Monthly Archives: December 2014

Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#5, 6 and 7)

Writing and general education (Russell 2002, Part II): a response to the widespread desire that education should foster community and social harmony in a society where knowledge and work were becoming increasingly specialised (p. 136)

One of my research questions is:

  • what are the academic values that determine the shape(s) of academic writing(s)?

This is why conversations like these really interest me (available from here and here):

Bloggin 2

Bloggin 1

My other questions include:

  • What values are informing our current academic practices, eg the REF?
  • What shifts are currently taking place and what impact will these shifts have on our academic writing practices?

Part II of Russell’s book examines what educational visions/values have determined American academic writing (or composition, as it is referred to in the US) during the 1900s. On page 136, he claims:

In those first crucial years of the new century (1900s) (…) a new cadre of professional administrators, preaching the gospel of social efficiency, wholeheartedly embraced  curricular specialisation and institutional differentiation, stressing the democratic values of variety and choice

  • Chapter 5 deals with Writing and Social Efficiency: the principles of efficiency and cost-effectiveness guide educational decisions. This results in the essay genre being replaced by objective tests. These are easier to mark, but the educational process is obscured.
  • Chapter 6 deals with Writing and the Great Books: the humanities react to the over-specialisation of the scientific disciplines by returning to the past, and to tradition. Writing becomes inspired by literary masterpieces (conservatism).
  • Chapter 7 deals with Writing and Progressive Education: inspired by the Deweyan ‘social perspective’, “oriented towards contemporary problems and convinced of the schools’ role in bringing about rational social change” (p.137). Writing becomes an individual and student-centred activity.

Russell’s portrayal of writing coheres into a social practice approach to understanding what academic writing is, and, consequently, to how it ought to be taught. It also shows that academic writing(s) change over time because of shifts in social, and therefore academic, values. Social change shapes academic writing (Bazerman). Society is shaped by individuals (critical realism (Margaret Archer) and methodological indivdualism (Rom Harre) ergo individuals can cause/bring about change …. develop this for how individual can cause academic writing to change).

Do you have examples of social contexts that have shaped the academic writing you do and teach? Please feel free to share and comment.

Ref. ‘Writing in the Academic Disciplines: a Curricular History’ (2002) by David Russell, Southern Illinois Press ISBN 0809324679

Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#4)

Utilitarian writing, or ‘writing and the ideal of utility’ (Russell 2002: 101 – 132)

A man’s writing reflects his habits of thought and it is simply impossible to give him a cultivated style by any other method than by making a cultivated man

(Russell quoting Aydelotte, p. 119)

Having looked at how the research report embodied an ideal of research (precise, objective, scholarly), Russell turns his attention to how writing became discipline-specific. In this chapter, he specifically deals with Engineering and Business.

Of interest to me, is why academic writing began to specialise (because of the demands of industry, employability) and how this specialisation didn’t lead to an enduring integration of writing instruction into the disciplines – it sounds like a contradiction, but here is what Russell says:

technical writing teachers ordinarily had little contact with practicing engineers, the language and product approaches were more accessible than the rhetorical or process approach, which required a familiarity with the activities of the profession (p.123)

the impetus for (writing) coordination came almost exclusively from the writing teachers (p.123)

writing was thought of too often as “little more than grammar and punctuation” (p. 124)

as in engineering schools, the business schools tended to segregate writing courses from the rest of the curriculum … faculty did not feel they were qualified, or they had no interest in teaching writing (p. 127)

As happened to technical writing instruction, the specialisation and marginalisation of business writing courses tended to isolate business writing instructions from the activity of business (p. 129)

If the ideals of research and utility helped to destroy the old curriculum’s single, undifferentiated approach to language instruction through unrelenting specialisation and professionalisation of knowledge and work, the ideals of research and utility nevertheless offered to academia several new options for teaching writing through engagement with the social and materials worlds (…). But their advocates accepted the demands of specialisation, and stayed politely within their respective corners of academia. As a result of the pattered isolation, proponents of these pedagogical traditions rarely became aware that they were options for teaching writing in the disciplines (p. 132)

Russell dedicates much of this chapter to an MIT writing instructor called Robert Grosenver Valentine who influenced MIT’s attitude to scientific and technical writing by introducing the guiding principles of ‘subject’ (aka the focus), ‘reader’ (aka audience), and ‘point of view’ (aka perspective, eg, political, personal, economic) into written composition because it was his belief that writing was a powerful tool that could influence decisions at managerial and political levels. Valentine later became employed by trade unions and by business because of his writing abilities:

Valentine (…) translated human relationships into written form, where his version attained the status of objective fact through the authority vested in him as a professional (p. 114)

This reminds of the themes in Barton and Papen’s Anthropology of Writing where writing is framed as a social practice that makes things happen. Writing is a form of social action. Overall, the historical portrait that Russell is painting of late 19th and early 20th century academic writing instruction seems to go against the theory of writing as social action, with the notable exception of Valentine and a few others (eg on p. 130 with the case method genre in business which adopted an integrated approach to writing but this abandoned because it was too time-consuming).

Around the turn of the 19th century, American employers were lamenting the quality of writing of engineers coming out of specialised schools. As a result, the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering hired an English Professor in 1895 and the college began offering courses in literature, history, report writing (1914) and other genres. However, technical forms had become absolute by the 1930s (p. 123).

Overall, though, utilitarian writing, or discipline-specific writing, never really took off:

this frankly utilitarian approach never prevailed, except in a very limited way in business and technical writing courses. Academic disciplines were organised to further the other great interests within the academy, culture and research, which held up differing ideals of academic community and different notions of writing instruction (p. 106)


differing ideals of higher education prevented utilitarian writing instruction from finding a secure place either outside or within composition courses (p. 107-8)

I’m always grateful for reactions to these and other ideas I post, especially if any of this resonates with you.

Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#3)

Writing and the ideal of research (David Russell 2002, cont. from here and from here)

Russell sketches how the genre of the academic research report*, in America, came into being, barring the way for the emergence of any other genre, despite the fact that between 1860 and 1985 there had been a 240-fold increase in student enrolments (p. 70) which might have allowed writing instruction and genring to develop differently:

to understand why certain forms of student writing endured and others faded, or why certain pedagogies included writing and others did not, one must look to the character of the research ideal and the ways it interacted with writing in the new mass education system (p.71)

German scholarship rapidly set a new standard for academic writing, not only in the sciences but also in the emerging humanities and social sciences (p. 79)

because disciplines viewed student writing through the narrow lens of their own research writing, they rarely explored other possibilites for using writing in teaching (p. 85)

In the new university, the discourse that finally counted was the discourse that a discipline published (p.87)

I am interested in what academic/research ideals and influences prevail today and in how these (will) affect the genres we teach and learn …. What are the current ideals that shape writing, how does writing emboy these, what trends are emerging?

Around the 1870s, America saw many academics arriving from Germany and, consequently, adopted the German ideal of research scholarship. This ideal of research assumed that there is a truth out there that can be observed and accurately reported in language. Thus, the research report genre developed as a way to capture truth in the most precise way that language would allow.

The implict epistemology underlying this conception of reality is realism which, (g)roughly put, claims that there is an obective world that is independent of our minds and that can be observed, measured and represented through language. Russell refers us to John Locke, the enlighment philosopher, who, amongst other things, claimed that language is a conduit for representing reality: the more precise our language is, the more we can represent the world that is out there. Since the German research ideal rested on an assumption that there is a world that is out there, then the researcher can represent it as it is, objectively and unambiguously.

Academic writing, in its research-report form, came to be equated with scholarship:

a discipline’s ultimate goal was to maintain and raise its standards of scholarship (p.86)

Russell was concerned with the tension between equity and excellence in education (p.86):

the tension between the competeing values of equity and excellence left faculty in an ambiguous position with respect to student writing. Should faculty consider it a duty to assign writing to the majority of students or a compromise with disciplinary quality and thus a sheer waste of time?

Regarding equity, given the many students from different literacy backgrounds, what was/is the best way to teach academic writing?  For example, when teaching students how to write, should we teach genres such as the research report, or should we adopt a more progressive approach (in the tradition of John Dewey, who saw education as a process involving the individual’s experiences and social reality, p. 97) that includes other genres so that students can engage with the messiness of the research process and of academic thinking (p.24).

Or, in the pursuit of excellence, should we channel our writing instructions towards the best students? Indeed, since the purpose of academia was/is scholarship, and that this scholarship was best represented by the research report genre, what was the point of teaching any other kinds of writing? American academics, therefore, reserved their writing efforts for the best students only, or, at the very least, those who showed sufficient interest and promise:

extended writing should be reserved for those few students who had shown particular aptitude for or interest in a specialised field (p. 86)

Recurring (tense) binaries, according to Russell, that have impacted  on the academic written genre are:

  • equity versus excellence (p. 26, 86, and 92);
  • messy process versus neat product (p.24);
  • precise style (to capture reality) versus elegant style (rhetoric/persuasion)(p. 72)
  • truth (realism) versus ambiguity (skepticism) (p. 72);
  • reality versus transience (p.?);
  • writing to display knowledge versus writing to learn knowledge (p. 95: “writing came to be used as a means of exclusion, a means of setting and enforcing disciplinary standards, rather than as means of introducing students to the scientific community through meaningful participation in its activity”; and p. 100)
  • academic versus non-academic (John Dewey’s progressive view that students should be allowed to write non-academically) (p. 74);
  • discovery of truth versus social process in pursuit of truth (p. 74);
  • open-ended discovery versus mental discipline (linked to “positivist research ideal of fixed, steadily accumulating knowledge”) (p. 93)

In this chapter, Russell also deals with plagiarism and ghostwriting (p. 88) and explains how this area of activity became lucrative:

infamous “literary gentlemen” began selling papers to students nationwide (…). The term paper-industry grew up with higher education, and today there are several companies  offering a sophisticated array of “research assistance”. One Chicago-based company, for example, boasts a catalog of over 16,000 papers, indexed not only by number of pages, footnotes, and references, but also by grade, level, high school to graduate school.

One possible explanation for why writing services became so lucrative is that so many people were excluded from the elite inner circle of excellence and therefore received inconsistent writing instruction leading to written deficiencies that those students who had been excluded tried to rectify by paying somebody else to write for them. A second explanation might be that, as the genre of academic writing began to fossilise into predictable and recurring patterns, it became easier to create templates that students could fill in or copy because writing manifested certain mechanical features that were easily measurable:

The term ‘paper’ became fundamentally another means of acquiring and displaying factual knowledge , not the means of entering the rhetorical universe of a discipline, and the formal features of the gerne reflected that function: the emphasis on mechanical correctness  of form, on length of text, and on the numner of sources (p.91, cf. p.100)

There is an explicit reference to how ethics/ideals of society influence the ideals of education and, therefore, also influence the means though which that education manifests itself, e.g through writing:

Science (writing?), the reformers said, should not be used for the purpose of mental discipline but for accomplishing the aims of comprehensive mass education set forth in the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: health, citizenship, ethical character … (p.95)

In 1920, there was a shift in the lab report specification, influenced as it had been by Deweyan progressive educational ideals:

Though the report recommended neatness, thoroughness and accuracy in student writing, it warned that these “should not be exalted above thinking and understanding” (p. 96)

My reflections need to focus on how relevant all of this is to Europe, the UK, and the globalised 21st century. For example, what does ‘widening participation’ mean today? As Alan Tuckett said at a talk I attended, surely it must now include those coming from overseas, those who are wealthy, those who are not? How do we teach writing to the new masses?

* Russell also covers two other genres in this chapter: reading and lecture notes, and laboratory reports. I’m more interested in the research genre because it is more ubiquitous, is used for assessment purposes, and is the model that has been adopted in EAP writing instruction, for example.

Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#2)

From the Liberal Curriculum to Mass Education (cont. from here)

Before the 1870s, in America, higher education looked pretty homogenous:

students and faculty were of the same sex, race, religion and, for the most part, of the same social class (p.35)

Moreover, this homogeneity was maintained by a religious ruling class because most of the faculty staff were clergymen. These clergymen ensured the values of ‘religion’ and ‘family’ were at the heart of academic practices (cf. loco in parentis – in place of the parents).


Needless to say, discipline was high on the educational agenda. According to Russell (p. 36), ‘discipline’ did not mean what it has come to mean now: i.e. a way of dividing knowledge and activity (not sure what he means by this, though). What ‘discipline’ meant in late 19th century America was twofold, and referred to the unifying aims of the institution, not to its organisation:

1) Moral and religious discipline, namely instilling the values of Christianity. This stifled originality, in the modern sense of overturning  or modifying accepted knowledge, values and forms (p. 43).

2) Mental discipline, which the American college borrowed from Scottish faculty psychology and educational practice (p. 36)

But with widening participation came challenges to this notion of ‘discipline’ (p. 37)

The old curriculum

This consisted of Latin, Greek, maths and rhetoric; moreover, the ‘truths’ of Protestant Christianity were omnipresent. One single member of Faculty staff taught this plurality of knowledge, rather than several specialised members. Linguistic homogeniety was maintained through the teachings on rhetoric and recitation. In the 1870s, this would suffer wide attack for its sterility, routine, and lack of motivation. This is when more personal topics began appearing and teaching began to rely on anectodes, tales, wise sayings and pithy quotations (p. 43). Because of this rhetorical knowledge:

students were not expected to analyse sources critically, to compare them rigorously, to interpret them in the context of a growing body of disciplinary knowledge, as later scholariship would dictate (p. 43)

Extracurricular activites began to emerge post-1870s and student societies began to allow speakers to address the student body when colleges had refused to allow them (the speakers) on campus (p.44).

Why go to uni? From discipline to disciplines

Between 1865 and 1875, ten years after the Civil war, the liberal college system did not suit the needs of the new America and it was hard to justify sending the young generation into higher education when they could get trained and employed elsewhere (reminds me of discussions on current UK HE fee-paying generation!). Pre-war technical institutions such as MIT became part of a new trend to attract young people into higher education by offering specialised courses.

This specialisation affected writing instruction because the sudden increase in the number of students now being encouraged to join the academic community brought with it the challenges that come with widening participation. These include dealing with different literacy backgrounds.

The curriculum thus became divided, fragmented, as it became more specialised. It also had different agendas: one was to serve research; the other was to serve industry, i.e. the ‘practicalities’, the applied aspects of higher education (p. 47). In order for these agendas to be pursued, much writing had to take place, be printed and be distributed to various stakeholders:

the hallmark of higher learning was that specialisation of discourse which is only possible in writing and only being capable of being widely distributed in print (p. 48 cf. the onset of the publish-or-perish generation)

Written entrance exams were introduced in 1873 (p.49) – (cf introduction of written papers in 1820s in Cambridge, UK (Leedham-Green, p. 125). Despite this:

Writing was not part of the process of learning a subject but rather a separate accomplishment, independent of content. It was one course among many, albeit an important one (p.50)

The forensic system

This was introduced in 1869 and as its name implies, (it) continued the old tradition of debate (…) but it was a written adaptation of oral debate (p.52; cf. p. 125 in Leedham-Green). The transition to the the written form was problematic because of the plurality of disciplinary debates which necessitated a plurality of written forms. The forensic system began to fade in the 1890s because of tension between college-mandated  writing requirements and writing in specific departmental courses (p. 55).

Little by little, the business of writing became the business of everybody, and in reality the business of nobody (p. 58), especially in large, differentiated institutions. Between 1880 and 1910, the values of the university shifted towards research, graduate teaching, and scientific and professional instruction in such a way that ‘writing’ – which had hitherto been the business of everybody – was relocated within English departments. However, even English departments had their own specialisations that did not include the teaching of composition studies, per se, but rather, they were interested in philology and belles lettres (p. 63).

Russell also discusses the roles and the dilemmas of secondary schools in post-bellum education (i.e. after the American Civil War). He claims that school teachers became ‘representatives’ of a discipline, not ‘masters’ of it (p. 67). This had an impact of how writing was taught at secondary level: specifically, writing became a means of testing knowledge (content), not a means of attaining it:

students wrote to show learning, not to learn (p. 67)

Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#1)

The myth of transience (or how writing is disembodied from core knowledge communities)

This (and some posts to follow) is an annotated critical engagement with David Russell’s (2002) book Writing in the Academic Disciplines: a Curricular History.

In his Introduction, Russell draws our attention to how higher education in America has dealt with writing instruction. He identifies 1870 as a watershed moment. This is when “discrete academic disciplines” (p. 3) were formed. It is also when the Academy moved explicitly from an oral classical tradition to a written tradition and when widening participation began to challenge the linguistically and socially homogenised community of priviliged students’ access to higher education:

Before the advent of the modern university in the 1870s, academia was indeed a single discourse community. Institutions of higher learning built an intellectual and social community by selecting students primarily on the basis of social class (less then 1% of the population was admitted), which guaranteed linguistic homogeneity (p.20)

This ‘homogeneity’ ensured stability. However, as more people were admitted to university, specialisation ensued. The Academy also needed to meet the demands of both research and service (to industry and the wider public). The result of this is that, since 1870, we can no longer speak of a single ‘academic community’ but of many:

academic communities are in one sense united through their common missions (teaching, research, and service). But disciplines have been so diverse, so independent and bound up with professional communities outside academia that they require no common language or even shared values and methods within the university in order to pursue those missions (p. 22-23)

In fact, Russell claims that the discourse of individual departments shares more with professionals outside of academia than it does with other departments in academia. This would explain why interdisciplinarity is often viewed with suspicion (p. 23), namely because if the different disciplines involved do not share common methods and language(s) then they cannot communicate intelligibly.

The fragmentation of knowledge into discrete and specialised academic communities has given rise to the ‘transience’* of academic writing (I explain ‘transience’ below). What this means is that because the specialised knowledge communities did not consider the ‘teaching of writing’ to be part of their disicplinary remit, they adopted quick fix solutions to writing instruction: this is because they either assumed that secondary school had done its job of teaching pupils to write, or that knowing how to write fell under the remit of English language departments. Disciplinary experts did not view writing as a way of learning the discipline, rather they viewed it as something that needed to be learnt before embarking on the discipline (p. 15). In other words, writing was not viewed as an integral means to understanding and shaping disciplinary epistemologies, but as extrinsic to knowledge discourses (i.e. ‘someone else can teach it’).

* this term – ‘transience’ (as in transitory, temporary) – comes from Mike Rose who in ‘The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the university’ College English 47 (1985): 355 claims that:

… the belief persits in the American university that if we can just do x, or y, the problem of poor student writing will be solved  … and higher education will be able to return to its real work (p. 7)

This is what I was alluding to when I wrote this for the Guardian and this for Patter. In each piece, I was drawing attention to how the teaching of academic writing in many institutions of higher education still seems extrinsic to the disciplines; rather, it is relegated to the remit of writing workshops (for undergraduates, postgraduates, as well as faculty staff), graduate centres, and EAP units, as well as writing agencies, some of whom will actually write essays for a fee.

On page 9, Russell asks the question that is guiding my research:

what is academic writing (…)? What is an academic community? …As Rose concludes: “Wide-ranging change will occur only if the academy redefines writing for itself, changes the terms of the argument, (and) sees instruction in writing as one its central concerns”.

Please share your reactions to the above. Do you relate to any of this? Does Russell’s historical perspective resonate with you? How have you learnt to write ‘academically’, and how do you adapt your writing when moving between, or out of, your disciplinary community(ies)?