Scholarship and Practice

Finding a Voice

Lucy Rai

My own story is one that I have told many times to colleagues. It is the story that explains how I became involved in scholarship of teaching and it still underpins my work. Just to backtrack a little, I began my career as a social worker working with children at risk. It was a career I was motivated to enter as I wanted to help people change their lives when they were facing disadvantage, discrimination and family instability. The reality of my experience of social work practice, however, was that as an employee of the system I was part of the problem. The people I was working with were not able to claw their way out and my role too often seemed to be at best damage limitation and at worst making the situation worse for people. This was highlighted most strongly for me through an experience which ultimately resulted in me leaving social work practice.

While working in an inner city child protection team, I was allocated responsibility for a young mother who had had all five of her children, aged seven years downwards, removed into the care of the local authority following very serious physical abuse of her eldest, a seven year old boy. This mother was also raised in local authority care after her mother came to the UK from Jamaica and was subsequently detained in a psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. The five children of this mother were placed in three different foster homes, all but one being with white families. Despite precautions put in place following assaults on two previous social workers, I was seriously assaulted by her and experienced post-traumatic stress as a result. This was a very emotionally difficult experience for me personally but it also indicated the level of mental distress this woman was experiencing. She was later diagnosed as having a ‘personality disorder’, a label which seemed at the time only to indicate to professionals that she was mentally unstable but ‘untreatable’.

But this was not the point. The point for me was that I was working with the third generation of a family who were in acute need and, to my mind, the system was failing for a third time as another generation of children entered the care system. I felt I was part of a system which was unable to stop the patterns of personal and institutional harm. These systemic failures of immigration, the impact of racism on care provision, the limitations of hospital and community care provision for those with mental health and parenting needs all provide a context to a story. A story taking place in the context of institutional discrimination which made me aware of the importance of understanding the identities of learners.

So to return to the story—it begins like this. I was working as a tutor and volunteered to take on some additional work to offer a support session to a group of students who had been identified as needing help with their writing. I arrived in the classroom with a pile of grammar books under my arm and a lesson plan based on writing correct sentences, making a plan, structuring an essay with an introduction, main points and conclusion—familiar stuff to most educators. I had not been given any information about the students who would attend my session other than that they were social work students. When my group arrived I looked into the faces of eight women, all of whom were of African Caribbean heritage.

My recent social work background may have contributed to my instinct to stop and listen before I opened any of those grammar books. Two hours later the books remained closed and a door had opened to the scholarship that I have continued working on for the past twenty years. During these two hours I listened to stories from these women and they fundamentally changed my understanding of education and academic writing.

The lesson I learnt that day was in many ways very simple. Learning to participate effectively in higher education is not (only) about acquiring skills and knowledge. It is about developing an identity and ways of communicating which are significantly more accessible to some students than others (Bowel 2000; 2001, Lillis 2001). This is probably not a statement many would argue with, but the institutional practices around teaching, tuition and, in particular, assessment were failing to effectively respond to this challenge, and this is largely still the case (for example Evans et al 2019; Pitman et al 2019; Pang et al 2019). This was my moment of realisation. My motivation for moving from social work to education was to teach, I had no real interest in research. But this experience changed that. The only way in which I could have an impact on the practice of anyone other than myself was through giving a voice to these students, and the only way to make those voices heard in academia was through research and publishing.

Let me explain. Here are the voices of some of the students who participated in the first scholarship I undertook, which arose directly from that first writing class. These are some of the ways in which they talked about their language, the language they grew up with and used with family and friends:

Broken English

Not exactly academic English

Not proper or the Queen’s English.

When writing at University I have to resort to English

Patois is a comfortable dialect which you use with people you’re comfortable with

I don’t have to explain myself in Patwa

After I recognise your voice (as a relative) I start to speak Patwa, it would be so easy to communicate…you just speak it and then you just laugh about it, you know, make a joke, and you just start laughing! (Rai 2001)

So when I listened to the stories of these women, and the students of African Caribbean heritage who were in my subsequent research, I heard the voices of people who felt their first language was not a language in its own right but a lesser version of English. More importantly it was not a language which enabled them to express their true identity.

As a result of listening to these voices I wanted to find out more about the languages these students spoke, to challenge my own limited understanding of something central to some of my students, I learnt just how unhelpful to think of patois / creoles as dialects or ‘broken’ forms of English or any other European language. These languages reflect the rich linguistic as well as the social history of their origins. The history of patois goes beyond the scope of this chapter, but I will offer a couple of examples which illustrate my personal learning. Each patois / creole language reflects its individual linguistic roots, which include West African, European languages and languages which predated European colonisation such as the Taíno language (Dalphinis,1985; Edwards, 1991; Sebba 1993). As a result the grammatical structure is significantly different from English so shifting between the two is not just a matter or vocabulary or pronunciation. Writing and speaking in English for native patois / creole speakers involves learning new grammatical structures using both familiar and new vocabulary. The grammar of these languages is not an incorrect version of the colonising European language. It is a grammar of its own.

My early research with this specific student group also raised my awareness of the fact that these students sometimes found it difficult to express themselves freely in an academic context because they needed to speak and write in a language with which they did not identify. This does not only apply to students of African Caribbean heritage. I was particularly significant for students in social work education where so much of the learning and writing was reflective and so required students to draw on their ‘use of self’ (Rai 2008). Higher education placed an effective additional hurdle in the way of students whose home language was not a standard form of English. Social work as a discipline placed an additional hurdle by requiring not only that student wrote using academic English, but that they also drew on their authentic identity through their reflective writing.

The use of the language we grew up with and use with friends and family is significant for everyone but the impact on identity expression is greater when this language is considered as an imperfect version, as broken or improper and not to be used in the context of work or education (Rai 2001; Rai 2008). The students I interviewed described this sense of exclusion which was reinforced repeatedly across their experiences of education. Painful stories were shared of accusations of cheating in exams when ‘correct’ English was used, of being placed in special needs classes due to needing language support, of being excluded from academic classes and encouraged to focus on sport. These are all real testimonies shared by students and it was the power of their stories which led me to focus on the themes of identity and emotion in my subsequent research on student writing. Reflecting on these stories also led me to a body of literature which shifted the focus from an individual deficit approach to understanding academic writing to one which took a critical stance on the institutional context in which writing takes place (for example Lillis 2001).

But there was another lesson. The ‘problem’ here was not individual students with gaps in their academic writing, or even use of English skills. The problem was institutional, not only in higher education but across the whole education sector (Lillis 2001; Lillis and Tuck 2016; Tuck 2016). There are many barriers which regulate who is heard, whose writing promotes academic success and whose voices are marginalised. Marginalised students include those who enter higher education through a non-traditional route (Bowel 2000; 2001, Lillis 2001). Amongst these are students whose home language, the language which most authentically communicates their identity (Rai 2001) is not the language of education and work.

It took some time for my own scholarly confidence to reach a point when I could reflect on the imposter syndrome that so many of my student research participants described which arose from not having followed the traditional route into higher education (Rai 2008; Chapman 2017). I had been very privileged in my schooling, attending a good university after a productive gap year working as a social work volunteer. As a white British daughter of a doctor who attended a good school and moved on to a good university I had no reason to feel an imposter to the academic world, but this is how I felt. It was the discovery of an old school report that reminded me of the reasons for the emotional resonance I felt with these students. The report said “Lucy is a very able child until she puts pen to paper.” That was it. That was the total assessment of my academic ability as a twelve year old. The reason for the comment was that I had always found accuracy in writing very difficult, particularly in relation to spelling. I was very aware that however good my ideas and comprehension were, the presentation of my work would result in criticism. Exercise books covered in red pen marking each error. In my educational experience and ability to write accurately equated to academic ability, so without the former I could not have the latter.

Despite the perceived limitations on my academic abilities, I was able to perform well enough to graduate, to achieve a social work qualification and to be appointed as a lecturer in social work in further and subsequently higher education. However a voice on my shoulder reminded me quietly that I was not a scholar. Although I didn’t have a clear rationale at the time, I shared with these women an implicit understanding that written communication was a powerful force to allow or impede participation in the academic world. It was only the experience of listening to the stories of the African Caribbean women talking about their sense of exclusion from education that motivated me to undertake scholarship research in order to make a difference to the opportunities of other non-traditional students.

Writing, which in my childhood seemed like a barrier to academic credibility, became a central focus for my scholarship. My research into the experiences of African Caribbean student writers led to my doctoral studies, focusing on student writing in social work. I learnt that writing has a remarkable potential to regulate the participation of learners, teachers and scholars. To regulate whose ideas and experiences are heard. The codes which govern and legitimise the form of writing which is considered to be effectively academic run across student writing, scholarly publications and professional writing. Marginalised students include those who enter higher education through a non-traditional route (Bowel 2000; 2001, Lillis 2001). Academics can also be marginalised. For example academics for whom English is a second or third language but need to publish in it as English is the required language for international scholarship (Lillis and Curry 2018; Curry and Lillis 2017, Rai 2018). Such marginalisation can arise from the ability to access these technical codes but also from the authenticity which arises from identities which sit easily within the institutionally accepted codes. By codes here I am referring to expectations of academic writing, frequently implicit, which are applied to the writing of students and aspiring authors. These codes span from surface features of language (spelling, syntax and grammar) through to vocabulary and expectations of argumentation and structure which may arise from the discourse of the curriculum or from institutional practices (Rai 2008; 2004). For those who are familiar with these codes they are invisible and self-evident until writing breaches the code, when they jar, they stand out as errors which raise a red flag, questioning the writers competence. Not only competence as a writer, but their competence as a scholar. The validity of their ideas.

As a scholar I have listened to students talk about their feelings of demoralisation and frustration when the feedback on their work focused disproportionately on correcting spelling, grammar and citation methods, to the exclusion of engagement with the ideas. My childhood experiences in school enabled me to empathise strongly with them, but my role as an educator struggling to feel like an insider led me to be cautious about questioning the value of a heavy focus on the surface language errors. As I write this chapter now I am sure that to the outside world I am a comfortable insider to academia. I have a research doctorate. I am a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Authority. I have published academic articles and books and I have been a university lecturer for over 20 years. On paper I am an insider.


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Voices of Practice by Lucy Rai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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