Monthly Archives: May 2015

University: what is it good for?

What’s its use? Mary Warnock on the University A recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, in Wales – where there is a festival of ideas called ‘How the Light Gets In‘ – allowed me to browse secondhand bookshops for an entire day (nirvanic!). I found this: IMG_20150529_194319I read it in the time it took me to down a large Pimms in the warm glow of a Welsh sunset. The reason it caught my attention is that I am currently prowling for resources that document what universities are for. Warnock (philosopher, Baroness, mother-of-5, former headmistress, and ethicist), told me in no uncertain terms. The purpose of university is to:


cultivate the imagination

develop criticality

out-think all others

Because of this, university cannot (should not) be privately funded. Her little pamphlet – published in 1989, and part of a series called CounterBlasts which offers ‘a forum for voices of dissent’ to ‘challenge the dominant values of our time’ – is full of bold claims including the following:

– universities should be government-funded to ensure continuity, to allow departments to plan, and to teach subjects we need for future generations, not the contingent, short-term, profit-driven needs of industry (page 13);

– only universities (not private business or students) know what needs to be taught and how: students “can pick what they want to study only from what is on offer. They cannot know, they are … too ignorant to know, what ought to be on offer” (page 14);

– we need to be proud of an educational elite who priviliges rigour, standards, innovation, and discovery over the transient needs of market and student satisfaction (page 17);

– the customer is NOT always right (page 18);

– the Government should be paymaster, and the University should be accountable to it (page 38).

This then begs the question of what should be the purpose of univeristies if they are to ‘out-think all others” (page 38). Here is what Warnock has to say (page 30, bold added):

We should lay far more emphasis on methods of acquiring knowledge than on retaining it; on understanding and applying principles than on recalling information (…). After all, information quickly goes out of date. What is important is for students to grasp enough of their subject to appreciate what is new, to distinguish the probable from the improbable, the well-argued from the wild guess, the properly supported from the phoney. They must understand enough of the principles of what they are studying  to see how it connects with other subjects, with which they are less familiar. This method entails a certain amount of detailed knowledge: but a limited amount. It entails what may loosely be called a ‘philosophical’ approach to the subject (page 30)

It is the role of R&D departments (in industry) to then specialise, not the role of universities (page 33).

As I research the role that academic writing plays in the Academy, what resonates with me is Warnock’s reification of the role that imagination, criticality, and interdisciplinarity play in shaping knowledge and minds.

ps. Warnock also has much to say on the role of the Humanities in Higher Education:

the “Government may be persuaded to support the Humanities on utilitarian grounds (…) a study of the Humanities is of the most crucial importance in education at all levels, simply because it is language-based, and offers the chance to practise clear experession and logical analysis (pages 34-35)

Using history to understand academic writing(s)

Below is my conference abstract for EATAW 2015 this coming June. I am sharing it to invite reactions and suggestions. All the conference abstracts are available here.

An Archaeology of Academic Writing(s): Using History to Understand the Present and Future of Academic Writing

In this presentation, I reflect on what it means for writing(s) to be ‘academic’ in the 21st century. This is a question born of recent discussions in the literature relating to regenring (English 2011), including the extent to which multimodal discourses can be considered ‘academic’; to creativity (Besley and Peters 2013); to peripheral genres (Bennett 2014); and to risk-taking in the ‘contact zone’ (Thesen and Cooper, 2013). Accordingly, my own experience of re-designing Nottingham University’s EAP (English for Academic Purposes) curriculum to reflect current academic social practices may also be of interest to other teachers. I will draw on the work of Bazerman (1998) – who has highlighted how academic genres have been shaped by the knowledge perspectives they embody – in order to reflect on what knowledge perspectives are shaping the genres we currently engage with and what knowledge perspectives could shape or be shaping emerging (peripheral?) genres. For example, what determines the length and focus of an academic article, or the grammar of a reflective essay, and why? I adopt a historiographic approach to knowledge (relying mainly on Foucault and Fayerabend) in order to conclude that our understanding of what makes a text ‘academic’ also depends on an awareness of its history, specifically the history of the knowledge(s) and social values that have shaped higher education. Such a historical approach may allow both researchers and practitioners to view academic writing through a different lens, a lens that highlights the contingency of academic genres, rather than their necessity.


Bazerman, C. (1988) Shaping Written Knowledge: the Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. The University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin

Bennett, K. (2014) The Semiperiphery of Academic Writing: Discourses, Communities and Practices. Palgrave MacMillan: London

Besley, T. and Peters, M. (Eds.) (2013) Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century. Sense Publishers: Rotterdam

English, F. (2011) Student Writing and Genre: Reconfiguring Academic Knowledge. Continuum Press: London

Thesen, L. and Cooper, L. (Eds.) (2013) Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Multiligual Matters: Bristol