Written English: where does enabling stop being enabling?

The Language and Identities in Interaction Research Unit at JournalsYork St. John University has recently published the first in a series of language related policy issues in higher education, on making higher education more Deaf-friendly. I’ve had a number of reservations about this, which I am discussing with them in a series of emails (and which I hope to blog about at a later date), but for now, I want to explore one thing that has been nagging in my mind as a result of this exchange.

Written English¹.

While it may, arguably, be possible for a Deaf person to go through their undergraduate degree submitting all assignments in BSL and accessing their curriculum in BSL (as the position statement recommends, points 1.c and 1.d) I do think that for an academic this may be impossible. Even if the protocols of having a PhD thesis or an academic article translated from BSL into English before being assessed could be agreed upon, I fear the cost (always a concern) may be insurmountable. As a student climbs higher in his or her subject, they have to do more reading. Even the sciences, which base their results on experiments which require less English reading to understand, still have to do literature reviews. For the humanities, which base their evidence on other texts, written English is everywhere. For those who wish to work in academia eventually, a publishing record is a must, as universities and academics are judged at present by a score worked out from this record (the REF). 9 out of 10 journals across the world are written in English. Yes, it may be possible to get them translated, but at what cost?

It is critical, therefore, that a deaf student wishing to go on to study at a higher level, have a decent command of written English. Without this, as things stand, they will not succeed.

Unfair? Perhaps. But I would argue that for someone to succeed at these rarified levels, they must have a certain level of intelligence. Not to be a genius necessarily – any one who studies at these levels will be able to tell you about this student who was brilliant and who everyone thought would go on to be a doctor and they didn’t cos …. well.. reasons. Often the duller tortoise wins that particular race. But a certain level of intelligence, yes. That is required – to understand the work of other people, to be able to explain concepts, to be able to communicate (in whatever language) what is in their heads. THAT is a requirement, and why, when it comes to study at postgraduate level, most universities ask for at least a 2:1 in a bachelor’s degree.

My argument would be that if you have that intelligence, then you should be able to read and write written English. It may be difficult, I grant you. I had to learn a foreign language in my second year at undergrad level, because it is occasionally necessary to read texts in that langauge in my field. I struggled with it – I found that my grasp of grammar is very instictive and I don’t really understand the underlying rules that dictate the way that language – any language – is used. My eyes still glaze over when words like nouns, pronouns and verbs are used – and this language was taught that way. The final exam involved the interpretation of passages in that language and I scraped through, scoring in the mid 50s. My lowest score for an exam at uni, and I still worked my butt off for it! But that was a language that I am not surrounded by, a language that I had only been learning for three months. For D/deaf people who have that level of intelligence (important qualifier, that), who are surrounded by written English all the time, all their lives, it arguably should be easier to learn than I found it for my foreign language [and yet, it seems that this may not be enough, as this study shows].

I would be really interested to do an informal assessment on those few people who have managed to succeed at University, who have done postgraduate degrees, who have gone on to enter academia, write journals and books, to assess whether they feel comfortable with written English. Do they feel able to understand works that they read in English? Do they submit things in English? Do they have people who read through their works, checking for grammatical errors, that sort of thing?

This becomes even more of an issue because of something I read the other day somewhere. A student at a college was unable to graduate from his course because the government had decided that all people who didn’t have GCSE level C in English and Maths, needed to obtain this level before they could graduate from a college course [a fuller discussion of this can be found here]. While, granted, studying at postgraduate level is very different from studying at GCSE Level (or Level 2), with a totally different demand on one language skills, the same core argument applies.

How much should it be possible to legitimately demand that deaf people have a certain skill in written English? Where does the line lie between being unthinkingly obstructionist (as is is with the student I just described), and enabling study to a point where … actually, you’re not doing the student any favours by allowing them to NOT use written English?

And perhaps even more to the point: what can we, as a society, do to help deaf children leave school with better levels of literacy in written English, so that access to written English is no longer an issue for students wanting to study at postgraduate level… and beyond?


¹please note, throughout, I am discussing WRITTEN English and not spoken English. Spoken communication is, of course, a different issue.



Thinking time – what it is and how to get it

Time03Now on the other side of my first article for an academic journal (well, sort of, still got some bits to sort out but it’s on hold while my personal tutor gives it a read through) I want to write about a few things that occurred to me while writing it. The first is time: the last time I wrote about time it was in reference to study time, and how being deaf can affects it. For this article, it is about thinking time.

Regardless of what discipline you are studying, if you go for postgraduate study – or even, I would argue, during your undergraduate dissertation – you will need to think, and think hard. I certainly had to do so in the last week or so, while writing my article – so different to writing an essay, or even writing for the blog – and I found myself returning to old practices as I worked…. namely switching everything off.

At one point I even went and plugged my smart phone in in another room, I certainly turned off all social media, and the only person who had any access to me on Instant Messenger (my partner) got told in no uncertain terms not to bother me unless the house was on fire. And even then… !!!

But that enables concentration while working, while actually typing. And as one book reminded me, before I started writing my article, in many ways, putting fingers to the keyboard is the very LAST thing we do, not the first. Rowena Murray’s Writing for Academic Journals is highly recommended – she walks the reader through the entire writing process, from identifying which journal you plan to write for, examining one’s own reasons for writing, and introducing various writing tricks, some of which I put to very good use, and which will be very useful in future. The tips she gives for writing really help to get writing done when you’re in a position where you don’t have a day at a time to write – but only chunks of time, say two or three hours. She walks through planning for documents – whatever it is, essays, articles, the same principle would apply, and suggests that planning is key. Most people plan – they may do intro, main, conclusion. Some will do it to level two – intro – what that includes, maybe 5 points, the various points in the main, the points in the conclusion. But virtually no one does it to level three or four, breaking THOSE points down, right down to the fine detail. She suggests that we think about verbs to use in these points – what are we doing in those bits? explaining? analysing? describing? Following her method, a substantial chunk of time will be put into developing your plan, far more than it takes to write the document in question BUT writing the document will, she suggests, be substantially easier, as you’ve already worked out the kinks, the questions, your linkages, etc. throughout.

And that brings me neatly back to the subject of the article. Time. Doing it her way (and I do recommend it – I partially did it for the article, and it did work – to a point, but the failure was mine, rather than her suggested methodology) means hours and hours of thinking, cross checking information and references, rethinking, revising – you’re almost writing it without writing it. And that thinking process is absolutely key. Because it is only in that thinking process that you are able to develop the questions that you ask yourself, your studies, the massively important questions that enable you to take a completely different look at your subject.

Let me give an example. The story of how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin is fairly well known and oft-repeated – you can google it if you don’t know it. But what’s key is not so much the accident that caused the inihibited bacterial growth. What’s key, and what ALL academics share, regardless of discipline, is the thinking process, the critical thinking. Fleming saw the mould and instead of sighing in disgust at a ruined experiment and how he would have to start over and the time and expense wasted… he stopped. He thought … “ooh. that’s interesting”. He realised that the bacterial growth was being inhibited by something, and set out to discover what that inhibitory factor was. And from that thinking process developed the antibiotics that you and I use today, that revolutionised medical practice.

Now, most of us won’t have this kind of effect on humanity, it must be said, but at the same time, it really highlights the importance of that critical thinking process. Stella Cottrell’s Critical Thinking Skills is a book that promises to develop those skills, but regardless of whether you purposefully act to develop them or not, they must be prominent in your activity as an academic.

But doing this, and taking the time to think through your studies, is increasingly difficult in the modern world. So here are my suggestions for taking that time and using them productively:

  • Turn everything off. Even the internet, unless you need it for your writing. But certainly, have as little open as possible. For me, most of the time, that’s MS Word, and possibly 2 web pages linked to my university library and the Oxford English Dictionary. Certainly you should not have social media like Facebook, Instant Messenger, etc. open. For people who need to have access to you all the time, tell them you’re working and ask them not to bother you.
  • Put your smartphone in another room. The temptation to just check if you’ve got that email yet is otherwise overwhelming. Promise yourself regular breaks at which you CAN check it, every half hour or so.
  • If you’ve done a level 3 plan the way that Rowena Murray advises, decide what you’re going to write in this session. If you’ve got 2 hours before you need to leave/start cooking dinner, then look to see what you can do in that two hour window. If you get to the end of the two hours, leave yourself a note as to what needs to be done next. This is a simple idea but so critical – you think you’ll remember, but honestly, you won’t. Schedule 15 minutes to write, in DETAIL, what you need to do next on that bit of writing and any other thoughts you’ve had.
  • Sometimes a blank page – whether digital or actual paper – can be the most terrifying thing ever. If you’re struggling with writer’s block – even at the planning stage – then walk away from your desk. Do something else. Trust me, your mind will continue to work on the problem even while you’re swimming/walking the dog/mowing the grass/tackling that huge pile of washing up. Try to make it a solitary pursuit though – so not down the pub with your mates. Unless….
  • ….Sometimes, talking through a problem with a fellow student, a critical friend, can be extremely productive. yes, that process can happen in pubs but probably best done elsewhere! If you have a friend in the same sort of field, with the same sort of aims as you, then its a good idea to ask them about a joint critical process – i.e. he bounces ideas off you, and vice versa. You can also act as proofreaders for each other, and help each other to stay on focus through several drafts of an article/essay.
  • Another way of getting around the time issue is to think about it while doing something else. I have to drive a certain distance every morning and evening to drop off/pick up my partner from the train station. I find that often, I do quite a lot of good thinking en route. Hearing people could possibly verbally record some of their thoughts into a smart phone as they drive: as deaf people, we’re denied that option. I do try to get to the pick up point five minutes early, though, so I have time to jot some thoughts down – either into an app on the phone or a notepad that I keep in the car.  Whatever you prefer to do while you’re thinking stuff through, make sure you get to paper as soon as possible after so that you can jot stuff down – or you’ll lose it. Its a good idea to keep pen and paper near you during this period at all times as ideas come at the most awkward of times. On the loo. in the middle of the night (I make myself very unpopular with my partner, doing this one…!).
  • Asking yourself specific questions (smaller than your subject question) is another good way to deal with writer’s block. What does the title mean? how will you confine your answer if the question is just too big to answer within the word space? Other useful questions are: what are your motivations in writing this? who is your target audience? Rowena Murray’s book deals with these kind of prompts extensively.
  • Finally, if you don’t have a critical friend, you can have a conversation with yourself. You’ll feel pretty daft the first time you do it, but try putting a cushion into a chair opposite and imagine that you have to explain your subject to the cushion. Even better if you can imagine the cushion is a real person. Don’t just do this in your head – there’s something about the act of verbalising (whether in spoken English or sign language) language to someone/thing else that makes things more real. Often when explaining things to other people, you’re simultaneously explaining to yourself. So, make that process work for you. Imagine its the world’s stupidest cushion. Explain, in 1o minutes, why your subject is massively important! This is what the Academic Support Kit calls the “So-What?” test – if you can’t explain why other people should care about your work, then you won’t hold a reader when you write about it.

Do you have any other methods for finding and using that thinking time? If so, feel free to email me on deafstudentuk at gmail dot com – I look forward to hearing from you!!


Brief asides – writing academic articles, problem 1

HeaddeskPeople: learn from me.

If there is EVER, any possibility, EVER, that you will use your work (whether dissertation or essay) to construct an article, write down every single bit of bibliographical detail that is required. NOT just what your uni requires!

The article I am now writing wants the name of publisher in all the refs. This is an article springing from my undergrad dissertation. A dissertation that only used the place of publisher.

I am now faced with going back and redoing all the refs… my undergrad dissertation had 115 footnotes, and the bibliography was eight … read it and weep … eight pages long. Dear god. Kill me now…