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Exploring the Nexus of Identity and Academic Writing

By Debalina Maitra
 | Feb 27, 2019

The day I started to work toward my PhD in literacy education, I began to believe profoundly that reading and writing are socially constructed, as many researchers (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Halliday, and Lev Vygotsky) claimed. However, when I really started to struggle with the expectations of academic writing, that was the moment I realized just how underestimated and unexplored the nexus of cultural identity and academic writing is in the field of literacy instruction.

Then, I met many other bright international and culturally diverse scholars going through the same ordeal. My own frustrating experience with academic writing finally helped me to produce my dissertation. Focusing on undergraduate students, my study used rigorous qualitative data analyses to explore how teacher educators can better teach academic language to culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

For my study, I interviewed five participants three times throughout the semester about their academic writing experiences and perception. The participants were also asked to share two writing samples—one they enjoyed writing and one that they did not.

My study found that students were more likely to enjoy writing when they were able to write about their own lives. Students also appreciated when they were able to negotiate with professors about writing expectations or new ways of approaching an assignment. These findings suggest that voice and autonomy are important factors in creating more positive writing experiences.

My study also revealed that perception and experience of academic writing were reciprocal to the students, meaning they did not differentiate between those two components. All five participants mentioned perception and experience components back and forth to refer to their academic writing approach, process, strengths, and weaknesses. My research also revealed that people with multicultural and multilingual identities often go through identity conflicts and eventually they embrace their both identities and uniquely create an amalgamation of both spaces. We, as educators, need to learn to work in that third space to maximize student potential by recognizing students’ background, ethnicity, and linguistic resources and scaffold them in that zone through those tools.

Some may argue that certain disciplines offer more opportunities for scaffolding through culture and language. However, my study found that many students’ academic paths are rooted in their cultural identity. For example, one participant chose to study chemistry because he wanted to use his knowledge of food economics to build healthier eating habits in his Hispanic community. He wanted to create an awareness in his community of the negative health impacts associated with a high-carbohydrate diet. Knowing this, a teacher educator could more easily assign him a writing prompt that explores his specific interests in chemistry.

Another participant mentioned that she decided to study biology because she learned to respect nature from her Venezuelan culture. She also mentioned that her writing style was more centered on personal anecdotes than on hard facts. For example, she wrote a narrative on the environment, explaining what would happen to the future generation if the environment is not protected. Teacher educators should always give students choices about their approach in academic writing or talk to students of color to understand how they are trying to proceed with their class writing.

Certainly, high-impact teaching can cause high exhaustion, and getting to know all students and their background can be a challenge. On the basis of my research findings, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Get to know each other. Teacher educators can set up an introduction where students might introduce themselves in multimodal mode. Students can be asked about their culture, language, and countries whenever applicable. This will help students feel welcomed and connected.
  • Be flexible. Whenever possible, teacher educators can give students opportunities to write about topics that are relevant to them. That means teacher educators can adopt an open-ended writing prompt, as long as students meet the end goal of that task.
  • Establish expectations. I feel it’s crucial for teacher educators to clearly state the task, audience, process, format, and assessment criteria for a writing assignment and explain how it fits into the larger curriculum, so that students understand the expectations.
  • Be available. My research also revealed that the availability and approachability of teacher educators influenced students’ perceptions of academic writing. When teacher educators were willing to talk to students outside of class or help them shape their writing, students took advantage of the help. However, when teacher educators directed them to the writing center or other outside resources, students felt discouraged. Therefore, I recommend that teacher educators clearly communicate their availability and willingness to offer support.

Most important, we need to accept that literacy is not just specific to content areas, but an extension of who we are. Let’s consider who we are outside of the academia, because reading and writing is not just cognitive acts to make 21st-century teaching more relevant to students’ lives.

Debalina Maitra has a PhD in Literacy Education from University of Wyoming and a minor in Qualitative Research Methods. Her dissertation research focused on academic writing and cultural identity of culturally and linguistically diverse undergraduate students. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher for CAFECS (Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science), a NSF-funded Research Practitioner Partnership grant in Chicago. Her research is focused on equity in computer science for culturally diverse students at Chicago Public Schools. She is particularly focusing on Hispanic students and trying to build an equity framework.

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