Starting a ‘movement’ of voice

I go to conferences sometimes.  I always present something because I don’t see any point in going unless my name is on the docket and — reality — it is now the only way to get money to go. There are always hot topics in nursing education; the past couple years it’s been simulation and NCLEX prep (the translated American to Canadian nursing registration exam). Transition from student to grad nurse seems to be everywhere these days as well. Years past, grade inflation was the big topic. I have often — no. Correction — always — had little interest in whatever has popped up as the hot topic of the decade, which has always made me feel a bit like an anomaly. Off and on for 10 years I’ve been going to conferences and presenting something about writing. And I am the only one talking about the subject. I have moderate sized audiences, though, and the attendees usually want to bitch about how bad students write and how big a problem it is.

(As an aside, I am also anomaly in feeling our student writing isn’t that bad at all — most of them anyhow — they write just fine when they feel their writing is valued).

At the last conference I was at, one senior administrator (no, not my own) raised her hand and said, “I would like to thank you for taking this on.”  Thanks. I need some friends. In my discipline, I feel pretty alone.

Nevertheless, every once and a while nursing does something brilliant about writing in the published literature.  There are only spots of brilliance in a pool of the mundane and superficial. How do we say that in academic voice?  There is a paucity of literature on this subject and what exists in the published literature is primarily anecdotal and refers to local contexts. For all the style guides that warn of the weakness of euphemism in writing, academic writing is really good at sophisticated euphemism: anecdotal and local contexts, vs. mundane and superficial. The latter is a little mean, isn’t it? The article I quoted in the image (Ryan, Walker, Scaia, & Smith, 2013, p. 297) is an exception and far ahead of the curve of where actual thinking about writing currently stands in the nursing discipline. That quote is the reason why I wanted to start this blog. There is so much that can be said when you aren’t governed by the need to cite everything — and you can use slang and contractions and funny punctuation like double-dashes, ask rhetorical questions, drop the occasional four-letter word, and sometimes even fragment sentences are OK (if for emphasis). Ironically, the ellipsis in the quote is a citation I removed (rebel!). There is a good chance it was cited more because it inspired the point rather than because it made the point.

I’ve never been one to be very good at not just saying out loud what I think. It’s got me in trouble on more than one occasion. I find blog writing easier because I can share my reflections that can’t go into my papers in their raw form, and I can write in a semi-controlled stream-of-conscious style. It is freeing to let go of structure and rules — neither of which I am very good with in real life anyhow. But paradoxically I find academic writing easier because of the ability to hide my real voice which is sometimes contemptuous, sarcastic, and critical. Like most women, I’ve been socialized that I should never make others feel bad, not even accidentally or if by telling the truth. Sometimes my real voice sends me into a tail spin of anxiety and embarrassment.

I wrote these sentences into a recent and pending paper I am working on:  Nursing students’ devaluation of writing can only exist because their instructors and their programs allow it to. While the importance of writing skills for nursing students is emphasized in every publication, the wider profession devalues its importance. 

Those phrases never made it past the first draft. I never send my first draft to my co-authors. So while they never got to read those sentences, they did get to read my track changes side comment a paraphrase of which was: I wrote (paraphrase of above sentences) in the first draft. I took it out because I’m not sure the world is ready to hear it yet. One of them, bless her soul, I love her, wrote back: “I agree!”

But let’s look at a sampling of evidence.

“Writing is not merely the responsibility of the English department, but of the entire academic community” (Luthy, Peterson, Lassetter, & Callister, 2009).

“Student competency in writing …. is often assumed rather than explicitly taught” (Miller, Russell, Cheng, & Skarbek, 2015).

“Students may actually view writing assignments as a burden, as they struggle with trying to determine what an instructor wants in a particular project” (Schmidt, 2004).

“nursing faculty … feel they do not have the time to grade written assignments” (Luthy et al., 2009).

“Many nurse educators do not write academically themselves and yet they expect their students to” (Whitehead, 2002).

“academic writing may not be perceived as a legitimate part of clinical nursing practice” (Whitehead, 2002).

“The central question here is why do nursing students have to write essays? … the emphasis on essay writing (and the failure to succeed even in that) is highly symbolic of the mess in which nursing education finds itself” (Cottingham, 2005).

Now I recognize that every one of the above quotes have been pulled out of context and with the exception of the last one (although, I may argue a devil’s advocate subtext is present here because the author is clearly a great writer himself), every one of these authors supports writing as valuable to nursing. Most of them say nursing could benefit from allowing students to have a voice and not locking them into academic conventions.  Creativity and individual personalized expression are valuable too.

But the message is clear. We have a problem with writing in nursing.  We suspect our profession would rather pass the buck on writing instruction to someone else (English departments) rather than be responsible ourselves, and that tendency affects our students’ understanding of what we are asking them to do. We have better uses of our time than grading (ubiquitously bad) writing assignments. We don’t do enough writing ourselves. Writing may not be important to clinical practice.

We are the only discipline that even questions why we write (that I’ve noticed). I’ve read about writing across many disciplines (with psychology, education, libraries, writing centres, and history being the most prominent). That students have to write and that instructors need to be a part of that learning process is a foregone conclusion.  But in nursing, not so.  We are the profession that published the article by Cottingham, which can also be read as an ironic and sarcastic piece,  proposing the question of why do we bother to teach writing at all?  “There is not a skerrick of evidendential connection between good essay writing and good nursing (or even intelligence, come to that!).” It made my blood boil when I first read it but, damn it!, he’s not wrong.  We haven’t provided any evidence at all. Does writing make nursing students better critical thinkers and clinical practitioners, as every article claims in its review of the literature as justification for their work, or is it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all? Does it matter? Does having evidence even matter?

I’m trying to do the work to find out. I may be alone in that mission. I recognize there is irony in my discussion of the need for us to step outside from behind the comfort of academic voice, show our real selves and say what we mean, while I write this blog not yet revealing who I am.  Right now I’m just putting out feelers. In due time, my readers, in due time.

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