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Critical Review of Helping Students Meet the Challenges of Academic Writing

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Critical Review of “Helping Students Meet the Challenges of Academic Writing”

Academic Writing for Graduate Students (Athabasca University)


MAIS 606

28 June 2013

Critical Review of “Helping Students Meet the Challenges of Academic Writing”

     Linda Fernsten and Mary Reda rock the ivory tower in their presentation of feminist writing strategies that better student achievement outcomes in traditional academies of higher learning.  To meet the needs of diverse student populations in North American institutions of higher learning, in their 2011 article, “Helping Students Meet the Challenges of Academic Writing,” Fernsten and Reda advance critical reflection as a teaching and learning tool for effective writing within academia and society at large.  Critical reflection is posited by Fernsten and Reda as both a method and practice whereby teachers assign reflective questions and students complete reflective writing exercises to establish a reflective practice of thinking and writing in order to accomplish academic writing tasks.  Writing is reclaimed as a life affirming journey by way of guided reflection, personal journaling, and intimate sharing circles based on equality among all members, leading to the discovery of one's own voice of authority and writer’s identity. Taking into account differences in written language and in recognition of student diversity, Fernsten and Reda demonstrate and advance critical reflection as a new and effective subjective approach to teaching and learning to write for the purpose of communication consistent with the attainment, transmission and generation of knowledge within institutions of higher learning.      In response to a 2008 writing directive issued by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) calling for various approaches to teaching writing, Fernsten and Reda contend that critical reflection meets the NCTE objectives of self monitoring and modification within the reflective writing process as students learn the basic principles of revision plus awareness of their writing decisions and strategies.  Drawing on the 1992 theoretical works of M. Lu, in Conflict and Struggle: The Enemy and Preconditions of Basic Writing, who finds socio-economic status variables have varying effects on student performance in traditional academic settings and where race, class and gender have marginalizing affects, Fernsten and Reda propose an avenue for creating change.  Through the adoption of the method of critical reflection, the writing process is transformational by way of improved learning and enhanced performance; students identify personal sources of struggle to gain social, cultural, and political authority in their own being through the reflective writing process in acknowledgement of their own lived experience.  

     Fernsten and Reda bring identity politics to the forefront in their presentation of pertinent literature where they reference underlying assumptions operating in academic settings some fifty years past through to present.  The literature reflects the reality that not all students have the same starting point upon entry to institutions for higher learning.  They acknowledge in the literature the existing biases and oppressive measures that challenge the success of students from diverse backgrounds. It is further acknowledged that, in the open learning environments of today, not all students are from privileged educational backgrounds prepared to meet challenges of formal academic writing. By further providing historical details about the theoretical progression of student aptitude and preparedness for higher learning, Fernsten and Reda highlight social, cultural and political dimensions otherwise repressed within discussions of attainment of higher education while emphasizing the most basic skill requirement, that of written communication. At face value their journal contribution presents a method of critical reflection for the improvement of writing, completion of writing tasks and subjective authenticity in written submissions. Upon critical review however, a deeper message of “consciousness raising” (DeVault, 30) comes into full view, a call to continue to challenge the existing status quo that dominates the structure and production of knowledge within higher education (Kaplan, 339 & 343).        The work of Fernsten and Reda serves to rebuke the longstanding assumption that there is a right way to write within academics in accordance with an institutional voice of authority.  Their method of teaching gives recognition to the conflict within and surrounding the student writer in the context of successful performance within academic institutions.  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that Fernsten and Reda suggest their method of critical reflection is new in the year 2011 when in fact such strategies of personal reflection connecting the private to the public sphere of knowledge through written communication has been a longstanding feminist writing strategy in academia.  Feminist writing strategies recognize and value the subjective voice in connection to material produced in opposition to adherence to an objective or neutral stance enshrined as the appropriate way in which to approach scientific research (DeVault, 39).  Feminist writing situates the self at the centre of one’s own creative process in order to develop one’s own argument from the perspective of the personal. Insight achieved through reflection and analysis of one’s lived experience informs the writer’s perspective, the writer is personally involved in the learning process, and the quest for knowledge (Belenky et al. 120-124).    For equityseeking groups and supporters of egalitarianism, perhaps most appalling is the fact that educators are still struggling to achieve equality of voice and authority within academic institutions so that they may in turn increase the diversity of voices contributing to the knowledge base.          

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