defining a contribution – #studythewriting

So you are going to write a paper/book/thesis. You suspect – no, you know – that you’ll need to state your contribution at the outset so that the reader knows what to expect. So it will helpful, as part of your preparation for writing, to examine the ways in which other, perhaps more experienced, writers have accomplished this same task. This is going to mean studying some published texts.

Studying the writing of others requires looking not simply for the technicalities of their writing, but also the work that their writing does. In this post I’m going to ‘show’ how I approach a small chunk of text to see how it’s been constructed and to what ends. In this necessarily brief ‘show and tell’, I’m looking to see how two co-writers define their place in the field and the contribution to be made.

41b-N9JHl4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The text I’ve chosen is the introduction to an edited book called Reconceptualising professional learning. Socio-material knowledges, practices and responsibilities. In this title the editors, Tara Fenwick and Monika Nerland, have flagged up that this book is not the same as all the other books about professional learning – it is a “reconceptualisation”.  An ambitious goal. They have located the book in a field of scholarship through their use of the term, “socio-material knowledges and practices” -this relates to particular theoretical approach. The title also signals that the editors perhaps have an imagined reader who, even if they are not yet knowledgeable about this particular field of study, understand at the start that this is what the book is about.

The opening three paragraphs of the Introduction set the stage for the rest of the book. The writers position the text, not simply within a particular field of study and on a specific topic, but against a dominant public policy agenda. I have copied the first three paragraphs below in ordinary font, with my subsequent, necessarily brief, commentary in italics.

Paragraph One:
We were driven to begin this book by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we have been increasingly excited by the innovative research on professionals’ learning that has burgeoned in the last decade. This work has upended old orthodoxies and generated new worlds of nuance and analytic tools, working from early insights afforded through sociocultural approaches and a re-centering of practice as a significant mode for learning. The authors we have invited here represent a small portion of the many voices now reconceptualising professional learning.

The opening sentence talks about being “driven” and “conflicting emotions” and it’s not what one might expect in an academic text. Aren’t academic writers supposed to be dispassionate?  Not here. Through this opening gambit, the writers not only bid for the readers’ attention, they also suggest their own emotional, as well as intellectual, engagement with their topic. It’s something that they care about, a lot.
The writers then discuss the field of study, and the location of the book within it. They establish that there is a schism in the scholarly field – “On the one hand” – with an ongoing line of scholarship now disrupted by a new tradition. They and this book are part of the new. They then add some detail about the new, suggesting that it is better/more insightful – it’s “exciting’ work which has “upended old orthodoxies” to produce “new worlds of nuance”. This is evaluative writing in which the reader is left in no doubt about where the authors stand. The reader is told that the reason for the superiority of the new  is the focus on practice and the use of a particular theoretical orientation, sociocultural theory. The writers then suggest that readers ought not to expect to find any of the orthodoxy in the collection. They justify this omission, anticipating criticism, by suggesting that theirs is not a minority pursuit, this is only a “small selection” of what’s available. They suggest that there is so much of the “new” now being done that it is no longer necessary to go through the motions of representing the debate. It is legitimate to present this “new” work as a corpus.

Paragraph Two:
But, on the other hand, we must admit to feeling some despair. Large amounts of policy and curricula for professionals’ learning and assessment continue to be generated that use models long since debunked and abandoned by educationists: de-contextualised individual competencies, disembodied cognitive decision-making and de-materialised knowing and practice. Public policy in particular is notorious for responding to any new crisis of public service delivery by calling for training of individual practitioners. Professionals continue to be isolated, trained and measured, bracketing out the tangled webs of relations that constitute professionals’ practice and knowing, and ignoring all the research that is now showing not only how these webs work, but also how we can trace them and work with them to facilitate learning.

The writers next establish the warrant for the book in policy and practice. They locate their concerns about the orthodoxy as it is currently manifest in social-professional life. The writers begin by referring again to their visceral response to the problem as they see it – policy-makers’ refusal to take on board current research understandings. They then outline the problem – the continued use of an outdated model – and its characteristics – before going on to suggest its consequences – professional isolation, training and measurement. They conclude by suggesting what the new lines of inquiry would bring to the table. Their use of adjectives such as “debunked”, “abandoned” and then “disembodied” and “de-materialised” constitute a strong critique. The use of ”notorious” ascribed to public policy is an appeal to the reader – don’t we too know this about policy respons, training as the answer to all things? The amplification of the critique is made through the use of contrasting descriptors – “isolated” and “bracketed out” for the problematic policy,  compared to “tangled webs” for their new approach.

Paragraph Three:
While this book is unlikely to halt such regressive sorts of currents, we are hoping that it might help accelerate the more promising counter currents. In this effort we are building on a special issue that we co—edited for the Journal of Education and Work (January 2012) entitled ‘Reconceptualising professional learning in a changing society’. Perhaps the different studies presented here will offer some useful language, concepts or methodological tools for those seeking to clear new paths of understanding. At the very least we aim to affirm the work of those professional educators and researchers struggling to reconceptualise professional learning to embrace its inherent messiness, its embodied materiality, and its cultural and historical dynamics.

The writers state what they hope to achieve in the book. They say firstly what they think the book won’t do. It wont’ change the world. Through referring to a previous special issue the writers simultaneously state their track record while also adding that disrupting the policy problem outlined in the previous paragraph is an ongoing project. They then specify what is on offer in the book – language, concepts and methodological tools – and offer their bottom line objective – to affirm the benefits of the approach they advocate. Through this they again position the book a “useful” “promising counter currents” (a swimming against the tide metaphor), “clearing new paths” (a metaphor which summons up images of impenetrable jungle or unexplored territory) –against all that is“regressive” and backward looking.

The notion of the book being new, grounded and better is maintained throughout the first three paragraphs and its is an integral part of the rhetorical thread holding them together.

In order to better understand how the writers have constructed their argument, and to feel how it might be to write in this way, it is also often very helpful to put your own content into the pre-existing syntax. You might also experiment with constructing a rhetorical thread of new/old throughout to see how this might work for you.

Sentence skeleton

1. I/we was/were driven to begin this book/paper/project by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I/we have been increasingly excited by
the (name the kind of research/policy or practice) that has developed (over a given time period/in particular place/in a particular discipline or institution). This work has… (say what it has done in theory/method/practice in a couple of sentences).

2. But, on the other hand, I/we must admit to feeling some despair. (Now talk in two or three sentences about the ongoing research/policy practice you are critiquing – it does particular things with particular kinds of consequences, things that you want your work to answer back to. Say what these are.).

3. While this book/paper/project is unlikely to halt such (name problem in different words which add to what is already said), I am/we are hoping that it might help accelerate the more promising counter currents. In this effort, I am/we are building on (summarise track record). Perhaps this book/paper/project will (state a realistic outcome). At the very least, I/we aim to affirm the work of those… (return to talking about the research/policy/practice that excites you).

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to defining a contribution – #studythewriting

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Reblogged this on Observations of a tired sOul. and commented:
    Now this is how to approach a contribution!


  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thanks Pat!


  3. I love this analysis. I also love Nerland. Thanks Pat.


  4. researchex says:

    The Sentence Skeleton looks immensely helpful!


  5. Al says:

    I love this. As I progressed with my research I have become very interested in a new (related) topic, and have been trying to show my supervisors why it excites me so much. But I haven’t been able to communicate it very well. It doesn’t excite them. These sentence structures really help me communicate why I think the research could make an important contribution. Thanks Pat.


  6. Pingback: talking ‘the contribution’ of a journal article | patter

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