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Contextual Origin of the HUM EDU

Education Development in South Africa

In the Current Aims of the HUM EDU we stressed the importance of attending to both ‘epistemic access’ and ‘social access’ in Education Development work. Facilitating ‘epistemic access’ means making explicit for students the specific demands of the ‘grammars of inquiry’, ‘epistemic values’ or ‘gazes’ of the different disciplines (Luckett & Hunma, 2014). It involves unpacking with students how knowledge and texts work so that they can master high levels of reading, writing and inferential reasoning in Humanities discourses. Facilitating ‘social access’ means attending to the development of students’ sense of agency, self-confidence, self-esteem, participation and belonging through recognising and affirming their identities, languages and cultures (cultural and social capital). Recent student protests (2015-2016) have highlighted that universities such as UCT have much work to do to come to terms with their post-colonial context. Many black students do not feel properly recognized or socially included in the SA academy; inherited colonial ways of doing things have failed to integrate the habituses of new kinds of learners into the academy and many of the old social hierarchies remain. In the HUM EDU we work to roll back these inherited structures and to promote the recognition of indigenous cultures and languages in our pedagogic and curriculum development work.

The educational challenge of providing ‘epistemic access’ to the academic disciplines is not new. It has been variously addressed through a range of approaches developed to teach reading and writing or the ‘academic literacies’ to undergraduate students (Boughey, 2010; Gee, 1996; Ivanic, 2004; Lea & Street, 1998; Street, 1995; Tapp, 2015). Lea and Street (1998) identify three models of student writing in higher education: study skills, academic socialization and academic literacies. These are briefly discussed below in turn.

The ‘study skills’ approach is a ‘skills discourse’ where the focus is on the explicit teaching of decontextualized rules and patterns of language - where writing is viewed as a unitary, context-free skills set that is transferable across contexts. Early ED interventions from the 1980s in South African universities adopted this approach (Boughey, 2010). Such interventions were typically bridging, non-credit-bearing and ‘add-on’ and did not engage with disciplinary content or disciplinary specific ways of using language. This approach has been severely critiqued for assuming an autonomous, instrumental view of literacy and a deficit model of  ‘disadvantaged’ students. It is now widely accepted that a major limitation of this approach is the separation of skills (knowing how) from specialized content knowledge (knowing that).

In the ‘academic socialization’ approach the focus shifted to embedding the ‘knowing how’ in the ‘knowing what’. The nature of the disciplinary discourses and their genres were identified in an attempt to make their demands explicit to students (see for example Hasan & Williams, 1996; Hyland, 2000; Swales, 1990). Despite the importance of the shift away from generic to discipline specific ways of writing, the ‘academic socialization’ approach has been critiqued for taking as given the discursive demands of powerful institutions and ignoring students’ needs, identities and experiences.

Drawing on the New Literacy Studies and critical discourse analysis, the ‘academic literacies’ approach views literacy events as culturally situated social practices within powerful institutions and discourses that have ideological effects that implicate students’ social identities and values. The ideological stance of the academic literacies approach claims to be critical and transformative; it looks beyond the text to challenge unequal social relations within particular institutional contexts (Coffin & Donohue, 2012). The focus of this approach is on the student lived experience and on what is at stake for writers, with regard to identity and power relations, when confronted with conventional academic texts. Texts are viewed as dynamic, hybrid and open to contestation and change - writers are encouraged to recognize but also resist orthodox positionings. This approach is interested in how students articulate their voices in academic writing and how institutionalized conventions constrain the meaning-making potential of non-traditional students. The academic literacies approach has been widely adopted by ED practitioners working with ‘disadvantaged’ students in South African universities where ‘educational disadvantage’ gets re-framed as socially and culturally constituted by a colonial society through the imposition of its hegemonic linguistic, curricula and pedagogic ‘social practices’. ED practitioners adopt this approach to challenge the power differentials in contested colonial literacy practices and to validate the cultural and semiotic resources or ‘subjugated knowledges’ brought to the academy by non-traditional black students. This approach is empowering for learners from oppressed social groups. It helps them find a voice and take a position against dominant and often alienating cultures. Perhaps more importantly, as a pedagogic strategy, it provides safe social spaces where students can practice acquiring ‘knowing how’ to read and write academic texts. This approach is adopted in some of our Introductory Courses, particularly Language in the Humanities and Texts in the Humanities.

However, the academic literacies approach does not easily translate into an explicit pedagogy. Instead, it is assumed that students will acquire the necessary academic literacies through participation in socially situated literacy events, where sustained participation eventually generates the production of socially purposeful (and resistant) texts. More recently, some educationists working in the ED field in South Africa have picked up on arguments made by the social realist school of the sociology of education on the importance of ‘bringing knowledge back in’ and avoiding the ‘blind-spot’ of more constructivist approaches that tend to (over)-emphasize the learning experiences of the knower. This approach argues for the importance of recovering knowledge as object and resists reducing knowledge to knowing and learner experience. It views knowledge practices as emergent from but irreducible to their contexts of production. The term ‘epistemic access’ has been introduced to capture the emphasis of according knowledge an ontologically independent status. This approach continues to build on the work of the ‘academic socialization’ approach but works more critically with knowledge and well as texts. This approach informs our Introductory courses, particularly the Numbers in the Humanities and Concepts in the Social Sciences courses where we offer explicit pedagogies on ‘how to do’ academic tasks embedded in authentic contexts. In the latter we attempt to make the different lenses of the Social Science disciplines explicit. This approach also informs our training of the ED TAs with a view to helping them make explicit for their students the specific demands of their own disciplines.

In designing our interventions we first did some research on the nature of the target Humanities disciplines by analysing exam papers and interviewing lecturers about them (Luckett & Humna, 2014). Building on Bernstein’s (2000) assertion that in the Humanities the ‘ideal knower’ must possess a privileged gaze, Maton (2014) defines a gaze as ‘a canon introjected’, based on a ‘shared library’ or ‘invisible tribunal’ of knowers that becomes the basis for inter-subjective debate within a community of knowers. This analysis suggests that the Humanities progress dialectically, through strong sociality and contestation; through building knowers rather than building knowledge cumulatively. Given that in most Humanities disciplines the subjectivities of the knower are implicated in the knowledge forms (termed ‘knower codes’), we concluded that both approaches are complementary in ED work – i.e. the ‘academic literacies’ approach (that focuses on the subject - building knower agency and attributes) and the ‘epistemic access’ approach (that focuses on decoding the object/ text – trying to make explicit how knowledge and texts work). The former is particularly important for working with students from subordinated cultures; the latter is particularly important for students whose cultural capital does not have affinities with that of the writers of the texts they must decode. We therefore encourage the use of both approaches in the HUM ED curricula. In fact we would argue that to focus exclusively on one or other approach would be to limit the potential of our interventions.