According to an opinion that has been widely spread in academic in recent years, the overall quality of student writing and the perceived standards of student literacy has been on decline for a long time. Many members of academic staff today believe that current students are incapable of proper writing and, therefore, think that educational programs need to be revised in order to reestablish these standards. This initiative is usually referred to as ‘back to basics’ – it is implied that by assuming that students need their training to be started at lower, more basic level, it will be possible to reteach them and return the high standards of the past.
There is, however, another point of view, that tries to take into account the problems of identity and the relations of hierarchy, authority and power present in writing practices carried out within higher education. According to this ‘academic literacies’ idea, it is not the quality of writing that is at fault, but rather the traditional systems of evaluating written works, which do not longer meet the demands of changing situation in the world of education and academic writing.
Traditionally, it has been considered that when learning academic literacies – that is, the practices of reading and writing within a particular discipline – students had to adapt their own written practices and competences to that accepted in the academia. In other words, codes, conventions and formats existing in academia have always been accepted at face value, as something that is not to be discussed but rather accepted and learnt.
The academic literacies approach, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that understanding academic writing means studying the writing practices that already exist both among students and academic staff. The point here is to observe and perceive literacy not from the standpoint of good and bad writing in their traditional understanding, but from a sociocultural point of view, without defining any practices as correct and proper or incorrect and improper.
Proponents of the idea believe that currently the research of student writing falls into three general viewpoints, three ways of understanding student writing: that of study skills, academic socialization and academic literacies correspondingly. Those supporting the academic literacies approach do not consider their viewpoint being superior to two others; rather, they believe that academic literacies include main characteristics of two other perspectives.
Student writing as study skills means that literacy is a set of skills and competences that are to be taught and learnt. If there are any deviations from them, they are to be fixed.
Academic socialization suggests that the main task of the tutor is to introduce students into a new culture – that of academia. There is less focus on fixed principles and more on student’s own interpretation of tasks.
Finally, academic literacies approach in certain ways includes two previous approaches and perceives literacies as social practices – that is, learning and writing processes have more to do with student’s identity than with his or her skills or degrees of socialization.