New to Academic Language and Learning?

  1. Join the Association for Academic Language and Learning.
  2. Sign up to the AALL Discussion Forum and to Unilearn, a listserver.
  3. Read AALL conferenceproceedings
  4. Read the Association for Academic Language and Learning Position Statement
  5. Familiarise yourself with the broad institutional and unit/centre contexts.
  6. Get to know the history of the unit/centre in which you work – read back issues of Annual Reports.
  7. Familiarise yourself with your university’s legislative compliance, institutional policies and codes of practice, for staff and students.
  8. Find out how your institution is structured and where power lies.
  9. Ask for your centre/unit’s Mission Statement.
  10. Get to know what Universities Australia has to say about teaching and learning.
  11. Become familiar with students’ learning needs, their assessment protocols, key disciplinary staff, and university policies as they affect what students can and cannot do.
  12. Check to see whether there is a bank of graded student model essays and assignments.
  13. Ask for a code of ethical behaviour.
  14. Ask about the centre/unit’s financial resources: under what constraints does it operate?
  15. Check out the ALL projects, professional development and travel grants.
  16. Ask to shadow other staff members in your centre/unit.
  17. Ask to work with colleagues on specific projects.
  18. If you have questions of a professional nature which cannot be readily answered within your centre/unit, check out the AALL forum or ask a question on it.

Inducting ALL Newcomers

Percy and Stirling (2004) cogently note, “the foundational principles and theories informing [Academic Language and Learning - ALL] expertise are by no means apparent to the newcomer” (p. 38). Further, there is no ALL training institute, or ALL Manual. So how might newcomers to Academic Language and Learning start – or be started out – on the process towards developing expertise? The process necessarily relies on the preparedness of supervisor, colleagues and newcomer to take responsibility for making explicit the nature and complexities of the work, and for developing ways of extending professional knowledge, reflecting on practice, and developing a basis on which to make professional judgements in relation to academic language and learning.

ALL newcomers are tasked with developing expertise in providing high quality ALL assistance to higher education students, particularly assistance related to learning, communication and reasoning (see for example, Bartlett and Chanock, 2003; Deller-Evans and Zeegers, 2004). Some advisers may be specifically employed to deliver quantitative reasoning and methods advice. Over time, the newcomer is usually expected to become fully informed about the academic demands and expectations of particular disciplines and specific courses, as well as manage the more general skills relating to successful study. They must be capable of working in intense individual consultations, as well as capable of leading small group courses, presenting seminars and lectures, assisting in academic staff development, representing the unit and institution, and initiating and co-ordinating specific courses for specialised groups. Ultimately, it is highly desirable that newcomers develop the expertise with which to contribute to institutional level policy. In essence, the newcomer’s role and practice is to serve as an intermediary between students and academic staff, and as an interpreter of the academic culture of the university and its disciplinary sub-cultures for students (Ballard, 1994).

In developing this expertise the newcomer must simultaneously learn how to provide ALL assistance for students via consultations, workshops and courses, develop professional insight, gain an overview of the academic territory, plus co-operate and negotiate with disciplinary and professional staff. It is not an easy role, as Craswell and Bartlett (2001) note: “[the] job . . . requires specialist knowledge and skills, great flexibility, hard work and strong commitment to students’ learning development” (p. 18). This is complex, demanding work, and it is useful to be reminded of the students with whom we work: they often enter tertiary education with limited expertise in the ways of negotiating disciplinary sub-cultures and traditions, taking responsibility for their own learning, and being able to orient/re-orient themselves. Generally speaking, in their roles and work practices, ALL educators challenge the assumption that students should do all this by osmosis and/or trial and error. However, osmosis can characterise ALL newcomer induction. As Percy and Stirling (2004) point out, the field is “so practice based that the bodies of knowledge on which we draw to inform our practice often tend to become invisible, even to ourselves” (p. 40). Thus, ALL principles and practice need to be made explicit to newcomers via systematic induction so that they can be anchored into the ALL community of practice, and develop the necessary professional expertise with which to know how to do the job with which they are tasked.

Trowler and Knight (1999) define induction as “professional practices designed to facilitate the entry of [newcomers] to an organisation and equip them to operate effectively within it” (p. 178). However, they argue that traditional approaches to induction--orientation, formal induction programs, mentoring, and handbooks and so on--are insufficient to achieve organisational socialisation, that is, “an accommodative process which takes place when [newcomers] to an organisation engage with aspects of the cultural configurations they find there” (Trowler & Knight, 1999, p. 178). Traditional approaches, in their view, prioritise the overt, the corporate, the formal and the structure, over the tacit, the local, the naturally occurring and action. Their view has resonance for ALL newcomers. Given that ALL newcomers are often employed without prior ALL teaching experience, induction necessarily has two components: that which inducts them into the new institutional environment and its processes, and that which has to develop both post-entry expertise, and engender cultural change as result of negotiating shared meanings. Such an induction is complex, challenging and resource-intensive, and requires careful reflection on the part of all involved in the process.

Induction into the ALL community of practice: shared perspectives and practices

Australian ALL educators can be characterised by the notion of a ‘community of practice’ (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002): there is ‘a domain of knowledge’ - academic language and learning - which encompasses issues such as writing across the disciplines, genre analysis, multiliteracies, supervision, writing cross culturally, academic progress and so on. Further, there is a community of people who care about this domain, and the shared practice - individual consultations, teaching, research and publication, if not lobbying - that they are developing to be effective in their domain (McGowan, 2005; Webb, 2002). As a community of practice, ALL professionals can be seen as “responsible for the maintenance of the community of practice, for inducting newcomers into it, for carrying on the tradition of the past and carrying the community into the future” (Brew, 2003, p. 12).

In terms of initial guidance to the newcomer, the Association for Academic Language and Learning (AALL) is an important starting point. The AALL Mission Statement and the AALL Position Statement establishe the basis for the ALL community of practice. Newcomers reading these statements would become aware that their professional responsibilities include providing constructive learning experiences for students; supporting the development of core disciplinary academic skills; promoting quality and diversity; contributing to internationalisation; and informing the wider academic community about ALL philosophies and practice. However, although AALL foregrounds our professional presence, our understandings of ourselves, and the issues with which we have most concern, it does not necessarily describe to the newcomer how we do what we do because ALL professional practice is diverse--nationally, within tertiary institutions and within units. Thus, in order to induct newcomers into the community of practice, as a first step we need to be able to direct them to ALL conference proceedings which document professional development over time. Within these papers there is an important genealogy of knowledge which is highly useful, will give newcomers a stronger sense of being part of the community of practice, and a stronger understanding of its ways of working, they will not necessarily know how to advise individual students, across disciplines (or within) and across the multiplicity of academic tasks and encounters with which students are grappling.

Induction into the broad institutional contexts

For ALL newcomers, a key induction issue may well be a mismatch between their expectations in relation to their classification and role within the unit. Funding arrangements, working conditions, institutional locations, classifications and payment levels vary, and understanding that variation is critical to the newcomer. In Australia, for example, ALL classifications are split approximately 40/60 between either General or Academic staff (Barthel 2010) (See Table 'Australian ALL centres & units'). This means that there are very different work, promotion, pay and leave entitlements. Inducting the newcomer into this area of ALL professional work is particularly crucial given that Australian research by Thomas and Bennett (2002) found that lack of research time was identified as ‘always’ or ‘often’ a problem by 78 percent of ALL respondents. Thus, understanding the broad institutional contexts and the different conditions under which ALL advising has taken root in particular institutions is a key induction point. Equally, there is divergence as to whether ALL delivery is centralised or devolved, broadly discipline-specific or embedded within the disciplines. This can create confusions and frustrations for newcomers. Much depends on the structure of the institution, its positioning of ALL units/centres, and the ways in which it is possible (or not) to resource expectations. ALL unit position and response papers to institutional demands can help to educate staff about the ways in which decisions are made. Thus, ALL supervisors need to document and communicate their unit/centre’s evolution over time - how it has become anchored within its institutional context, why, and with what interventions, changes, and rationales. Equally newcomers need to familiarise themselves with not only ‘what is’, but also with ‘why it is’ such that they can understand the ways in which the unit operates.

Induction into the institutional context must also account for the rights and responsibilities of the newcomer vis a vis legislation, institutional policies and codes of practice, and student rights and responsibilities. This mantle of professional obligations governs the ways in which interactions occur - particularly with students - in terms of privacy, confidentiality, discrimination, harassment, occupational health and so on. Privacy concerns, for example, relate not only to gathering data from students and record-keeping, but to email contact, professional diaries, staff offices, discussing student cases with colleagues, and the use of student work for teaching and publishing purposes. Privacy also relates to the need to inform students about what records are kept, students’ rights to access them, and the conditions under which student matters are discussed with non-ALL staff. In accord with Trowler and Knight’s (1999) conception of traditional induction, induction needs to make institutional rights and responsibilities explicit to ALL newcomers as they relate to the institutional context in which they are anchored.

ALL newcomers need to be inducted into the codes of behaviour and practice made explicit by the institution, particularly those in relation to teaching and learning, acknowledging sources, being ethical in research practice, being non-discriminatory, using gender-neutral language and so on. In the contexts within which we work, there are strong professional and moral responsibilities, and often wide discretion in dealing with students. Such responsibility and powers of discretion necessarily carry obligations across a range of areas, including standards of professional knowledge, and the observation of appropriate ethical standards regarding our work with students and other staff members in the unit and the institution. If we expect that students will observe their rights and responsibilities in this regard, we must also be aware of our own rights and responsibilities and practise them ourselves. So identifying key institutional documents, becoming familiar with them, and negotiating shared meanings comprises a significant part of the newcomer’s induction.

Finally, induction into the broad institutional context needs to focus on the newcomer getting to know how the institution is structured and where power lies. This is often fraught given restructuring and changing power bases and allegiances, but it is important in relation to understanding why units make the kinds of decisions they do. The institutional structure, history, rights and responsibilities, behavioural expectations, and the underpinning resources provide clear direction as to the fundamentals of induction into the broad institutional context. Such understanding takes time to develop and can be confusing and bewildering at the best of times but, without it, the newcomer will be unable to negotiate appropriate outcomes for students, or deliver appropriate teaching and learning resources to them.

Induction into ALL unit/centre practice

The ALL newcomer encountering a centre/unit’s practice for the first time might well ask ‘But how do you all know what to do?; how do I learn how to do what needs to be done?’ These are questions supervisors/managers need to tackle head on. As with the broader professional practice, it is important to have a unit-negotiated and agreed-to conception of the ALL role - a Mission Statement - outlining the unit/centre’s goals and, within that, an explanation of how the professional work is conceptualised and publicised. The Academic Skills and Learning Centre (ASLC) at the Australian National University, for example, has three key goals foregrounded in its Mission Statement: to teach students to take control of their learning, to contribute towards an effective learning environment, and to maintain a high standard of professional practice and expertise. Each of these sets the basis for how ALL professionals work within the ASLC. Teaching students to take control of their learning implies that not editing or proof reading, rather working developmentally with students. A developmental approach starts with what students know and can do; uses modelling (is explanatory); provides positive reinforcement (constructive, manageable, do-able critique); recognises the limits to expertise (e.g., not subject/content specialists); and challenges the student to become a responsible independent learner, countering the view that ‘your job is to fix this’. Internalising a developmental approach, therefore, assists the newcomer in knowing where to ‘draw the ALL line’ at the ASLC.

An ALL newcomer may also be expected to contribute towards an effective learning environment, characterised by Universities Australia (2002) as “the outcome of a collaborative partnership between teachers and students" (p. 12). This ‘collaborative partnership’ takes place in an environment organised along institutional lines, structured into degree programs, and mediated by assessment requirements. In contributing to an effective learning environment, the newcomer is expected to develop and provide programs that assist students to understand and navigate their way through the academic environment, consult with disciplinary and professional staff in the university, and contribute to teaching and learning policy where appropriate. Thus, the newcomer needs to become familiar with students’ learning needs, assessment protocols, key disciplinary staff, and university policies as they affect what students can and cannot do.

Familiarity with students’ learning needs can be fostered through maintaining a cross-disciplinary Essay and Assignment File in which copies of marked work, donated by students, are kept. ALL staff (and students) can review the ways in which markers comment over a range of grades from Fail to High Distinction. Course/subject outlines can also enable newcomers to anticipate and respond to students’ assignment expectations and needs. In delivering embedded/integrated sessions to students, consult with the disciplinary staff to identify areas of need, expectations, and the ways in which academic language and learning needs can be best targeted. Equally, where there are significant changes in university policy, for example, to academic integrity, discuss, consider and respond to it. These are all rich sources of newcomer induction. Maintaining a high standard of professional practice and expertise also alludes to how an ALL newcomer should work with students. Although not as clearly defined as Hafernik, Messerschmitt and Vandrick’s (2002) notion of ‘right behaviour’, ALL professional practice unquestionably requires adherence to Hafernik et al.’s (2002) four categories of ethics:

  • respect for an individual’s rights, responsibilities and dignity. In this, for example, the newcomer is expected to actively practise his/her responsibilities in relation to student privacy and confidentiality, as well the student’s right to make decisions about what action he/she will take as a result of an individual consultation/academic language and learning session.
  • avoidance of causing harm, including social harm. The emphasis here is on recognising the importance of respecting what a student knows and can do, as opposed to what they ‘ought’ to know. It also implies that singling out, gossiping, stereotyping or acting as gatekeepers for the institution are unacceptable practices.
  • justice/fair treatment. This can be a particularly difficult area for newcomers working across disciplines who have been or are disciplinary specialists: they must be cognisant of the risk of advantaging students from those disciplines. There must also be a recognition of the boundaries of competence and expertise--difficulties may arise where trained English language newcomers focus predominantly on English language issues to the detriment of, for example, argument and reasoning, or where the newcomer is expected to provide personal counselling, or comment on expected grades.
  • professional integrity--accuracy, honesty and truthfulness; expertise, preparedness, punctuality and responsiveness. This almost goes without saying with respect to the newcomer. Yet difficulties can arise, for example, in relation to hearing the ‘truth’ from students/ academics as they report what they understand (e.g., on supervision issues), and how they report the ‘truth’ of their experiences with us to others. Equally, in relation to this category, if our professional practice is to advise students to be prepared, think ahead, time and project management and so on, the newcomer must become an exemplar.

Hafernik et al.’s (2002) categories make good sense and it behoves the staff with whom the newcomer works to demonstrate and model the practice of these professional ethics so as to reinforce induction into the ALL community of practice.

A negotiated and agreed to code of practice for the unit/centre augments professional practice. ALL practice is primarily in the business of teaching and learning and there are responsibilities associated with teaching. Such responsibility can be administrative in relation to secure data collection and record-keeping, remaining up-to-date with university policy (and it changes frequently), or with respect to relations between staff and students as they apply (e.g., research ethics, discrimination, privacy). Acting co-operatively, sharing workloads, negotiating decisions, taking responsibility as a group for induction and training of newcomers, and using one another’s strengths for the benefit of students--and ultimately the institution—can be key, agreed-to, ways of working. Further, it is appropriate that ALL educators actively seek to improve and extend their professional knowledge, teaching ability and skills via appropriate study opportunities (including professional development), workshop and conference attendance, professional interchange with other individuals in similar areas of expertise, and through keeping up-to-date with relevant educational and teaching literature. Developing expertise, then, is ‘part of the job’ and most ALL educators would see it that way. But the tricky induction part is the caveat that often there are not the resources — time and money — with which to undertake research and professional development. In their 2002 survey, Thomas and Bennett found that in terms of work demands, lack of time for research was a key stressor for ALL educators in Australia. So here we have a paradox: ALL educators wanting to undertake research and publication, and it being part of the ‘job,’ but the unit/centre not necessarily having the wherewithal to deliver the opportunity. Here a critical part of induction may lie in newcomers being persuaded that professional development opportunities ‘have to go round’ — that a unit/centre can afford, for example, to finance only one staff member to attend a conference per year, or that the institution will not fund unless the staff member presents/publishes. Thus, newcomers need to become cognisant of the resource constraints within which units/centres operate. Given resource constraints, it is incumbent then on units/centres to foreground other forms of professional development - staff ‘Planning Days,’ focus groups with students, cross-disciplinary text analysis, materials development, joint publications, local staff exchange opportunities and so on. While conference attendance and publication have their place, there are other rich veins of professional development with which to anchor the newcomer into the community of practice, including hosting professional development — at the local and national levels.

There are two other extremely important forms of newcomer induction and professional development. First, daily experience - not just in the initial period of employment, but over time — is an essential, and often overlooked, basis for developing professional expertise. Shadowing staff in their daily practice, not once, but over several iterations and contexts, as well as the newcomer’s active reflection (individually, and with colleagues) can assist in understanding what goes on, why, and how, and the ways in which different encounters create questions/complexities with which we all grapple. Successful induction implies then that the newcomer has a reduced teaching/consultation load so that there is more time available for the first six months for shadowing, reflecting on, and negotiating professional practice. In that time it is important that the newcomer researches how academic texts are produced both within and across disciplines in order to develop a basis on which to develop the expertise necessary to advise and teach students, and understand the multiplicity of academic practices with which students may be engaged.

Second, whilst discussion of, and reflection on, daily experience lends itself to understanding the how of advising, it must not overshadow the importance of developing a multiliteracies approach. Craswell and Bartlett (2002) have argued elsewhere that academic language and learning pedagogy would benefit from being framed a multiliteracies approach — one that in Cope and Kalantzis’ (2000) view “engages with the multiplicity of communications channels and media . . . [and] with the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity” (p. 5). In other words, this approach “extends the traditional concepts of text and literacy to include meanings constructed in a range of semiotic systems” (Abu-Arab, 2005, p. 21). Such an approach recognises that ALL educators do not confine academic language and learning advising and teaching to texts - although it is a large part of our work--and that we need to be multiliterate in order to respond to students’ academic skills and learning needs, particularly given students’ language and cultural diversity. Students’ linguistic diversity can be particularly challenging. Thomas and Bennett (2002) also found that, in terms of work demands in the Australian context, dealing with students with linguistic diversity — characterised as ‘low literacy’ — was a key stressor for ALL educators. This arises from a combination of factors: students' expectations, students' difficulty in meeting the demands of academic work, advisers' skills and expertise, lack of time and resources, and institutional decisions with respect to English language proficiency. Thus, the newcomer must be inducted in ways that openly acknowledge that interplay of factors, and develop expertise in constructively navigating the interaction. In this, scenario work, discussion, de-briefing, and strategising with colleagues are key components of the induction process.

If the first aim of induction is, as Trowler and Knight (1999) identify, “to facilitate the entry of [newcomers] to an organisation and to equip them to operate effectively within it” (p. 178), evaluation should focus on how well the newcomer is managing workloads, coping with pressures, adhering to protocols and so on. In a sense this is a quite straightforward analysis. However, if the second aim of Trowler and Knight’s (1999) notion of induction is accepted- and in relation to ALL advising it is the most important — evaluation should also focus on how well the ALL newcomer is engaging with the tacit, the local, the naturally occurring and taking appropriate action. In other words, we would do well as a community of practice to consider how well newcomers have been socialised into a culture of shared ALL practice; to what extent they have been socialised to recognise the need to develop specialist ALL knowledge and skills, and with that, to adopt a multiliteracies approach to the ways in which they respond to student academic language and learning needs. Evaluation should also focus on whether there is a developing confidence in sharing ALL practice and a willingness to reflect, seek feedback and negotiate meaning. Such an evaluation lies at the heart of knowing whether the newcomer has been successfully inducted into the ALL community of practice. In this there must be a willingness on the part of all staff involved, and the ALL community of practice, to reflect, negotiate, and act together with the newcomer.


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