Unsilencing Academic Writing: Fostering Decolonial and Anti-Racist Teaching Practices
Blog Summary: Can academic writing be a powerful tool for dismantling colonial legacies and fostering social change? As an essential skill in higher education, academic writing promotes critical thinking, effective communication, and in-depth research. However, it is often overlooked and is increasingly undervalued within academic institutions. I have witnessed the sidelining of academic writing programs, with some institutions opting to remove specialist instruction and integrate the skills into other courses. This approach fails to recognize the unique expertise and pedagogical insights that specialist academic writing instruction offers. However, academic writing instruction if invested presents two opportunities 1. to encourage critical engagement and key academic skills and 2. to develop further pathways to decolonise the university. By prioritizing decolonial and anti-racist teaching practices, I believe academic writing classrooms can become spaces to challenge colonial narratives and support marginalized perspectives, fostering inclusive knowledge production.
Can academic writing be a powerful tool for dismantling colonial legacies and fostering social change?
As an essential skill in higher education, academic writing promotes critical thinking, effective communication, and in-depth research abilities. However, academic writing has been increasingly sidelined or seen as a non-specialist subject within academic programs. I have seen also a number of institutions choosing to scrap academic writing programs taught by specialists altogether and for the skills to be taught by non-specialist lecturers and integrated into the main program.
This is a mistake for a number of reasons.
The Problem of Academic Writing
Firstly, content lecturers lack the knowledge and skills of writing outside of their fields of expertise. Often lecturers I have worked with, who are brilliant writers, are not great writing teachers. Students require teachers who can engage with their words and provide them with tools to allow them to express their ideas clearer, more critically and with interest. A lecturer in a main program - say creative business, or law and politics for example - must focus on facilitating concepts, theories and practical skills within their field. Communicating those concepts is an additional skill. Navigating the complexities of academic writing can be a daunting task for students and educators alike, as it requires mastering a wide range of skills and adhering to specific conventions. Students must learn to express their ideas clearly, develop strong arguments, and engage with relevant literature, while educators face the challenge of teaching these complex skills to diverse learners.
By sidelining this essential skill in higher education institutions as educators, we can hinder the development of students' critical thinking, communication, and research skills, ultimately limiting their ability to excel in their chosen fields. To counteract this trend, institutions must invest in dedicated academic writing centres, offer mandatory supplementary writing courses, and support faculty development to understand writing-specific issues and how writing specialist can support their work. By doing so, we can equip educators with the tools and resources they need to teach academic writing effectively and emphasize its central role in higher education. However, this is not all.
The Colonial Challenges of Academic Writing
Richard Delgado (1990) speaks on the importance of voice in legal storytelling. Legal scholarship, and indeed teaching, should reflect the diversity of voices in society. However, as Delgado reminds us legal narratives - in fact, a great deal of academic writing - are often told from a white, male, heterosexual perspective, and argues that academic writing should embrace a broader range of perspectives to be more inclusive and reflective of the diverse experiences of people in society. We need academic writing streams to be taught more than ever. Not only to provide students with vital education in learning common academic writing practices to be able to speak on the level of scholars, but also to become spaces to critique colonial and Eurocentric writing practices which gatekeep how an academic voice is presented.
The traditional focus on western, Eurocentric perspectives in academic writing can inadvertently marginalize diverse voices and reinforce existing power structures, making it difficult for students from non-western backgrounds to engage with and succeed in academic writing and express their own epistemological backgrounds. As educators, we must also grapple with the responsibility of addressing these biases and creating a more inclusive learning environment that values diverse knowledge systems and perspectives. But, inadvertently we may be;
reinforcing systems that silence this diversity of communicative and epistemic agency. The traditional academic writing curriculum tends to emphasize particular conventions and forms of expression. As a result, academic writing can be seen as a colonial tool, privileging certain types of knowledge and perpetuating Eurocentric perspectives. This dominance of one worldview inadvertently marginalizes diverse voices and perspectives, which are essential for fostering critical thinking and promoting a more inclusive learning environment. By recognizing and addressing these inherent biases in academic writing, we can work towards creating a more equitable educational landscape that values diverse knowledge systems and perspectives. But, this requires skilled and knowledgeable academic writing lecturers and collaboration with anti-racist teachers.
However, this is not the case academic writing instructors are the saviours. In fact, we might be the problem too. Throughout my academic writing career, I have noticed a trend toward essentializing academic writing down to functional and structured forms. This is then taught to students as paragraphing structures, language for signalling, hedging, or formality. Referencing becomes seen as a format that must be adhered to or there is punishment awaiting if it is not.
This all ignores notions of collective knowledge, and how referencing is meant to showcase a dialogue. Our works as scholars are choruses not monologues. The drive for perfect positivist objectivity takes away the passion for academic writing, where we showcase through our words the importance and impact of theories, concepts, and real-world issues. Academic writing is more than form - it is how the mode of communicating knowledge as being meaningful to others.
Often writing courses enforce 'white' normativity. In one situation whilst teaching I tried to get a small change to the curriculum and add texts and a workshop to challenge how the students wrote their CVs and Cover Letters for volunteer placements in the Global South. This was rejected as a non-issue for writing lecturers. Another time I had a student write unintentionally racialized concepts because they did not know the language to address the issues in their own work around race - and did not know the term intersectionality. Again this follow-up workshop was rejected.
Our writing programs embed whiteness.
Erin Manning's work reveals how whiteness often goes unnoticed in academic writing, leading to the validation of specific knowledge while excluding others. Based on my own experience I see it is important to reframe academic writing as a discursive arena that embraces a wide range of voices, unsettled meanings, and plural perspectives. This shift challenges us to reconsider the impact of academic writing on the broader educational experience.
Students are not ignorant of these issues. Indeed students are more aware than ever of the need for social equity within and outside of academia.
Decolonial and Anti-Racist Approaches
My work has long been centred on voice. I can see we need a plurality of academic voices, speaking their own idiosyncratic ways of speaking.
The transformative potential of academic writing courses can be unleashed through the integration of decolonial and anti-racist approaches. Critical pedagogy seen in the works of bell hooks, Cynthia Dillard, and Paulo Freire, (and newer works by Anke Schwittay for example) provide valuable frameworks for reimagining academic writing teaching. By integrating their ideas, we can create inclusive classroom environments that encourage open discussion, foster a sense of belonging for students from diverse backgrounds, and promote a movement toward opening up academic writing. This transformation requires us to recognize and actively address the systemic issues that have shaped the field of academic writing and commit to fostering a more equitable educational experience for all.
The Need for Collaboration between Content Lecturers and Academic Writing Lecturers
Establishing strong connections between content lecturers and academic writing lecturers can create a more cohesive and effective learning experience for students. This collaboration can take various forms, including interdisciplinary writing projects, joint workshops, and shared resources. Such partnerships can help break down the barriers between disciplines, enrich the academic writing experience for all students and better prepare them to address pressing global challenges. Content lecturers need to recognise the specialist skill teaching writing issue and on a shared basis of anti-racist and critical pedagogy, new approaches can be created.
In conclusion, academic writing is an essential skill for higher education success and has the potential to become a powerful tool for social change when approached through decolonial and anti-racist frameworks. By reorganizing academic writing teaching to address the challenges outlined above and fostering collaboration between content and writing lecturers, educators, and institutions can create dynamic learning environments that empower students to engage critically with their studies and become agents of change in their communities and the world at large. The future of higher education depends on our ability to recognize and elevate the significance of academic writing courses, ensuring that they serve as spaces for inclusive, empowering, and transformative learning experiences. Embracing these changes, we can collectively work towards a more just, equitable, and inclusive higher education landscape.
If this is an area of interest to you, feel free to contact me via the button below and perhaps we can share ideas to collaborate on decolonising academic writing and building the essential critical communicative abilities of students.