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Why a South African Association for Academic Literacy?

I’ve been thinking about starting a South African association for academic literacy and writing centre practitioners for quite some time now. So much so that even my PhD research is focused on the liminal identity of academic literacy and writing centre practitioners in the South African landscape. I’ll get to the link between identity and the literacy association in a minute, so just hang in there. We seem to function in a kind of ‘betwixt and between’ place – between the world of the academic and the world of support. I am not arguing that these two spaces are at logger-heads with each other. But they are nevertheless the categories that have been established at higher education institutions, and therefore have a kind of ‘push and pull’ effect on us. Our identity as AL practitioners rests on a continuum, and we constantly move along that continuum, back and forth between these two spaces – academic and support. Context and positionality is really key to which way we swing on the identity continuum. I have found this myself over the years and at different institutions. At a previous institution, my colleagues and I would often talk about what ‘hat’ we were wearing that day. In a single day, we could move between vastly different spaces requiring different skills and knowledge, and necessitating a shift in identity: in a single day, we could move from the very intensive one-to-one consultation space at the writing centre (adopting a more ‘academic’ identity), to teaching up to 180 ESL students general academic literacy (taking on a support identity), to lecturing MA: TESOL students (again, taking on an academic identity), to meeting with lecturers and providing guidance and advice on how to incorporate writing instruction into lectures (adopting a mixed identity). What we do is complex and requires movement between multiple identities – identities which may not always ‘fit’ within the pre-defined identities that have been shaped by traditional university structures; this is especially true when the nature of AL differs from institution to institution.

But I suppose the important question to address here is ‘so what?’. Does it really matter how we identify as professionals, or where we are positioned in the higher education space? I would argue most definitely yes, as these issues have the potential to impact the kind of provision we are able to provide for students (and staff). Our beliefs about academic literacy and our approaches to it – think Lea and Street’s three models – have the potential to affect how we position ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) within the university. Of course, our positionality is not always up to us and institutional understandings of who we are and what we do also affect the kind of provision we can provide. If we are positioned as peripheral, marginalised members of the academy, then our provision may be viewed in this light, which could affect resourcing and ultimately the amount of intensive and focused support we know our students need. If, however, we are positioned as being integral to student success and work very closely with the disciplines, we can function in a more integrated way, and perhaps more resourcing could be on the cards. There also seems to be a general lack of understanding on the part of institutions about what exactly the field of AL is. Many practitioners find themselves having to explain, time and again, what it is we do and why it’s important. This is not necessarily problematic in itself, but these explanations, at times, border on defences. Having said this, I do think we have agency to change this misunderstanding. We can build relationships with faculty and management, continuously embark on awareness raising activities about the work we do, and, importantly, collaborate with staff and students to produce support that drives higher education forward.

So what does all of this have to do with a South African association for academic literacy and writing centre practitioners?

The aim of SAAALP is to provide AL and writing centre practitioners with their own space. This space, then, will be for like-minded South African practitioners to discuss key issues affecting the field, share ideas and insights into best practices, and be a supportive community of practice for each other. Through this, my hope is that we can continue to professionalise the field of AL and the work of writing centres in South Africa and share our fantastic work on the international stage. Some of our initial initiatives will include a podcast, a blog, an area on the website for resources (such as readings and materials), a mailing list with the latest updates and activities of SAAALP, and an annual conference. Ultimately, I hope it will be a space for innovation and advice from fellow practitioners to ensure the future development of the field and the best possible provision for students.

I’ll end my piece here, with a final invitation for you to get involved and help grow SAAALP into something spectacular. Remember to fill in the membership form to join and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

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