Monthly Archives: September 2016

Threshold Concept #2.4

All writing is multimodal

This blog is allowing me to trace my research thoughts on #acwri (academic writing). As such, it is a multimodal affordance, affording several opportunities, including: allowing me to write more frequently and freely than my PhD is letting me; making my thinking visible to my Self and Others; forcing me to present a publicly-digestable thought (rather than an incoherent note in the margins of my books); capturing quotes from books that I have borrowed and have to give back ☹; creating links with other thoughts over the last 3 years …

This post most directly links to this one (on Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing) and to this one (on the multimodal affordances of different types of text*).

img_20160718_191627757Cheryl Ball and Colin Charlton (Threshold Concept #2.4) – in this edited book by Adler-Kassner and Wardle – argue that in order to understand what writing is, specifically ‘academic’ writing, we need to conceive of text* as being multi-modal matter, language being just one of many modes that make a text ‘academic’ (other modes include, eg. image, music, gesture).

The following quotes are linked to this threshold concept and come from my recent readings on how the PhD thesis itself is being and will be affected by the ‘epistemological commitments’ (Kress, 2012: 254-5) of multimodal forms of knowledge representation.

I have reported them here with no further comment, other than to say that they form part of my research warrant:


Like any other doctoral student, as my writing developed I became increasingly aware of the ill-matched relationship between the capacity of my chapters and the data I wanted to fit into those chapters (Fransman, 2012:150)

img_20160927_174114I became increasingly frustrated with the difficulties of presenting data and discussion on contemporary multimodal communication practices in traditional format (Yamada-Rice, 2012: 157-8)

There is a general assumption that language is a communicational and representational medium which is fully adequate to the expression of anything that we might want to express: that anything that we think, feel, sense can be said (or written) in language. The obverse of this assumption is that if something cannot be expressed in language … then that thing is in any case outside rational thought, outside articulate feeling, and therefore need not be said or should not be said (Kress, 2000: 193 cited in Yamada-Rice, 2012: 173, my bold)

A big issue for the PhD now is to assist in a whole set of questions which are the result of social matters as much as of the technologies of dissemination, representation and production. PhD researchers are called upon to provide tools for recognistion of that which has hitherto not been recognised, left aside. They will increasingly be asked to do the unusual, the entirely innovative, in a genre beset by still relatively tightly controlled convention. That is, PhD researchers for a while to come will face the problem of a mis-match between their university’s regulation and what the world around the discipline and the university both enables and demands (Kress, 2012: 256, my bold)

*“what counts as text includes both permanent (eg published books, written reports) and performative (eg oral story-telling, informal conversations” (Kress: 221) and “By ‘text’ I refer to Halliday’s (1978) definition of a cohesive unit of meaning used for purposes of communication rather than a paraphrase for written language” (Yamada-Rice: 166)


Fransman, J. (2012) ‘Re-imaginging the Conditions of Possibility of a PhD Thesis’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 138-156

Kress, G. (2012) ‘Researching in Conditions of Provisionality’in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 245-258

Yamada-Rice, D. (2012) ‘Traditional Theses and Multimodal Communication’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 157-176

Intersemiosis, and other #acwri affordances

Another NtM with regard to Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing

An EAP (English for Academic Purposes) tutor recently asked me – whilst he was marking a student essay on the likelihood of solar energy replacing nuclear – whether the many images and graphs that the writer had integrated into the main body of his essay should more appropriately have been relegated to the end of his paper, as Appendices. When I asked the tutor why he felt these should be in an Appendix, he replied that he thought that ‘academic writing should not have many images’.

This response adds to a long list of other commonly-held beliefs about what makes writing ‘academic’ that I often hear in the staff rooms I frequent. These include, inter alia, the need to avoid ‘I’ and phrasal verbs; to write abstracts in the present simple; to standardise paragraph length; and more recently, to ensure that all paragraphs follow an inductive/deductive structure. Much as I understand what motivates this well-intentioned advice for novice writers, it doesn’t sit well when these same novice writers are reading academic texts that flout these conventions. An example of this flouting is considered here.


  • either we tell students that what they are reading is not academic (which is absurd, since they are reading published academic work);
  • or we tell them that they are not to use real academic writing as a model to aspire to (equally absurd, since: a) what else could/should they be reading?; and b) on what grounds would their tutors’ exemplars count as good models?);
  • or, we engage in a more complex, slow, reflective and nuanced conversation about meaning-making, semiotics, affordances, disciplinary conventions and agentic choices (all of which are far too time-consuming and abstract for the average quick-fix, fee-dependent academic writing course).

To go back to the ‘images in the Appendix’ example above, it struck me that if as teachers of academic writing we had a much better understanding and knowledge of the rich heritage that our discipline belongs to, then we would be in a far better position to discuss textual choices with students. For example, if as teachers we were knowledgeable of the fact that visuals can also be ‘read’, we might be in a better position to advise and assess student writing.


Intersemiosis, for instance, might count as one of the threshold concepts that we would need to meaningfully teach academic writing (see previous post). Roherich (2016: 195) explains ‘intersemiosis’ from a Systemic Functional perspective (c.f. Halliday, Martin, Rose). The following quote captures his argument:

Visual description allows for communication that is impossible with words alone. Without writing, ideas conveyed through images have a different impact. They have a symbiotic relationship, providing affordances for meaning making.

Similarly, Borg and Boyd Davis (2012: 22, my bold), in their historical snapshot of how academic communication has changed over the last 400-or-so years – from oral, to written, to printed, to digital – claim that:img_20160927_174114

If the dissertation is at least in part about visual evidence, the author must be free to bring that evidence to the eyes of the reader. It is normal in dissertation regulations for such pictorial and diagrammatic material to be admitted into the document. Whereas at one time the regulations might have stipulated that such graphics be placed separately at the end of the dissertaion text, now quite rightly, it is normal for the opposite to be stipulated: that the illustrations should appear at the point in the text where they are most pertinent.


The more I read about the history of how academic writings have evolved and have come to be what we know them to be, the more I see diversity and mobility even in our current practices, and the more I become aware of the socio-semiotic meanings and transformations that writing affords.


Academic writing was not always so and won’t always be so.

Academic writing is not a finite set of static skills that can be carried over from one context to another with no alteration in meanings or in ‘epistemological committment’ (Kress 2003 cited in Archer: 95): in other words, choosing to insert an image (a graph, diagram, photo) commits us to meanings that words do not afford. Using an image rather than a sentence is a way of undermining the supremacy of language (logos) in building an academic argument. That is an epistemological stance (or commitment).

This is why I find it so hard to engage with popular academic writing textbooks – such as this widely used one. The reason for this difficulty stems, I think, from the fact that our academic writing task constructs require students to read original (secondary) research so that they can write an academic research paper. And when they then read authentic academic writing as part of their bibliographic research, what they read  often doesn’t neatly map onto the prescriptions handed out by us, their writing tutors.

So, how does one capture such #acwri complexity and do justice to the richness and possibilities of academic communication without flattening its scope and diversity? How can the teaching of academic writing also become a way of puzzling over these issues rather than having to always standardise, simplify, conventionalise and reduce complexity to a series of finite steps and rules to follow?

(Answers on the back of a stamp, please 😉


Archer, A. (2016) ‘Multimodal Academic Argument: Ways of Organising Knowledge across Writing and Image’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston

Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design, by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, second edition, (2006). Routledge, ISBN 0-415-31915-3.

Roehrich, L. (2016) ‘Intersemiosis in Science Textbooks’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston


How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts

NtM (Note-to-Myself)

What follows is a quotation from Bronwyn T. Williams (p. 117, 2016) which I need to:

  • a) build my professional case for clearing the vestiges of some lingering fossilised approaches to teaching academic writing at my own university: namely, that academic writing is a static and transferable genre;


  • img_20160914_190426320

    Academic Writings: it’s complicated!

    b) advance my own doctoral thesis on the ways in which academic writings are more than and different to the sum of their conventionalised rhetorical parts.

I therefore quote Williams in the context of me being both a teacher of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) – who is constrained by inherited and often unquestioned beliefs about what EAP should be (doing); and as a researcher of Academic Writing – who is making the most of her current intellectual freedom to explore what teaching academic writing could be like (bolded text is my emphasis):

The role of prior knowledge in genre and teaching writing has been illustrated in research that demonstrates how students, when asked to write in an unfamiliar genre, draw on ‘antecedent genres’ in their writing (Jamieson, 1975). When students, like all writers, attempt to employ the conventions of a familiar genre in a new context, however, they often do not produce writing which fulfils the expectations of the new genre. More recent research confirmed students’ use of antecedent genres in approaching new work may, however, lead to writing that does not satisfy a reader’s expectations. Often, instead, students produce writing that mixes antecedent genre conventions with new genre expectations, and may result in hybrid work that frustrates both the student and the instructor (Wardle, 2006). Such student uses of antecedent genres are not always explicitly articulated choices, but instead a consequence of relying on what they perceive as general knowledge or experience*. Yet, when students have their attention drawn to their reliance on antecedent genre, they increase their overall awareness of the importance of genre as well as its contextual nature (Bawarshi and Reiff, 2010).


Williams, B. T. (2016) – Chapter 6: Genre Inside/Genre Outside: How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts

Such research implies that students adapt to new rhetorical and generic situations more effectively when they think about genre not as a set of static forms, but as a flexible and intertextual concept. Rather than being taught genre as a set of forms to be mastered, students should be taught that genres work as networks that interact with each other and are employed most effectively in response to particular rhetorical contexts. Such an approach moves us beyond arguments about whether students should be explicitly taught  specific conventions of unfamiliar genres, and instead helps focus on how to help students work with the complex, intertextual knowledge  they have of their antecedent genres when encountering new rhetorical expectations. Considerations of students’ knowledge** of antecedent genres must necessarily include attention to the literacy practices students engage in out of school and the genre conventions students engage in throughout their daily lives.

* For example, students who have been accepted onto university courses on the back of an IELTS score, take a while to undo the habit of writing in the IELTS genre. Similarly, the ghost of the five-paragraph-essay still seems to haunt writing instruction.
** When working in an international context, the pool of ‘antecedent knowledge’ that students bring to the classroom increases- a fertile area of research in academic literacies . This is especially the case in EAP, and I am not persuaded that in my EAP context, at least, we create sufficient spaces and conditions for students’ antecedent context to be explored.

Reference: William, B.T. (2016) ‘Genre Inside/Genre Outside: How University Students Approach Composing Multimodal Texts’ in Multimodality in Higher Education, Studies in Writing, Vol. 33, Archer, A. and Breuer, E.O. (Eds.) Brill: Leiden; Boston