Monthly Archives: August 2016

What makes writing academic? Part III

Typologies and Continuums

In this post, I share Laurel Richardson’s advice on what to do with research writing that is in progress (eg all those bits and pieces that feel meaningful but don’t quite seem to cohere into an article or chapter, and therefore get discounted for being ‘non-academic’).

On pages 48 to 52 of Richardson’s short but sharp account of what scholarly writing is and can be, she outlines what to do when the writing and data we have don’t fit the conventional formats of journals. I am finding her insights helpful because I am still swimming in what she calls the ‘exploratory stance [of] in-progress papers [which] is toxic to the novice researcher because exploratory papers often end up being unpublishable, boring, or both’ (ouch! p. 50).


Form(ats) impose a shape on the knowledge we communicate: here, it is linear, sequential, ordered from left to right.

Having briefly stated that traditional academic journal conventions usually prescribe (impose) the shape and content of the articles they publish (conventions such as length, mode, format, methodologies, style), Richardson promises:

“to look at some ways in which qualitative work can be shaped to meet traditional academic standards, without the author being overwhelmed by feelings of self-annihilation in the process” (my emphasis, p. 49).

She also reminds us that ‘material is malleable’ and that ‘narrative stance, tone, and metaphor’ can be used to ‘write a number of different pieces, from different angles at different stages of the project’ (ibid).

Her two suggested rhetorical devices for shaping exploratory in-progress research – i.e. writing an academic paper that we want to write – are:

  • typology


  • continuum.

The Typology

In essence, this amounts to looking at the material you have and deciding whether it can be classified into an existing typology or category (in your field) and therefore extend what already exists; or whether you can propose a new category for it (which amounts to your contribution to the field):

The purpose of a typology for a qualitative researcher is not the creation of an exhaustive classificatory scheme, which may be the goal of logico-empiricists, but (a) to find something in your material worthy of classification and (b) to provide some of the categories (emphasis in original, p. 50).

The Continuum

This kind of rhetorical framing, the continuum, allows the writer to circumvent the binary dualisms that often characterise academic discourses. Such dualisms lead to territorial and bounded discourses (e.g. male/female; realism/postmodernism; dualism/monism; skills/social/discursive; left/right; innatist/sociological; determinism/free-will, etc.)  which, in turn, suit being represented within conventional academic writing formats (i.e. left-right, linear, sequential, tables and columns).


A Continuum Fingerboard affords a greater range of sound and pitch in music. Laurel Richardson foregrounds a greater range of rhetorical devices in academic writing.

Richardson uses an example from her own sociological research on being the Other woman in relationships with married men in which she re-configures the established binary of ‘Other woman = BAD; married man = GOOD’ into a power-imbalance continuum in order to “look at how power interacted with gender, rather than assume it did so in some prescribed way” (p. 52).

Rhetorical devices such as these are incredibly powerful in enabling us to argue our stance because they empower the writer to foreground the narratives they wish to advance, shaping knowledge in ways that allow new angles and perspectives on phenomena to emerge (cf. Charles Bazerman, 1988).

So, what is it that would make writing ‘academic’, on Richardson’s account? Well, it’s not whether it bows unquestioningly to a journal’s, or others’, criteria, but whether it is shaping (or framing) knowledge in the way the writer wants that knowledge to be understood.

Reflection: I wonder to what extent we need to question the modes, the purposes and the forms of academic writiting so that academic writing also comes to embody and perform – rather than simply represent – the shape of the knowledge we are foregrounding …

Any thoughts you may have on this post and previous ones really are most welcome. For example, to what extent do you feel empowered and constrained by the academic genres that you engage with? Do you think this kind of questioning is relevant to your research, to what you are reading and writing, to the media you engage with in the 21st century? What does it mean, presently, for writing to be ‘academic’?


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

Richardson, L. (1990) Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences Sage Publications, pp.5-65



What makes writing ‘academic’? Part II

Family Resemblances and Narratives

A digressive post around Laurel Richardson, academic writing, and narratives

Laurel Richardson is a sociologist that one of my PhD supervisors mentioned in conversation back in May. At the time, I noted it, but didn’t follow up immediately. I then attended a PESGB talk in Nottingham in June (Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) on ‘What do We Mean by Higher Education?’. The talk was given by Professor Mel Leicester who used Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances to argue that ‘higher education’ has no univocal meaning but is a cluster concept which refers to a diversity of educational contexts; these contexts may share resemblances (such as the awarding of a degree), but they can also be diverse in their contents, ethos, and modes of delivery. This, she argued, implies that there are no uniquely identifying traits that sharply demarcate ‘higher’ education from other domains where teaching and learning occur; there are only resemblances to other contexts, just as members of the same family are ‘sort-of-the-same-but-not-quite’.

Leicester’s question immediately resonated with my own, ‘What makes writing academic?’ (although, I’m not approaching the answer in terms of family resemblances). Her approach was to focus on what we might mean by the word ‘higher’ in the phrase ‘higher education’; mine is to focus on what we might mean by the word ‘academic’ in the phrase ‘academic writing’. Both questions are born of the realisation that there is great diversity in what is referred to as ‘higher’ education and that, similarly, there is great diversity in what counts as ‘academic’ writing.


A heated discussion (in Paris, on war, 1870)

Mel’s talk was appropriately interactive: rather than adopt a ‘present-and-discuss-at-the-end’ format, she made a series of short claims and then opened the floor for reactions. This ensured that her audience was able to get all manner of burning (counter)examples aired and shared, and it also meant that we got to chat to the other participants. This is how I was reminded of Laurel Richardson: somebody on my table was doing a PhD on how narratives shape identities, and he referred to Richardson.

Having made a connection with my supervisor’s earlier suggestion, I have now read Richardson’s brief ‘Writing Strategies: Researching Diverse Audiences’, a sociological account of how writing works in the academy in which Richardson exemplifies the social nature of academic writing through both theory and practice. She claims that all ‘meaning’ is embedded in the narratives we weave:

Narrative is the primary way through which humans organise their experiences into temporarily meaningful modes (Polkinghorne, 1988, p.1). People link events narratively. The meaning of each event is produced by its temporal position and role in a comprehensible whole. Narratively, to answer the question ‘What does something mean?’ requires showing how the something contributed to the conclusion of the episode. The connections between the events is the meaning (emphasis in original, p. 21).

The way narrative emerges from social relations can be seen in the following claim, where Richardson locates scientific writing within a system of parts and wholes:


Parts and wholes – water (the whole) and H20 (the parts); or how the whole in no way resembles its parts

When we write science […], we write a narrative and create some kind of narrative meaning. Narrative, as understood here, is not confined to literature or case studies but is one of the two basic and universal cognitive modes – the other being logico-scientific (Bruner, 1986). ‘Narrative meaning is created by noting that something is a part of a whole and that something is a cause of something else (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 6)” (Richardson, 1990, pp. 12-13)

She also argues that meaning emerges from connections between events:

Unlike the logico-scientific mode, which looks for universal truth conditions, the narrative mode is contextually embedded and looks for particular connections between events. The connections between the events is the meaning. (emphasis in original, p. 13).

So, on Richardson’s account, what would make writing ‘academic’ may have something to do with the narratives – the connections – it weaves, or with the way that those narratives are woven, or the way that something emerges from its constituent parts …

What I like about Laurel’s account of scholarly writing is that she foregrounds the writer as the agent who weaves that narrative. Initially, I had pigeon-holed her in the relativist camp that postmodernism tends to be associated with because of claims she makes about the ‘rhetoric of science’ and the way it ‘marshals facts’ (cf. pp. 15-16, where she offers an inspired insight into Darwin’s writings by claiming that the ‘survival of his thesis’ depended on his rhetorical style). However, she artfully anticipates her reader’s objections with the following statement in which she rejects the postmodern theses of Derrida and Barthes in favour of what she calls ‘progressive postmodernism’:

[…] the postmodernist impulse has been to delete the author, to dismantle distinctions between fact and fiction, and to deconstruct the difference between sign and signified […]. As the speechless are given voice and the power to name and be named through progressive writing, the postmodernist theorist would disempower them by erasing their names, deconstructing their stories, undermining their ground for authority. A progressive-modernist rewriting, however, proposes that, because all knowledge is partial and situated, it does not mean that there is no knowledge or that situated knowledge is bad (p. 27).

In essence, she accuses postmodernists of disempowering the very people they wish to empower because of their nihilistic stance towards knowledge and the advocates of knowledge (i.e. authors). Moreover, whilst still preserving some of the relativistic veneer of postmodern epistemology, Richardson very much champions the presence of the author:

Because knowledge is always partial, limited, and contextual, there is no escape from subjectivity. Subjectivity is constructed in specific contexts; it is not eternally fixed. Qualitative researchers can more comfortably than positivist empiricists adapt to a postmodernist epistemology. As qualitative researchers, we can more easily write as situated, positioned authors, giving up, if we choose, our authority over the people we study, but not the responsibility of authorship of our texts (p. 28).

To conclude, Richardson’s thesis suggests that what can make writing scholarly (i.e. academic) is the way that writers choose  – responsibly – to weave their narratives, connecting parts to allow wholes to emerge.  And this now starts to connect with my thesis …

Reference: Richardson, L. (1990) Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences Sage Publications, pp.5-65

What makes writing ‘academic’? Part I

Threshold Concepts

A post about giving academic writing proper disciplinary status

Since writing this in Patter and this in The Guardian, and since this series of posts was published, I still don’t understand why Academic Writing does not have disciplinary status.

Bar a few exceptions, it is rare (in the UK, where I am based) to find job adverts for Lecturers in Academic Writing; when you do, they tend to be posts created to help people become ‘better writers’ (e.g. in Writing or Graduate Centres, or Libraries) rather than to educate in matters of writing by foregrounding the nature and the disciplinary status of Academic Writing.

Academic Writing continues to lack disciplinary status despite: a) the recent publication of Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s edited book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, which features contributions from US writing experts including Charles Bazerman and David Russell; and b) the significant contributions of the field of academic literacies, which has continued to foreground the diversity, the affordances, and the mobility of both writing and writers.

Musee Marseille

The many Things that Things afford (Boys Diving at the ‘Musée des Civilisations d’Europe et de Méditerranée'(Marseille, France) through Tessellated Structure by Rudy Ricciotti, show how to make full use of what is available to us (Photo by Julia Molinari, 2016)


What Adler-Kassner and Wardle have done is foreground some of the threshold concepts that make scholarly writing what it is. If you are an (emerging) academic writer or you teach academic writing, there is nothing especially novel about this book (pun intended!): hence the refreshingly honest title of ‘Naming What We Know’. What the book does do, though, is collate what we know already by listing and naming 37 foundational concepts that, when taken together, would warrant academic writing being given disciplinary status.

The 37 threshold concepts of writing are clustered around the metaconcept of:

‘Writing is an Activity and a Subject of Study’ (p. 15).

Below, I have copied 5 main threshold concepts (which in the book are further broken down); what I’ve then done is single out some of the key concepts/quotes that can help me establish what it takes for writing to be academic.

Concept 1: Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity

  • Writing is a Knowledge-Making Activity (by Heidi Estrem)

“Understanding and identifying how writing is in itself an act of thinking can help people more intentionally recognise and engage with writing as a creative activity, inextricably linked to thought. We don’t simply think first and then write. We write to think” (emphasis in original, p. 19).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to make us think.

1.5 Writing Mediates Activity (by David R. Russell)

“The concept that writing mediates activity [eg a STOP sign or a performative] is troublesome because it goes against the usual concepts of writing as ‘just’ transcribing […] thought or speech.” (p. 27)

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to make things happen.

Concept 2: Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognisable Forms

2.1 Writing Represents the World, Events, Ideas, and Feelings (by Charles Bazerman)

“Recognising the limitations of our representations can lead to an appropriate modesty and caution about what we and others write, and about decisions and calculations made on the basis of representations. Alfred Korzybski stated this concept vividly by noting ‘the map is not the territory’ (Korzybski 1958, p. 58). Yet knowledge of this concept helps us work more effectively from our verbal maps in the way we view and contemplate the world represented” (p. 38).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to leave open the possibility of other interpretations.


Eidetic (visual) modes contribute to Understanding because they leave open the possibility of other interpretations and broaden our representational toolkits

2.4 All Writing is Multimodal (by Cheryl E. Ball and Colin Charlton)

“ […] there are still two major misconceptions associated with multimodality. First, some assume all multimodal texts are digital […]. Second, some assume that the opposite of multimodal is monomodal. In fact, there is no such thing as a monomodal text [eg. the five-paragraph essay uses visual and spatial modes such as fonts, margins, spacing, etc., in addition to the linguistic mode].


Monomodality, then, is used (incorrectly) to signify a lack of multiple media or modes when really what a user might mean is that a structure like a five-paragraph essay privileges the linguistic mode over the spatial or visual modes” (pp. 42-43).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to recognise the affordances of different modes.

Concept 3: Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies

3.0 Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies (by Tony Scott)

“When we seek to ‘apprentice’ students into academic writing, what ideological imperatives are being asserted in the ways we choose to conceive of academic writers and writing?” (p. 50).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to respect that writers are different.

3.1 Writing is Linked to Identity (Kevin Roozen)

“The act of writing, then, is not so much about using a particular set of skills as it is about becoming a particular kind of person […]. It also means recognising that the difficulties people have with writing are not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence or a diminished level of literacy but rather to whether they can see themselves as participants in a particular community” (p. 51).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be negotiated with the writer.

3.2 Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary (Kathleen Blake Yancey)

“People who want the teaching of writing to be uniform – mapped across grade levels, for instance, with all students inventing in the same way, drafting in the same way, and using the same language – find this threshold concept frustrating, in part because they had hoped a single approach would enfranchise all writers” (p. 53).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be varied.

Concept 4: All Writers Have More to Learn

4.0 All Writers Have More to Learn (Shirley Rose)

“There is no such thing as ‘writing in general; therefore, there is no one lesson about writing that can make writing good in all contexts” (p. 60).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be situated.

4.3 Learning to Write Effectively Requires Different Kinds of Practice, Time, and Effort (Kathleen Blake Yancey)

“ […] writers necessarily also work in multiple modalities – whether the modality be on the page through document design or on the networked screen bringing words, images, videos, and sound into a single text. In an age when so many spaces and affordances are available, writers need considerable practice keyed not only to fluidity and technique but also to differentiated practice across different spaces of writing, working with different technologies of writing” (p. 65).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be understood as an affordance.

Concept 5: Writing is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity

5.4 Reflection is Critical for Writers’ Development

“Reflection has the unique ability to connect across the various threshold concepts because it offers writers the ability to be active agents of change, making meaningful contributions to any rhetorical exchange” (p. 79).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to give space to reflect.


  • Adler-Kassner, L. and Wardle, E. (2015) (Eds) Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies Utah State University Press, pp. 1-216
  • WAC edited book by Lillis et al.