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Writing about Learning and Teaching in Precarious and Promising Times

writing_about_learning_200x300 (1).jpgScholarly writing ground to a halt in the spring and summer of 2020. Faculty prioritized their own or others’ health, cared for children home from school, joined in uprisings and overdue forms of learning about structural inequities and racial violence, canceled travel plans for research or presentations, and invested time and energy in planning how to teach and learn in unfamiliar modes. The global pandemic and the widespread uprisings against anti-Black racism have afforded both challenges and opportunities to set aside, refuse, and redefine “business as usual.”

In our recent open-access book, Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Creating and Contributing to Scholarly Conversations, we try to demystify and challenge writing and publication processes that serve as implicit and explicit gatekeeping functions in the academy. For too long, academics like us—white authors with safe and stable work in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia—have been allowed to remain complacent in privileged positions. As higher education works to dismantle oppressive structures and develop equitable practices in writing and publishing (as in every arena), we see new possibilities for writing within and beyond “traditional” (mostly Western, mostly white) genres that can move us closer to creating more just and more authentic institutions and educational practices.

Academics must bring non-Western genres into scholarly conversations about learning and teaching. While genres traditionally valued in the academy privilege “Western ways of knowing and being,” it is past time to rethink that privileging, writes Yahlnaaw, a graduate student from Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, who contributed a reflection to our book. Genres such as stories and narratives extend beyond the Western academic tradition and should count as a legitimate form of writing about learning and teaching. Yahlnaaw recalls how cofacilitators of a workshop in which she participated discussed storytelling as “alternative” and “innovative.” But she explains that, from her standpoint, “colonial knowledges came to this land after Indigenous knowledges. Thus, if anything is alternative, it’s colonial knowledges because they came after.” The conversations about learning and teaching in higher education need to include genres that reflect and affirm the widest possible diversity of knowledges and voices.

Writing can help foster identities and clarify values. Some voices in conversations about learning and teaching are perceived by those in power as more legitimate than others. Creating and contributing to these conversations entails not only developing one’s own voice (or voices) but also learning to read, and respect, voices of those with different identities or from different backgrounds. Student authors have advocated for more opportunities to engage with genres of writing, such as reflective essays, that give “marginalized students more of a voice” and help students “realize that our voices matter, our stories matter, we matter.” In 2020, what bell hooks calls “coming to voice”—speaking of one's own volition and in one's own words as “a gesture of resistance, an affirmation of struggle,” especially for African American women—carries new resonance.

We need to reimagine dominant genres of writing: The current times call for higher education to have renewed urgency in legitimizing forms of writing that are conducive to a wider range of people’s learning and experiences. It’s not enough to only include stories and reflective essays, as noted above. Dominant forms of academic writing, such as empirical research articles and case studies, need to shift the research lens “from a deficit view” to one that recognizes and values “the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups.”

While scholarly “productivity” may slow for the near term, as we return to research and publication, we must refuse to fall back on exclusionary practices that have dominated much writing about learning and teaching.

Alison Cook-Sather (acooksat@brynmawr.edu) is Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr College and director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in the United States. Mick Healey (mhealey@glos.ac.uk) is a higher education consultant and emeritus professor at the University of Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom. Kelly E. Matthews (k.matthews1@uq.edu.au) is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Queensland in Australia.

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