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  • A Desk and a Pile of Books:Considering Independent Study
  • Andrew Green (bio)

English and "Meetings"

English is a subject constructed at and around boundaries (Evans 1993) and meeting points. The four modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, for example (even if we have to modify notions of speaking and listening within the context of virtual learning environments [Chambers and Gregory 2006]), are all predicated upon meetings. The reader and the author meet through the shared medium of a text and are mutually engaged in the making of meaning. Similarly, two or more people engaged in conversation meet through their talk to construct negotiated meanings and outcomes. When we enter the domain of the English classroom, such notions of meeting proliferate. In a seminar, for instance, students and teachers, critics and theorists and authors all meet in a mutual act of subject construction. The pedagogical context of the English classroom is, therefore, extraordinarily complex. What is often overlooked is how students can be taught to engage with such metacognitive dimensions of subject and employ them within their independent study. How, in other words, can students be introduced to the abilities they need to function as effective independent learners in the higher education context?

Such matters are particularly significant early in students' academic courses, at the notoriously difficult transition point between post-sixteen and higher education. A growing body of evidence exists to suggest the difficulties inherent in making this academic transition (Ozga and Sukhnandan [End Page 427] 1998; Lowe and Cook 2003). For students of English, significant challenges emerge in learning how to cope with differing and often conflicting cognitive and metacognitive demands (Atherton 2006; Marland 2003), teaching practices (Green 2005a; Hodgson and Spours 2003; Ballinger 2003), study patterns (Bluett 2004; Stewart and McCormack 1997), levels of independence (Green 2005b, 2006), assumptions (Smith 2003, 2004), and expectations (Booth 1997; Clerehan 2003; Cook and Leckey 1999). Where such significant differences exist, students' understanding of what constitutes effective and appropriate independent study may well need to be challenged and certainly needs to be supported.

Booth (1997) suggests that academic expectations are among the most important factors operating in students as they commence their university studies. Such expectations are a variously conscious crystallization of students' experiences of their subject. They are a powerful, internalized force, with a deep influence on the success with which students make the transition between sixth form and the university. Transition can thus be seen as a meeting of expectations, depending on one of two things:

  1. 1. The extent to which students' subjective expectations match their lecturers' subjective expectations or subject constructs (Banks, Leach, and Moon 1999) and the notionally objective requirements of the higher education institution; or

  2. 2. Where a workable coalescence of views does not exist, it depends on the extent to which the various involved parties (the student, the teacher, and the institution) are prepared to modify their expectations to accommodate the expectations, needs, behaviors, and schemas of the others.

Pierre Bourdieu's (1990: 205) notion of the habitus, "the site of the internalisation of externality and the externalisation of internality," is illuminating here. In this "site," he identifies the presence of distinct dispositions and schemas and their underlying assumptions and expectations. Similarly, Lev Vygotsky's (1978) identification of socially constructed and culturally transmitted "rules," which operate as internalized guiding systems, proves stimulating.

In considering the difficulties students face with independent study and its demands, it is possible to identify significant internalized expectational barriers and misunderstandings deriving from their previous studies, which affect the early stages of students' higher education. Such an analysis is undertaken with the caveat that the formative elements of these internalized codes are ultimately inaccessible (Jenkins 1992), as the conditions of internalization cannot be reproduced. [End Page 428]

Theoretical Perspectives

Bourdieu tends to highlight notions of opposition. The subjective habitus, for instance, is placed in oppositional relation to the objective "field" (in Wacquant 1989), or the individual in oppositional relation to the institution, and so on. The "symbolic violence" (Bourdieu and Passerson 1977) on which this view depends presents education as a metaphorical battlefield where students and teachers create cognitive and pedagogical conflict. The ultimate end of this conflict is the...


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