Thank you for visiting my blog.
My new website is here:
I will no longer be posting on this blog and will soon take it offline.
Thank you for visiting my blog.
My new website is here:
I will no longer be posting on this blog and will soon take it offline.
It happened on 22 August, 2019. I write this as it is still raw and fresh, and while I still feel joy and pride and relief, after so many years of intense intensity and recent personal events that still conspire to take all the joy away.
I did it. I passed my viva. I am a Doctor of Philosophy.
And I had the best viva I could have imagined. Having heard and read and angonised over how it could go, who my examiners were and what they would think, whether my supervisors just made one huge, stupid error of judgment in taking me on, and having been so saturated by 6 part-time years of getting here, I could not be happier.
‘Now the work begins’, as someone I can’t remember once said.
This does not feel like the end of a journey, but the start of one. My energy and excitement were rekindled in the last pages of my thesis, where I began to reflect on where my research goes next. The image below, which is the visual preface to my PhD, introduces the concept of affordance, of the tension and harmony between structure and agency.
This is also where my thesis concluded and where I now need to start it, all over again …
Professor Pat Thomson and Professor Andrew Fisher, at Nottingham University’s School of Education and Department of Philosophy, respectively, have been my critical interdisciplinary mentors. They didn’t always agree in their judgments about my ideas and my writing, but I think they fundamentally respected each other’s judgments. I get the sense they shared similar values about education, philosophy, social justice, and what/who universities are for. But I can’t be sure: this never came up in supervision. I think they just let me run with my ideas and then reined in or re-directed or countered my excesses, waiting to see where I was heading with it all. They have played an equal role in getting me here. I am very happy to have met them and I really hope I can do more with them.
[I think there is a research project in waiting on the sociology, politics and psychology of supervisors and their relationship to each other (mentors/rivals? main/secondary? senior/junior? content/form? long-term collaborators/temporary co-travellers?), and their supervisees …].
Professor Gina Wisker and Dr Ian Kidd, University of Brighton/Cambridge and Nottingham, respectively, dedicated scrupulous attention to reading my thesis. They viva-ed me for at least 2 hours and then sent me a list of further references with prompts on how I can take my work forward (they also sent me list of typos I knew would catch up with me, sooner or later).
This was not a summative assessment. This was a formative and feedforward educational event on the implications that my research raises. My examiners framed my conclusions as new puzzles and opportunities relating to epistemic (in)justices (Miranda Fricker; Ian Kidd) and threshold concepts (Wisker, Land and Meyer).
Literally, as ‘thoughts arising’.
They did not frame these as shortcomings or corrections. They easily could have.
For example, the work of Chrissie Boughey, a Critical Realist working in South African educational contexts and in EAP, was missing in my thesis. Yet, my examiner did not hold this against me. Rather, she said I now had an opportunity to become acquainted with Boughie’s work and that it would ‘extend what I already had in the thesis’. My other examiner picked up on some of my non-sequiturs (such as the fact that although ‘we are born into structures’ this does not mean we are ‘determined by these structures’). This reminded me of all those decisions I had to make when editing and working to a word-count, decisions that end up making you cut sentences as well as cut actual meaning. Luckily, these ‘non-sequiturs’ were not so significant as to undermine my entire thesis. He also reminded me that it is perfectly ‘reasonable’ to want to follow rules and conventions and that Derrida does not need to be described as a scare-quoted ‘philosopher’: philosopher will do just fine 😉
Grateful to …
In the weeks after submitting my thesis, I read everything by @DrRyder of http://viva-survivors.com/, who really manages to capture the subtleties and complexities of different viva experiences. In hindsight, Dr Ryder was bang on. My examiners were fair, thorough, critical and dedicated. But, so was I. We each did our bit. We each did our best, with limitations and with integrity.
Friday 12 April – Session 1 14:45 – 16:15
Scholarship/Research/CPD 1 – Michael Sadler Building LG.10
What makes writing academic
University of Nottingham
Abstract for publication
In this talk, I argue that what makes writing academic are the academic values and practices that it enacts and not its surface features, structural moves or lexical repertoires, as many popular EAP text books foreground (Sowton, 2016). I do this by shifting the focus from writing as a skills-based activity that adheres to prescribed conventions, to writing as a social practice (Paxton, 2013), which requires an account of how writers (understood as agents) enact choices as they interact with their textual
environments (understood as structures) to communicate their knowledge (Archer, 2000; Scott, 2000). In doing so, I propose a conceptualisation of writing that draws on debates in the philosophy of mind, sociology and critical realism (Sawyer, 2001) to claim that academic content can emerge from the forms that shape it without being reduced to or determined by these forms (Ablowitz, 1939). This allows me to conclude that academic writing is an open system that is realised by multiple forms (Collier, 1994; Fodor, 1974) and that it is capable of being novel. Possible implications of such a conclusion are that academic writings can be multimodal and multilingual, a conclusion that departs from the mainstream EAP writing canon.
This matters to the teaching and learning of EAP writing for at least the following reasons:
– Academic writing landscapes are varied because academic agents and structures are varied
– Popular EAP textbooks privilege selected understandings of what makes writing academic at the expense of others
– If we adhere to the view that EAP has an educative role (Widdowson, 1983), then writing as an open system may facilitate the enactment of such a role
– When EAP is framed as a field of study rather than as a service industry (Ding & Bruce,
2017), what we understand by ‘academic writing’ becomes shaped by writing scholarship
and research, not textbooks
– An approach to writing that is mindful of academic practices and values may foster deeper dialogue between teachers and students, allow us to re-think assessment systems, and curtail the need for ghostwriters
My talk will exemplify academic writings from a range of disciplines that depart from the mainstream canon of what makes writing academic to explain what academic practices and values emerge. It will be interactive throughout because I intend to posit questions for the audience to reflect on and then weave these reflections into the talk itself.
Ablowitz, R. (1939). The Theory of Emergence. Philosophy of Science, 6(1), 1-16.
Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human : the problem of agency. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism: an introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy. London: Verso.
Ding, A., & Bruce, I. (2017). The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner: Operating on the Edge of Academia. In P. Macmillan (Ed.).
Fodor, J. (1974). Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis). Synthese, 28(2), 97-115.
Paxton, M. (2013). Genre: A Pigeonhole or a Pigeon? Case Studies of the Dilemmas Posed by the Writing of Academic Research Proposals. In L. Thesen & L. Cooper (Eds.), Risk in academic writing : postgraduate students, their teachers and the making of knowledge (pp. 148-165). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Sawyer, R. K. (2001). Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory. American Journal of Sociology, 107(3), 551-585.
Scott, M. (2000). Agency and Subjectivity in Student Writing. In C. T. J. S. B. Jones (Ed.), Students Writing in the University. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Sowton, C. (2016). Contemporary Academic Writing: a comprehensive course for students in Higher Education. Reading: Garnet Publishing Ltd.
Widdowson, H. G. (1983). Learning purpose and language use. Oxford: O U P.
Canadian Journal for the Study of Discourse and Writing Special Section CFP: Writing Instructors, Academic Labour, and Professional Development
As increasing emphasis is placed by post-secondary institutions and employers on the importance of writing skills, this special section considers the gap between what writing instructors need to be effective and the supports currently in place, particularly in light of the disciplinary tensions between English departments and writing studies, the reliance on precariously-employed faculty members, the emergence of teaching-stream faculty roles, and the seemingly perpetual restructuring of writing centre work.
Writing instructors’ working conditions reflect multiple tensions, including the professional formation of most Canadian writing instructors in fields outside rhetoric, composition, writing studies, or applied language studies, and the historical tendency to teach writing through literature (Brooks, 2002; Clary-Lemon, 2009); the way that some “Canadian English departments off-loaded writing instruction to other disciplines, through writing centres and ad hoc arrangements” (Phelps…
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Disclaimer: this is a massive post, written mainly for my own needs. However, it is of interest to academic writing teachers, which is why I want to share it. At around 1,350 words, I indicate where you can probably stop reading. Sorry.
Writtenness: a very timely, relevant and ongoing controversy
The term writtenness accentuates the linguistic materiality of a text as well as its status as completed labour. As such, it marks the value of the text itself, the comunication of the content, rather than the content itself […]. I am making a case for the positive recognition and acknowledgment of the intellectual endeavour required to a achieve a level of writtenness that complies with what has been culturally constructed as ‘good’ writing (Turner, 2018, page 23).
Joan Turner’s recent book makes 5 broad claims:
– Firstly, that the intellectual and cultural labour that goes in to meeting the expectations of English-speaking academic writing standards is undervalued or simply ‘taken for granted’ by academics (page 178).
– Secondly, that the negative attention given to ‘bad writing’ and malpractice (e.g. the use of ghostwriting agencies and the culture surrounding (il)legitimate proofreading services) outweighs any positive attention given to the enormous efforts that L2 students do make in order to be judged, by our standards, as ‘good’ writers.
– Thirdly, that academic readers need to cooperate with writers and make more of an effort to understand and value their content rather than the form of their writing (page 194).
– Fourthly, that rather than reject other styles and rhetorics of academic writing (namely, the diverse ways of writing that students bring with them), academics should integrate them into their academic practices (pages 240-242). This is because if we really are committed to being ‘international’ universities (pages 125 and 127), then homogenising language and writing so that it meets an ideal standard (or ‘imaginary’, pages 124, 130, 131 and 142) of what ‘good’ English and writing are, ignores the fact that English is part of a protean, not a static, landscape (pages 230 and 252), i.e. one that is shifting, one that is multilingual and one that is global.
– And fifthly, that judging L2 students by L1 standards of language proficiency is simply not fair, and that L2 standards need to be measured against L2 capabilities (page 253).
I am not convinced by the internal coherence of Turner’s book (I found it unhelpfully repetitive, and I think you would need to have read her previous writings to appreciate where she is coming from, i.e. post-colonial studies, critical EAP and Academic Literacies) nor by what seems to me to be a somewhat muddled way of simultaneously talking about what is the case (descriptive), what should be the case (normative) and what could be the case (predictive). However, the issues she broaches are close to those of my research and I am very grateful to her for having voiced them because they raise prickly sensitive hackles on the spines of those who trade in language, literacy and academic discourse and are the cause of one of the deepest schisms in our field.
Rubbing new salt into old wounds: does language proficiency entail academic proficiency?
As I read Turner’s book, this newspaper article also appeared (my bold), highlighting a familiar, but rarely challenged, refrain, one that is also echoed by teachers of L2 (second language) academic writing and university subject specialists, namely that we need to raise the level of English proficiency for admission to university:
International students accept their offers in good faith, believing that if they have met the entry criteria, their English must be good enough to allow them to fulfil their academic potential. But the fact is that an IELTS score of 5.5 – or even one a few notches higher – may not be sufficient for them to learn and perform at the true level of their ability (newspaper article, May 10, 2018, ‘Language requirements for international students are too low’, Times Higher Education)
The article obliquely scratches the surface of what also concerns Turner – specifically, the importance of achieving writteness in academia (that is, of achieving a value that brings together the need for good form and the socio-cultural effort required to achieve that form – I think this is what Turner is saying, but sometimes I feel she slips from descriptive to normative claims, so I am not sure). However, the article misplaces the blame for ‘bad form’ by situating it squarely in the lap of low thresholds of language proficiency rather than in the lap of a whole culture that takes writtenness for granted and that ignores the intellectual labour involved in becoming a ‘good’ writer.
Turner, on the other hand, argues that proficiency in English is unlikely to be the real root of the problem (pages 132-3). Rather, the test construct of IELTS as an academic entry exam encourages the conflation of good writing with language proficiency. Since IELTS does not integrate reading and writing, understood as academic literacies, nor does it require knowledge of academic discourses (including disciplinary discourses) or develop research dispositions and attitudes to referencing and critical engagement, it does little to ensure that “lecturers will have no difficulty in reading sudents’ work” (page 133).
The above Times Higher Education article encourages this conflation of language proficiency with cognitive ability by reporting on a recent study by York University which shows that below a certain threshold of language proficiency, “English skills constrain academic success” as well as the cognitive abilities required to achieve academic success, such as processing vocabulary and reading speed.
However, equating ‘having cognitive ability’ with ‘understanding academic discourse’ (its culture, its history, its values and aims, its complexities, conventions and contradictions) seems mistaken, to me: the fact that language and cognitive processing are indeed correlated is uncontroversial only insofar as language has been set as the default mode against which we all seem to uncritically measure intelligence (but there are other ways of capturing intelligence) .
I don’t think we can generalise this correlation without evidence. In other words, I don’t think we can claim that having a minimum/maximum threshold of lexical items lodged in your brain is more likely to help us understand academic discourse. Academic discourse is not the same as language (understood as the total sum of lexical items). Academic discourse, as it is currently conceived, necessitates language, I agree. But language is by no means a sufficient condition to guarantee fluency in academic discourse.
Tests that measure the correlation between cognitive ability and language proficiency are limited to controlled environments that test very small and targeted language situations. They do not test the understanding of academic discourse. Anecdotally, at least, I have come across highly intelligent, imaginative and critical students whose language proficiency has been comparatively lower that those with high IELTS scores, and who, longer term, have done much better academically, generally because they are more creative (they know how to draw on a range of modes to get their ideas across and have multiple strategies for decoding texts, not those foregrounded by IELTS, which misleadingly assumes that all paragraphs have a self-contained main idea and an obvious topic sentence).
But I see something far deeper going on here, something which lies at the very heart of how we measure intelligence, criticality, creativity and understanding and how we value them as academic dispositions:
as long as higher education remains dependent on (and reduced to) monolinguistic (English) and monomodal (writing) proficiency and as long as we continue to measure academic success (almost) exclusively against language proficiency, then we will necessarily judge students who come to university with diverse repertoires and capabilities (multilingual, multimodal, dyslexic, autistic, artistic, socially and culturally rich) as ‘deficient’. By demanding and expecting linguistic homogeniety, what we are are asking for is also ‘cultural and social’ homogeneity. And by asking everybody to speak and write in the same way, just like we did with RP (Received Pronunciation, page 35), we are creating the conditions for a homoginised academy that communicates via a mono-literacy.
A perfect bluebrint for #Brexit.
Fortunately for deaf and dumb students, the above article does admit that ‘you can be intelligent without being linguistically proficient’:
We tested the non-verbal intelligence of both groups [international and home students] and found no differences.
So why does language have to continue to be the benchmark against which we measure the full range of human intelligence?
This massive pre-amble allows me to make my first link with Turner’s book.
You can stop reading. What follows is a massive rant intended soley for my own research uptake
Ontological complicity: a very British philosophical legacy
Writtenness is a complex, multifaceted textual reality which is reduced soley to grammatical accuracy. This reduction happens largely because for the discipline-based reader, writtenness beyond the level of the sentence merges with content, and is therefore submereged in ontological complicity with content (page 181). I take this to mean that we conflate good writing with good thinking.
Turner calls this conflation an ‘ontological complicity’. She blames the philosopher John Locke for having spawned a legacy that conflates good thinking with good language (pages 5 and 179), a legacy compounded by the scientific writings of the Enlightenment, by the Orwellian trope that good prose is ‘like a window pane’ (page 36 and 48) and a legacy that endures in the way we teach and assess academic writing (page 50):
If you cannot write well, you cannot think well; if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you (Oscar Wilde)
Turner’s problem with ontological complicity – conflating good writing/language with good thinking – is that (page 34; see also page 233):
judgments about academic writing are necessarily ideological, but […] there is a general lack of awareness of those culturally immanent ideological roots. Judgments of writtenness, of how a text is written [its clarity, precision, transparency], tend to operate implicitly rather than overtly.
This ‘implicit ideology’ has also been discussed in Michael Peters who argues that ‘clarity’ is not a straightforward concept because so much taken for granted knowledge, cultural capital and understanding of critical literature, etc. needs to be available to the reader before a text can be understood.
Moreover, to state that ‘good writing = good thinking’ ignores a rich tradition of structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist critical theory and critical discourse analysis that raised serious problems for the correspondence theory of truth, namely what exactly does language refer to or signify? The fact that this tradition of linguistic critique has been largely ridiculed and replaced by the plain English ordinary language movement does not invalidate the serious critical theory questions which I think still remain: what exactly does language refer to and do we really all ‘clearly’ see the same referents? (page 42).
Given current socio-political discourse, I very much doubt that language is ‘clear’ and that we are all seeing the same referents:
‘Brexit means Brexit’.
All of this can be further related to another thread in Turner’s book, namely her contention that judgments about what constitutes ‘good writing’ echo snobberies about what constitues ‘good speaking’.
Writtenness: the RP of academic writing
RP (received pronunciation) was until recently deemed a hallmark of ‘proper’ spoken English. The fact that less than 2% of the world’s English speaking population have ever had this accent has significantly shifted attitudes about what it means to speak ‘properly’.
Although attitudes have shifted regarding RP, this, according to Turner, is not the case with attitudes regarding what counts as (good) academic writing (page 7):
writtenness is a cultural ideal, whose values are implicit rather than explicitly espoused. Indexed by evaluative tropes such as ‘polished prose’ (see Chapter 4) and assumptions of precision, accuracy and stylistic elegance, it is saturated with ideological and cultural value. As such, it is similar to the position of RP (received pronunciation) in spoken language. However, unlike RP, whose ideological resonance has been extensively commented upon in sociolinguistics […], the ideologies, social identifications and linguistics assumptions of written language have generated much less concern.
She goes on to compare this, on page 211 (my bold), with how we now accept different pronunciations (thanks to sociolingusitc work on International English and ELF _ English as a Lingua Franca) but remain disdainful of similar diversities in writing, such as non-conventional spellings and personal identity:
While the textual projection, as well as the subjectivity of personal identity is the focus of research and discussion in the field of writing research (see, for example, Ivanic, 1998; Canagarajah, 2011; Tuck, 2017), in the institutional context, expectations of conventional correctness at the micro-level as well as genre structuring maintain a deontic and moralizing authority.
In other words, writing research shows that there is considerable diversity and mobility out there and that this diversity is valued, integrated across the linguistic landscape and harnessed (cf. Blommaert, Lu, Horner, Lillis, et al.). However, the institutions themselves (possibly the institutions funding that very research!) are slow to recognise and respect the protean nature of global Englishes.
Controversies and significance: my take on all of this
As soon as anybody suggests we question the standards by which we judge language, writing and literacy, controversies spark and the usual reactions flare up. These are manifest in fiery ongoing media debates about correct grammar, punctuation and language use, but also in my EAP field, where teachers and examiners disagree about what counts as ‘academic writing’ (let alone ‘good’ academic writing!). I also have anectodal evidence of how sensitive all this is from conference talks and corridor discussions, feedback on student writing and comments on blogs.
The most common reactions are along these lines (in italics):
However, as far as I know, nobody has ever said we don’t need standards or that anything goes. Rather, the question is ‘what standards’, ‘whose standards’ and ‘for what purpose’? We set the standards. We can also change the standards depending on what we are looking for.
This is the case and it isn’t . Either way, so what?
There are some who both question and flout the standards (notably, in extremis, @Nsousanis (who teaches, does and publishes visual scholarship) and @aydeethegreat (who teaches and does rap scholarship) but also Dr Hleze Kunju who wrote his PhD in isiXhosa).
And even if it were the case that those who question the standards whilst at the same time making use of those standards to express themselves, how or why does this invalidate their call for questioning those standards? I write. That is what I do best. Why shouldn’t I do what I am best at. It doesn’t mean that everybody is also good at writing, so why should I force them to reach my standards when perhaps they have other ways of demonstrating their intelligence and understanding? Academia is about developing intelligence and understanding. That is its ultimate goal. If I do that best by speaking or drawing, why should that be of less value than writing?
By invalidating the principle that standards can be questioned in virtue using the very standards that are being questioned, we are invalidating the call of anybody who questions a system in virtue of them having been brought up in that system. In other words, I can be anti-racist and anti-elitist (i.e. I can question the system that encourages racism) even though I am white and have had a very good education: I can’t help being white and having a good education. Why does that prevent me from wanting to live in a society where you can be white and educated as well as black and educated? By questioning the system I am the product of, I am not a hypocrite. Rather, I am saying that I want the system to open up so that others are not discriminated against.
Arguably and possibly. But this isn’t the point. The underlying issue about standards and rules relates again to which rules we have decided are universal and that everybody must subscribe to. For example, most of the EAP discourse I come across still foregrounds impersonal forms (e.g. the passive, no personal pronouns). But this ‘rule’ is only true of some academic writing traditions and rhetorical choices, not all. So, on what basis has EAP adopted this as a blanket rule for ‘academic writing’? A similar argument can be advanced for what counts as a standard paragraph, and so on (I’ve developed some of these ideas here and here). See also Turner pages 111 and 169
The significance of Turner’s work in this regard relates to what she calls the ‘taken for grantedness’ of writtenness, namely that we take good writing for granted. She says we are keener to notice and point out grammar mistakes when they intrude and interfere with our reading than we are to acknowledge the intellectual labour and ideologies that underpin the standards by which we judge ‘good writing’. In this respect, Turner refers to the work of Mary Scott (page 234, my bold) :
She discerns an underlying critique of the assignments that students in the discipline of education are being asked to do, because they seem to necessitate a transferral of their home contexts of teaching to that of the United Kingdom. As the students feel unable to express their critique explicitly, Scott finds it in the multimodal resources they bring to their texts.
In other words, the ‘critique’, the intellectual labour, the analysis, the critical thinking, is there. It’s just not expressed the way we expect it to be or want it to be or prefer to be via the conventions of our standards of what counts as academic.
The fact that it is an historically established mode in Western academic culture does mean it is the best mode or the only mode, nor does it mean that we all understand the same thing by ‘argument’.
‘Argument’ has a long debated and contested history (see Stephen Toulim). It takes many forms and serves diverse purposes, yet we all talk about it as though we all and always mean the same thing by it. This is despite the fact that it ranges from analytical deductive propositional forms to full blown visuals, with an awful lot in between.
– Deductive arguments, whereby the conclusion is contained in the premises, can be expressed in two modes, propositions (language) or symbols (signs):
If all men (A) are mortal (B) and Socrates (C) is a man (A) then Socratese (C) is mortal (B)
If A=B and C=A then C=B
This is known as the transitive law and is a common feature of logical argumentation. It is one of the rarest forms of argument outside of mathematics and logic, yet we lambaste students for not being ‘logical’. Strictly speaking, we are asking them to do the impossible.
– Visual arguments are commonly deployed by lawyers who submit artifacts as evidence (videos, weapons, clothes) as powerful sensory and emotive proofs that build up to a conclusion (see Gilbert, Michael A. 1994. Multi-modal argumentation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24(2): 159–177.)
Arguments can also be deductive, inductive, abductive.
The point is that we tell our students we want them to present a ‘good argument’, but do we really know what we are are talking about?
So much for ‘clarity’, ‘precision’ and ‘transparency’ and for good prose being like a window pane.
Students get conflicting messages from us because in many cases, we ourselves (teachers, academics, subject specialists) don’t articulate what we mean by the language we use. We assume it is ‘clear and transparent’, but my simple examples above show that one of the most common words in academic discourse, ‘argument’ has several denotations.
This lack of clarity has several consequences for L2 students entering academia:
1. When students are confused by what we ask of them and about how realistically they can fulfill these expectations, and when their academic success is so massively high stakes, they are more likely to resort to ghostwriting agencies (Turner, pages 176-203)
2. By being unclear [sic] about the meaning, importance and boundaries of what counts as ‘legitimate proofreading’, we show just how imprecise language can be, we betray our ignorance of writtenness, of that highly complex and contested relationship that exists between form and content and the arbitrariness (‘fuzziness’, page 194) with which we decide what constitutes ‘legitimate help’ with writing: “When writtenness is reduced to grammatical accuracy” (pages 180 and 181) and when “Proofreading as a practice is less intellectual, and therefore the cost of writtenness is disguised by the cheaper intellectual price of proofreading (page 175)”, we undermine our own endeavours to teach academic writing.
3. Writing landsapes are mobile (pages 242, 252-3, 256-7). Whatever we are teaching at any given time will have to be re-learnt or adapted by the students when they enter new contexts. Because of this, teachers of writing need to educate about writing (page 242), so that students can deal with new contexts and new expections (page 242):
Arguably, [writing researchers] are more disposed to interrogate the assumptions of Western cultural rhetoric than might be the case for academics readings texts for arguments witin a specific disciplinary context
In other words, should writing researchers be educating the academics about writing?
In this regard, EAP tutors behave like handmaidens to the disciplines (what Raimes (1991) has called ‘the butler stance’), serving (training) rather than enlightening (educating), playing catch-up to try and capture what they think the disciplines do more than what their students need, are able to achieve, and possibly even want. On reason for this is that what EAP tutors are doing is (page 137, my bold):
at best offering ‘support’, at worst, remidial instruction. This creates a great deal of friction between EAP practitioners and their discipline-based colleages, as well as with the institutional management. […] I give examples of an ‘us and them’ ethos which arises because of it. For example, the notion that EAP practitioners play a defensive role, shielding academics from what is deemed poor English. Here, the status of their role is dimished by the perception that they are correctors or proofreaders, rather than doing substantial analytical and pedagogic work.
The ‘analytical and pedagogic work’ that Turner refers to above, is the work of education. I see EAP as educating about academia. This includes broaching a fuller range of conventions and academic traditions, but also educating the person, exploring dispositions and capabilities, and providing choices.
5. A further implication of her book is that some of the mess around writtenness and its standards might be cleared up by judging students against more realistic and humane criteria, criteria that fully acknowledge the effort they need to make to ‘sound native’ and criteria that respect their basic human right to fulfill their potential as a person, a person who is also multimodal, multilingual and multicultural.
4. This potential might include integrating their multilingualism into their academic writing. It might also include allowing students to communicate in modes other than language (Cook 2002: 335 cited in Turner, 2018, page 253):
The crucial implication for education is ensuring that the standards against which L2 users are measured should be L2 user standards, not L1 native speaker standards
This would seem to suggest that students should be treated on their own terms, respected humanely and fairly for the experiences and knowledges they bring with them in the present (see the philosphy of John Dewey) and that their human capabilities (see Martha Nussbaum on ‘capabaility approach‘) should be nourished so they can fulfill their potential, which may to varying degrees, also coincide with the (imagined) requirements of a discipline:
The capability approach purports that freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of what people are able to do and to be, and thus the kind of life they are effectively able to lead. The capability approach is generally conceived as a flexible and multi-purpose framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being
L2 students are reductively branded as such: Language 2. What does this mean? English being their second language? Or their own language being of secondary importance? Again, these labels, what exactly do they designate?. In fact, they are often multilingual students, so perhaps ‘Ln‘ would be a more appropriate label (back to how ‘precise’ language is – not).
In labelling students, just as we blanket label them as ‘international’ (maybe a Spanish student seems herself as ‘Spanish’ not ‘international’ – we have re-defined ‘international’ to mean ‘not English’ which is totally arbitrary), rather than allowing them the space to label themselves, are we frustrating their capabilities (in the Nussbaumian sense) rather than nurturing them? Are we training them rather than educating them (see Dewey on an empassioned distinction between ‘education’ and training’ (pages 13 and 29).
5. Turner also calls for greater reader cooperation (page 13, 258-261):
I also critique the smooth read ideology and argue that, especially given the international use of English, it needs to be replaced with a more flexible, interpretative stance on the part of the reader. Rather than place the onus on the writer to provide a smooth read, the contemporary reader in international higher education needs to have the ability to cope with a rougher ride as it were, through a text.
6. We need more integration between what students bring to the university and what we want them to learn (see this article for a case study at Beirut University). This integration would be a way of valorising their previsous experiences and nourisshing their capabailities (Turner, pages 240-24):
Rather than ban the rheotrical preferences of other writing traditions, why not bring them in
7. We need to admit that we are all trying to work out where and if content and form merge. According to Turner (page 238, my bold):
The expectation for the smooth read is so taken for granted that it is particularly problemtic when the attention of academic readers is drawn to the prose itself, rather than the message being conveyed. It is also the barrier that militates against tolerance of difference in rhetorical styles, diversity in the use of English, and more flexible reading positions
Here, Turner implies that the medium is not message. This seems incompatible with the modern media and communications tropes that the medium is the message and seems to muddy Turner’s waters: can we and should we separate the two? Is she saying that proofreading needs to separate form and content for it to be deemed ethical? This is where I think she muddles things (page 189):
proofreading is good if it priviliges content and bad if its role is to claim credit for grammatical accuracy. Such contradictions highlight the ambivalence and cocneptual fuzziness around the role that writtenness plays.
and then on page 194:
Some people seem to be able to make a clear-cut distinction, which social practices such as that of proofreading facilitate, but the divisions in practice are fluid and inconsistently made. Inconsitency and fuzziness extends also to assessment practices around writtenness as well as to assessment criteria
However, what I think matters here is that once we do separate content from form and deny that ‘the medium is the message’, we immediately open up the possibility for different forms of academic communication, dethroning language as the reigning mode. We democritise modes (the affordance of modes)
This book needs to be understood within the broader tradition of Academic Literacies, Critical EAP, Post-colonial Studies, WAC/WAD (Writing Across the Curriculum/Disciplines) and Translanguaging (and the work of Suresh Canagarajah). It brings together much of what Joan Turner has already written about, which explains why many complex and contentious claims are not fully developed or referenced/justified. The book is part of an ongoing conversation in these literacy traditions and generated this Twitteration
|‘Writing is never general’
Specifically, Wardle (who writes from a US Composition Studies perspective) claims that (pages 31-2, bold added):
Donald Judd also argues (from a US perspective), drawing on Critical Realism, that writers always need a reason to write, a reality to write about. He therefore encourages writing teachers who have the task of teaching ‘writing in general’ (school teachers, first year composition studies (in the US) or general EAP (in the UK), to design tasks that engage their student writers meaningfully. He has some well thought-through, generalisable and educationally-sound suggestions that don’t necessarily require writing to be discipline-specific (but they do require caring about a topic and having an audience in mind).
From an EAP perspective, I think this quote from Huckin, 2003 (abstract, p.3) more or less sums up my own stance on this:
In commenting on Huckin, Hyland (2016, p.18) claims:
So, this got me thinking, as usual, about how we teach writing on a general EAP course. I know there are many who think EAP should not be general (I have references for this, sorry – I just don’t have them to hand, it’s late, it’s Saturday, I have food in the oven), but the fact is, most EAP is taught ‘in general’. And given that it is, how can we turn this to our advantage, make it a meaningful experience for our students and ourselves, and perhaps even give it an added edge over and a separate remit from English for Specific Purposes, which seems to attract far more sympathies and favourable arguments than English for General Academic Purposes?
I have several ideas, including ideas on giving general EAP an interdisciplinary identity and focus (but more on this another time and in another post/article). In the meantime, I have proposed the following summer staff development session where I work. It still hasn’t been accepted by my department, but regardless of this, I wanted to share my thinking on how to meaningfully go about teaching general EAP with my wider #tleap community.
And the reason I wanted to do this is because I want to know what you think – what should and could we be teaching on ‘general’ EAP, given Wardle’s and Judd’s, and those who favour ESAP (English for Special Aademic Purposes), consensus on the non-feasibility of teaching writing ‘in general’?
On being bold and assertive yet modest, honest and humble
We (teachers of academic writing, at least in #tleap) tell students to write assertively and with confidence (in this paper I argue that or this shows that); to be tentative and modest (it could be concluded that or my suggestion is); to acknowledge the ideas of others (as so-and-so has shown), but mainly so that students can assert a bold position that cements their right to be writing in the first place (in conclusion, I have shown that).
Although I teach writing, I am also learning to write research, so this post is mainly a reflection on how I want to sound in my own writing: bold, assertive, modest, honest, humble? All and other? And prior to this, how am I to make sense of what I read.
Here’s an example of the kind of bold writing that I am talking about (underlined indicates the language of boldness):
What kind of entity is a committee, a book group, or a band? I argue that committees and other such social groups are concrete, composite particulars, having ordinary human beings among their parts. Thus, the committee members are literally parts of the committee. This mereological view of social groups was popular several decades ago but fell out of favor following influential objections from David-Hillel Ruben. Recent years have seen a tidal wave of work in metaphysics, including the metaphysics of parts and wholes. We now have the resources to rehabilitate the mereological view of social groups. I show how this can be done and why we should bother.
Academic writing hasn’t always been and isn’t always bold and confident like this. There was a time when it was more exploratory and tentative, in the French sense of ‘essayist’ (essayer), when Montaigne’s essays (1500s) were held up as paradigms of good academic writing, even in the sciences (early essays in the Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1600s, still had a personal, exploratory, discovery-oriented and descriptive quality about them rather than the methodologically assertive, controversial and factual/objective veneer of later articles).
Two critical reading incidents have brought about this reflection. The first is that, when I read across my disciplines – Writing, Philosophy and Education/Sociology – I see many bold discipline-marking claims being made. Often these claims are borrowed from other disciplines, and when they make their way into their new disciplinary home, they are asserted with such factual aplomb that those then reading this knowledge secondhand take the claim for granted (for example, a student of Education who reads an educational paper that draws on Philosophy might think there is no problem with framing whatever ontologies they are concerned with as, say, family resemblances rather than as having unequivocally fixed referents).
Here is a more specific example. Sociologists, Educationalists and Applied Linguistists (and many others) borrow an awful lot of ideas from philosophy (I do, too): Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblances, Philosophy of Mind’s Emergence, Einstein-Schlick’s Relativity, Complexity Theory’s Dynamic Systems, and so the list goes on. But when all these theories find their way into disciplinary domains wherefrom they did not originate, they often get cherry-picked, watered down, mis-represented, re-cast and applied with a confidence that never seems to acknoweldge, let alone do justice to, the still unresolved disputes about their coherence in the original theories that spawned them.
Here is Keith Sawyer, a sociologist, who at least attempts to trace theories of Emergence back to the Philosophy of Mind, where they first ’emerged’. He does this to try and make sense of the Cartesian mind/body dualism that still haunts us and that crops up in many current approaches to knowledge. Sawyer highlights how sociologists have co-opted the concept of Emergence without acknowledging its inherent inconsistencies and problematic nature (page 552):
contemporary sociological uses of emergence are contradictory and unstable; two opposed sociological paradigms [methodological individualism and methodological collectivism] both invoke the concept of emergence and draw opposed conclusions. The problem arises in part because sociologists have not developed an adequate account of emergence. In this article, I make an initial attempt to develop a foundational account […]
I like the fact that Sawyer:
In other words, he is not lifting the term from philosophy, airbrushing the many problems it has with its referents and simply dropping it unproblematically into his own discipline (as Sokal has accused the postmodernists of doing). He is attempting to make sense of what Emergence might mean when used as an orientation towards the understanding of complex social phenomena, of reduction, emergence and supervenience. The fact that Emergence theories originated in Philosophy and Natural Philosophy (as Science was known pre-1800s) does not mean they cannot be used as heuristics or paradigms in other disciplinary fields. But their meaning and reach needs to be re-established when they are exported or transplanted into another discipline, such as Sociology. And, in this article, I think Sawyer shows us how one might go about doing this.
The second critical reading incident comes from being constantly reminded that there is so much we really do not understand. The history of science, and of ideas generally, is replete with examples of how we got it really wrong and of how much we still don’t know. Einstein himself was considered to be heretic and to have threatened the whole edifice of science with his purely theoretical and non-empirical claims (pages 48-9):
Planck’s idea, which restricted the ways that material objects could vibrate, was the first quantum hypothesis ever, and although it was surprising and hard to reconcile with previous laws, it did not seem profoundly threatening to the entire edifice of physics.
But to suggest that light had a particle nature [as well as wave] was definitely threatening. Thanks to James Clerk Maxwell’s great equations, published in the mid 1860s, and Heinrich Hertz’s great experimetns roughly twenty years later (and countless other pieces of evidence), anyone who knew anything about light was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that light was waves; indeed, that fact was an unshakable pillar on which huge amounts of the physics of the day rested. It was therefore a complete and radical break with virtually all of classical physics when Einstein proposed that light might consist of particles. This heresy really did threaten the entire edifice.
Since knowledge is so big and so dependent on how we frame it and how we use it, I sometimes wish there were less hubris in the way we write academically, even in the modes we choose to represent it, and more recognition that we are more than likely to be wrong, or at least only partially right.
In search of my research metaphor
PhDs, thesis writing, research, scoping the literatures – I’ve heard these processes likened to ‘journeys’ or ‘giving birth’. I imagine that this is because they take a long time, you don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, and the final push/destination could yield unimaginable joy or utter disappointment and exhaustion.
Neither metaphor works for me.
The PhD as a journey doesn’t quite work for the reasons given by Thomson and Kamler in their really relevant book Detox your Writing. For example, the idea that a journey is a quest that comes to an end and leads to a ‘treasure’ (page 41) is misleading as far as a thesis is concerned, at least for me. Not that I am near my destination yet, but I am close enough to imagine the end, and right now, it feels like when I do get there, there will be lots more travelling and lugging around of heavy baggage. But yes. A little rest at the end is hopefully there, too.
As for giving birth, well, no. Having done that, I can guarantee that this feels nothing like being pregnant or giving birth, in any sense or at any stage in the process, from conception to delivery. A PhD also takes longer than 9 months, for starters.
Kamler and Thomson offer other metaphors, such as doing research is like having ‘lunch with friends’ (page 42) or ‘making a table’ (page 43). The ‘lunch with friends’ conjures up the idea that you are in control, you decide who to cite, critique, group together, take a stand against. That might work in thinking about the choices needed to build a literature review. The ‘making a table’ is about not re-inventing the wheel. Others have made tables before you, so you can draw on that expertise. But you have agency in the shape, colour, size and purpose of the table/argument you are making.
Having 5 years of part-time research behind me, I am now trying to cohere what I have and decide how to fill in the missing bits. This still involves an awful lot of seeing too many trees and very little of the wood. Exactly what I am saying and what I eventually want to say – my take home message, my ‘So what ….? (page 88) – keeps going in and out of focus.
So, I’ve come up with my own metaphor for this particular stage of writing the PhD: the 3-D stereogram. If you look at the picture superficially, you see a lot of minute detail, a few recognisable shapes, but certainly not ‘the point’ or the ‘main focus’ of the picture.
To see ‘the point’ or ‘the main focus’ you need to do one or both of the following:
Some see the picture very quickly, others take time to see it. Some never will. It is difficult to see it, but with patience and practice, it can be seen. There may also be other ways to finally visualise it.
I need to write a another PhD chapter, but I can’t, and the reason I can’t isn’t being resolved by the copious sensible options offered by Pat Thomson, or any other experienced academic writers.
Prompted today by a more recent Patter post, by a lovely colleague who tweeted how lonely he felt in writing his dissertation, by the seriously unbearable building work going on outside my study window, and by having tried all day to stop reading and start writing my own thesis, I have finally given up, accepted that, once again, ‘today is not the day’, and resolved to write tomorrow (as I have done for the past month).
Last week, I met with one of my two very ‘generous’ supervisors (in the sense that I feel they either over-indulge me or have too much faith in my vague over-ambitiousness, or both) about plans for this final year-and-a-bit of my PhD. I had a ton of plans – publishing, writing, re-genring – all of which have been causing me stress and anxiety. He listened, and then simply reminded me of how much I was enjoying the first couple of years of my research and advised me to find a way of enjoying it again.
What he meant was to simply get on with writing (the bloody thing) and not feel the need to do anything else.
So here I am. Resolved to ‘enjoy’, once again. The problem, however, is that I am enjoying the Reading way more than the Writing. And that is what is blocking me. I am finding the Reading far more satisfying than writing my own stuff, than re-reading myself, editing, re-writing (yawn).
Clearly, this is not good since I am now committed to finishing what I have set in train. But it’s a fact.
What has given me some solace today is Keith Sawyer and his tome on Explaining Creativity. Chapter 17 is all about writing, and although he doesn’t explicitly talk about academic writing, he may as well be, because his anecdotes and insights resonate with writing a PhD thesis.
Here is a mash-up of what Sawyer says and what is giving me encourgement:
I am in no way taking from this that I am going to get someone else to write my thesis! No! On the contrary, I am totally obsessed with my ideas, so would never be able to share them with anyone other than my supervisors and very close (academic) friends. What I am taking from Sawyer’s example is that there is no such thing as a perfect first or second or third (and so on) draft, and that writing is really hard work, requires dialogue with others and is pretty lonely without it, as he goes on to say below:
many successful writers seek out good editing, listen very closely to such comments, and are grateful for them. Eliot’s story shows us that creative writing is often the result of collaboration (p. 320)
Jessica Mitford engaged in a constant dialogue with her unfolding drafts: “the first thing to do is to read over what you have done the day before and re-write it, and then that gives you a lead into the next thing to do” (p.321).
Poet Mary Sarton wrote: “The poem teaches something while we make it; there is nothing dull about revision” (p. 321)
Novelist Ann Lamott, in her writing advice book Bird by Bird, emphasised the importance of generating “shitty first drafts” (p.321)
Since writing this post (and blog) helps tremendously with unblocking my own writing, I’ll end it with a quote, again from Keith Sawyer on p. 324, that resonates with where I am at right now (my bold):
… the writers all emphasised the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed that it is important to listen to their unconscious. They kept notebooks nearby at all times so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They worked in a problem-finding style, starting their work with only a phrase or an image rather than a fully composed plot, and the work emerged from the improvisational act of writing and revising. There was never a single big insight; instead, there were hundrends and thousands of small mini-insights. The real work started when mini-insights were analysed, re-worked and connected with each other; and as with every other type of creativity, many ideas that sounded good at first ended up in the trash.
Academic Writing, Conventions, and ‘Who Has the Right’
Received wisdom continues to hold that you have to know the rules before you can break them. This is evident in a recent book (2016) on genre innovation by Christine Tardy:
intentionally departing from norms requires an understanding of those norms (p. 39)
From the perspective of fairness and access, Tardy also recognises (with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘cultural capital’) that this can lead to an imbalance of power:
What emerges from this complicated web of authorial identity is something of a vicious cycle marked by power and access: Experienced authors gain access to the resources that allow them to produce legitimate language in legitimate forms and situations; in doing so they accumulate symbolic capital; their capital then allows them to exploit the system and perhaps stray from norms in ways that those with less capital cannot; through their distinctive uses of language they may accumulate further legitimacy and power within the market (p. 36)
I like Tardy’s book because it is both theoretical and pedagogical. It fully acknowledges the influence and importance of well-established scholarship on genre and academic writing (eg Swales, Halliday, Martin, Devitt, inter alia), yet also foregrounds the less visible work (in mainstream EAP, at least) of sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and semioticians like Gunther Kress, as well a critical language theorists like Widdowson and Pennycook, who have invoked the importance of play, creativity and non-linguistic ways of thinking and representing knowledge. Tardy further provides classroom approaches to raising students’ awareness and choices when it comes to their own writing.
But what happens when there are no obvious rules to be broken, no ready-made templates to fall back on, and you have to literally invent your own genre?
This is where Tardy’s book panders to my interests. She acknowledges the importance of interdisciplinarity when it comes to thinking about genre innovation and moving beyond convention in academic writing:
Adopting an interdisciplinary approach is also valuable for understanding genre innovation in ways that are inclusive of diverse writers and writing contexts (p. 2)
Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to writing matters to me for three reasons: 1) my PhD is interdisciplinary, and I am forever trying to get the balance right between sounding like an educationalist and behaving like a philosopher (an analytical one, at that!); 2) I teach general EAP; and 3) I’m drawn to the Finnish approach of phenomenon learning.
The reason I am keen on framing general EAP writing as interdisciplinary is summed up in Judd (adapted from page 126 of Judd, D. (2003) Critical Realism and Composition Theory, London, Routledge):
The traditional lack of a subject matter in writing courses is both a strength and a weakness. Sophisticated writing cannot be divorced from a degree of sophisticated understanding of a concrete subject matter. Even if you apply formal logic to your writing and detect logical fallacies and conflicting assertions in an argument, while important, this will not necessarily lead to a more sophisticated understanding and, thus, to more sophisticated writing. “How could someone learn”, asks Frank Smith (1990: 97) “to detect conflicting assertions in a chemistry text, an article on chess, or to estimate for repairs to an automobile, without an understanding of chemistry, chess or automobile mechanics, in which case contradictions would be immediately apparent?”. The answer of course, is that one cannot […].
It may be unrealistic to expect that your writing will get progressively better when you are writing about several unrelated topics over the course of an academic term because little opportunity is given to you to develop a more sophisticated understanding of those topics. When there is no traditional subject matter in writing courses, we are free to select topics that are of interest to us and that lead us to understand ourselves by understanding the world and our place in the world […]. Good writing is not guaranteed by good understanding, but poor understanding almost certainly inhibits good writing.
My solution to this ‘lack of traditional subject matter’ and to the need ‘to understand what you are writing about’ has been to draw on students’ own and emerging disiciplinary knowledge with a view to interacting and collaborating with the knowledge of others. This creates an interdisciplinary writing context and raises the question of how to negotiate rules and transgress genre boundaries whilst still being recognisibly academic.
But now, the question of ‘what genre should my students write in?’ looms large.
Tardy’s book is providing me with ways to build on traditional genres in order to innovate and move beyond traditional conventions in academic writing. I am asking my students to create innovative genres because neither they or I know what knowledge will be brought to the classroom each term and what knowledge will emerge from their collaborative research. I have no template for them to follow. I rely on them to create writing that brings together content knowledge, audience awareness and modalities that effectively get their message(s) across.
Is anyone else grappling with these issues?