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A critical writing pedagogy: Who benefits?

Sue McIntosh
Teaching literacy practices in a way that domesticates by emphasising form and structure over the political and social nature of writing has been critically analysed in recent years. The question of 'who benefits' from such practices has been implicitly raised in an increasing number of spheres by theorists and researchers whose beliefs stem from a critical literacy perspective. This paper seeks to explore the politics of writing, the representation of self in writing and the use of critical writing practices as an alternative to generic approaches to teaching the academic writing process. Kamler's (2001) strategies for developing a critical writing pedagogy and Halasek's (1999) complementary arguments of viewing writing in a cultural context and repositioning students as co-creators of knowledge will be discussed in the context of an adult university pre-undergraduate bridging program literacy course whose aim is to ensure that students are the primary benefactors of their writing. Thus the students (the 'researched') can be empowered to share as co-researchers in the research project.

As an educator within an adult university pre-undergraduate bridging program (see also Simpson & Coombes, 2001, in this issue), my core business is teaching academic writing and research skills. From a genre pedagogy perspective, teaching students to write a well researched and structured essay complete with introduction, body, conclusion and reference list is not difficult. There are many 'recipes' available. However, such a generic approach fails to foreground the discoursal nature of any writing or reading associated with this Úlite form of writing and hence the political, social and cultural issues bound up in academic discourse (Brodkey, 1996; Comber, 1998; Gee, 2000; Halasek, 1999; Kamler, 2001; Luke, 1996; Misson, 2001). Furthermore, a generic approach fails to highlight to students an awareness of the critical issues that are present in their writing: whose views are being foregrounded or silenced and for what purpose; the place of self in the writing process and engagement of self with the research process; and the concept that language is never neutral. In choosing to write a particular way, the writer makes assumptions and choices and in so doing the omission or silencing of other voices occurs (Comber & Kamler, 1997). Writing, then, is always political and can reinforce and maintain the dominant ideology. This paper seeks to explore the politics of writing, the representation of self and the use of critical writing practices within the context of teaching academic writing in a university pre-undergraduate bridging program to discuss the question of 'who benefits?' from the academic writing practice.


Kamler (2001) and Halasek (1999) identify in their work an interpretation of writing that challenges traditional process and genre writing pedagogies by highlighting the shortfalls of these approaches when adopted from a non-critical perspective. It is argued that the techniques and tools of these pedagogies do not encourage the examination of the 'networks of power that are sustained and brought into existence by the text and the ways these contribute to and reproduce social injustices' (Kamler, 2001, pp. 32-33). From a poststructuralist interpretation, Brodkey (1996), Halasek (1999) and Kamler (2001) argue that student writing can be viewed as a cultural representation of truth or reality. This opens a space for teachers and students to identify and challenge dominant social, political and cultural storylines operating in the text. How their writing reproduces or reinforces dominant ideologies, and how this can be challenged or disrupted by reframing and retelling the text to produce counternarratives, can then be explored. Kamler (2001) thus argues strongly for a writing pedagogy that addresses what it is students are writing and what that writing does to them and their world.

Within the context of academic writing from a poststructuralist perspective, issues of power, authority and the location of the self in writing are pertinent issues. Traditionally academic writing has always had an Úlitism attached to it born of a cultural understanding of the university as a place where knowledge is created. Consequently, academic discourse within the university culture holds much power and authority within society (Brodkey, 1996; Halasek, 1999). Students of the academy are encouraged to adopt the conventions of the discourse and 'jump through hoops' by adopting the ideas and knowledge deemed important by their disciplines (Halasek, 1999; Ronald, 1998). They are then rewarded for their ability to express clearly, in a sanctioned generic structure (e.g., essay, report), the knowledge of others. Ronald (1998, p. 6) highlights this by suggesting that 'disciplinarity obscures other views which only goes to show that borders are rigid, that the disciplinary forces keeping us at home are strong'. Rarely are undergraduate students encouraged to view their participation in this discourse as one of creating knowledge. Halasek (1999) also alludes to this role of subordinate student when she suggests that often, upon entering a discipline, students are encouraged to regurgitate knowledge that is deemed essential in a format that is sanctioned by their discipline. They are not positioned as co-researchers and they are not encouraged to create new knowledge.

One benefit of a poststructuralist interpretation of writing is the encouragement of student writers to be primarily positioned as co-researchers and co-creators of knowledge rather than subordinated in and through strict adherence to a domesticated knowledge and writing structure. It is well documented that in Australian universities the pedagogical approaches underlying the delivery of curricula are informed by a narrow definition of literacy as the tools or skills of reading and writing that will reinforce discipline content and that are specific to particular disciplines (Joshua, 1997; McIntosh, 2000; Page, 1996). The conventions of writing encouraged in academic writing discourse value objectivity (the removal of the personal so that writing appears to be more 'factual') and good control over the language of argument, all of which needs to be expressed in a logical and cohesive manner. The question prompted by critical literacy advocates is a basic one: 'Do students, as co-creators of knowledge, benefit from this approach?' According to Farrell (1997; cited in Kamler, 2001, p. 95), 'examiners reward candidates who provide for them, in the way they structure their essay, a familiar way of reading relevance, coherence and logic'. Halasek (1999) asserts that these conventions may be unfamiliar to students who are then forced to adopt a style and structure they see as remote and dominating. Comber (1998) describes literacy in this instance as domesticating and limiting, where students are not encourage d to examine whether the views they are reproducing are in fact relevant or just in relation to a modern society characterised by rapid social, economic and technological change driven by globalisation and rapid advances in information technology.

Kamler (2001) argues for a reframing of genre pedagogy, one that acknowledges that the self' can never be removed from writing because all writing is personal. She thus argues that writing is always political and issues of power and representation are always present. She also argues that language is never neutral in that by choosing to say one thing rather than another, or by expressing things in one way rather than another, dominant storylines and common cultural knowledge can be unconsciously reinforced. She believes that, by relocating academic writing genres within the discourses of the academy, students may begin to understand the storylines operating within academic discourse, and why/how they are expected to adopt certain conventions in their writing. In this way, they may also begin to see their texts as 'representations' rather than 'authentic'. The adoption of preferred techniques and structures might, as a result, come from a sense of personal agency and control over their own learning.

Halasek (1999, p. 143) puts forward a similar argument and suggests that it is through engaging with the wider discourses governing academic writing that writers 'can situate themselves as co-researchers by viewing the text in a social, cultural and intellectual context thereby situating it as constructed and not inherently authoritative'. Similarly, Comber and Kamler (1998) suggest that questioning 'the way things are' is an important aspect of teaching writing from a critical literacy perspective. The academic writing process, however, is governed by procedure so strict that often, even if students do engage with the process from a sense of agency, they can still be silenced (Halasek, 1999). It would appear, then, that what students come to understand at a personal level from their research still has to be framed within strict guidelines and thus an emphasis on structure has led to 'arrangement rather than invention [and] presentation rather than inquiry becom[ing] primary concerns for writing instruction' (Halasek, 1999, p. 145).

Kamler's (2001) critical writing approach to teaching academic writing may address these concerns. When students have an understanding of why they are writing and what that writing does to them and their world, they may be able to adopt a more conscious sense of authority over the highly political issues of whose views to include/omit and for what purpose; how this can or cannot be expressed; and what assumptions they, as authors, are making about their audience. In this way, personal agency stemming from conscious control over generic structures may be of benefit to students who begin to write according to their own purposes and through an understanding of the place of generic structures within the wider social, political and cultural frameworks that operate both in and through their writing. Students may also benefit from being better equipped to use the genre to challenge the way information is created and reproduced. Halasek (1999, p. 134) argues that, unless students are encouraged to become actively engaged in discourse, 'academic discourse, and all of the knowledge it holds, remains a static object of study external to them. When students write from this subordinate position, they produce essays in which they claim no authority as their own'. Misson (2001, p. 5) concurs with Halasek when he asserts that 'it's part of what teachers should be doing, making students capable of those different tellings, and making them able to discriminate which version they need to and can responsibly tell at a particular time'.

Kamler's approach to teaching argumentative writing may provide a framework for teachers to use in response to issues raised about student agency and subjectivity in academic writing. She argues for a pedagogy that addresses the 'binary division between argumentative writing and personal writing and the notion that disenfranchised writers can gain access to power by being taught the prestigious genres of their culture' (Kamler, 2001, p. 79). Thus, her pedagogy calls into question the complex issues of identity, authority and representation involved in the generic structures afforded to academic writing. Kamler outlines three strategies designed to encourage students to gain some sense of personal agency where they can begin to see themselves as co-creators of information. From this position they are more likely to reframe and rewrite according to the social, cultural, political and ideological frameworks they are calling on in the development of their texts. She argues for developing a metalanguage to reposition the writer; developing a spatialised metalanguage for structuring argument; and developing a linguistic metalanguage for building authority in a text (Kamler, 2001, p. 87). The strength of this approach is the foregrounding of the processes of genre and the processes of wider discourses because in this way students can be made more aware of the relationships between language and power and how language operates to reproduce hegemony.


Kamler's critical writing pedagogy has merit as an approach to teaching academic writing in my teaching context: a university pre-undergraduate bridging program for adults. Over the years, the curriculum that informs the literacy course that I teach has developed as one that places emphasis on critical literacy approaches to reading. However, I believe that approaches taken to teach the 'discuss' essay genre could become more critical. While attempts are made to address the politics of academic writing, they do not challenge enough the traditional positioning of students as subordinate. In fact, I might inadvertently be reinforcing this position by highlighting the need to learn the 'tricks of the trade' and by unintentionally positioning the undergraduate journey as a 'game'. In hindsight, students have in the past engaged well with critical reading approaches to research but have struggled when applying their new knowledge to the essay format. Perhaps this is because I have placed too much emphasis on the notion that students should avoid writing their own opinions. Instead they are encouraged to imply them through their 'discussion' and 'clever' use of language, which will 'disguise' their opinion as reasoned logic.

This shortfall could be addressed by adopting Kamler's (2001) strategies for approaching the teaching of academic writing. The first strategy - developing a metalanguage to reposition the writer - requires firstly that I question my own positioning of students as 'novice' by adopting a more poststructuralist notion of the self as constituted in and through discursive practices (Gee, 2000). For the pedagogy to be successful students should be consciously positioned in a way that challenges dominant representations of undergraduate students and repositions them as co-creators of information. Thus, the writing of an academic essay could be identified as political where the self' is viewed as multiple, situated and partial and located within social, cultural and political domains (Halasek, 1999; Kamler, 2001; Misson 2001).

As a co-creator of knowledge, the writer can also be repositioned as a 'text worker' with a greater sense of active engagement with text (Kamler, 2001). With the help of a metalanguage that allows students to identify the textual features operating in their texts, writers can consciously shape the writing understanding that the text they produce is located within cultural storylines. Attention to linguistics in this critical framework would consciously foreground the power and ideology operating in the text. Subjectivity can then be examined as a relationship between the forms of representation (that is, the 'discuss' essay) and the forms of subjectivity produced (that is, student as co-creator rather than regurgitator of knowledge).

The second strategy - developing a spatialised metalanguage for structuring argument - would assist in continuing to analyse the ways students are positioned in and through discourse by viewing genre as less rigid and static. Kamler (2001) challenges the view of academic essay conventions as more that just the 'tricks of the trade' or 'rules of the game' when she argues that viewing genre as static and rigid 'does little to help the students visualise how to go about making their argument' (p. 93). To help students make a connection between the information they have and its relationship to a particular topic or question, she suggests that likening an essay to a tree - a living, growing entity that contains various parts but that without each part fails to thrive - may be a better way of teaching essay structure. Each characteristic of the tree - trunk, branches and leaves - can be likened to the elements of the academic essay. Kamler believes that this analogy may help to highlight a sense of agency as the writer 'becomes a guide who must direct the reader through the branches while connecting those branches to the trunk [the overall author position] and to the leaves that elaborate on it' (Kamler, 2001, p. 96). Kamler found that when using the tree metaphor students were able to better remember the relationship of the 'parts' (the structural components of the essay) to the 'whole' (a coherent response to a specific topic). This metalanguage could also be called upon to help guide successive drafts.

The third strategy - developing a metalanguage for constructing power in a text - aims to develop student awareness of multiple resources for asserting authority in their writing. Kamler (2001) argues that the linguistic features of theme, nominalisation and modality within the essay can be used as tools for exploring the politics of writing an academic essay. In this way, theme position in sentences, the lexically dense nominalised sentence and the use of modality can be explored for the ideological reasons behind their use in academic writing rather than explored from the perspective of 'learning tricks' to 'please' their lecturers. Kamler strongly asserts that there is a need to view grammar and linguistic features of writing in a way that does not reinforce the 'language as neutral' stance that seems to be the mainstream way of viewing linguistics.

Thus a more critical approach to the teaching of academic writing in an adult university pre-undergraduate bridging program could incorporate the elements of Kamler's (2001) critical writing pedagogy. This would mean that students begin their undergraduate degrees with a greater sense of the academic culture that they will enter and the roles they will play as students in the discourses of this culture. For students to gain a greater sense of agency in their learning they need to be positioned differently at the outset and this is something that I can address as a lecturer in a bridging program. By being repositioned as co-creators of information rather than being subordinated into 'traditional student' roles, students may begin to construct themselves differently as learners and begin at least to understand, if not to challenge, the Úlite ideologies that position them within the culture.


Kamler (2001) argues for a writing pedagogy that primarily benefits the student. She asserts that students need to be aware of the relationships that exist between writing practices and the dominant storylines operating in their lives and in their culture (see also Kramer-Dahl, 1996; Misson, 2001). When writing is viewed from this perspective, it is never neutral or apolitical because the student text is viewed as a cultural, social and political representation rather than authentic 'truth' or 'reality'. Thus, writing is always a political act where the writing is a site for a politics of representation. Kamler (n.d., p. 11) suggests that 'to relocate the personal is thus never simply about technique or strategy but always about power and social action'.

Perhaps it is this aspect of Kamler's critical writing pedagogy that relates well to the literacy course that I teach. The adults who come to the bridging program are those who are, by and large, marginalised by the dominant storylines governing our society at present. For most, upskilling is increasingly synonymous with a university degree and appears to be the only way out of their present situations. The university and all it stands for becomes a ticket to a new and better way of life and students uphold the power and authority traditionally vested in the university by our culture.

From a poststructuralist perspective, providing potential undergraduate students with alternative ways to view their participation in academic discourse may well be an area that I can address with my students. Incorporating Kamler's strategies - developing a metalanguage to reposition the writer, developing a spatialised metalanguage for structuring argument and developing a linguistic metalanguage for building authority in a text - into the teaching of essay writing may foreground both the processes of genre and the processes of wider discourses. This in turn may help to reposition the student as co-creator of knowledge.

Students may then have access to other discourses that will help them to gain a sense of agency, especially when writing in the Úlite academic genres as they begin to gain control over identifying and using textual devices and structures relevant to this genre. When academic writing is repositioned to acknowledge that all writing is personal and that the removal of personal pronouns from the text does not necessarily constitute an agentless piece of writing, writers can begin to explore the essay for its political, cultural and ideological constructedness. This may empower them to engage more with the critical questions of: whose views to include and whose to omit; for what purpose; and what assumptions they make as they draft their essays. It may also help them to answer the question: 'What does this piece of writing do to me and my world?' With increasing control over academic writing, students may find themselves in a better position to use the 'sanctioned' genres to disrupt and challenge the ideologies that govern the successful navigation of an undergraduate degree. More importantly, they may develop a sense of personal agency strong enough to position themselves as co-creators of their own knowledge rather than regurgitators of someone else's.


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Simpson J. & Coombes, P. (2001). Adult learning as a hero's journey: Researching mythic structure as a model for transformational change. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 164-177. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/simpson.html

Author details: Sue McIntosh is Head of the Communications Learning Centre, and Lecturer in Language and Learning in the Skills for Tertiary Entrance Preparatory Studies program, in the Division of Teaching and Learning Services at the Rockhampton campus of Central Queensland University.

Address for correspondence: Ms Sue McIntosh, Division of Teaching and Learning Services, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton QLD 4702. email: s.mcintosh@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: McIntosh, S. (2001). A critical writing pedagogy: Who benefits? Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 152-163. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/mcintosh.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 19 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/mcintosh.html