What makes our writing ‘academic’?

DoctoralWriting SIG

Our guest blogger this week, Julia Molinari, is an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) Tutor and PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham in the UK. She is bilingual English/Italian and teaches academic writing to Home and International undergraduate and postgraduate students. Her PhD research focuses on ‘what makes writing academic’ and is supervised by the School of Education and the Department of Philosophy. She blogs at https://academicemergence.wordpress.com/ and tweets @serenissimaj and @EAPTutorJM.

By Julia Molinari

When you ask anyone this question—be they initiated or not—their answers will roughly cluster around the following features: its formality, linearity, clarity, lexical density, grammatical complexity, micro-macro structure (i.e., from paragraphs to whole-text organisation), intertextuality and citation, objectivity, meta-discursivity (Learnhigher; Bennett 2009; Bennett 2015, 6-8).

As someone who teaches academic writing to undergraduates and postgraduates with English as a first or additional language, I hear such answers all the time. And it’s…

View original post 1,077 more words

Advertisements

Celebrating Academic Blogging

Why blogging matters (to me)

Amidst suggestions that they still don’t quite hit the academic ‘G’ spot – see here and here – below is my impulsive, knee-jerk (ergo non-academic) celebration of the blogs that are having a HUGE academic impact on my research, thinking, and teaching.

In fact, I’d argue that they are all ‘academic’ on the grounds that they have meaningful impact: they are transformative because they are engaging a wide-ranging academic community of teachers and researchers, including me, who would otherwise not be aware of these ideas. If this kind of impact is not ‘academic’, then why is it not?

640px-Indre_Fure,_Stadtlandet

Blogging sheds glimpses of light (image from Wikicommons)

Since I work across several inter-weaving domains (education-philosophy-EAP (English for Academic Purposes), the following collection of blogs may seem random to you, but it makes perfect sense to me.

I list my regular fixes/fixtures (i.e. ones I have set up alerts for) in no particular order and off the top of my head (mainly from memory or a as a result of those I have read most recently), but if you know of other blogs that you think should also be on my radar, then do let me know:

Conference navel-gazing

On practising what we preach

128px-Femnavel

A navel

The following twitteration caught my eye the other day, and since I have given three talks this year, I wanted to take a moment to reflect with a view to improving my practices and to sharing with students:

 

Capture

I don’t know the full context of this conversation, but since Alex and Tyson are both involved in language, literacy and teaching English for Academic Purposes, I imagine they were having a bit of a rant about colleagues who probably teach presentation skills to their students but are not necessarily great presenters themselves (Alex, Tyson – forgive and correct me if I am wrong …).

So, I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and reflect on how I fare in the presentations department.

IMG_2525

WRAB17, Bogotá, Columbia

 

I’m going to list some negative and positive feedback that I have received over the years and add a few comments/justifications. My aim is twofold: to become a better presenter myself AND to show students that like them, I get nervous, mess-up, but survive.

Below are a few recurring things that audiences have said to me after a presentation.

 

The negatives

  • you talk too fast and too much – yes, this is something I haven’t yet cracked. Like with word-counts, I struggle to keep to time limits. I need to follow my own advice here and actually rehearse the whole thing a couple of times beforehand, using the ‘record’ facility on PowerPoint so I can play it back to myself

    IMG_20170623_100433

    NFEAP17, Oslo, Norway

  • you use big words – I know there is a fine line between using too much or too little jargon, but if you count ‘philology’, ‘semiology’ and ‘ontology’ as big words for an academic conference, then I make no apologies. Firstly, I assume that many in my audiences are familiar with this terminology; and secondly, if they are not, we almost always have internet access in a conference, so look it up and be glad you’ve learnt a new word! That’s exactly what I do when I come across new words and what I expect my students to do, too.
  • you have really wordy slides – yep, I do. I use a lot of quotes in my presentations so not sure how to get round this one. I think I need to develop a less ambitious approach to presenting, i.e. saying just enough and leaving the rest to post-talk conversations …

The positives

  • you are inspirational – I’ve been told this often and I feel really, really happy when someone says this because the best talks I have been to are ‘inspirational’, even though they don’t follow all the conventions
  • you’ve taken an interesting angle – this happens quite often, too, and it paves the way for then having really good conversations
  • you’ve made me think – when someone comes to look for you after the talk, this is such a good sign! It means they want to know more, carry on the discussion, share references, examples, insights. If this didn’t happen after a talk, I would feel defeated because it would mean no ideas were sparked

I’m taking a huge risk here, but if you have ever been to any of my presentations over the years, will you tell me what you thought? Honestly … You can comment on the blog or email me directly. I need honesty not diplomacy, please, because I genuinely do want to improve and genuinely want my students to see how all of this works.

Fingers crossed …

 

 

 

 

Academic Writings as Open Systems

Using Critical Realism to Explain Diversity in #acwri

Scholars like Karen Bennett have argued that EAD (English Academic Discourse) is taught as though it were a set of homogenous, stable and unquestionable conventions. Mary Scott, Theresa Lillis, Bruce Horner, Suresh Canagarajah, Lucia Thesen, Arlene Archer, Joan Turner and many others have argued along similar lines.

These conventions began to emerge in the 1700s when the experimental article of the natural sciences (which then evolved into the research article of the Humboldtian tradition) set the bar for what most of us would now recognise as ‘academic’ writing. The EAP (English for Academic Purposes) industry has adopted and systematised these conventions, turning them into transferable skills (and possibly ‘exportable’ skills?): the assumption being that all academic disciplines fundamentally (should) write in a similar way.

EAP sees its primary role as being one of servitude to (some of) the conventions of (some of) the academy. Its servitude stems in part from the laudable intention of helping students obtain university degrees by becoming knowledgeable members of disciplinary communities and discourses. But, arguably, this functional role is also bolstered by a burgeoining and lucrative textbook industry which tends to uncritically foreground, fossilise and reify some conventions and ideologies to the exclusion of others (see Tribble 2009 and 2015; Bennett 2009 and 2015 for a detailed discussion):

On the one hand, it would be in their learners’ interests if they [teachers] could help them to conform to the expectations of the institution. On the other hand, by doing so, they are reproducing the ideologies and inequities of the institution and society at large (Archer & Breuer, 2016, p. 42, my bold)

and

It is ironic that some educational institutions […] militate against the very higher-order thinking that they are supposed to encourage (Andrews, 2010, p. 53, my bold)

Perhaps other broader reasons for this servitude can be tentatively traced back to the marginalisation of EAP teachers who, arguably, may have neither the qualifications, status and research time to engage more critically and more confidently with wider academic and research writing scholarship that tends to approach academic writing more descriptively than prescriptively.

The fact is that academic writings are varied and can be considered ‘good’ for a wide range of reasons: paragraphs vary in length to achieve different rhetorical and epistemological effects; footnotes can be used to provide evidence (as historians do); multimodal academic communication across the disciplines is receiving growing attention because it affords more finely-tuned epistemological representations; scholars’ interest in using graphic novels to communicate their research is becoming more noticeable, again because visual literacies play a key part in representing and processing knowledge; and social media is beginning the claim the status of ‘academic writing’, as argued here and implied here.

The reason academic writings are and always have been so varied is because they are social practices, not static skills. And because they are social practices, they need to be understood in terms of interactions and relations between agents (writers with histories, intentions, desires, choices) and structures (material/textual/digital/historical practices and conventions). As such, it is not enough to explain academic writings by reducing them to either the intentions of the writer (my text is academic because I want it to be) or to established conventions about the surface features of the text (the presence of an abstract, complex sentences, passive voices, nominalisations, specific lexis, prescribed rhetorical moves, language itself, etc.).

Enter my interest in critical realism. A key tenet of this philosophy of social science is that it distinguishes natural sciences and social sciences in terms of closed and open systems, respectively (Collier).

Closed systems are artificially created conditions designed to isolate mechanisms so that they can be observed in the absence of putatively irrelevant causal variables: if I want to know what causes light to refract, all I need is a source of light and a medium through which it can pass (a prism/glass/jar/water) to show that light changes speed and refracts depending on the medium it passes through. In other words, I don’t need trees, houses, rain or anything else that co-occurs naturally when light refracts in its natural environment because these elements are not considered causally relevant to the refraction of light. Open systems, by contrast, are characterised by several variables which have varying degrees of causal efficacy: if I want to know what poverty is and what causes it, I’m going to need a significantly richer explanatory toolkit to establish this.

623px-Damien_Hirst_(6712601297)

What is art? Open System par excellence (Spots by Damien Hirst, image from Wikicommons)

Arguably, there is a sense in which EAP has approached academic writing as a closed system of finite variables: key rhetorical moves such as abstract, introduction, conclusion; topic sentences; reference lists; passives, and so on, are what cause a text to be academic. Start messing with any of these features, and we no longer have an ‘academic’ text. FAIL.

However, once we acknowledge that the de facto naturally occuring diversity of academic writings includes the likes of A.D. Carson or Nick Sousanis, then maybe we need to start re-conceptualising EAD/EAP as an open system that is caused/explained by a far wider range of variables: personal voices, creativity, agency, multilingualism and multimodality, visual and aural literacies.

And maybe, possibly, arguably, if we do re-conceptualise it as an open system, then maybe, possibly, arguably, we should do more to teach and learn it as such.

To conclude, I quote a lengthy passage from Andrew Collier (1996, pp. 34-35, my bold; see also pp.62-63, 121, 161) to explain and remind myself about Open and Closed Systems:

collierExperiments […] are necessary because closure in general does not occur naturally. We need to produce ‘unnatural’ sequences of events in order to discover the mechanisms at work in natural ones. This is the point of Bacon’s reference to experiments, not only as questions put to nature, but as ‘putting nature to the question’; this metaphor refers to judicial torture, and some moderns have objected that this expresses an attitude of cruelty, and moreover, since Bacon like many others refers to nature in the feminine, of misogyny. But of course nature is not a woman, or a goddess, or a man, or an animal. It has no feelings, intentions, or desires. So the concept of cruelty is inapplicable here; the metaphor of torture cannot be extended beyond its precise function: to indicate that it is not possible to discover the laws of nature by passive observation, one must intervene actively and make nature do what it would not do spontaneously. When R.D. Laing protests against the Baconian project of science by asking ‘whether torture is the best way to get to know a lady?’ (The Voice of Experience, p. 21n), he is extending the metaphor inapplicably, like one who asks whether the Marxian superstructure is safe from lightning, or whether magnetic fields are grazed by rabbits. But while the moral pathos of the question is misplaced, a serious point remains.

The point is this: how can experiments inform us about nature when they are very special processes produced by us, in which things happen differently from the way they do in the open systems of the world outside the laboratory? What if experimental results can only tell us what happens under experimental conditions? If they don’t tell us how things happen in the open systems of nature at all, then they lack all epistemic value and are no more than interesting tricks. I have heard an eminent scientist argue that this is just how the ancient Greeks would have regarded them – as telling us no more about the real tendencies of things than the tricks of a circus animal tell us about the real tendencies of its species […].

The whole purpose of experiments is to isolate some mechanism which normally operates alongside others. In its normal operation, it has effects: it makes different things happen from what would have happened in its absence. But since what happens in an open system is the effect of a conjunction of forces, it is not what one would have predicted from any one of those forces taken in isolation.

References:

Andrews, R. A. (2010). Argumentation in higher education : improving practice through theory and research. New York, Routledge.

Archer, A. and E. O. Breuer, Eds. (2016). Multimodality in higher education. Leiden/Boston, Brill.

Bennett, K. (2009). English academic style manuals: A survey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(1), 43-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jeap.2008.12.003

Bennett, K. (2015). The Transparency Trope: Deconstructing English Academic Discourse Discourse and Interaction, 5-19 doi: 10.5817/DI2015-2-5

Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism : an introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy. London, Verso.

Tribble, C. (2009). Writing academic English—a survey review of current published resources. English Language Teaching Journal, 63(4), 400-417 doi: 10.1093/elt/ccp073

Tribble, C. (2015). Writing academic English further along the road. What is happening now in EAP writing instruction? English Language Teaching Journal, 69(4), 442-462. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccv044

 

 

 

Walking the tightrope of academic writings

Pulcinella’s balancing act

There is a perilous paradox in the established literatures on academic writing that suggests we have choices in the way we write academically.

By established ‘literatures’ I mean the textbooks and advice guides, including those ‘How to’ photocopied handouts you get in Student Services, aimed at university student writers. The literatures that tell you to keep your style formal, clear, precise, impersonal, logical, critical, deferential. Advice that isn’t really advice, but a precept. Joan Turner explains all of this here.

By ‘choices’, I mean other ways of writing. Writing that is more creative, more personal, more original, more multimodal, more visual, more layered. Invitations to explore and experiment, to find ‘your’ voice, contribution, originality. The idea that you can be playful, take risks, and survive. See for example, Archer and Breuer and Thesen and Cooper.

'L’altalena dei pagliacci' di Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

L’altalena dei pagliacci (o dei Pulcinella), affresco, Ca’ Rezzonico (Palazzo del Settecento), Venezia

The two sets of advice – the literatures versus the choices – don’t sit comfortably together, in my experience. In fact, in my experience, they massively irritate each other. They encourage each other to polarise by entrenching their respective advocacies.

Those in the established ‘literatures’ camp fear those who advocate choice because choice means anarchy, the erosion of standards and heterogeneity (diversity); those in the ‘choice’ camp resist the literatures because these embody an imperialist, rationalist paradigm of exclusion, transparency and exactitude.

Parallels with the current political climate – polarised between the Right that is hard-lining and the Left that is flat-lining – are hard to resist.

And it is equally hard to communicate all of this to students because they rely on you for guidance to pass the assessments that are based on the advice of the established ‘literatures’, not the advice of the ‘choices’.

In this sense, a teacher of academic writing can feel a little like Pulcinella, the Neapolitan character in La Commedia dell’Arte, who somehow muddles through his contradictions, swinging perilously between being rueful and jocular, popular and alone, accepted and rejected, paradoxically lazy but ingeniously inventive.

 

 

Writing a PhD Chapter: incubating, owning, learning

Little chronicle of becoming un-stuck

The chapter-writing phase of the PhD is seriously challenging me. I’m in the process of writing one now, but also allowing for respite via a blogging interlude, because I’ve been at it all day, and have 30 minutes before I need to be somewhere else, and there is no more historical literature on academic writing that I can tackle in half an hour. I want to record what this moment feels like in the spirit of other reflective, research process posts such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one

Incubating it

The chapter I am currently writing is the 2nd of 6 that I have so far proposed to my supervisors. In retrospect, the first one was really easy – it didn’t feel like it at the time, it does now (cliched child birth analogies come to mind, but I won’t go there!). This one has been a beast. I thought I had it sorted 2 months ago. I had done all the reading, left myself a month to write it (ca. 12,000 words), and when I actually sat down to write, I had about 3-weeks to the deadline. But nothing coherent popped out, just copy-and-paste words stuck in a document hoping something would make sense. Serious writer’s block prevented access to my study, my computer, and any attempt to open a ‘new document’.

IMG_20170422_112732077_HDR

Overwhelmed

Part of the problem, I now realise, is that this chapter is linked to the previous one and paves the way for the next one; it does not stand alone, and all of my readings don’t take any of this into account! How inconsiderate of them! It’s me who needs to make the connections, work out their relevance to what I have said and what I am going to say. So I underestimated how much incubation/gestation is required between reading the stuff of others and writing my own when ‘my own’ consists of chapters, not stand-alone assignments reporting what others have said.

Owning it

I have been so restless and disorientated in the incubation process. I tried to fight it by sitting myself at my desk. But to no avail. I eventually gave up and accepted I could not write. I ate, had family time, slept, ran, took a blank sheet of real paper, a physical sheet of A4, sat on a sofa in a different room and wrote down a stripped, penned, unreferenced memo – akin to a tweet – of what

IMG_20170422_112719655

Back to basics

I wanted to say in this chapter. I went back to my computer feeling that I owned the readings, that they were serving me, not me serving them.

Learning it

I’ve been writing since early morning. It is flowing. I now have far too many words, but I know that is a good sign because I need to say it all before I can strip it back and edit it for my readers. What is making it flow is that I am learning from it and enjoying it, and this is keeping me keen and interested. I am not simply performing. I am actively, visibly making my contribution.

Letting it go

Clearly, these are just process thoughts. Tomorrow may be a total disaster. Inevitably, when they do eventually receive it, my supervisors will rip the chapter apart. But that’s not the point. The point is that I needed to get myself to the point of writing it. I am now at that point. I am writing, but as usual, I now have only a few days rather than a whole month left to finish, so this post ends here.

ps. Moral of the story

Don’t give up, keep pushing!

another reGenring conference update

Tactile Academia

We have now confirmed our other speakers for the morning of the reGenring conference.

Julia Molinari will ask ‘What Makes our writing academic?’

In this talk, I would like to explore in what sense a text that does not follow established conventions of English Academic Discourse (EAD) can be considered ‘academic’? I will argue that such a text can be academic not in virtue of its textual features or of its modes, but in virtue of the extent to which it fulfils an academic purpose and practice. I will draw on theories of multimodality (A. Archer & E. Breuer, 2016), of higher education (Barnett, 1990, 2012, 2013; Besley & Peters, 2013) but also of the philosophy of sociology (Winch, 1990) to argue that since creativity, imagination and argumentation are amongst the purposes and practices of a higher education, then we need…

View original post 153 more words

Podcasting as Scholarship

Sharing scholarship

increasingly, podcasting is envisioned as an alternative academic publication format in itself, where research is formally published as a podcast

This blog – from Open Reflectionsdisplays a varied repertoire of disciplinary podcasts ranging from cinematography to politics and the rhetoric of rhyme (a dissertation published as rap).

My interest in all this stems from the realisation that the writing of traditional, monomodal and monolingual academic essays still dominates academia – from undergraduate writing to the kind of writing that is perceived to be REF-able – despite evidence that the genres and modes of academic disciplinary communication have historically been and currently are varied.

Does traditional writing limit our thinking, our understanding, our explanatory force, our creativity, our imagination, and our communicative outreach? If so, how? And does this matter?

page_1_width_2000

The richness of scholarly communications: https://101innovations.wordpress.com/

How do you and anyone you know (of) communicate your academic thinking? What formats and genres are demanded of you, have you chosen, and why? If you supervise diversity and mobility in academic communication, how do you navigate and justify your rhetorical adherence to both tradition and innovation, to stability and mobility in an academic landscape that is changing?

 

Thank you & sorry to a few people

Academic Messiness, but also Honesty and Integrity (I hope)

This teaching term is turning out to be unpleasantly busy, stressful, messy. I said ‘yes’ to too many projects before Christmas, and now I’m paying for it.

So I wanted to publicly thank a few people I have been neglecting and who are having to pick up the pieces of my disorganisation and my anxiety. I could not do a PhD, work, commute, parent, shop, cook, and generally function without them. I am also travelling very far next week, the furthest I have ever been, and I am feeling anxious: partly because it is so far; partly because I am presenting some of my research. I will be alone and very much outside of my comfort zone.

img_20170210_172015718_hdr_ink_li

Where I spend a lot of my life

The following is not necessarily in order of guilt. Maybe in order of priorities … It’s just that the linear format of this medium obliges me to write in an order that suggests preferences, but I am sincerely grateful to everyone.

  • My son: I was horrid over Christmas because I had a Chapter to write and really didn’t want it to be Christmas. He is adapting to a new form of mothering: Remote Mothering. I phone him, text him, email him to find out how school went and what he wants for dinner. He is getting used to hearing me say ‘non adesso, amore’ (trans. ‘not now, darling’). He is a lovely boy who always asks me how I am when I get home;
  • My partner: he does a lot of my parenting, sorts out home technology, sources books and resources for me, fixes my car, cooks, and generally keeps things running smoothly, calmly and happily. We’ve agreed that if he is thinking of leaving me, he can only do so after I have passed my viva :-/;
  • My colleagues at CELE, University of Nottingham: they are covering lessons for me when I go to conferences and other PhD-related activities, sometimes at quite short notice (but I do return the favours!); they also put up with my lippiness and outspokeness, and I am sure I really piss them off (sometimes);
  • The School of Education, University of Nottingham: they are supervising and helping to fund some of my PhD and conferences, and have been really patient with me when I have missed deadlines or messed up applications or been late with meeting various deadlines;
  • My supervisors: they are encouraging, communicative and generous with their time and their guidance. I think they are slightly w(e)ary of where I am going with some things, but maybe that is why they are being so nice – just to make sure I stay level-headed and don’t give up. Either way, they are allowing me to believe I actually have a valuable PhD contribution to make and they are allowing me to do exactly what I want; they are also making me reflect a lot on how I teach and advise my students;
  • cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

    ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman: a story of friendship

    My family and friends: both local and abroad. I am hopelessly crap at staying in touch (I always have been, but not as bad this). I think of them a lot, resolve to write or skype or send gifts, but then too much time passes and too much stuff happens to be able to just have a casual chat or send a short note. Each chat or meet-up would need hours and hours of catching-up, so I end up simply not not calling or writing;

  • My neighbours: I have really nice neighbours. Sometimes they are very noisy, though; sometimes they park in my parking space which drives me insane; one of them always knows when I am home and rings the doorbell to tell me something totally unimportant (to me, anyway). Predictably, I have got annoyed with them but then apologised as I realise I am particulalry impatient and over-sensitive to noise, and intolerant of other people who have normal lives that include leisure, gardening, listening to music, doing DIY, playing with toddlers, having time to chat.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to my presentation slides …

How do we help students become more resilient writers?

A post on the importance of developing resilience in academic writing by Sherran Clarence – how many writing curricula build in the time to help students develop resilience?

Writing in the Academy

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this idea of resilience in learning and writing recently. This is partly because I have started a big project – a single-authored book – and I am really struggling to find my voice and the words, and the frustration is knocking me back a bit. This is also partly based on my ups and downs with peer review on papers I have written in the last two years, and how I have made sense of the process of peer review, even when it has hurt, so that I can keep moving forward. And I have been wondering how we develop resilience in academia, and as writers and thinkers, and whether and how we can help or teach students to develop this too.
screenshot-2017-01-26-11-31-45

Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks, and to keep going without letting the…

View original post 651 more words