On Writtenness, its geopolitics, and other academic values and assumptions

Disclaimer: this is a massive post, written mainly for my own needs. However, it is of interest to academic writing teachers, which is why I want to share it. At around 1,350 words, I indicate where you can probably stop reading. Sorry.

Writtenness: a very timely, relevant and ongoing controversy

The term writtenness accentuates the linguistic materiality of a text as well as its status as completed labour. As such, it marks the value of the text itself, the comunication of the content, rather than the content itself […]. I am making a case for the positive recognition and acknowledgment of the intellectual endeavour required to a achieve a level of writtenness that complies with what has been culturally constructed as ‘good’ writing (Turner, 2018, page 23).

IMG_20180519_073138865Joan Turner’s recent book makes 5 broad claims:

– Firstly, that the intellectual and cultural labour that goes in to meeting the expectations of English-speaking academic writing standards is undervalued or simply ‘taken for granted’ by academics (page 178).

– Secondly, that the negative attention given to ‘bad writing’ and malpractice (e.g. the use of ghostwriting agencies and the culture surrounding (il)legitimate proofreading services) outweighs any positive attention given to the enormous efforts that L2 students do make in order to be judged, by our standards, as ‘good’ writers.

– Thirdly, that academic readers need to cooperate with writers and make more of an effort to understand and value their content rather than the form of their writing (page 194).

– Fourthly, that rather than reject other styles and rhetorics of academic writing (namely, the diverse ways of writing that students bring with them), academics should integrate them into their academic practices (pages 240-242). This is because if we really are committed to being ‘international’ universities (pages 125 and 127), then homogenising language and writing so that it meets an ideal standard (or ‘imaginary’, pages 124, 130, 131 and 142) of what ‘good’ English and writing are, ignores the fact that English is part of a protean, not a static, landscape (pages 230 and 252), i.e. one that is shifting, one that is multilingual and one that is global.

– And fifthly, that judging L2 students by L1 standards of language proficiency is simply not fair, and that L2 standards need to be measured against L2 capabilities (page 253).

I am not convinced by the internal coherence of Turner’s book (I found it unhelpfully repetitive, and I think you would need to have read her previous writings to appreciate where she is coming from, i.e. post-colonial studies, critical EAP and Academic Literacies) nor by what seems to me to be a somewhat muddled way of simultaneously talking about what is the case (descriptive), what should be the case (normative) and what could be the case (predictive). However, the issues she broaches are close to those of my research and I am very grateful to her for having voiced them because they raise prickly sensitive hackles on the spines of those who trade in language, literacy and academic discourse and are the cause of one of the deepest schisms in our field.

Rubbing new salt into old wounds: does language proficiency entail academic proficiency?

As I read Turner’s book, this newspaper article also appeared (my bold), highlighting a familiar, but rarely challenged, refrain, one that is also echoed by teachers of L2 (second language) academic writing and university subject specialists, namely that we need to raise the level of English proficiency for admission to university:

International students accept their offers in good faith, believing that if they have met the entry criteria, their English must be good enough to allow them to fulfil their academic potential. But the fact is that an IELTS score of 5.5 – or even one a few notches higher – may not be sufficient for them to learn and perform at the true level of their ability (newspaper article, May 10, 2018, ‘Language requirements for international students are too low’, Times Higher Education)

The article obliquely scratches the surface of what also concerns Turner – specifically, the importance of achieving writteness in academia (that is, of achieving a value that brings together the need for good form and the socio-cultural effort required to achieve that form  – I think this is what Turner is saying, but sometimes I feel she slips from descriptive to normative claims, so I am not sure). However, the article misplaces the blame for ‘bad form’ by situating it squarely in the lap of low thresholds of language proficiency rather than in the lap of a whole culture that takes writtenness for granted and that ignores the intellectual labour involved in becoming a ‘good’ writer.

Turner, on the other hand, argues that proficiency in English is unlikely to be the real root of the problem (pages 132-3). Rather, the test construct of IELTS as an academic entry exam encourages the conflation of good writing with language proficiency. Since IELTS does not integrate reading and writing, understood as academic literacies, nor does it require knowledge of academic discourses (including disciplinary discourses) or develop research dispositions and attitudes to referencing and critical engagement, it does little to ensure that “lecturers will have no difficulty in reading sudents’ work” (page 133).

The above Times Higher Education article encourages this conflation of language proficiency with cognitive ability by reporting on a recent study by York University which shows that below a certain threshold of language proficiency, “English skills constrain academic success” as well as the cognitive abilities required to achieve academic success, such as processing vocabulary and reading speed.

However, equating ‘having cognitive ability’ with ‘understanding academic discourse’ (its culture, its history, its values and aims, its complexities, conventions and contradictions) seems mistaken, to me: the fact that language and cognitive processing are indeed correlated is uncontroversial only insofar as language has been set as the default mode against which we all seem to uncritically measure intelligence (but there are other ways of capturing intelligence) .

I don’t think we can generalise this correlation without evidence. In other words, I don’t think we can claim that having a minimum/maximum threshold of lexical items lodged in your brain is more likely to help us understand academic discourse. Academic discourse is not the same as language (understood as the total sum of lexical items). Academic discourse, as it is currently conceived, necessitates language, I agree. But language is by no means a sufficient condition to guarantee fluency in academic discourse.

Tests that measure the correlation between cognitive ability and language proficiency are limited to controlled environments that test very small and targeted language situations. They do not test the understanding of academic discourse. Anecdotally, at least, I have come across highly intelligent, imaginative and critical students whose language proficiency has been comparatively lower that those with high IELTS scores, and who, longer term, have done much better academically, generally because they are more creative (they know how to draw on a range of modes to get their ideas across and have multiple strategies for decoding texts, not those foregrounded by IELTS, which misleadingly assumes that all paragraphs have a self-contained main idea and an obvious topic sentence).

But I see something far deeper going on here, something which lies at the very heart of how we measure intelligence, criticality, creativity and understanding and how we value them as academic dispositions:

as long as higher education remains dependent on (and reduced to) monolinguistic (English) and monomodal (writing) proficiency and as long as we continue to measure academic success (almost) exclusively against language proficiency, then we will necessarily judge students who come to university with diverse repertoires and capabilities (multilingual, multimodal, dyslexic, autistic, artistic, socially and culturally rich) as ‘deficient’. By demanding and expecting linguistic homogeniety, what we are are asking for is also ‘cultural and social’ homogeneity. And by asking everybody to speak and write in the same way, just like we did with RP (Received Pronunciation, page 35), we are creating the conditions for a homoginised academy that communicates via a mono-literacy.

A perfect bluebrint for #Brexit.

Fortunately for deaf and dumb students, the above article does admit that ‘you can be intelligent without being linguistically proficient’:

We tested the non-verbal intelligence of both groups [international and home students] and found no differences.

So why does language have to continue to be the benchmark against which we measure the full range of human intelligence?

This massive pre-amble allows me to make my first link with Turner’s book.

You can stop reading. What follows is a massive rant intended soley for my own research uptake

Ontological complicity: a very British philosophical legacy

Writtenness is a complex, multifaceted textual reality which is reduced soley to grammatical accuracy. This reduction happens largely because for the discipline-based reader, writtenness beyond the level of the sentence merges with content, and is therefore submereged in ontological complicity with content (page 181). I take this to mean that we conflate good writing with good thinking.

Turner calls this conflation an ‘ontological complicity’. She blames the philosopher John Locke for having spawned a legacy that conflates good thinking with good language (pages 5 and 179), a legacy compounded by the scientific writings of the Enlightenment, by the Orwellian trope that good prose is ‘like a window pane’ (page 36 and 48) and a legacy that endures in the way we teach and assess academic writing (page 50):

If you cannot write well, you cannot think well; if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you (Oscar Wilde)

Turner’s problem with ontological complicity – conflating good writing/language with good thinking – is that (page 34; see also page 233):

judgments about academic writing are necessarily ideological, but […] there is a general lack of awareness of those culturally immanent ideological roots. Judgments of writtenness, of how a text is written [its clarity, precision, transparency], tend to operate implicitly rather than overtly.

This ‘implicit ideology’ has also been discussed in Michael Peters who argues that ‘clarity’ is not a straightforward concept because so much taken for granted knowledge, cultural capital and understanding of critical literature, etc. needs to be available to the reader before a text can be understood.

Moreover, to state that ‘good writing = good thinking’ ignores a rich tradition of structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist critical theory and critical discourse analysis that raised serious problems for the correspondence theory of truth, namely what exactly does language refer to or signify? The fact that this tradition of linguistic critique has been largely ridiculed and replaced by the plain English ordinary language movement does not invalidate the serious critical theory questions which I think still remain: what exactly does language refer to and do we really all ‘clearly’ see the same referents? (page 42).

Given current socio-political discourse, I very much doubt that language is ‘clear’ and that we are all seeing the same referents:

‘Brexit means Brexit’.


All of this can be further related to another thread in Turner’s book, namely her contention that judgments about what constitutes ‘good writing’ echo snobberies about what constitues ‘good speaking’.

Writtenness: the RP of academic writing

RP (received pronunciation) was until recently deemed a hallmark of ‘proper’ spoken English. The fact that less than 2% of the world’s English speaking population have ever had this accent has significantly shifted attitudes about what it means to speak ‘properly’.

Although attitudes have shifted regarding RP, this, according to Turner, is not the case with attitudes regarding what counts as (good) academic writing (page 7):

writtenness is a cultural ideal, whose values are implicit rather than explicitly espoused. Indexed by evaluative tropes such as ‘polished prose’ (see Chapter 4) and assumptions of precision, accuracy and stylistic elegance, it is saturated with ideological and cultural value. As such, it is similar to the position of RP (received pronunciation) in spoken language. However, unlike RP, whose ideological resonance has been extensively commented upon in sociolinguistics […], the ideologies, social identifications and linguistics assumptions of written language have generated much less concern.

She goes on to compare this, on page 211 (my bold), with how we now accept different pronunciations (thanks to sociolingusitc work on International English and ELF _ English as a Lingua Franca) but remain disdainful of similar diversities in writing, such as non-conventional spellings and personal identity:

While the textual projection, as well as the subjectivity of personal identity is the focus of research and discussion in the field of writing research (see, for example, Ivanic, 1998; Canagarajah, 2011; Tuck, 2017), in the institutional context, expectations of conventional correctness at the micro-level as well as genre structuring maintain a deontic and moralizing authority.

In other words, writing research shows that there is considerable diversity and mobility out there and that this diversity is valued, integrated across the linguistic landscape and harnessed (cf. Blommaert, Lu, Horner, Lillis, et al.). However, the institutions themselves (possibly the institutions funding that very research!) are slow to recognise and respect the protean nature of global Englishes.

Controversies and significance: my take on all of this

As soon as anybody suggests we question the standards by which we judge language, writing and literacy, controversies spark and the usual reactions flare up. These are manifest in fiery ongoing media debates about correct grammar, punctuation and language use, but also in my EAP field, where teachers and examiners disagree about what counts as ‘academic writing’ (let alone ‘good’ academic writing!). I also have anectodal evidence of how sensitive all this is from conference talks and corridor discussions, feedback on student writing and comments on blogs.

The most common reactions are along these lines (in italics):

  • we need standards, we can’t just accept anything

However, as far as I know, nobody has ever said we don’t need standards or that anything goes. Rather, the question is ‘what standards’, ‘whose standards’ and ‘for what purpose’? We set the standards. We can also change the standards depending on what we are looking for.

  • those who question the standards are the very same people who got into power via those very standards. They are at best hypocrites; at worst, taking risks with powerless students

This is the case and it isn’t . Either way, so what?

There are some who both question and flout the standards (notably, in extremis, @Nsousanis (who teaches, does and publishes visual scholarship) and @aydeethegreat (who teaches and does rap scholarship) but also Dr Hleze Kunju who wrote his PhD in isiXhosa).

And even if it were the case that those who question the standards whilst at the same time making use of those standards to express themselves, how or why does this invalidate their call for questioning those standards? I write. That is what I do best. Why shouldn’t I do what I am best at. It doesn’t mean that everybody is also good at writing, so why should I force them to reach my standards when perhaps they have other ways of demonstrating their intelligence and understanding? Academia is about developing intelligence and understanding. That is its ultimate goal. If I do that best by speaking or drawing, why should that be of less value than writing?

By invalidating the principle that standards can be questioned in virtue using the very standards that are being questioned, we are invalidating the call of anybody who questions a system in virtue of them having been brought up in that system. In other words, I can be anti-racist and anti-elitist (i.e. I can question the system that encourages racism) even though I am white and have had a very good education: I can’t help being white and having a good education. Why does that prevent me from wanting to live in a society where you can be white and educated as well as black and educated? By questioning the system I am the product of, I am not a hypocrite. Rather, I am saying that I want the system to open up so that others are not discriminated against.

  • students need to know the rules before they can break them

Arguably and possibly. But this isn’t the point. The underlying issue about standards and rules relates again to which rules we have decided are universal and that everybody must subscribe to. For example, most of the EAP discourse I come across still foregrounds impersonal forms (e.g. the passive, no personal pronouns). But this ‘rule’ is only true of some academic writing traditions and rhetorical choices, not all. So, on what basis has EAP adopted this as a blanket rule for ‘academic writing’? A similar argument can be advanced for what counts as a standard paragraph, and so on (I’ve developed some of these ideas here and here). See also Turner pages 111 and 169

The significance of Turner’s work in this regard relates to what she calls the ‘taken for grantedness’ of writtenness, namely that we take good writing for granted. She says we are keener to notice and point out grammar mistakes when they intrude and interfere with our reading than we are to acknowledge the intellectual labour and ideologies that underpin the standards by which we judge ‘good writing’. In this respect, Turner refers  to the work of Mary Scott (page 234, my bold) :

She discerns an underlying critique of the assignments that students in the discipline of education are being asked to do, because they seem to necessitate a transferral of their home contexts of teaching to that of the United Kingdom. As the students feel unable to express their critique explicitly, Scott finds it in the multimodal resources they bring to their texts.

In other words, the ‘critique’, the intellectual labour, the analysis, the critical thinking, is there. It’s just not expressed the way we expect it to be or want it to be or prefer to be via the conventions of our standards of what counts as academic.

  • language is the best mode for academic argument

The fact that it is an historically established mode in Western academic culture does mean it is the best mode or the only mode, nor does it mean that we all understand the same thing by ‘argument’.

For example.

‘Argument’ has a long debated and contested history (see Stephen Toulim). It takes many forms and serves diverse purposes, yet we all talk about it as though we all and always mean the same thing by it. This is despite the fact that it ranges from analytical deductive propositional forms to full blown visuals, with an awful lot in between.

– Deductive arguments, whereby the conclusion is contained in the premises, can be expressed in two modes, propositions (language) or symbols (signs):

If all men (A) are mortal (B) and Socrates (C) is a man (A) then Socratese (C) is mortal (B)


If A=B and C=A then C=B

This is known as the transitive law and is a common feature of logical argumentation. It is one of the rarest forms of argument outside of mathematics and logic, yet we lambaste students for not being ‘logical’. Strictly speaking, we are asking them to do the impossible.

– Visual arguments are commonly deployed by lawyers who submit artifacts as evidence (videos, weapons, clothes) as powerful sensory and emotive proofs that build up to a conclusion (see Gilbert, Michael A. 1994. Multi-modal argumentation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24(2): 159–177.)

Arguments can also be deductive, inductive, abductive.

The point is that we tell our students we want them to present a ‘good argument’, but do we really know what we are are talking about?

So much for ‘clarity’, ‘precision’ and ‘transparency’ and for good prose being like a window pane.


Students get conflicting messages from us because in many cases, we ourselves (teachers, academics, subject specialists) don’t articulate what we mean by the language we use. We assume it is ‘clear and transparent’, but my simple examples above show that one of the most common words in academic discourse, ‘argument’ has several denotations.

This lack of clarity has several consequences for L2 students entering academia:

1. When students are confused by what we ask of them and about how realistically they can fulfill these expectations, and when their academic success is so massively high stakes, they are more likely to resort to ghostwriting agencies (Turner, pages 176-203)

2. By being unclear [sic] about the meaning, importance and boundaries of what counts as ‘legitimate proofreading’, we show just how imprecise language can be, we betray our ignorance of writtenness, of that highly complex and contested relationship that exists between form and content and the arbitrariness (‘fuzziness’, page 194) with which we decide what constitutes ‘legitimate help’ with writing: “When writtenness is reduced to grammatical accuracy” (pages 180 and 181) and when “Proofreading as a practice is less intellectual, and therefore the cost of writtenness is disguised by the cheaper intellectual price of proofreading (page 175)”, we undermine our own endeavours to teach academic writing.

3. Writing landsapes are mobile (pages 242, 252-3, 256-7). Whatever we are teaching at any given time will have to be re-learnt or adapted by the students when they enter new contexts. Because of this, teachers of writing need to educate about writing (page 242), so that students can deal with new contexts and new expections (page 242):

Arguably, [writing researchers] are more disposed to interrogate the assumptions of Western cultural rhetoric than might be the case for academics readings texts for arguments witin a specific disciplinary context

In other words, should writing researchers be educating the academics about writing?

In this regard, EAP tutors behave like handmaidens to the disciplines (what Raimes (1991) has called ‘the butler stance’), serving (training) rather than enlightening (educating), playing catch-up to try and capture what they think the disciplines do more than what their students need, are able to achieve, and possibly even want. On reason for this is that what EAP tutors are doing is (page 137, my bold):

at best offering ‘support’, at worst, remidial instruction. This creates a great deal of friction between EAP practitioners and their discipline-based colleages, as well as with the institutional management. […] I give examples of an ‘us and them’ ethos which arises because of it. For example, the notion that EAP practitioners play a defensive role, shielding academics from what is deemed poor English. Here, the status of their role is dimished by the perception that they are correctors or proofreaders, rather than doing substantial analytical and pedagogic work.

The ‘analytical and pedagogic work’ that Turner refers to above, is the work of education. I see EAP as educating about academia. This includes broaching a fuller range of conventions and academic traditions, but also educating the person, exploring dispositions and capabilities, and providing choices.

5. A further implication of her book is that some of the mess around writtenness and its standards might be cleared up by judging students against more realistic and humane criteria, criteria that fully acknowledge the effort they need to make to ‘sound native’ and criteria that respect their basic human right to fulfill their potential as a person, a person who is also multimodal, multilingual and multicultural.

4. This potential might include integrating their multilingualism into their academic writing. It might also include allowing students to communicate in modes other than language (Cook 2002: 335 cited in Turner, 2018, page 253):

The crucial implication for education is ensuring that the standards against which L2 users are measured should be L2 user standards, not L1 native speaker standards


“It is not a question of whether education should prepare for the future. If education is growth, it must progressively realise present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements” (page 56)

This would seem to suggest that students should be treated on their own terms, respected humanely and fairly for the experiences and knowledges they bring with them in the present (see the philosphy of John Dewey) and that their human capabilities (see Martha Nussbaum on ‘capabaility approach‘) should be nourished so they can fulfill their potential, which may to varying degrees, also coincide with the (imagined) requirements of a discipline:

The capability approach purports that freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of what people are able to do and to be, and thus the kind of life they are effectively able to lead. The capability approach is generally conceived as a flexible and multi-purpose framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being

L2 students are reductively branded as such: Language 2. What does this mean? English being their second language? Or their own language being of secondary importance? Again, these labels, what exactly do they designate?. In fact, they are often multilingual students, so perhaps ‘Ln‘ would be a more appropriate label (back to how ‘precise’ language is – not).

In labelling students, just as we blanket label them as ‘international’ (maybe a Spanish student seems herself as ‘Spanish’ not ‘international’ – we have re-defined ‘international’ to mean ‘not English’ which is totally arbitrary), rather than allowing them the space to label themselves, are we frustrating their capabilities (in the Nussbaumian sense) rather than nurturing them? Are we training them rather than educating them (see Dewey on an empassioned distinction between ‘education’ and training’ (pages 13 and 29).

5. Turner also calls for greater reader cooperation (page 13, 258-261):

I also critique the smooth read ideology and argue that, especially given the international use of English, it needs to be replaced with a more flexible, interpretative stance on the part of the reader. Rather than place the onus on the writer to provide a smooth read, the contemporary reader in international higher education needs to have the ability to cope with a rougher ride as it were, through a text.

6. We need more integration between what students bring to the university and what we want them to learn (see this article for a case study at Beirut University). This integration would be a way of valorising their previsous experiences and nourisshing their capabailities (Turner, pages 240-24):

Rather than ban the rheotrical preferences of other writing traditions, why not bring them in

7. We need to admit that we are all trying to work out where and if content and form merge. According to Turner (page 238, my bold):

The expectation for the smooth read is so taken for granted that it is particularly problemtic when the attention of academic readers is drawn to the prose itself, rather than the message being conveyed. It is also the barrier that militates against tolerance of difference in rhetorical styles, diversity in the use of English, and more flexible reading positions

Here, Turner implies that the medium is not message. This seems incompatible with the  modern media and communications tropes that the medium is the message and seems to muddy Turner’s waters: can we and should we separate the two? Is she saying that proofreading needs to separate form and content for it to be deemed ethical? This is where I think she muddles things (page 189):

proofreading is good if it priviliges content and bad if its role is to claim credit for grammatical accuracy. Such contradictions highlight the ambivalence and cocneptual fuzziness around the role that writtenness plays.

and then on page 194:

Some people seem to be able to make a clear-cut distinction, which social practices such as that of proofreading facilitate, but the divisions in practice are fluid and inconsistently made. Inconsitency and fuzziness extends also to assessment practices around writtenness as well as to assessment criteria

However, what I think matters here is that once we do separate content from form and deny that ‘the medium is the message’, we immediately open up the possibility for different forms of academic communication, dethroning language as the reigning mode. We democritise modes (the affordance of modes)

Final thoughts

This book needs to be understood within the broader tradition of Academic Literacies, Critical EAP, Post-colonial Studies, WAC/WAD (Writing Across the Curriculum/Disciplines) and Translanguaging (and the work of Suresh Canagarajah). It brings together much of what Joan Turner has already written about, which explains why many complex and contentious claims are not fully developed or referenced/justified. The book is part of an ongoing conversation in these literacy traditions and generated this Twitteration


Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP

‘Writing is never general’

This is what Elizabeth Wardle tells us, on page 30 (see also a review of the whole edited book on Bad Writing Advice, here). And I agree, kind of …

Specifically, Wardle (who writes from a US Composition Studies perspective) claims that (pages 31-2, bold added):

A better conception of writing is one in which we all remember (realistically) our own experiences learning to write in different situations, and then apply that memory to our expectations of what we and others are capable of achieving. A better notion of how writing works is one that recognizes that after learning scribal skills (letters, basic grammatical constructions), everything a writer does is impacted by the situation in which she is writing. And thus she is going to have to learn again in each new situation.

Donald Judd also argues (from a US perspective), drawing on Critical Realism, that writers always need a reason to write, a reality to write about. He therefore encourages writing teachers who have the task of teaching ‘writing in general’ (school teachers, first year composition studies (in the US) or general EAP (in the UK), to design tasks that engage their student writers meaningfully. He has some well thought-through, generalisable and educationally-sound suggestions that don’t necessarily require writing to be discipline-specific (but they do require caring about a topic and having an audience in mind).

From an EAP perspective, I think this quote from Huckin, 2003 (abstract, p.3) more or less sums up my own stance on this:

While agreeing with some of Hyland’s criticisms of the ‘wide-angle’ position (for example, that generalized LSP [Language for Specific Purposes] can fail to appreciate the distinct linguistic and rhetorical features of specialized discourses), the paper criticizes his ‘narrow-angle’ position as well by pointing out that it can easily lead to a teacher-centered prescriptivism and to an overly rigid focus on certain forms and tasks at the expense of others. Furthermore, such an approach fails to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them in their professional careers.

In commenting on Huckin, Hyland (2016, p.18) claims:

This straightjackets creativity and encourages a dull conformity to convention and a static, decontextualised pedagogy, particularly if teachers fail to recognise genre variation. Such an approach may produce unimaginative and formulaic essays, and fail to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them inh their professional careers.

So, this got me thinking, as usual, about how we teach writing on a general EAP course. I know there are many who think EAP should not be general (I have references for this, sorry – I just don’t have them to hand, it’s late, it’s Saturday, I have food in the oven), but the fact is, most EAP is taught ‘in general’. And given that it is, how can we turn this to our advantage, make it a meaningful experience for our students and ourselves, and perhaps even give it an added edge over and a separate remit from English for Specific Purposes, which seems to attract far more sympathies and favourable arguments than English for General Academic Purposes?


Is general EAP stochastic, and is order even meant to emerge?

I have several ideas, including ideas on giving general EAP an interdisciplinary identity and focus (but more on this another time and in another post/article). In the meantime, I have proposed the following summer staff development session where I work. It still hasn’t been accepted by my department, but regardless of this, I wanted to share my thinking on how to meaningfully go about teaching general EAP with my wider #tleap community.

And the reason I wanted to do this is because I want to know what you think – what should and could we be teaching on ‘general’ EAP, given Wardle’s and Judd’s, and those who favour ESAP (English for Special Aademic Purposes), consensus on the non-feasibility of teaching writing ‘in general’?

Proposal for a general EAP Staff development session:

DRAFT title/abstract.

Academic WritingS: Diversity, Plurality and Multimodality, and why these matter

Given the research indicating shifts in traditional writing norms and the de facto diversity of academic writing genres, why does general EAP conflate ‘academic writing’ with the traditional academic essay or research report, both of which also embody empirical and epistemological assumptions that not all academic traditions value? To what extent, therefore, does a general EAP course justify its choice of genres and capture and deal with their diversity? Should it deal with writing diversity? If not, why not? If yes, how?

This session/symposium/forum/panel is aimed at showcasing diversity in academic writings and at providing a reflective space for considering ways in which general EAP teachers might make sense of it. Making sense of it matters because our students, particularly our PG students, are part of a new era in Higher Education, where competition (for funding applications, grants, etc.), academic communication (within and across disciplines), publications (in traditional/Open Access/Digital/Multimodal journals and on social media such as blogs), public engagement, collaboration and influencing policy are taking centre stage. It also matters ethically, educationally and democratically, in the Deweyan sense of harnessing learners’ diverse experiences and aspirations – in other words, what choices do we give our students, what’s our rationale for selecting these choices, what choices are we comfortable giving them, and to what extent are we ourselves even knowledgeable about or interested in these wider academic/educational practices and values?

How are we preparing them for all this? Should we be?

Knowledge and Academic Writing

On being bold and assertive yet modest, honest and humble

We (teachers of academic writing, at least in #tleap) tell students to write assertively and with confidence (in this paper I argue that or this shows that); to be tentative and modest (it could be concluded that or my suggestion is); to acknowledge the ideas of others (as so-and-so has shown), but mainly so that students can assert a bold position that cements their right to be writing in the first place (in conclusion, I have shown that).

Although I teach writing, I am also learning to write research, so this post is mainly a reflection on how I want to sound in my own writing: bold, assertive, modest, honest, humble? All and other? And prior to this, how am I to make sense of what I read.

Here’s an example of the kind of bold writing that I am talking about (underlined indicates the language of boldness):

What kind of entity is a committee, a book group, or a band? I argue that committees and other such social groups are concrete, composite particulars, having ordinary human beings among their parts. Thus, the committee members are literally parts of the committee. This mereological view of social groups was popular several decades ago but fell out of favor following influential objections from David-Hillel Ruben. Recent years have seen a tidal wave of work in metaphysics, including the metaphysics of parts and wholes. We now have the resources to rehabilitate the mereological view of social groups. I show how this can be done and why we should bother.

Academic writing hasn’t always been and isn’t always bold and confident like this. There was a time when it was more exploratory and tentative, in the French sense of ‘essayist’ (essayer), when Montaigne’s essays (1500s) were held up as paradigms of good academic writing, even in the sciences (early essays in the Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1600s, still had a personal, exploratory, discovery-oriented and descriptive quality about them rather than the methodologically assertive, controversial and factual/objective veneer of later articles).


My readings and notes

Two critical reading incidents have brought about this reflection. The first is that, when I read across my disciplines – Writing, Philosophy and Education/Sociology – I see many bold discipline-marking claims being made. Often these claims are borrowed from other disciplines, and when they make their way into their new disciplinary home, they are asserted with such factual aplomb that those then reading this knowledge secondhand take the claim for granted (for example, a student of Education who reads an educational paper that draws on Philosophy might think there is no problem with framing whatever ontologies they are concerned with as, say, family resemblances rather than as having unequivocally fixed referents).

Here is a more specific example. Sociologists, Educationalists and Applied Linguistists (and many others) borrow an awful lot of ideas from philosophy (I do, too): Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblances, Philosophy of Mind’s Emergence, Einstein-Schlick’s Relativity, Complexity Theory’s Dynamic Systems, and so the list goes on. But when all these theories find their way into disciplinary domains wherefrom they did not originate, they often get cherry-picked, watered down, mis-represented, re-cast and applied with a confidence that never seems to acknoweldge, let alone do justice to, the still unresolved disputes about their coherence in the original theories that spawned them.

Here is Keith Sawyer, a sociologist, who at least attempts to trace theories of Emergence back to the Philosophy of Mind, where they first ’emerged’. He does this to try and make sense of the Cartesian mind/body dualism that still haunts us and that crops up in many current approaches to knowledge. Sawyer highlights how sociologists have co-opted the concept of Emergence without acknowledging its inherent inconsistencies and problematic nature (page 552):

contemporary sociological uses of emergence are contradictory and unstable; two opposed sociological paradigms [methodological individualism and methodological collectivism] both invoke the concept of emergence and draw opposed conclusions. The problem arises in part because sociologists have not developed an adequate account of emergence. In this article, I make an initial attempt to develop a foundational account […]

I like the fact that Sawyer:

  • a) recognises the origins of the concept (the article is called Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory);
  • b) acknowledges shortcomings in his own discipline (Sociology); and
  • c) has the humilty to say he is going to ‘attempt’ to develop what ’emergence’ might mean in his own discipline.

In other words, he is not lifting the term from philosophy, airbrushing the many problems it has with its referents and simply dropping it unproblematically into his own discipline (as Sokal has accused the postmodernists of doing). He is attempting to make sense of what Emergence might mean when used as an orientation towards the understanding of complex social phenomena, of reduction, emergence and supervenience. The fact that Emergence theories originated in Philosophy and Natural Philosophy (as Science was known pre-1800s) does not mean they cannot be used as heuristics or paradigms in other disciplinary fields. But their meaning and reach needs to be re-established when they are exported or transplanted into another discipline, such as Sociology. And, in this article, I think Sawyer shows us how one might go about doing this.

dementedThe second critical reading incident comes from being constantly reminded that there is so much we really do not understand. The history of science, and of ideas generally, is replete with examples of how we got it really wrong and of how much we still don’t know. Einstein himself was considered to be heretic and to have threatened the whole edifice of science with his purely theoretical and non-empirical claims (pages 48-9):

Planck’s idea, which restricted the ways that material objects could vibrate, was the first quantum hypothesis ever, and although it was surprising and hard to reconcile with previous laws, it did not seem profoundly threatening to the entire edifice of physics.

But to suggest that light had a particle nature [as well as wave] was definitely threatening. Thanks to James Clerk Maxwell’s great equations, published in the mid 1860s, and Heinrich Hertz’s great experimetns roughly twenty years later (and countless other pieces of evidence), anyone who knew anything about light was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that light was waves; indeed, that fact was an unshakable pillar on which huge amounts of the physics of the day rested. It was therefore a complete and radical break with virtually all of classical physics when Einstein proposed that light might consist of particles. This heresy really did threaten the entire edifice.

Since knowledge is so big and so dependent on how we frame it and how we use it, I sometimes wish there were less hubris in the way we write academically, even in the modes we choose to represent it, and more recognition that we are more than likely to be wrong, or at least only partially right.


Gustav Klimt’s Philosophy Mural, intended to depict ‘The Triumph of Light over Darkness’. Instead, he depicts humanity as “just a freakish fluke in a huge and utterly alien world” (page 69 of Exact Thinking in Demented Times)

The PhD as a … 3D Stereogram

In search of my research metaphor

PhDs, thesis writing, research, scoping the literatures – I’ve heard these processes likened to ‘journeys’ or ‘giving birth’. I imagine that this is because they take a long time, you don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, and the final push/destination could yield unimaginable joy or utter disappointment and exhaustion.

Neither metaphor works for me.

The PhD as a journey doesn’t quite work for the reasons given by Thomson and Kamler in their really relevant book Detox your Writing. For example, the idea that a journey is a quest that comes to an end and leads to a ‘treasure’ (page 41) is misleading as far as a thesis is concerned, at least for me. Not that I am near my destination yet, but I am close enough to imagine the end, and right now, it feels like when I do get there, there will be lots more travelling and lugging around of heavy baggage. But yes. A little rest at the end is hopefully there, too.

As for giving birth, well, no. Having done that, I can guarantee that this feels nothing like being pregnant or giving birth, in any sense or at any stage in the process, from conception to delivery. A PhD also takes longer than 9 months, for starters.

Kamler and Thomson offer other metaphors, such as doing research is like having ‘lunch with friends’ (page 42) or ‘making a table’ (page 43). The ‘lunch with friends’ conjures up the idea that you are in control, you decide who to cite, critique, group together, take a stand against. That might work in thinking about the choices needed to build a literature review. The ‘making a table’ is about not re-inventing the wheel. Others have made tables before you, so you can draw on that expertise. But you have agency in the shape, colour, size and purpose of the table/argument you are making.

Having 5 years of part-time research behind me, I am now trying to cohere what I have and decide how to fill in the missing bits. This still involves an awful lot of seeing too many trees and very little of the wood. Exactly what I am saying and what I eventually want to say – my take home message, my ‘So what ….? (page 88) – keeps going in and out of focus.


You don’t expect to see something stand out, so seeing the 3D object for the first time can be surprising

So, I’ve come up with my own metaphor for this particular stage of writing the PhD: the 3-D stereogram. If you look at the picture superficially, you see a lot of minute detail, a few recognisable shapes, but certainly not ‘the point’ or the ‘main focus’ of the picture.

To see ‘the point’ or ‘the main focus’ you need to do one or both of the following:

  • hold the image close without trying to focus on it. Then step back slowly keeping your eyes relaxed. The ‘point’ should jump out at you;
  • stand about an arm’s length away from the image and focus on something behind it. Shift your field of vision to the picture without shifting your focus. You should now see the ‘point’.

Some see the picture very quickly, others take time to see it. Some never will. It is difficult to see it, but with patience and practice, it can be seen. There may also be other ways to finally visualise it.




Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

I need to write a another PhD chapter, but I can’t, and the reason I can’t isn’t being resolved by the copious sensible options offered by Pat Thomson, or any other experienced academic writers.


A Cornucopia

Since I have been here before, and become unstuck, I am not too worried (just a bit), and since I am bursting to write, I’ve resorted to my bloggy cornucopia for release.

Prompted today by a more recent Patter post, by a lovely colleague who tweeted how lonely he felt in writing his dissertation, by the seriously unbearable building work going on outside my study window, and by having tried all day to stop reading and start writing my own thesis, I have finally given up, accepted that, once again, ‘today is not the day’, and resolved to write tomorrow (as I have done for the past month).

Last week, I met with one of my two very ‘generous’ supervisors (in the sense that I feel they either over-indulge me or have too much faith in my vague over-ambitiousness, or both) about plans for this final year-and-a-bit of my PhD. I had a ton of plans – publishing, writing, re-genring – all of which have been causing me stress and anxiety. He listened, and then simply reminded me of how much I was enjoying the first couple of years of my research and advised me to find a way of enjoying it again.

What he meant was to simply get on with writing (the bloody thing) and not feel the need to do anything else. Writers-Block

So here I am. Resolved to ‘enjoy’, once again. The problem, however, is that I am enjoying the Reading way more than the Writing. And that is what is blocking me. I am finding the Reading far more satisfying than writing my own stuff, than re-reading myself, editing, re-writing (yawn).

Clearly, this is not good since I am now committed to finishing what I have set in train. But it’s a fact.


Becoming unstuck

What has given me some solace today is Keith Sawyer and his tome on Explaining Creativity. Chapter 17 is all about writing, and although he doesn’t explicitly talk about academic writing, he may as well be, because his anecdotes and insights resonate with writing a PhD thesis.

Here is a mash-up of what Sawyer says and what is giving me encourgement:

  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was arguably co-authored by his wife and Ezra Pound, both of whom had to heavily edit it many, many times before it became what it has become.

IMG_20171026_174904914I am in no way taking from this that I am going to get someone else to write my thesis! No! On the contrary, I am totally obsessed with my ideas, so would never be able to share them with anyone other than my supervisors and very close (academic) friends. What I am taking from Sawyer’s example is that there is no such thing as a perfect first or second or third (and so on) draft, and that writing is really hard work, requires dialogue with others and is pretty lonely without it, as he goes on to say below:

many successful writers seek out good editing, listen very closely to such comments, and are grateful for them. Eliot’s story shows us that creative writing is often the result of collaboration (p. 320)

  • Sawyer develops this idea with reference to other writers, highlighting that writing is a craft that requires hard work, multiple attempts and failures, that the Romantic impulse and one-off inspiration is not enough to get you through to your final text, and that the actual act of writing is helping us to think through our ideas:

Jessica Mitford engaged in a constant dialogue with her unfolding drafts: “the first thing to do is to read over what you have done the day before and re-write it, and then that gives you a lead into the next thing to do” (p.321).

Poet Mary Sarton wrote: “The poem teaches something while we make it; there is nothing dull about revision” (p. 321)

Novelist Ann Lamott, in her writing advice book Bird by Bird, emphasised the importance of generating “shitty first drafts” (p.321)

Since writing this post (and blog) helps tremendously with unblocking my own writing, I’ll end it with a quote, again from Keith Sawyer on p. 324, that resonates with where I am at right now (my bold):

… the writers all emphasised the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed that it is important to listen to their unconscious. They kept notebooks nearby at all times so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They worked in a problem-finding style, starting their work with only a phrase or an image rather than a fully composed plot, and the work emerged from the improvisational act of writing and revising. There was never a single big insight; instead, there were hundrends and thousands of small mini-insights. The real work started when mini-insights were analysed, re-worked and connected with each other; and as with every other type of creativity, many ideas that sounded good at first ended up in the trash.


Mam Tor, Castleton – I still have a fair whack to go ….




Beyond Convention in Academic Writing

Academic Writing, Conventions, and ‘Who Has the Right’

Received wisdom continues to hold that you have to know the rules before you can break them. This is evident in a recent book (2016) on genre innovation by Christine Tardy:

intentionally departing from norms requires an understanding of those norms (p. 39)

IMG_20171007_085840From the perspective of fairness and access, Tardy also recognises (with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘cultural capital’) that this can lead to an imbalance of power:

What emerges from this complicated web of authorial identity is something of a vicious cycle marked by power and access: Experienced authors gain access to the resources that allow them to produce legitimate language in legitimate forms and situations; in doing so they accumulate symbolic capital; their capital then allows them to exploit the system and perhaps stray from norms in ways that those with less capital cannot; through their distinctive uses of language they may accumulate further legitimacy and power within the market (p. 36)

I like Tardy’s book because it is both theoretical and pedagogical. It fully acknowledges the influence and importance of well-established scholarship on genre and academic writing (eg Swales, Halliday, Martin, Devitt, inter alia), yet also foregrounds the less visible work (in mainstream EAP, at least) of sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and semioticians like Gunther Kress, as well a critical language theorists like Widdowson and Pennycook, who have invoked the importance of play, creativity and non-linguistic ways of thinking and representing knowledge. Tardy further provides classroom approaches to raising students’ awareness and choices when it comes to their own writing.

But what happens when there are no obvious rules to be broken, no ready-made templates to fall back on, and you have to literally invent your own genre?

This is where Tardy’s book panders to my interests. She acknowledges the importance of interdisciplinarity when it comes to thinking about genre innovation and moving beyond convention in academic writing:

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach is also valuable for understanding genre innovation in ways that are inclusive of diverse writers and writing contexts (p. 2)

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to writing matters to me for three reasons: 1) my PhD is interdisciplinary, and I am forever trying to get the balance right between sounding like an educationalist and behaving like a philosopher (an analytical one, at that!); 2) I teach general EAP; and 3) I’m drawn to the Finnish approach of phenomenon learning.

The reason I am keen on framing general EAP writing as interdisciplinary is summed up in Judd (adapted from page 126 of Judd, D. (2003) Critical Realism and Composition Theory, London, Routledge):

The traditional lack of a subject matter in writing courses is both a strength and a weakness. Sophisticated writing cannot be divorced from a degree of sophisticated understanding of a concrete subject matter. Even if you apply formal logic to your writing and detect logical fallacies and conflicting assertions in an argument, while important, this will not necessarily lead to a more sophisticated understanding and, thus, to more sophisticated writing. “How could someone learn”, asks Frank Smith (1990: 97) “to detect conflicting assertions in a chemistry text, an article on chess, or to estimate for repairs to an automobile, without an understanding of chemistry, chess or automobile mechanics, in which case contradictions would be immediately apparent?”. The answer of course, is that one cannot […].

and moreover:

It may be unrealistic to expect that your writing will get progressively better when you are writing about several unrelated topics over the course of an academic term because little opportunity is given to you to develop a more sophisticated understanding of those topics. When there is no traditional subject matter in writing courses, we are free to select topics that are of interest to us and that lead us to understand ourselves by understanding the world and our place in the world […]. Good writing is not guaranteed by good understanding, but poor understanding almost certainly inhibits good writing.

My solution to this ‘lack of traditional subject matter’ and to the need ‘to understand what you are writing about’ has been to draw on students’ own and emerging disiciplinary knowledge with a view to interacting and collaborating with the knowledge of others. This creates an interdisciplinary writing context and raises the question of how to negotiate rules and transgress genre boundaries whilst still being recognisibly academic.


Barbara Brown’s ‘Heals Prints’ – disrupting panel boundaries – at The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

But now, the question of ‘what genre should my students write in?’ looms large.

Tardy’s book is providing me with ways to build on traditional genres in order to innovate and move beyond traditional conventions in academic writing. I am asking my students to create innovative genres because neither they or I know what knowledge will be brought to the classroom each term and what knowledge will emerge from their collaborative research. I have no template for them to follow. I rely on them to create writing that brings together content knowledge, audience awareness and modalities that effectively get their message(s) across.

Is anyone else grappling with these issues?


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

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?


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


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:



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.


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


    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)


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.


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.


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