Writing at Master's Level
These notes were originally prepared for fellow-tutors as a first contribution to a debate, and never intended for wider circulation, but feedback from their first accidental appearance justifies their (minimally revised) re-appearance, and requests from a number of universities to adapt and re-print them. So you may have seen them somewhere else already!
Recognising work at Master's level is one of those "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it" situations. Unfortunately, that is not very much use to programme participants who want some idea of what to expect and what to work to.
These pragmatic and potentially prejudiced notes may eventually lead to increased consistency in marking from the tutors' side, and a clearer idea of expectations from the participants' side - but so far all they do is to articulate some of the ways in which I go about recognising Master's level work.
Writing at Master's level is a specialised activity or genre. It is "artificial" in the sense that it is adapted to a very specialised purpose, like legal drafting or even poetry. Its only other habitat is in the pages of academic journals. Most of the great works of literature, history, philosophy, and most official reports would not pass muster as M level writing. (Of course, whether any thing written recently for a Master's would count as any of the above is also a matter of debate!)
1 It is literate
- no spelling mistakes
- no (or very few) grammatical solecisms. No sentences without verbs (like this one).
- punctuation which helps me to make sense of the text.
- no misused words or malapropisms.
- clarity above all! There is no premium on academic obscurantism.
I know this is unfashionable and probably politically incorrect, but in practice I find it difficult to get past it. Literacy is not a sufficient condition to meet M level requirements, but in my book it is a necessary one. By literacy I mean:
If the work does not meet these basic criteria (the singular is criterion - but no-one studies Greek any more), I find it difficult to look past the expression to the content.
More important, I believe it is reasonable to expect that anyone who goes around with the letters "MA" after their name—which places them within some kind of (sloppy - Ed.) intellectual elite—has an obligation to be able to express themselves clearly and literately. Polemic over!
2 It addresses the module Outcomes
But it does not have to be directly about them. Outcomes are to be demonstrated through the way in which the assignment is done. On the whole, this does not mean, for example, writing a section about each specified outcome. It is almost impossible to produce a coherently argued piece of work on this basis. Evidence for the outcomes comes from how you write about the topic of the assignment.
Take, for example, the following specified outcome from Personal and Group Tutoring (a module on a former MA in Learning and Teaching at De Montfort University UK):
"2: Understands ethical issues associated with the tutorial system"
You do not have to provide a list of the ethical issues posed. Instead, if you were discussing a particular case in tutoring, for example, you might be saying:
"The student's refusal to allow me to take up the allegations of sexual harassment against another student posed a dilemma. On the one hand was my assurance of confidentiality (which on reflection I should not perhaps have given so readily): on the other was the reality that I could take no effective action without divulging that she had complained. In the absence of guidelines ..."
This shows that you are using the outcome, as it were, for practical purposes, and constitutes evidence of understanding. A submission imbued with similar understanding, and no contrary evidence of ignoring the ethical dimension, would amply demonstrate the achievement of the outcome—although of course the narrative does have to be complemented with more scholarly underpinnings.
After all, if the outcomes are merely artificial notions which can only be addressed by taking them in isolation from real practice, they are a pretty useless device. They have in fact been constructed to reflect real-world issues, and they can therefore be demonstrated through discussion of such issues.
3 It has evidence
There are limits. I sometimes read journal articles which seem to need three references to assert that grass is (or can be) green. Nevertheless, I do expect to see adequate evidence for assertions. It may take the form of references to previous writers, or it may be the evidence of your own experience or your own arguments, but if it is needed, it will be cited in such a way as to enable me to find it if I wish.
I expect theory: more to the point, I expect theory to be used to answer some questions and to pose others, rather than simply regurgitated for its own sake.
I'm really going to stick my neck out now: for what it is worth, I expect a dozen or more references for an M level assignment.
But I do not expect such evidence to be cited uncritically, on the basis that, "if someone else has already said it and managed to get it published, it must be true!" See the next section:
4 It is critical
- Educationalists and psychologists both talk glibly about "learning". Do they mean the same thing?
- "Education" itself is an enormously problematic concept. It should rarely be used without careful scrutiny.
By "critical", I do not mean that it pulls people and ideas to pieces and puts them down. I mean that it does not take ideas for granted, but subjects them to critical examination.
In a very minor way, the previous two sentences serve as an example, because I have defined my terms. In so doing, I have gone some way to exposing the limitations of terminology. We work in a world where knowledge advances in large measure through critical debate, which presupposes that terms and concepts are defined. Writers do not always use terms and concepts in quite the same way, e.g.:
I distrust dictionary definitions: at this level we need to know what a concept means to someone who is working with it, not merely how it is used in everyday speech.
But it is not just a matter of terminology. I expect to find the writer exposing the potential and limitations of an idea or perspective, and pointing to the consequences of using it as the basis for argument or investigation. At the very least, I expect some remark acknowledging the complexity or problematic nature of some of the concepts used (where applicable, of course—there are some simple things left in life!)
4.1 It explores implicit values
Practice in education (and most other professional contexts) is full of taken-for-granted common-sense values about good practice. It is easy to write about what "should", "ought" or "must" happen. But at Master's level you are expected to dig behind these self-evident truths, to expose the assumptions behind them and to entertain the potential alternatives.I'm not an unqualified fan of Stephen Brookfield but if you need to know more about this, his idea of “hunting assumptions” is a useful tool: see Chapter 1 of his Teaching for Critical Thinking (Jossey-Bass, 2012): What is Critical Thinking?
Ask "why?" or "so what?" about everything.
This is the respect in which an academic article (or Master's submission) differs from a report. A report has to come out with recommendations, and may reasonably rely on a consensual foundation to build on. M level writing can—indeed has to—pull those foundations to pieces to see what they are made of, even if it means that they are no longer strong enough to build any recommendations on. (Except, of course, that excellent standby - "further research is required.")
To put it another way—in discourses other than the academic, a question has an answer. In academic discourse, a question poses other questions (and, perhaps, an answer).
4.2 It contextualises
This is a further aspect of being critical. Broadly speaking, I expect the writer to know where she is coming from. I also want to know (if appropriate) where her sources are coming from. I expect the writer to be able to treat some sources if not cynically, at least symptomatically. This is easily understood as an amplification of the dictum, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" (Rice-Davies, 1963). Why would he say that? Does this author have an axe to grind?
I am labouring this point because it is the quality of Master's level work which is most frequently lacking: and it is difficult if not impossible to get to M level without it (in this subject area, at least).
5 It pursues an argument
- On the whole bullet-points are enemies of coherent argument (discuss!). OK! cheap point.
This does not mean that the submission has to argue for or against something. It simply means that there has to be a coherent thread running through it, pursuing an idea or the implications of an issue in practice. It may be an examination of the consequences for curriculum design and teaching method of having large classes (implications in practice), or the potential and limitations of learning contracts in undergraduate engineering programmes (pursuit of an idea).
Part of the point of the assignment is to help you to reflect on your own work. Bitty exercises in the illustration of discrete outcomes are unlikely to achieve this to any real extent: it is only as you take up the ideas of the module and relate them to the real world that they are tested in your own experience.
Stylistically, this means that the essay will flow better, too.
Most people do not have too much trouble with this, and they amass a great deal of material to support their argument: but at Master's level this is not enough. You need to test the argument. So you also need to amass evidence against it, and to take account of counter-arguments and alternative positions, discussing either why they are not applicable in this case, or why you find them inadequate, inappropriate or morally reprehensible.
6 It doesn't try to say everything about nothing
- It enables you to keep the focus on what really matters, and avoids a shallow, skimming paper, and
- It forestalls any criticism that, "You have not mentioned ...'
A corollary of the above is that an assignment at this level needs to be sufficiently tightly defined to enable you to say something worthwhile within the word limit. As you already know from papers in journals, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that a point requires discussion, and then to say that you are not going to deal with it here. This serves two purposes:
Like you, I find that my most common reaction to a student's proposal of a title for an assignment is that it is too broad. That seems to apply at all levels, from Level I to PhD proposals, and Master's is no exception.
7 It is sensitive to me!
No, I don't expect the work to pander to with my somewhat strange prejudices. But in writing an assignment, unlike writing a general article, but like writing for a specialist journal, you have a pretty good idea of who your reader is. It is me (yes, I know it should be "I", but sometimes precision becomes affectation, like this note.). If you are drawing on the reading lists, and even more if you are drawing on my lectures, I do not expect to be told (at this level) what I already know. If you are bringing in material which may not be familiar to me (and please do!), you may have to go into more detail about what an author actually says.
However, more important than this is what you yourself do with the ideas. Marking assignments is boring unless you have something to add to what I already know, whether it is application to/reflection on your experience, or the employment of an original perspective on a standard problem (I like those best). Get an angle on the material. Argue it out. At this level, the more interested I am, the more generously I mark, and I don't think that is unprofessional.
8 It is you
At lower academic levels, the general rule is to keep your head down. Not so here. M level work may not have to be "an original contribution to knowledge" as required of doctoral work, but you are now drawing on all the knowledge and experience you have accumulated thus far, and doing something with it which is at least new for you. If it isn't, you are going to be even more bored writing the stuff than I am, reading it. If you have not learnt something (at a relatively "deep" level) writing the assignment, don't bother to submit it.
As a recent correspondent has pointed out, when she is simultaneously being asked to be reflective about her own professional practice, it is difficult to square that circle. In so far as there is a key to doing so, it is to be as clear as possible about the status of the material you are working with. Generally speaking, the scholarly “apparatus” will provide the framework (or “lens” in Brookfield's term) through which the reflective content is viewed and evaluated. It is of course possible to reverse the priority, and use the reflection to test the validity or usefulness of the theory; but that really is claiming a lot for your own ideas and you can see why it is frowned upon.
Nevertheless, I think (and I'm allowed to because I've got my PhD—and I've retired so I'm not beholden to anyone!) that such an exclusion of a personal perspective is a dead hand stifling any nascent originality—and guaranteeing soul-destroying boredom for the marker.