A Relational Analysis of the Writing Cafe: Social Learning, Participant Experiences and Tensions in Higher Education
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The Writing Café is a social learning space designed to support the development of academic writers within one Higher Education institution. The relationship between learning, space and practices is an emerging area for researchers and this thesis makes a productive contribution to knowledge by using Bourdieu’s relational framework to explore the game from the perspective of the players. The story of the Writing Café connects the practices within a particular sub-field to the wider institutional field and explores the pedagogical possibilities. Considering the Writing Cafe from a micro, social and cultural perspective contributes to the ambition of achieving a social approach to thinking and learning about writing in higher education and how this manifests within changed habitus.
An ethnographic methodology was used to explore the practices of the Writing Café and fieldwork involved participant observations, semi structured interviews with staff and student actors and reflexive field notes. The fieldwork was conducted over an 8 month period with those that worked in the space, those visiting it and those whose power plays out within it. A thematic framework allowed for analysing structural properties that constrain and influence the practices of the Writing Café, the capital that interacts in, on and out of the field and how this is perceived from multiple perspectives. It voices the individual experiences and collective habitus that embody the culture of practices in one higher education institution.
The findings demonstrate the Writing Café is complex and can be considered simultaneously a site of affordances and constraint. As a sub-field within the University the Writing Café practices are significantly impacted by other sub-fields and their positioning. Whilst it holds strong autonomy in pedagogic aspects of its culture, it is weak in its positioning within the overall University priorities and agendas. This research evidences the doxa of students in deficit in relation to their linguistic and academic capital is strong and the institutional habitus positions students to seek support. At times, students embody this through their habitus. The thesis critically reflects on the Writing Café contributing to the reproduction of exclusionary practices and demonstrates how, at times, it makes students feel like fish out of water. Whilst the Writing Café is invaluable for some actors, for others the practices exclude them entirely.
However, it also indicates opportunities for transformation, working with students to create dialogue and critique academic writing practices as well as wider institutional practices. The thesis concludes with recommendations for change and future development.