Commentary on McNamara M & Fealy G (2010) Editorial: lead us not again. Journal of Clinical Nursing 19, 3257–3259


  • Jacinta Kelly

    1. Author:Jacinta Kelly, MSc, RGN, H. Dip., Doctoral Candidate, School of Nursing Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
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Jacinta Kelly, Doctoral Candidate, School of Nursing Midwifery and Social Work, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK. Telephone: +35 3862497973.

Having conducted a national study examining the clinical leadership development needs amongst nurses and midwives in the Republic of Ireland, McNamara and Fealy (2010) appeal to those writing and researching leadership issues in nursing to be critical and when articulating their disciplinary contribution to care to be more specific. While conceding that uncompromising scholarly standards ought to be the ideal of us all, establishing however in the minds of aspiring writers and researchers a ‘scary audience’ of scientific judges and then offering intangible remedial advice such as ‘be critical’ and ‘be specific’ without drawing attention to what existing research on the teaching and learning of writing tells us about how we can develop better writers, arguably hampers further writing and researching in leadership and the quest for specific answers to the fundamental disciplinary questions; Who are we? Why are we here? What is the nature of our work? Speaking on research conducted over the last 50 years on the teaching and learning of writing (, Peter Elbow Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts first dispels the myth that any piece of writing – scientific or otherwise – can be adjudicated on reliably or validly, for the simple reason that people are different; ‘the same words cause different things to happen in different minds, readers do not agree about the value or the meaning of the same text, different readers have different reactions to the same text because there are many dimensions to any piece of writing’. Rest assured Elbow does not deny the need for writers to be critical and drawing on a self-conducted empirical study through note taking of his own struggles with writing over many years, he observed that he ‘could not write when he tried write to everything right but he could write when he allowed himself to write everything wrong’. Claims he derives from this research suggest that writers should at first feel free to ‘make a mess’, ‘be opened minded and accepting of all thoughts, pay less attention to grammar and spelling but, thereafter, he argues, writers should begin to be rigorous, tough minded and critical’. Elbow also draws attention to the fact that people write better when they feel it is part of their identity, as nurses or midwives for example, and as a result, they internalise their instruction more. It would be interesting to examine in further research, if not already addressed by Fealy and McNamara, if nurses and midwives feel that scholarly writing is a part of their identity as clinical leaders and if not, why not? And how and if at all this can be adjusted so that writing and researching in leadership can be improved? Drawing on further research on the teaching and learning of writing Elbow flags up very important piece of advice regarding early development of scholars when he explains that students need to see their writing in other peoples hand so a school magazine or a student section in a professional journal such as JCN would encourage and develop writers. But most importantly Elbow reminds us that ‘our primary and strongest relationship with language is through speaking and therefore he recommends that writers exploit speech in trying to learn to write’. While admittedly group tutorials, seminars and supervision are commonly facilitated across educational programmes at all universities to encourage discussion and sounding of thoughts and logic on particular topics, only one university in the world claims to possess the resources to exploit speech to its maximum benefit in developing writers and leaders. At the University of Cambridge, an undergraduate student apprenticeship approach is used, which is based on a medieval system dating back to the 14th century ( While the very word medieval may sound discouraging and outmoded, the system at Cambridge is proudly retained. In this system, students apprentice themselves to an academic and through weekly one-on-one hourly tutorials over the course of their degree they learn the Greek method of disputation. So for example, the student is dispatched to summarise Aristotle’s key philosophies and how they hold up in the light of contemporary theories; the student is probed with questions, gently first, then with more taxing challenges. Through this activity, it is less important what subject the student is assigned and that they gain knowledge on a particular topic but that they have the opportunity to develop the skills of rhetoric, logic and argument. As a result, they have opportunity to become generals or leaders in actions and in words, fully in command themselves of their field having learned early on how to deal on an interpersonal level with peoples’ arguments, how to make decisions and decide on best courses of action. Arguably, a further consequence of this strategy is that through disputation, a greater understanding of the discipline specific contribution emerges which to long practicing clinicians may have become so commonplace or unobserved that it is invisible but instead is rediscovered through the naive lens of the learner making sense of their new professional world. By example, a student nurse recalled once how impressed she was with the leadership of an ENT nurse, who on educating a patient how to change his tracheostomy tube using a mirror, stood behind the patient instead of in front to make the patient feel safe and to gain a more empathetic view of his struggles. So perhaps we should explore ways of resurrecting the art of disputation in the university to develop writers and leaders in nursing. In addition, when trying to realise full expression of the specific disciplinary contribution to care, we should be mindful that while we recognise that scientific writing ought to contain simple and accurate description without any rhetorical flourishes and at the same time not boring the reader with a dull flat style (Spratt 2008); perhaps, we should also consider the advice of writer and humorist Garrison Keiller who maintains that writers should resist an obsessive focus with one type of writing and instead attempt other genres of writing such as a poem, prose, short story, feature writing or news ( Above all, ‘writers at some time should write for their own amusement, have some fun, write something silly, scandalous, embarrassing or not worthy, as one will be a better writer for it’.