Although the two perspectives employed in this research originate from two different disciplines with their own theoretical bases and methodologies, their combination yielded a valuable confirmation that the writing process students experience–informed as it is by their conceptions of the purpose of writing–will have a profound impact on the textual patterns and the meanings they present in their essay. Such a confirmation is significant for those working in the field of teaching academic literacy to university students, particularly as the ‘process’-oriented approaches and the ‘product’-oriented approaches have tended to be polarised. This study has provided evidence of the need to recognise how the process and the product are inextricably linked, and of the value of these two theoretical frameworks for establishing this link.
Theoretically, systemic functional linguistics is concerned with language outcomes. Educational linguists using this theoretical framework are concerned with the way language outcomes represent the purposeful social activities that people engage in, and with how to provide the learner with the language resources needed to fulfil their social roles. The focus is on the language as an outcome of the context, and so the beginning point for the teaching and learning of writing skills is the final product.
For example, in a genre-based essay-writing course, a completed essay would be used to show students what a good essay looks like, using annotations to explain the virtues of the essay. The rationale for modelling the product in this way is the recognition of the need to expose to the learner a new way of thinking about the world through seeing how others have seen and represented the world. Thus, the process of thinking through a problem is addressed retrospectively through the illustrative text under scrutiny. However, because the focus is on the language in relation to the context, and not on the person in relation to the context, the pedagogy fails to address the learner’s prior experiences of essay writing, or the various stages of development of the learner’s conceptions of the essay topic. Thus, the student’s process of thinking through and developing ideas is not explicitly modelled.
Phenomenography, on the other hand, is concerned with the person and their understanding of the world around them. It argues that the outcomes of academic tasks, such as essay writing, are directly related to the approach adopted for the achievement of the task, and that this approach is partly determined by the student’s understanding of the nature of the task, the context in which the task is being undertaken, and of the student’s prior experiences of similar tasks. If students conceive of a task in a particular way, they are likely to adopt approaches to the achievement of the task in ways consistent with their conception.
The significant point of difference between the two theoretical frameworks is one of approach. Systemic functional theory sees the subject of its analysis as a finished, static product in the form of a written text (Ravelli, 1991). This synoptic approach is dominant in the Western cultural traditions of higher education. Our attitudes to written text reflect this preference, with value usually only placed on final polished drafts of writing. Rarely is any great value attached to the preliminary stages of exploring an academic topic, for example, summaries of readings that will eventually contribute to the final essay. It is usually not until more advanced study that the dynamic nature of the process is respected, and its products valued through, for example, abstracts, annotated bibliographies, research proposals, and so on.
Phenomenography favours a dynamic approach, with its subject being an ongoing active process of relating the person to the context. Students need to be systematically helped to reflect on, and change, their understanding of the nature of the task in the context in which the task is undertaken. This understanding is dynamic. Given a similar task in a different context, they may well exhibit a different understanding of the task, and consequently approach the task in a different way with different outcomes.
Whilst the theoretical approaches are very different in their choice of subject to study, they are unanimous in defining the location of study: they both require that the only valid way to conduct themselves is by firmly placing their research within the authentic and diverse contexts of university study. Both process and product can only be meaningfully understood with their authentic context, just as neither can be understood isolated from the other.
In learning how to write essays, students need to be able to analyse authentic contextualised examples of writing, so as to reflect on the processes necessary for achieving those products. This involves making explicit the normally implicit ways that writers approach their work, and bringing to conscious awareness the way that written texts are mirrors of the interaction between the writer and the cultural domain.
In conclusion, this study has shown the value of integrating a process and a product approach to the teaching of writing, and the importance of ensuring that the teaching of academic literacy occurs within the disciplinary contexts that students are engaged in for their university degrees. Where writing instruction continues to be typically a peripheral concern in universities, the aim can only be to teach students to think for the mere sake of thinking, and to write for the mere sake of writing. The exercise is devoid of purpose and therefore meaning. By contrast, where writing development is seen as a fundamental part of learning a new discipline, the learner is learning how to think something, and how to write something.
Combining a phenomenographic and a systemic functional linguistic perspective on student writing provides an opportunity to develop a coherent understanding of the relationships amongst the learner, the learner’s cultural milieu, and the most prized products of that milieu. Such a holistic view provides a sound basis for the development of programmes to induct new students into the writing demands of university studies.