Can writing for fun clear your pipes for academic writing?

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Hello again, the prodigal blogger returns. I considered blogging a guilty pleasure, so I consciously steer myself away from it because well I like it too much. For me blogging is in the same category as chocolate or novels, too much is bad for you so I blog mentally and then forget about it (I’ve never tried to eat a chocolate mentally, but maybe I should). If I could just take a mental picture of my ideas and beam them here I would, that would take care of feeling guilty about starting a blog and then, well not blogging regularly…for a couple of months…ok…more than half a year. Thank you to blogging engines for making time visible. I once read that blogging sites are like icebergs with just a minority of bloggers that are active regularly and visible whilst the vast majority of people start blogs and then fade. So, as someone who has been part of the iceberg that is under water, I would just like to say that many interesting things happen under the sea, for example, polar bears swim there. And it’s not to say that Thula Ubhale has not been happening regularly on Fridays because it has, we have been ‘Shutting Up and Writing’ just not blogging (for real, in my case) about it. I return because someone offered me another perspective to the guilty pleasure analogy, Lucia Thesen, an academic writing scholar, said that when she gets stuck whilst writing academic papers, writing for fun frees her ideas and helps her get unstuck. So I am ‘trialing’ her process here. This led me to start another post on how Lucia came to influence my thinking and doing, my acting on the world. I was at a PhD Event and whilst attending presentations I was reminded why it is important hear other students sharing their work. Presentations were chosen to range from those at the proposal stage to those writing up data analysis chapters. And as an added bonus, the coordinators usually asked a recently graduated PhD to speak about their writing process. That in itself is so fascinating but all of this is in another post, coming soon…

“So Let Us Rejoice” (Gaudeamus Igitur)

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I confess that I love graduation, for some it’s a meaningless ritual of colonial imperialism, a signifier of all that is wrong with the academy, dressed in hired costume and faux splendour. Still, for me it’s closure on hours of hard work, of reading and learning, of worrying and sacrifice and sometimes moments of deep despair. A night or day to acknowledge all that has brought you to that point. And a time to thank and acknowledge everyone who has helped you along the way. Many in South Africa cannot finish their degrees for financial or personal reasons or for not receiving the academic support when and in the manner in which they needed it. That’s why I rallied five of the students who I had worked quite closely with to come to the ceremony. I worried that my motives involved my own need for closure but for me it was also a public claiming of time spent on learning; and because they are English second language students, ‘double time’ spent on reading and writing in academic English.

I’ve learned so much about myself from working with these students, lessons in patience, in determination and in perspective. Carl Jung states that adults also go through stages of development: The lowest stage is that of the athlete, where we glory in our bodies and how fit we are and what we can achieve through these bodies. The second stage is the archetype of the warrior, where we aim to conquer and gain. The third stage is that of the statesman where we’ve learned to ask, ‘how may we serve?’ and the fourth stage is the stage of spirit, when the gains are at the level of consciousness and connectedness (Dyer and Chopra 1998).

I think that I am straddling stages, somewhere between the warrior and the statesman

(note: 287 Warrior Synonyms – Other (Different) Words for Warrior and 1 Female Warrior Synonym – Amazon) and that hopefully amongst the academic literacy lessons, were lessons about surviving and the need to serve and contribute to South African education. But more than teaching them to survive and serve, I hope was able to share lessons on how to thrive and value learning for all beings and at all levels.

Most people die with their music stuck inside (Dyer and Chopra 1998). I hope that my interaction with these students created space for some of their light to shine. As they have created space for some of my light to shine through learning with and from them. And so after a more African inspired graduation, with some of the colonial elements but now including a praise singer, a marimba band with drums and the calls and ululating of parents, friends and relatives, I felt the spirit of appreciation for work done. In the words of what should again be sung as an upbeat song… Gaudeamus Igitur…”Let Us Rejoice”.  So Huntshu (Congratulations); Mubarak (Blessings/ Salutations); Veels Geluk (Many Happy Returns); and let us rejoice – Masibhiyoze 20170503_171857.jpg

Send now!!!

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Pps: Mail from supervisor. Stop blogging and ‘Send Now!’

Wagging the dog

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This morning on my way to Shut Up and Write! Thula Ubhale (which unlike my blog posts have continued faithfully every Friday since its inception, barring public holidays – well done to us) I saw a man out for a walk with his small dog who was scurrying next to him trying to keep up. And I thought what a fitting image for my current situation. I feel a bit like that small dog. I am post data collection, now analysing data and writing up my own ideas but it feels like I am speaking in yips, barks and growls.  Much of my day is spent sniffing for clues in the data, spinning round in theory or generally chasing my own tail. I can’t seem to finish this piece I am writing. Today it feels like my thesis is wagging me.

Right, time to “Just do it” like the advert says. Stop the howling, stop gnawing on the bone, attach the draft document and click “Send”. Forget about the colour coded table on literacy transitions included in the draft, forget about explaining to the family why I thought it was a good idea to paint the lounge mat and colour the beige flowers in yellow after including the table.


Here goes…


Ps: We’re sharing the writing on Thula Ubhale in 2017 so ‘Thank You’ Robyn for uploading the beautiful poem in February’s post.

The birds of Thula Ubhale

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Quiet, with mind-wings tucked against our bodies

And eyes darting around the ground of our task

Our flock pecks at the portion of little black stones laid out before us

Hoping that from underneath one

a nugget will be revealed.


Every now and then –

tick-tick tick,tick,tick!

A mad flurry of pecking and a flap of wings as one of our kind unearths a thought

And subdues it in black and white.


She returns flushed from the fight to join the congress

Of bowed heads patiently pecking at the stones.

Barking up the wrong tree: Tips for first-time proposal presenters

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In the School of Education, at my institution, we don’t have a traditional proposal defence. Rather, you present your proposal to an audience of staff and other PhD students who are at various stages of the research process. It is a safe space but also a bewildering one as there are no real guidelines  that tell you what your presentation should entail. However, it is also an academic safe space so the audience has expectations that your presentation will cover specific formal aspects of your research or, that at the least, you are able to communicate that you’re seriously thinking of the more formal aspects of your proposal.  I have found that if these formal aspects of research are not present, the audience spends quite a lot of time trying to illicit from the presenter what the study is about and trying to understand the data collection strategies and other formal aspects of the proposal. Faced with repeated questioning, it may feel to the presenter like he/she is under attack. I admit that if I find the topic engaging, I tend to ask more questions trying understand what the research is getting at. Even if I’m not invested in the presentation or the ideas being expressed, which is almost never, I will listen with attention. If on rare occasions when I am neither invested nor paying attention, I doodle. Once I even wrote a poem. However, when it is someone I like, my questioning increases and I then get anxious and I try and address all the aspects at once. While I’m doing it I realise what I’m doing and I’m torn between saying what I think needs to be said or letting the person come to it on their own. I know that PhD students have to produce the proposal within six months of registration so the clock is ticking. To my mind it seems more valuable to get it all at once than for people to skirt around what needs to be addressed which would leave you with a vague sense of unease but no real idea of the changes you need to make so you’re stuck in a Lassie moment: ‘What are you trying to say girl?” Thus even though I have the best of intensions, I do admit that on occasion my style of delivery may be more like a charging canine, you’re quite taken aback that this previously congenial creature is now barking, growling and snapping its teeth. Needless to say, this style of feedback is not constructive and even though I’m trying to make sure you don’t fall into a pit, the delivery is too threatening. It is even more unfortunate that I seem to do this to people I like (shock, horror, can’t look – show monkey emoticon x3).

So the lesson for me is from Carl Anderson (2000), who writes about teaching high school students to write and suggests the mini lesson, where in each piece of writing, the teacher addresses only one or two important aspects.


And here is the lesson for future first time proposal presenters.  Here is the PhD version of the mini lesson

Tips for the first presentation on your proposal

  1. Slide 1 – a short introduction on how you came to choose the study, your personal motivation
  2. Slide 2 – the context of your study, where it is situated, at a school, university or educare; who the participants are, grade, age, gender; any other relevant details such as country etc.
  3. Slide 3 – What it is you hope to do, for example, I will be watching a science teacher teach her class; I will be consulting with students on their writing; I will be teaching small children to write books.
  4. Slide 4 – Your research question as it stands, indicate that it is still under construction
  5. Slide 5 – The main theories and concepts in each theory that you can link to your study – if you don’t know what these are yet, you can preface your slide by saying these are the theories and concepts I’ve been thinking of using but I would like some feedback on this. I include theory and concepts because it is a bit vague to list theorists or theories e.g. Freud or Bourdieu (which aspects of these theorists will you be using?)
  • Be prepared to define (with references) and answer any questions on the concepts in your questions for example, “Who’s conception of ‘capital’ are you referring to in your question?”
  1. Slide 6 – What type of research is this, qualitative, quantitative, small case study, action research etc.
  2. Slide 7 – Your data collection methods, i.e. ethnographic – interviewing, observations, audio recording; or quantitative, questionnaires, large sample size etc.
  3. Slide 8 – Questions or topics you would like to ask or get feedback on specifically
  4. and 10 – Anything else you wish to include


More important information:

  • Find a number of sample proposals to serve as models of the type of writing you will be doing as soon as possible so that you get an idea of what your proposal should entail. Ask your supervisor, other students or do an online search in your field
  • Ask students who have been through the presentation to read through your slides
  • See critique at the presentation as feedback to make your work better and when the feedback session starts, sit down so that you can take notes frantically. Whatever the audience picks up, your critical reviewers will probably also flag.
  • Keep the images in the presentation relevant to your context and study, what you consider funny at 3am may not be so well received in a room full of academics





The value is in the contrast

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‘Damned linguists…’I said that with amusement to a fellow language and literacy in Education PhD student whilst at a symposium on language held by the Linguistics Departments’ of several universities. I had naively thought that we were all there to speak about language and we were, it just became more obvious to me (like a car without a parking space) that various frames or knowledge systems were present and differed in significant ways from mine. Though the presentations were very interesting in terms of their discussion on language use and their choice of research sites, their conclusions hovered and stopped just about where literacy in Education research would start. I was left with the question ‘so what comes next?’ after each presentation. From a language and literacy in Education perspective, their research would contribute to what literacy Education researchers would call the context, or dynamics of interaction or toward understanding the problem. What became obvious to me was that whereas Education is about action and practice and for me about transformation, these linguists were largely observing what is.

What was even more troubling to me was that though I wanted to talk about the boundaries and gaps between the disciplines, I could not articulate it right then. I realised later that the value of hitting that invisible disciplinary wall was in the contrast, in the differences between language in education and sociolinguistics and linguistics. Noting these differences was an opportunity for me to think about and craft a response that sets out clearly the parameters of my orientation to language in Education within a multilingual context, specifically in South Africa (we have 11 official languages and 6 of these are dominant and locked into a hierarchy of public use that places English first). My primary ideas on language are filtered through Vygotsky’s (1962) statement that “All thought is mediated through language” (cited by Morrell 2008:4). I would argue that language is a resource and that access to multiple languages mean access to multiple resources. Education, I believe needs to use rather than expunge or excise the languages learners and students bring to the classroom. In addition to this, I also believe that learners should be allowed to express their ideas in multiple modes that include images and a range of other sign systems.

What is at stake between disciplinary differences, and my reason for saying that educators cannot remain satisfied with representing what is, is illustrated by Janks’ (2004: 34) portrayal of what happens when multilingual African language children are forced by policy to learn exclusively through poorly acquired English. It shocked me when I first saw that graphic depiction and remains with me still. It is a sober reminder of how a monolingual approach to language and literacy inhibits expression. “Figure 1 is a Grade 3 child’s visual representation of the playground which shows children skipping, fighting, playing hopscotch, playing a chasing catching game” (Janks 2004: 33). In figure 2, when asked to write about the playground in English “The same child’s written text is sparse by comparison…and appears to bear little relation to the drawing” (Janks 2004: 33). It is the sparse English version that would be valued and assessed in school.


So while I acknowledge, appreciate and value the tools, theory, research and insights offered by sociolinguistics and I believe that bridges always need to built, connections made and knowledge shared, I have a new respect for the diversity of disciplines, for the differences and for the contrast. While linguists and sociolinguists are observing what is within the parameters of their field, their analysis of language in schools frustrates the educator within me. This educator, like my inner writer is troublesome. It wants to make learning a positive and an expansive inclusive experience. It is still working out how one does this in the face of various challenges and for various learners young and old but it persists in trying. Often what an academic finds impossible to say is best expressed in the words of a poet “another world is possible and we pledge to make it real” (slam poet Saul Williams, ‘Not in Our Name’).

Theory into practice

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I am reading on critical literacy, for my thesis of course. The importance of ‘the multiple’ is an agreed upon thread in critical literacy theory (we’ll acknowledge the myriad of disagreements in other aspects of the theory and practice and leave it at that). Critical literacy practitioners acknowledge, multilingualism, multiple roles and identities, multiple cultures, multiple perspectives, multiple pedagogic strategies, multiple theoretical strands and multimodalities (to name a few).

This emphasis on the multiple is in opposition to how we so often close ourselves off, choosing our tribes and theoretical allies within the same academic and social circles for years and sometimes even decades. As conflict churns the university and the globe, mixing us up and forcing each of us into the other’s company we are being pushed to embrace the multiple. We are either closing ourselves off or some of us are entering each other’s spaces and entering into dialogue, discussion and exchange. Teachers are doing it for learners and students, we might already be doing it for friends and neighbours. Families are doing it for partners and spouses and showing evidence of my mother’s adage, “Who you hate is going to join your family (forcing your issues front and centre) so make the effort to understand and get on with everyone”.

To what end, you may ask? I keep coming back to Anthony Appiah’s (2008) “cosmopolitanism” which Gutiérrez states is “characterized by the ideals and practices of a shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange in which difference is celebrated without being romanticized” (2008: 149). All of which I think relies on a commitment to remaining open. While I agree with Appiah’s overall argument, I  would exchange the idea of ‘boundaries’ for strands. I would need to reflect on which strands I hold and which I believe constitute aspects of my identity. It means being prepared to be uncomfortable while I try to figure things out. It will mean letting go and re-examining long held beliefs. There will be jokes I no longer find funny. Which new strands I accept will be my choice.

So while our PhDs are forging our reading and scholarship into answering specific questions and narrowing down into the micro, when I read about the importance of multiplicity to critical literacy, I try and remind myself that in other contexts theories play out differently so there is value in getting to know people and learning what they know. There is also value in getting to know people with different theoretical points of view even if they contradict my position because it enriches my scholarship and helps to make me more articulate about what I am expressing through my PhD.

Now go, reflect, then shut up and write.

‘It’s all in my head, I just have to write it’

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It’s mid-afternoon and I have an abstract due for a presentation but it’ll keep because the words, structure and main ideas are all in my head, I just have to write them down. It’ll be a cinch, one hour of concentrated effort at the most.

How many times have you thought or said those very words? How many times do you treat ideas like pennies in a moneybox that if tilted the right way would just fall out and roll onto the page? How many times did you wish the words would just fall out, actually pour out of your head and arrange themselves in the correct thought provoking and theoretically astute order with quotations and challenging questions strategically placed for maximum citation spawning effect?

The words “It’s all in my head, I just have to write it”, is usually met with a moment of silence that you rush to fill with convincing arguments of how into your project you really are…In reality they know and you know, trying to rush writing is like trying to catch dandelion seed. It all looks so easy from afar but when you reach for the seed, it floats away. You might think when people nod at you that they believe you but they’re actually nodding to themselves thinking, ‘Yep, delusional procrastinator’.

Actually, I had four possible approaches in my head which I wrote down and then I used a very reliable method of selection – I trusted my gut, literally. I imagined question time after my presentation and then I discarded all the topics that generated a queasy feeling. Finally my abstract is done and reads well, but then everything does at 3am.

The gifts of age

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I was talking to an academic, she is one of two older academics who are experts in critical and academic literacy, my field. When they talk of retirement and being old I feel slightly panicky, I feel like I am not ready, like the field needs them, like I need them to stay for another five maybe even ten years. When I look at them all I see are their decades of experience, decades of reading, teaching, writing and learning and I am in awe.

Iyanla Vanzant in ‘Acts of Faith…’, tells the story of Nia, who succeeds an old wise woman in the village and as part of the succession, she inherits the wise woman’s tome. The book is decorated with precious jewels and the ceremony where the duties and book are handed over is long. Eventually the heavy book is carried to Nia’s rooms by two men. Alone with the book at last Nia opens it, only to discover that she has inherited a book of mirrors. Annoyingly anticlimactic and thought provoking, I know.

Despite the cautionary message behind Nia’s story and it is quite selfish I admit, I feel like I cannot surrender them to retirement until they have each written a book, left a treasure map. I’d even settle for a book of errors but since one of them has taught me as a graduate, I know that it will be an intellectual inheritance that echoes and reflects the time and energy they’ve spent on uplifting, guiding and challenging both students and colleagues.

When I see them, I have to stop myself from saying, ‘I’m fine, thank you. Now, go ‘shut up and write… the book …please’