A review of “Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Creating and Contributing to Scholarly Conversations across a Range of Genres” by Mick Healy, Kelly E. Matthews, and Alison Cook-Sather
[This review was written for the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, JLDHE initially; but then we couldn’t agree on issues that I considered too important to give up, especially when reviewing a book like this one, and criticising it the way I do. So I withdrew my submission, and decided to go with the blog-post alone.]
What does a book on academic writing need to deliver? That depends on what we want academic writing to be. Academic progress happens not only because we think: it happens because we are all different, we work differently, we think differently; and if we manage to draw on each other’s experiences, insights, and questions, we can think further than before, sometimes even further than we had ever imagined. For that to happen, we need to write. For that to happen as widely and as well as possible, we need to write in a certain way: so that others will read what we have written, understand what we mean to tell them, and get engaged to think about it. Could this book help with that? Yes – and no. There is a lot that is remarkably good about this book; but in other aspects it really disappoints.
“Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education” is authored by Mick Healy, Kelly E. Matthews, and Alison Cook-Sather: three people from three different countries and different backgrounds; all of them with vast experience in higher education and writing about it. The book comes in two versions: a printed and bound one of roughly 400 pages, available for $22.95; and an open access online one (details below). Both share the same content, but the online version offers additional ressources as well as some pictures; the printed version comes with no extras.
The proclaimed goal pursued with the book is “to model and to support the creation of and contributions to scholarly conversations about learning and teaching in higher education” (p. 3). The content is structured into six parts: on the background of the book; the importance of writing; the preparation for doing that; the most common genres it is done in in higher education; doing it well; and getting it published and discussed. Each part is sub-divised into chapters, whose titles clearly tell what they deal with, e. g. chapters 7 to 9: writing alone or with others, choosing an outlet, slecting a title. The chapters come with in-set boxes of “reflections” (by other people) and “our perspectives” (by the authors, differing in experiences, opinions, and preferences). In the actual text of the chapters, the authors describe what currently is practised in the world of scholarly writing, and what that means for scholars aiming to write. Each chapter uses questions to activate and guide the reader/aspiring writer.
Although the book has three authors, it does not fall apart by authorship but really works as a whole. And it covers the whole process of academic writing in a wider sense, not just the part sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: from thinking about who you are and want to be as an academic writer, to making sure your published thoughts and academic persona get the deserved recognition. The authors give numerous examples from their own experiences, and they give their different perspectives and often differing opinions – something readers of German might have seen most prominently, and surprisingly to some, demonstrated in “Lust und Last des wissenschaftlichen Schreibens”, the joy and burden of academic writing (Narr and Stary, 1999). Yet here the different perspectives are to be found not in separate chapters but side by side, making the differences more obvious and the contrast therefore more powerful. One of the main examples referred to is the writing of the book itself: not just telling but showing how things can work on writing and within the writing process, with others and with said differences, really helps. What helps as well are the guiding and activating questions in every chapter that I mentioned before. These questions might seem small at times, but they are valuable far beyond the space they occupy.
So a young scholar might find lots of information in the book that can help to reduce fear and build up the confidence to write more, and more successfully. The language is not too hard to understand either. Why am I still not happy with the book then?
The book is simply not a joy to read. Valentin Groebner, historian and author of a so-called manual to academic language, once stated wisely: nowadays storage space is not limited anymore – but reading time is; and since publication numbers rise, the pressure on this reading time increases enormously. I do not see people spending their valuable time on working through 400 pages of this book, for several reasons.
The first is physical: the binding of the printed book is so badly done that the book will not stay open (unless one is willing to break the glued spine). Then there is the typography and the editing: one really has to work through all of the writing to find the most important pieces; they do not stand out. Sometimes they even seem buried beyond a huge number of verbatim quotations: where those are used as examples, they make sense; where they are not used in that way, quite often they don’t. Much of the problem seems down to the fact that the book is neither fish nor fowl: it is not an academic study on writing, but does not want to be just a guide to writing either. And although the language is not too hard to understand, it is not a joy to read either: it just isn’t lively enough for that. Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing” and Paul J. Silvia’s “How to Write a Lot”, both referred to in the book, show very different ways of writing about academic writing. Silvia’s book for example (especially the first edition) is so short and so much fun to read that it can be enjoyed over a coffee break, which is why it is read indeed. There is a real need for books with helpful advice to aspiring academic writers; but these books need to take the readers’ situation into account. Those academics who consider writing not a pleasure but a burden that comes with the job, and who need to read endless publications all day, mostly not well written either: why would they work through another 400 pages of non-joy? So they probably won’t. The few who do will definitely not learn that academic writing can be a joy to read – and should aim to.
Yet that is what I expect from a book on academic writing: to show not (only) what is done right now, but what could be done better. Academic writing is not characterised by a certain style or changing conventions on citations: it is characterised by its function within the process of academic work. Academic progress relies on the questioning of what is thought now to seek new insight – and that refers to academic methods and conventions as well. Sword’s book for example does that extremely well on writing; it really encourages to push the boundaries of current standards without ignoring the situation of someone just starting out on their career. “Writing about Learning and Teaching” on the other hand only hints on possibilities, e. g. in chapter 11 on “extending the conventional writing genres”; but overall it is not critical enough.
The online version – when read on the website, not downloaded as one PDF file – is different in showing mainly the questions mentioned and giving everything else in small PDFs. The extra ressources offered online I find disappointing; they do not make much of the possibilities that come with a non-linear medium. In both versions I do not see much specialised content for what the authors and others call SoTL/scholarship of teaching and learning either, apart from the choice of genres they concentrate on.
Within the extra ressources offered online, there is a template for writing a review: https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Template-for-Writing-Reviews.pdf. That is just shocking to me: academic discourse – and reviews supporting that process – should be all about original thought and the purpose pursued. Copying other people’s sentences is not what we should do, and tell others to do. Instead we should teach them how to express their thoughts in words of their own.
If you aim to read only one book on academic writing, better not make it this one: if you just want to get into writing (more/faster), get Silvia’s book, preferably the first edition; if you really want to improve the way you write, get Sword’s, and maybe Peter Elbow’s “Writing with Power”. Yet as an addition, “Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education” is worth checking out, especially if you want to know more about (collaborative) writing processes, and SoTL genres. Do not buy the printed version; it is worse because of binding and typography, and not worth your money. (I know, I spent mine.)
open access online version:
free of charge
Elbow, P. (1998) Writing with Power. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Groebner, V. (2012) Wissenschaftssprache: eine Gebrauchsanleitung. Paderborn: Konstanz University Press
Narr, W.D. and Stary, J. (eds.) (1999) Lust und Last des wissenschaftlichen Schreibens. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp
Silvia, P.J. (2019) How to Write a Lot. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association
Silvia, P.J. (2007) How to Write a Lot. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association
Sword, H. (2012) Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press
Natalie Struve is a freelancer teaching academic writing at German universities and research organisations (and sometimes European PhD conventions), as well as coaching academic writers of all levels. She considers writing the Swiss army knife of academic skills, and is passionate about discourse as a means to better the world.