Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Do We Allow What We Encourage? How Students Are Positioned by Teacher Feedback(1)

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Do We Allow What We Encourage? How Students Are Positioned by Teacher Feedback(1)

Article excerpt


I have been working for some years on the self-identities that university students create in their academic writing. Much of my research has focused on addressing the need for teachers to recognise that students have a right to put themselves into their academic writing, that is, to write with voices of their own. Ultimately though, the classroom is the context for literacy learning and thus I believe that it is necessary for us to not only examine our teaching and grading behaviours, but also ask ourselves if we implicitly allow our students to be who we explicitly encourage them to be.

Recent research has similarly questioned the soundness of traditional notions of academic writing, advocating instead that students be encouraged to inhabit roles of their own choosing in their writing (Clark 1992; Ivanic 1998; Lillis 1997; Tang & John 1999). However if we take the social view of identity (e.g. Brooke 1991), the view that a person's identity is not an `inviolate core ... [or] fixed consciousness that never changes' (Brooke 1991, p. 15), but a social construct dependent on surrounding circumstances as well as the social relationships in those circumstances, then we must recognise that who our students are depends in part on who we are. To encourage students to create certain textual personas, the teacher-role that meets those discoursally created student-roles during the course of marking must be one that allows those student-roles to exist. Although there are numerous channels by which teachers respond to students' ideas, the focus of this paper is written feedback, arguably the most common teacher response to student work.

In the following sections, I explore the negotiation of authority between teacher and student, presenting nine roles that we may take on when interacting with our students. I discuss the feedback practices one might expect to associate with each role and focus on the extent to which each role exerts control over the student.

The negotiation of authority between teacher and student

In terms of the power relations that can exist between a teacher and a student in a tertiary setting, I suggest that there are four main possibilities:

1. The teacher as the absolute authority

2. The teacher as the benevolent authority

3. The teacher and student as equal authorities

4. The student as the authority.

I further suggest that we see these not as pre-existing hierarchies or subject positions, but as positions that are implied by strategic actions. In reality, it is likely that the teacher is almost always the expert and authority, but we can by our actions imply something different. Our job when responding to students' writing is to decide on the messages we wish to convey to our students, and the positions that we wish to imply for ourselves and for them.

Teacher roles and teacher feedback

The issue of responding to students' work has been reviewed widely (e.g. Ferris et al. 1997; Moxley 1989; Straub 1997; Zamel 1985). It is my purpose here to give only a brief overview of the work that has directly informed this current project, focusing firstly on the roles that teachers adopt during marking, and secondly on the various kinds of written feedback.

Roles adopted by teachers during marking

I suggest that, in providing written feedback, teachers commonly take on a number of different roles which can be grouped according to the four possible teacher-student power relations discussed above.

It is not difficult to find mention made of the roles that teachers inhabit while marking. Purves (1984) puts forward four reasons for reading a student's composition--read and respond, read and judge, read and analyse, and read and improve, and relates these to eight roles of the teacher-as-reader: the common reader, the proof-reader, the editor, the reviewer, the gatekeeper, the critic, the anthropologist/linguist/ psychologist, and the therapist. …

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