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.


One thought on “Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#3)

  1. Pingback: The Future University: ideas and possibilities (ed. Barnett 2012) | Academic Emergence

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