Monthly Archives: September 2014

Peripheral and semi-peripheral writing (Karen Bennett)

On my reading list

This edited collection is interesting because it examines how academic writing is shaped by and shapes glocal social practices: (forthcoming in October 2014)

Chapter 12 is on the academic weblog:

  • what academic criteria does a blog fulfil?
  • can we classify it as ‘academic writing’?
  • if (not) so, on what grounds?

A book that deals with the evolving fluidity of genres…..

Thank you, Karen Bennett, for your correspondence.


Reflexive writing (and researching)

My main, and haunting, research question is “what makes writing academic?”.

The reason for asking this stems from the recognition that there is:

a) a fluid writing landscape in which there are academic ‘writings’ (multiple activities/genres, rather than a static form)

b) a plurivocality in the research of the globalised and networked multiversity that somehow requires more flexibility (aka creativity?) in what we label as ‘academic writing’


c) a restless academic identity in which the values, purposes and roles of univeristies are being questioned (i.e. are unis there to train or to educate? Discusssssssss……..)

I’ve just read an article by Mary Ryan (2014) on recognising reflexivity in the assessment of writing. Hers is research on primary school children, but she makes the following claims which can easily be applied to academic writing, as I see it, anyway …. (key concepts to develop are in bold):

I consider the writer as a self-conscious designer of text (2014: 61)

This means that writers … must necessarily be positioned as self-conscious designers of writing, not just learners of grammar, processes and structures (2014: 61)

Current conditions in writing classrooms … engender reductionist approaches to form and feature at the expense of identity and voice (2014: 72)

New and changing conditions require a meta-reflexive approach to writing … The time invested in robust, reflexive self-assessment strategies is well spent to provide students with the confidence and skills to negotiate uncertain writing conditions (2014: 73)

This approach rejects a singular focus on an idealised writing product in writing assessment. Instead, it repositions the writer as agentic and adaptable as they interrogate self in relation to context and product (2014: 73)

She says that for writers to have this degree of choice and agency they need to have opportunities for purposeful and creative writing (and, therefore, I’m thinking of different forms of writing, and of what theoretical underpinnings we would need to allow us to still call these writings ‘academic’, and of how we can teach them and assess them).

Ryan then identifies four types of reflexive writing (communicative; autonomous; meta; fractured, all on page 64), drawn from Margaret Archer’s critical realism. Of these four, it is the meta-reflexive type which makes for the best writer because it creates the optimal conditions for morphogenesis (i.e. opportunites for the transformation of knowledge, which is what academic writing should allow for?):

Meta-indicators – mediates appropriateness and creativity; uses unsusal or interesting language and techniques; subverts genre; hybridises; talks about self as writer; writes outside school; pleases others and self; questions teacher (2014: 64)

To develop: how does one assess the ‘academicness’ of a product which shows evidence of the writer’s/agent’s ability to ‘mediate appropriateness and creativity’, ‘subvert genre’, ‘please others and self’?

Any reactions/qualifications to the above are most welcome!

References: Ryan, M. (2014) ‘Reflexive writers: rethinking writing development and assessment in schools’ in Assessing Writing (22) 60-74

Lost in transduction (or transmodality)

Moving along from risk-taking and creativity, here are more thoughts (before I forget them).

Q1: What is lost/gained in communicating (academic) knowledge in one mode rather than another?

What I mean is this: if we blog, or graphically illustrate or re-genre our ‘writing’, how does that affect our message?

We ask what might be gained and what might be lost in
changes of mode: from artefact and action to image, from image to writing,
to speech, or to moving image (Bezemer and Kress, p. 196)

I’ve been reading Bezemer and Kress (2008):

When we compare a textbook from 1935 with a contemporary one, we note that there tends to be less writing now than there had been, and the writing that there is differs from the writing of 40, 50, or 60 years ago, both syntactically and in its use (p.167)

Q: 2: How was knowledge received when there was less writing involved?

Bazemer and Kress say:

… one cannot analyze representations by focusing on design(ers) and ignoring those who use them. That issue is complex. It asks whether texts carry meaning independent of
their situated use—whether texts come “alive” only when they are brought into
action and communication, by themselves and in interaction with others (p.170)

They go on to talk about affordances.

Q: 3 What would make you, as an academic writer, choose one mode (a blog, say) rather than another (a cartoon, a journal article, an essay) to say what you want to say?

Consider what you (and the reader) would gain / lose by using each mode.

Q: 4 If I were to, say, ‘draw’ my position within any given controversy on a cline (going from left to right/v.v.), would that communicate the degree/gradient of my position any better than if I explained it in paragraphs preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion? Or maybe: at what point would it be better to draw the cline rather than write about it?

What transduction choices do you make when you write? Why? What determines these?


Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress (2008) ‘Writing in multimodal texts: a social semiotic account of designs for learning’ in Journal of Written Communciation 25 (2): 166-195

Creativity: ‘Re-imagining Academic Writing for the 21st Century’

This post’s title is taken from “Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century”, a collection of essays edited by Tina Besley and Michael Peters (2013, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam). The essays examine what tertiary knowledge means in a globalised, international context. The writers question values, epistemologies, established meanings, assumptions and purposes that together shape ‘our’ understandings of ‘university’.

I read it to build my own discourses of what ‘academic’ means: if ‘academic writing’ is the writing we do in/for the university (at whatever level), then what does the ‘academic’ in ‘academic writing’ mean? From an Institutional Theory of meaning (drawing on critical theory of art), ‘academic’ pertains to and is determined by whatever relates to the academy. (However, I don’t think that I like Institutional Theories, but still haven’t got a coherent reason).

My blog title also contains the phrase ‘creative non-fiction’ (borrowed from here), so I thought I’d better start swotting up on what ‘creative’ might mean …. and what it might look like in ‘academic’ writing.

‘Creativity’, as the title indicates, is a key word in this edited collection, and, overall, I think that this is what the authors would like the 21st Century University to be: i.e a site where creativity occurs (they don’t seem to think it does, though!).

And I don’t seem to have underlined any helpful working definition of what ‘creativity’ might mean, so here is an amateur cluster/concordance based on words/phrases adjacent to ‘creativity’ in the book:

invention, discovery, questioning, chance, critical thinking, innovation, probabilism, possibilism, pluriversity, flourish (Chapter 3 on using Gilles Deleuze and Charles Pierce to portray an ideal university)

imagination, fresh metaphors, ‘what if’ scenarios, surprising connections, free play of possibilities, capacity to provide foresight, working with the possibilities, alternative ideas (Chapter 6 on using Ricoeur to interpret a physics class).

emergence, concern with knowledge as a representation of a fixed and stable universe to be transferred from mind to mind in the educative process, rejection of reductionist approaches to curricula, non-linearity (Chapter 10 on Emergentism and Social Realism)

When I think of academic writing – of how we have been taught it, of what we have read about it and of what we actually read, of the advice on how to (and not to) do it, of how we actually do it – I don’t see it as an ‘it’.

Rather, I see a plurality of ‘academic writings’ because I can see these embodying some of the above aspects of ‘Creativity’. (I think I understand the ‘writing’ in ‘academic writing’ as a present participle so that it conjures up the notion of an ‘activity’ rather than a ‘thing’ and therefore it becomes dynamic, not static and reified).

I see ‘Creativity’ emerging in/from/around (?) academic writing when I read about changing citations practices, odes to scholalry blogs, evolving attitudes to wikipedia and multimodal dissertations. Examples abound.

But I also see an aversion to taking risks in academic writing:

The institution that results … is inimical to true collaborative creativity because it is wholly risk-averse: it tries to remove the element of chance from discovery (page 51)

The underlying assumption, here, is that being creative involves taking risks. But taking risks with our academic writing has some pretty obvious disadvantages! (aka disasters). So, if we accept (or at least acknowledge) that for academic writing to be ‘good’ it should be ‘creative’ (because creativity is part of what being academic should be, according to Besley and Peters), then it also has to involve a certain degree of risk-taking.

The question remains: what would be the difference, then, between ‘academic’ and ‘creative’? (Another time, maybe ….).

Are you risk-averse with your writing, or are you creative? Why?

Reference: Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century Tina Besley and Michael Peters (2013), Sense Publishers: Rotterdam


What makes writing ‘academic’?: to question, or not to question?

My PhD research is all geared up to answer this question, and I am using this, and other posts in the blog, as a form of personal and public reflective note-taking, hoping to track my thinking, and get your reactions.

The question is relevant to me in three contexts/identities:

– having been a student who has had to write ‘academically’ (from school to my MEd)

– being a teacher of ‘Academic’ English

– being a researcher of ‘Academic’ Writing

As a student, I was obliged to conform to academic conventions; as a teacher, I am obliged to re-enforce these norms; as a researcher, I am obliged to critically engage, i.e. question, them.

I admit that these three identities conflict, and that I am navigating what each day (i.e. each lesson and reading) brings to my attention.

I have been reading Shaughnessy (1998: 3) who says something that I have heard ad infinitum but have never found the reference for, until now:

… learners are perceived (…) as empty vessels, ready to be filled with new knowledge. Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.

Her basic message is that we (teachers) see students of writing as students who have ‘problems’ (she refers to the medical metaphors of writing ‘clinics’, ‘remedial’ classes, ‘diagnostic’ tests).

But right now, it is me (the teacher and researcher) who has a ‘problem’ with this….

Mary Scott has come to my rescue in many ways because she has helped me to articulate what might be wrong with seeing students as ’empty vessels’ and as ‘remedial’ cases.

Scott (2014: 215) invokes the metaphor of ‘ghosts’ in the text. These, she says, are ‘errors’ that manifest themselves as spectres (spirits) of ‘fertile facts’ (drawing on Virgina Woolf). What seems like an error to me (the teacher), is actually the tip of a student’s complex academic and social literacy that needs to be understood, rather ‘corrected’.

The teacher in me, however, says ‘standards are standards’ and that we must fix the error; but the reseacher in me says ‘what exactly are these standards?’.

This dilemma is sharply captured in Thesen and Cooper Eds (2014) who refer to ‘contact zone’ writing, the academic writing of students from multiliterate backgrounds, of students, that is, who are increasingly becoming the norm in the 21st century academy and who bring with them ‘fertile facts’, not errors. This whole collections of essays is about what risks we can take in academic writing (I strongly recommend it).

I have also been inspired (as a student/teacher/researcher) by a Radio 4 interview with the Master of Eton College, Tony Little, who towards the end of his interview shares a poignant story: it is about one of his brilliant students who upon sitting an entry exam for Oxford, failed. He failed because he saw a flaw in the exam question, questioned the question, and answered his own, corrected version, of the question. He was bascially punished for being ‘critically engaged with the form of the question’ (I so related to this story: I have agonised, as a student, over the ambiguities of exam questions and over the assumptions that underlie them).

If the ‘academic’ in Academic Writing in any way means ‘critical questioning’, then where do we draw the boundaries of what is acceptable academic writing behaviour/framing of knowledge?

Your reactions, please!


  • Shaughnessy, M.P. (1998) ‘Diving in: an Introduction to Basic Writing’ in Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Scott, M. (2014) ‘Error’ or Ghost Text’ in Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, their Theachers and the Making of Knowledge, Multilingual Matters
  • BBC Radio 4: (Interview with master of Eton College on what makes Eton so special)