Smith, Paul Vincent (PhD alumnus)


Hello. I am a research student currently working with Academic Literacies and Ethnomethodology, among other influences.

So, late autumn 1993…we’re about to write our first sociology essays. How do we do it? What are they looking for? Employ “basic scholarly virtues”, is what we are told. Well, what does that mean?! There seems to be little pattern, rhyme or reason to what you submit and the outcome as mark or feedback. Somehow something gets written and for various murky reasons it is judged more or less acceptable – sometimes not at all.

Nearly two years on, I try an experiment: Let’s break out of the modular system and demonstrate that what has been learnt needn’t stay within the confines of a single course, that it may be applicable in a variety of discussions and settings. Knowledge doesn’t, shouldn’t, remain boxed up in manageable chunks but should be treated as a whole. Learn something first and categorise it later. That seems to work. Less successful are my occasional attempts, on request, to explain in propositional form to my peers what I am doing to make this work. The distance between description and instantiation seems massive, and insuperable.

Next stop, Manchester, and anthropology. The “Writing Culture” debate has come and gone but social science writing will never be the same again…the writer can no longer pose as an outside, disinterested observer. The politics of writing and of representation add another level of complexity and suddenly writing is less obviously a transparent window onto ideas, but just as much a part of position or identity as anything else.

After Manchester, Warsaw. After a year of teaching ESOL a concatenation of events leads me to the then sociology department of CEU, where I spend three happy years ploughing through graduate essays with Masters students. A hundred wonderful conversations in which I unpick understandings of writing, authority, and scholarship, and am just as often unpicked myself. Let’s get it straight, though – they are reading for a UK-awarded degree, with UK external examiners, so they need to write to UK standards and adhere to UK practices. The obstacles: linguistic, cultural, pedagogical, personal. I am forced to become familiar with genre analysis and contrastive rhetoric to come to a conceptual sense of what is going on in my tutorials.

More freak events lead me back to Manchester. The curiosity hasn’t gone away and I start my PhD in 2005, part-time. My initial project won’t bear the weight of scrutiny from my taught University “background book,” and so my applied linguistic subject matter gets recast in social scientific terms. A little later I am introduced to the work of Brian Street et al. on “academic literacies”, and suddenly a lot more things make sense – I am able to see the basis of an approach where the practitioners speak my language concerning both the object and the methods to use in getting at it. Even more of this work is done for me when, through reading James Gee on “The Practice Turn”, I am able to place my work paradigmatically. Practice is the place where all my influences meet.

I’ll let you know the outcome of that meeting in due course.