Monthly Archives: October 2014

‘Do I sound academic?’ via @seburnt

In response to Tyson Seburn

Tyson’s question is:

“What’s your take on the desire for students to sound more ‘academic’ in their writing?”.

Although I fully share and adopt the pragmatism of the responses so far (as well as invoke their dissatisfying appeal to relativity), they trouble me on a deeper level because they all assume that we* (those of us teaching academic writing in EAP) actually know what it means for something to be academic. They further assume that ‘academic’ is a homogenous, static and clearly demarcated style that has no shared territory and purpose with creative, journalistic, semi-specialist and publicly-engaged writing (I’ve blogged about this here and here). Another underlying assumption is that English academic writing has no shared history with the academic writing of other countries when in fact it does (indeed, I imagine that what many of us mean by ‘academic’ is things like intros and conclusions, nominalisations, complex syntax and passives, which have their origins in Latin and positivism, and which are actually no longer that fashionable in academic writing, including the writings at the periphery of the hegemonic English inner circle).

Now, I realise that it doesn’t help students with looming exams/assignments to be told “well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘academic'”. But it does help to engage in dialogue with them – processually – about what they are trying to achieve in their writing. So, if the aim is to pass an exam with a specific spec. (intro, conclusion, nominalisations, complex sentences, etc.), then they need to judge the extent to which they are happy to follow the spec. without cramping their voice, and take stock of the consequences of challenging expectations and of engaging creatively with them. But they also need to have conversations with their tutors and examiners about the extent to which they can experiment and to what avail, so that responsibilites are shared and meanings agreed upon with the academic community/institution.

I have a specific recollection of a student who wanted to use an anectode in his introduction to make his broader, contextualising move, and hook his non-expert audience, rather than the formulaic It has long been argued that …I responded by saying I thought it was a brilliant idea because his anectode achieved the academic purpose of rendering the context to a reader that was not familiar with it. I was less interested in the display of academic language and more interested in his reasoning. But I then had to consult with ‘significant others’ because I wouldn’t be the one marking his final paper (and therein lies the problem ….).

And here is another crucial consideration in responding to Tyson’s question: there can exist a contradiction – at least in my experience of teaching both EGAP and ESAP – in what we are asking students to do and the context they are doing it in. So, for example, firstly, we ask them to ‘write for an non-expert but educated audience’ – now that requires a very unique and incredibly difficult tight-rope style which is a hybrid, and kind of made up. This is because we want them to explain things so that we can understand them. However, we then complain if they haven’t said it in a complex nominalised latinate form! Secondly, in order to identify a suitable topic for this ‘non-expert but educated reader’ (again, this begs all kinds of other considerations, eg. what sort of ‘educated’ ….), we encourage them to read broadsheet newspapers, possibly a few academic journals, and then complain that their own writing doesn’t sound ‘academic enough’ or has an inconsistent style!

We also need to de-bunk the myth that there exists such a monolith as ‘academic vocabulary’, other than in the self-referential corpus-sphere where quantifiable recurrences actually matter. For example, the words ‘sex‘ and ‘team‘  can be found respectively in Sublists 3 and 9 of the widely referred to AWLs, yet there is nothing inherently ‘academic’ about them (not in the world I inhabit, at least!). But I have taught in many, many places where these lists are thrust upon the students leading to such nonsensical questions as: How many words from the AWL should we have in a 3,000-word essay or What if my essay doesn’t contain any of the words from all 10 lists.

The students are absolutely right to ask such questions: you may as well give them the entire contents of the OED to memorise. It’s like teaching somebody to drive a Fiat 500 having previously asked them to study how many cars there are in the world, their engine sizes and their colours! How’s that knowledge going to help them drive the car they have for the distances they need!

We need to de-bunk the myth that there is an ‘academic style’ and foster academic ways of thinking, instead. These ways of thinking include explaining, describing, etc. to a range of audiences and for genuine purposes. Academic styles arise from academic needs and will therefore necessarily vary accordingly. We have to, first of all, work out what academic needs we are asking students to fulfil, then make those academic needs explicit, and then work out how best to achieve them.

So, in answer to Tyson’s question, my response would be:

1) ‘what sort of academic do you want to sound like?’ (answer: eg. one that has to explain a difficult term to somebody who doesn’t share my disciplinary background)


2) ‘what is going to allow you to sound like that?’.

And then the creative process of writing text can begin by exploring stylistic and multimodal possibilities, rather than prescriptions.

* My use of ‘we’ is controversial, I know. Please read it in the spirit of the points I am making, rather than in terms of it embodying particulars.


More on breaking the rules of writing

Fiction, rather than academic writing, has triggered this post. What follow are two examples of rule-breaking. What interests me are the reasons behind the transgressions because they shine a light of the agency of the writer rather than on the prescriptions of textual norms.

Breaking Rules #1: kid versus school

My 10-year-old, who is in Year 6, has just read ‘The Scarecrow and his Servant’ by Philip Pullman. One evening, upon reading (on page 17)

Pullmanhe initiated this conversation:

Him: Why is it that at school they tell us we always have to use commas when we write lists but writers use ‘and’ a lot? We’re never allowed to use ‘and’ in a list.

Me: Why do you think?

Him: I don’t know!

Me: Which do you prefer?

Him: Well, when I read this (above) it’s like Jack sees more and more food, it’s bigger and better, he’s shocked and he feels loads of emotion, like his emotion is growing. But a boring old list with a load of commas, it’s as if the author is just saying it, just telling it, it’s just a list of words, it’s boring. With ‘and’ it becomes more exciting. But maybe not all the time, you need to know how to use it … (he then re-read it without all the ‘ands’ to see what effect it had)

(This morning, he asked: why does the plot of a story always have to begin and finish in the same place? – says I: Does it? (unhelpful, as ever) – No, he replied, and then left for school, leaving me wondering: why do academic writing conclusions always have to take us back to where we started from?).

Breaking rules #2: author versus reader

In a recent interview with Tim Winton on BBC Radio 4 ( there is a discussion between him and his readers on his ‘Dirt music’, a novel on the lives and intrigues of his characters, set in Australia. Many interesting things are said in this interview, but this is what caught my attention:

Winton has decided to report his characters’ many dialogues without using any quotation marks. He says he:

made a decision to not put quote marks around conversations so that they just live in the prose.

Not only does he not mark the boundaries between dialogue and narrative, but he has also chosen to omit apostrophes where you would normally use them to show that people are talking in slang (eg. every time a character says ‘goin’). Winton says:

there is so much vernacular, too many apostrophes, then you add a few speech marks … it just looked like a morse code … it was untidy

(This made me think of how littered with useless bibliographic information and distracting in-text references academic writing can be).

But Winton goes beyond the stylistic/aesthetic point. He also takes a sociological/political stance as ‘narrator in the text ‘and bends his writing to his will so that his text actually embodies his thinking, it doesn’t just represent it. Deciding to get rid of markers of Australian vernacular – and thus breaking the rules of writing – enabled him to be less

condescending to those who speak like that. My marks are there to show the reader that I am not illiterate

In other words, he decided that in order to express parity, be more of a realist, be a present narrator (or whatever other intentions he may have had), he had to change the prevailing conventions of writing and go against the expecations of his readership.

I confess to not having read Winton’s book so I don’t know what the overall effect of these stylistic choices is(if you have read it, I’d love to hear your reaction), but the fact that he has done it is enough of a prompt for me to reflect on what prompts an academic writer to break the rules of their communites.

Some examples of academic rule-breaking are here.

Another ‘academic’ example I like is John Law’s ‘Making a Mess with Method‘ in which he provides a graphic abstract, rather than the bog-standard CARS, or whatever other template, to draw attention to the fact that sociology is messy, and that its methods simply impose an order, rather than reveal one. In other words, in order for Law to make his epistemological point about messiness, he chose to create a ‘messy’ text, or at least one that doesn’t follow the rules I have to teach in class (!).

Do you have any similar examples?

Reining in the Research Narrative (my own)

This post in an attempt to keep my research narrative(s) in focus. I admit to getting very easily distracted by disparate, albeit interconnected, avenues of inquiry, so, now and then, I need to force myself back to basics and find the unifying continuities.

This recent tweet reminded me of how easily my narrative slips off my radar:


Now, I don’t know to what extent Picasso is right, but his words are relevant to me both as a teacher and as a researcher of academic writing, although they are relevant in very different ways. And it is partly because of  these multiple identities that my research narrative gets diluted by myriad  perspectives.

So, as a clarifying reminder to myself, I am NOT researching how to teach academic writing but researching what makes the writing academic (rather than ‘artistic’) in the first place. The question, therefore, is what ‘we’ mean by ‘academic’. If this meaning is shown to be varied, then its modes of expression should be, too.

So, is this Picasso quote relevant to me, the researcher?

Yes, it is, because it flags up one of my underlying narratives, namely that there is a tangible trend towards questioning what it means for writing to be ‘academic’ in the 21st century and towards a more creative (aka ‘artistic’) interpretation of what academic writing is (my evidence for this is here, here and here). How can research, rather than teaching, make sense of the dialectic messy muddle of moving between prescriptive rules and creative artistry that allows knowledge to emerge (with a view to ultimately helping students and teachers navigate it)?

In other words, to go back to Picasso, what are the rules of academic writing, who can break them, which ones can we break, how many, when and why; and once they are broken, what exactly are we left with, and how different is what we are left with to what we started with?

The range of writing that has come out of the Academy throughout history and that has cumulatively led to the formation of our concept of ‘academic’, shows that it is hard to pin down what shape and form writing has to have in order to be classified as ‘academic’. And since it is complex (as well as global) to pin down, it is accordingly complex to teach, to learn and to predict its evolving nature.

Specifically, I am thinking of the sense in which the following different texts, at least, can be classified as ‘academic’ given the extent to which they differ and the extent to which they make/break rules whilst all being products of the Academy:

1. the ancients’ use of poetry to communicate science (Doody et al, 2012: 234-235, ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Science’):

From a modern perspective, one of the puzzling aspects of ancient specialist literature is the prevalence of poetry in what we regard as scientific or technical texts

2. cf the above with the modern-day use of Bob Dylan quotes in medical titles: by using Bob Dylan, the authors got across important medical knowledge to the (academic/public) communities that mattered

3. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with its 7 propositions and articulations thereof, and no ‘proper’ referencing to speak of (other that to matey inner-circle, Gottlob and Bertrand): a far cry from the Swalsian ‘moves’ or Dunleavy‘s paragraph advice

4. Watson and Crick’s seminal 1954 DNA article in Nature which used a remarkably colloquial style, yet reached out to the academic science community that mattered

5. Alan Sokal’s postmodern academic hoax, a text that would still be in circulation were it not for the fact that he himself declared it as fraudulent: does this fradulence detract from its ‘academicness’?

6. the recent Springer journal hoaxes, all of which followed all the classic ‘rules’ of academic writing, yet created no ‘genuine’ meaning because they were produced by a computer programme designed by MIT students to produce academic texts on demand (more than 200 of these were in circulation; they also inspired the creation of Ike Antkare, one of the most cited scientists on the planet)

7. plagiarised texts, and the vast epistemological debate that plagiarism is; does it mattter if a text is plagiarised, and is it still ‘academic’ if it is?

And also, given that being academic also involves public engagement, can we draw a clear distinction between private and public / academic and creative? Plus, doesn’t the binary ‘academic’ versus ‘public’ somehow imply that ‘academic’ means ‘private’ (in which case, the early Wittgenstein would be a perfectly acceptable academic writer because only his cronies can understand him)?

Picasso says we need to ‘know the rules’ before we can break them. But what are the rules? Who sets them? Who can break them? To what vantage should they be broken? And at what point does an academic text stop being ‘academic’ and become creative?

Now you can see why I so easily lose sight of my narrative!

Anyway, these are the research beasts I need to address, but any reactions to anything I say here is most welcome!

Lessons from history: emergent academia (and public engagement)

In my quest to understand how all things ‘academic’ come to (not) be – and how pictures can say it better than words, or differently (cf transduction) – here are two telling depictions of evolving academic behaviours:

1) Teaching before print ca. 1500s, Cambridge University (Leedham-Green 1996:31)Before_Print_Leedham-Greenthe master propounds the text to students sharing a single copy either of the text itself or of a summary

2) Teaching after print (ibid: 32):

After_Print_Leedham-Greena less depressed group of students, each of whom now has his (sic!) own copy, attends a lecturer now free to devote more time to exposition of the text

(Lots to unpack, including the stricking analogy with today’s students, who consult smart technology during lessons so the lecturer is no longer the sole focus of their attention, cf ‘after print’ image, above).

But these depictions are proposed by Leedham-Green in the wider context of how academia’s moeurs reflect the evolving religious, royal, political, legal and technological values and concerns of society.

What I need to tease out, is how does all this impact on academic writing ….

For example, I am reminded of the academic values embodied in the Trivium versus Quadrivium curriculum (mediaeval Trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic, and Quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy): what are today’s core knowledges in academia, and why, and how are they represented, and why (cf. (multi) modality and creativity)?

Another interesting historical perspective relates to the requirement of the Academy, throughout the ages, to engage in public engagement: did you know, for example, that in the ca. 13th century

… in the faculty of arts, of law and, in due course, of medicine, instruction was in the form of lectures and disputations, a number of which had to be publicly performed in order to meet the requirements of inception

and that, because of the different audiences involved, this had an impact on their choice of language:

senior students of theology were statutorily bound to preach both ad clerum in Latin to their peers, and, in the vernacular, at Paul’s Cross in London

(Leedham-Green: 19)

In other words, even in the ‘good old days’ where tradition, rigour and discipline reigned (!), it wasn’t good enough to be understood soley by your peers: you also had to get public approval, and adapt your style.

Hmmm … what are your reactions? Do you have any literature recommendations on the history of academia and of academic writing?

Reference: Leedham-Green, E. (1996) A Concise History of the University of Cambridge CUP

Thank you to @EllieClewlow for responding to a twitter request for such literature, and @qikipedia for the initial tip-off