate Attributes. Sarah is pictured below talking to Dan Todman.