Monthly Archives: November 2014

bourdieu and blogs (yes, really)

Pat Thomson on the ‘academicness’ of blogs:

“many things on the borders of respectability do eventually have their day”.

patter

Today I’ve been wondering about a field analysis, a la Bourdieu, of academic publishing. I dare say someone’s done this and it’s just one of the very many, many things that I haven’t caught up with.

I’ve been thinking about academic writing as a field. That’s because blogging is generally seen as a pretty low’ form of academic writing/publishing, certainly when compared to the ‘high’ status peer reviewed journal article and scholarly monograph. While both journals and books have different exchange value in different disciplines and policy contexts, they patently have much more status than blogs.

Some minority activities do of course have status in their fields – like the avant garde in art for instance. Well, I mean what used to be avant garde before we all became unshockable and it all became big business. But the vast majority of academic blogs are not avant-garde, certainly not in the…

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Crowd wisdom vs. Peer review (or the State of our ‘Knowledge’)

Rethinking some taken-for-granted assumptions on what counts as ‘real’ knowledge

At a recent work event on scholarly activity – during which we discussed what exactly counts as ‘scholarly activity’ (specifically in EAP, but we touched on other disciplines, too) – someone briefly mentioned that blogs could not be counted as ‘academic’ because they are not subject to rigorous peer-review; somebody else briefly raised a caution to this and said that the open public scrutiny that blogging is subjected to can provide similar guarantees to peer reviewing, which means bloggers and tweeters (those who want to be considered credible by their academic communities) do take care of their evidence and tone.

I admit that I am here reporting the spirit of what was broached the other night, rather than the letter. Things weren’t actually articulated as such because this wasn’t the focus of the event – however, my critical ears pricked up and have been burning ever since, so I am using my own (non-academic, non-peer reviewed) blog to indulge in some poetic licence and to imagine what would have been said if we could have discussed the (de)merits of peer-review (if those present are reading this, please speak up and peer-review me!)

Firstly, I would have liked us to have flagged up instances where ‘proper’ peer-review has been outrageously and clamorously discredited. The most famous case is the Sokal Affair in which a bunch of self-assured and well-known postmodernists fell for the most notorious academic imposture of all time. So smug were they to have had a ‘proper’ physical scientist arguing that knowledge is ‘constructed’ and therefore ‘relative’, ‘subjective’ and ‘masculine’, that their own critical reading radars were switched right off and Sokal was published, no questions asked (he himself had to reveal the hoax a few weeks later; had he not done so, Sokal would still be part of collective postmodern epistemologies).

Secondly, somebody else in our room would have raised a more recent hoax, the one in which 120 non-existent and entirely computer-generated scientists dazzled the peer-review panel at Springer, and made their grand entrance onto the ‘academic’ stage.

Thirdly, my other imaginary conversants would have pointed to evidence suggesting that the cumulative effect of crowd wisdom actually weeds out factual errors and bad arguments (all of which fall under the remit of a peer reviewer). Pat Thomson also deals with this topic here and reveals her penchant for wikipedia (note that my own references for Sokal come from wikipedia).

Finally, we would have openly and generously reflected on what all of this means in relation to the reliability of knowledge and of information (not the same thing!), of whose knowledge it is and how it got there, of critical engagement with good ideas, rather than an unquestioning and deferential reliance on the authority of editorial panels. We would then have pondered on where we draw the line between what counts and does not count as academic, and I would not have to spend years doing a PhD on it!

But this conversation never happened, it is all in my imagination.

On writer autonomy (when ‘real’ writers break the rules)

When ‘real’ writers break the rules

Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to write a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch in a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimitated by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, to take a breather, assimilate what he has heard, and then find his place again on the page. (Pinker, 2014, p.145)

Dessin_de_Grau_pour_JD_de_mode_partrue_dans_le_journal_hollandaisAdvice on how to write academically abounds, especially when it comes to style, and we all have writing pet favourites, sources we turn to for composition guidance. If we read too much advice, though, we soon start to see that it can conflict, so generally we choose one writing guru, and stick with him/her.

Sometimes, this advice verges on the prescriptive, mainly because it needs to be assertive rather than reflexive, and because we need quick fixes to our ‘numb de plume‘ (aka writer’s block) so that we can get back to our manuscripts or so that we can teach.

The advice I am thinking of includes such rules/guidelines as: paragraphs must contain around 5 to 6 sentences; they must be signalled by a clear topic; they need to wrap-up in order to pave the way for the next paragraph. Or: avoid brackets and footnotes because if what you are saying is important, it needs to be prominent, not hidden behind bars or relegated to solitary confinement; in other words, if it’s not important, don’t write it. However, not everyone in academia agrees with such rules…

Grafton

The footnote is ‘the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data’ and other reasons to appreciate it

I confess to finding all this advice confusing, both as a student who has to write academically, and as a teacher who has to teach this stuff, because I don’t always see it happen in practice. Maybe I’m exaggerating. It’s not that it is ‘confusing’ – I get a) why this advice exists (e.g. widening participation has opened the doors to academic discourse for many people who have not been brought up on a (Western) diet of academic writing/composition); and b) why it is like it is (e.g. readership has also widened but the time to actually read/concentrate has shrunk, ergo, everything needs to be signalled and standardised so that busy assessors, reviewers and editors don’t get lost in unwieldy and complex ideas written in non-standard forms).

Nevertheless, I also confess that I prefer a process approach to teaching writing rather than a prescriptive one (so I tend to favour the Susan Feez / Hallidayian approach to genre, for example, which looks back on what has emerged from text exploration, as opposed to a more Swalesian approach which tends to anticipate what writing will look like): this means that I like to explore with students what writers actually do, what choices they make and why, and then negotiate what we, the students, want our writing to look like, and why.

Here are the two examples from my own research readings that have triggered this post. They show how ‘real’ writers break the rules (I’m sorry they are out focus: I will try and sort this later, but it is not the content I am drawing attention to, it is the fact that they break the rules of paragraph advice and of how we use brackets – there are references at the end).

This is from Uzuner, p. 256 (EAP): SEE YELLOW HIGHLIGHT

Uzuner

What I notice here (yellow highlight), is a one-sentence paragraph (if it still counts as a paragraph). Why does she do it? It must have been deemed ‘academic’ or else the Journal of English for Academic Purposes would never have published it. Yet it breaks the very rules that EAP is fond of!

And this is from Skow, p. 447 (philosophy of science): SEE BRACKETS in YELLOW HIGHLIGHTS:

Causality

What I notice here is an entire paragraph (a huge one at that) which is entirely bracketed. Why does he do that? Whose writing advice has he followed!?

My answers to why these writers have chosen to ‘break the rules’ is that their academic writing reflects/represents/embodies (I still don’t know how to say this) their academic thinking. They shape or mould their writing to provide a window into their reasoning. In turn, the writing shapes the knowledge they are communicating (Bazerman) so that it is received by the reader in a certain way.

In Uzuner’s case, it was a brief, independent concluding thought that needed its own paragraph space: the one-sentence paragraph thus becomes the shape (the embodiment?) of that brief thought.

In Skow’s case, it was an axiomatic thought, one that needed to be established early on in order for the rest of his argument to be founded on a premise (i.e. his definition of an ‘event’), but one that does not recur: it’s as if he is telling us “ok, let’s just get this out of the way now so that we don’t have to keep coming back to it; and let’s not dwell on it hugely”. His long bracket paragraph becomes the shape of this thinking: long, important, anxiomatic, but essentially not the main focus of his paper.

As always, please share any reactions to this …

References:

Doing historical research: cherry-picking events to fit my narrative (at least I’m being honest)

History of Academic Writing(s)

I have approximately one year to come up with a history of academic writing(s). This post is an attempt to break the task down into self-contained coherent chunks that can still do justice to the narrative I would like to see emerge.

Needless to say, I feel like a ravenous rabbit: desparate, but frozen by the proverbial headlights.

I have the extremely good fortune of having inspiring supervisors who are solid, confident guides, and who provide hugely relevant disiciplinary perspectives to my research (one is an educationalist, the other an analytical philosopher). When I talk to them, I come away feeling that I know what needs doing: several readings later, however, I manage to single-handedly undo all the clear thinking they have patiently brought to my anxiety-ridden digressions and over-ambitions.

So, I have opted for the following robust and reliable academic strategy:

Cherry-Picking-600#1 establish my narrative (i.e. what do I want this history to flag up)

#2 rationalise my historical account within a relevant time frame, eg. from the first issue of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (1665) – why start here?

#3 circumscribe my historical account to a geographical area, eg. Europe – what’s special about Europe’s academic heritage?

#4 rationalise key events, eg. a) major printing/publishing moments; b) major social/technological happenings; c) major shifts in genre – why these? Because it is the ‘shifts in genre’ I am hunting for.

#5 dabble in discourse analysis to identify emerging patterns, eg. shifts in style/rhetoric/formats/lengths of written academic texts, and what was going on in the Academy/society/technology at the time

My plan is to map #4 on a timeline, hoping that #5 will speak for itself. The thing is, I will inevitably be selecting (aka cherry-picking) the key events in #4 that suit me, ignoring the ones that are “inconvenient” because they are exceptions or simply too complicated to deal with or difficult to classify.

Comments and reactions always welcome, especially if you know of any (free) software that will allow me to represent #1 to #5 above, and any relevant literature on the history of academic writing.

Back to the books ….