The Danger of the Comfort Zone

I don’t care about writing.

For someone with a degree in Modern Languages, who heads something called the Writing Development Centre, who loves literature and language and who winces at grocer’s apostrophe’s, that’s a pretty bold statement.

Many students and academic staff expect that a major part of my role is to be the Grammar Police, waging a war against poor writing, the abused apostrophe, the careless comma, the split infinitive and the dangling modifier. Lecturers ask me to teach students to improve their grammar and sort out their syntax; students perk up when I show them a list of conjunctions which will improve their cohesion, a ‘recipe’ for writing a paragraph or the rules of their/there/they’re. That’s what they want me to do, that’s what they think will help.

In the context of Learning Development though, I care about writing only in as much as it is the medium through which students learn, and through which their learning is assessed.

It’s not even the only medium. Just the most privileged one.

The fixation on the role of writing in Learning Development work, in particular the surface features of writing, is to me indicative of a danger that we, our academic colleagues and our students are looking for the comforting, comfortable solution over an engagement with the challenging, strenuous and sometimes threatening nature of learning. It’s favouring surface learning – factual, unambiguous, tangible and concrete, over deep learning- ambiguous, abstract, context-dependent, constructed and negotiated. And we know that in Higher Education, learners who take a surface approach don’t do as well.

But students like it. Memorising a list of words or set of rules which will make their writing sound more academic is an appealing magic bullet, and not hard to do. Academic colleagues like it. It neatly collects a mess of complex and annoying issues into a one-hour fix-it-all session – delivered by someone else. And learning developers – sometimes – like it. It’s easy to teach, makes us feel authoritative, and is always well received.

But we’re Learning Developers. Not linguistics lecturers, not EAP tutors (though that may be our background), not editors, not the grammar police. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that learning is complex, challenging and difficult. That’s the nature of it. To learn something is to challenge your worldview and identity. It’s our role to help students negotiate that successfully. That makes our work complex, challenging and difficult too!

Teaching students to use language effectively as a medium through which their learning can be assessed and the discourse through which their intellectual identity is constructed and conveyed is part of our job. And yes, that might entail teaching the proper use of a semi-colon, how to structure a paragraph, or signpost with a range of ways to say ‘therefore’. But as Learning Developers, I’d argue that this starts and finishes with that complex learning and that constructed identity and that navigation and negotiation with the world. Getting it right in the head is as important as how it comes out on the page.

I do teach students about how to structure a paragraph, to signpost or use conjunctions accurately and effectively. They’re important. But unless I start with critical thinking and developing an argument in a logical, structured way, I’m just giving students a list of words to be sprinkled like fairy dust over the page, a ‘lucky’ formula to replicate mechanically, lending a superficial air of ‘academicness’ without the learning or the identity which those words are meant to convey to the reader.

Those students who prefer the surface approach and the definite answer may not always respond well to what looks abstract and theoretical, context-dependent. We might worry that we’re going over their heads or turning them off. I agree that we should adapt how we teach, to ensure that we’re engaging all learners, but not what we teach. Higher Education is Higher Education, and Learning Development is more than a set of linguistic recipes and formulas, but an exploration with students about how they learn and how that changes who they are. Let’s challenge ourselves to go beyond the comfort zone, for fear that it’s not doing as much good as it appears.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Danger of the Comfort Zone

  1. I love this post. It encapsulates my own sense of frustration at the seemingly blind pursuit of the perfect treatise from which a student may or may not learn an awful lot.

    I deliver an HND in Computing which, in the past has followed this model. What we have done is to modify our assessment practices to become challenging developmental problems to solve via collaboration, external engagement and a whole lot of creative thinking.

    We do of course, expect that all of the industry standard and necessary systems documentation be grammatically perfect and beautifully crafted, which it is of course when the students have the knowledge and understanding gained from the aforementioned challenge to put it together.

    I am not against writing, I am an avid reader who appreciates beautiful writing. What I want for my students though is the ability to feel confident to function in any environment and be confident in their ability to do… not just write about it.

  2. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #becomingeducational Recognises this post from fellow LDer Helen Webster
    How many times do we see the subtlety and nuance of our work reduced to – could you just check my spelling or from lecturers – they can’t write – can you give them help with their spelling, punctuation and grammar?
    As Helen says in her elegant post below – we are learning developers – and we care about writing as a medium for learning – and of course as the most popular and privileged form through which students will be assessed.
    We typically believe that the elements of writing – that grammar and syntax – will improve through meaningful writing habits and practices… and that where students fear writing and only write for assessment – they will not develop the writing habit that will also develop their writing practices.
    Anyway – Helen says it so much better – so do read her blog.
    Happy summer!

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