Tag Archives: Academic Literacies

Academic Writings as Open Systems

Using Critical Realism to Explain Diversity in #acwri

Scholars like Karen Bennett have argued that EAD (English Academic Discourse) is taught as though it were a set of homogenous, stable and unquestionable conventions. Mary Scott, Theresa Lillis, Bruce Horner, Suresh Canagarajah, Lucia Thesen, Arlene Archer, Joan Turner and many others have argued along similar lines.

These conventions began to emerge in the 1700s when the experimental article of the natural sciences (which then evolved into the research article of the Humboldtian tradition) set the bar for what most of us would now recognise as ‘academic’ writing. The EAP (English for Academic Purposes) industry has adopted and systematised these conventions, turning them into transferable skills (and possibly ‘exportable’ skills?): the assumption being that all academic disciplines fundamentally (should) write in a similar way.

EAP sees its primary role as being one of servitude to (some of) the conventions of (some of) the academy. Its servitude stems in part from the laudable intention of helping students obtain university degrees by becoming knowledgeable members of disciplinary communities and discourses. But, arguably, this functional role is also bolstered by a burgeoining and lucrative textbook industry which tends to uncritically foreground, fossilise and reify some conventions and ideologies to the exclusion of others (see Tribble 2009 and 2015; Bennett 2009 and 2015 for a detailed discussion):

On the one hand, it would be in their learners’ interests if they [teachers] could help them to conform to the expectations of the institution. On the other hand, by doing so, they are reproducing the ideologies and inequities of the institution and society at large (Archer & Breuer, 2016, p. 42, my bold)

and

It is ironic that some educational institutions […] militate against the very higher-order thinking that they are supposed to encourage (Andrews, 2010, p. 53, my bold)

Perhaps other broader reasons for this servitude can be tentatively traced back to the marginalisation of EAP teachers who, arguably, may have neither the qualifications, status and research time to engage more critically and more confidently with wider academic and research writing scholarship that tends to approach academic writing more descriptively than prescriptively.

The fact is that academic writings are varied and can be considered ‘good’ for a wide range of reasons: paragraphs vary in length to achieve different rhetorical and epistemological effects; footnotes can be used to provide evidence (as historians do); multimodal academic communication across the disciplines is receiving growing attention because it affords more finely-tuned epistemological representations; scholars’ interest in using graphic novels to communicate their research is becoming more noticeable, again because visual literacies play a key part in representing and processing knowledge; and social media is beginning the claim the status of ‘academic writing’, as argued here and implied here.

The reason academic writings are and always have been so varied is because they are social practices, not static skills. And because they are social practices, they need to be understood in terms of interactions and relations between agents (writers with histories, intentions, desires, choices) and structures (material/textual/digital/historical practices and conventions). As such, it is not enough to explain academic writings by reducing them to either the intentions of the writer (my text is academic because I want it to be) or to established conventions about the surface features of the text (the presence of an abstract, complex sentences, passive voices, nominalisations, specific lexis, prescribed rhetorical moves, language itself, etc.).

Enter my interest in critical realism. A key tenet of this philosophy of social science is that it distinguishes natural sciences and social sciences in terms of closed and open systems, respectively (Collier).

Closed systems are artificially created conditions designed to isolate mechanisms so that they can be observed in the absence of putatively irrelevant causal variables: if I want to know what causes light to refract, all I need is a source of light and a medium through which it can pass (a prism/glass/jar/water) to show that light changes speed and refracts depending on the medium it passes through. In other words, I don’t need trees, houses, rain or anything else that co-occurs naturally when light refracts in its natural environment because these elements are not considered causally relevant to the refraction of light. Open systems, by contrast, are characterised by several variables which have varying degrees of causal efficacy: if I want to know what poverty is and what causes it, I’m going to need a significantly richer explanatory toolkit to establish this.

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What is art? Open System par excellence (Spots by Damien Hirst, image from Wikicommons)

Arguably, there is a sense in which EAP has approached academic writing as a closed system of finite variables: key rhetorical moves such as abstract, introduction, conclusion; topic sentences; reference lists; passives, and so on, are what cause a text to be academic. Start messing with any of these features, and we no longer have an ‘academic’ text. FAIL.

However, once we acknowledge that the de facto naturally occuring diversity of academic writings includes the likes of A.D. Carson or Nick Sousanis, then maybe we need to start re-conceptualising EAD/EAP as an open system that is caused/explained by a far wider range of variables: personal voices, creativity, agency, multilingualism and multimodality, visual and aural literacies.

And maybe, possibly, arguably, if we do re-conceptualise it as an open system, then maybe, possibly, arguably, we should do more to teach and learn it as such.

To conclude, I quote a lengthy passage from Andrew Collier (1996, pp. 34-35, my bold; see also pp.62-63, 121, 161) to explain and remind myself about Open and Closed Systems:

collierExperiments […] are necessary because closure in general does not occur naturally. We need to produce ‘unnatural’ sequences of events in order to discover the mechanisms at work in natural ones. This is the point of Bacon’s reference to experiments, not only as questions put to nature, but as ‘putting nature to the question’; this metaphor refers to judicial torture, and some moderns have objected that this expresses an attitude of cruelty, and moreover, since Bacon like many others refers to nature in the feminine, of misogyny. But of course nature is not a woman, or a goddess, or a man, or an animal. It has no feelings, intentions, or desires. So the concept of cruelty is inapplicable here; the metaphor of torture cannot be extended beyond its precise function: to indicate that it is not possible to discover the laws of nature by passive observation, one must intervene actively and make nature do what it would not do spontaneously. When R.D. Laing protests against the Baconian project of science by asking ‘whether torture is the best way to get to know a lady?’ (The Voice of Experience, p. 21n), he is extending the metaphor inapplicably, like one who asks whether the Marxian superstructure is safe from lightning, or whether magnetic fields are grazed by rabbits. But while the moral pathos of the question is misplaced, a serious point remains.

The point is this: how can experiments inform us about nature when they are very special processes produced by us, in which things happen differently from the way they do in the open systems of the world outside the laboratory? What if experimental results can only tell us what happens under experimental conditions? If they don’t tell us how things happen in the open systems of nature at all, then they lack all epistemic value and are no more than interesting tricks. I have heard an eminent scientist argue that this is just how the ancient Greeks would have regarded them – as telling us no more about the real tendencies of things than the tricks of a circus animal tell us about the real tendencies of its species […].

The whole purpose of experiments is to isolate some mechanism which normally operates alongside others. In its normal operation, it has effects: it makes different things happen from what would have happened in its absence. But since what happens in an open system is the effect of a conjunction of forces, it is not what one would have predicted from any one of those forces taken in isolation.

References:

Andrews, R. A. (2010). Argumentation in higher education : improving practice through theory and research. New York, Routledge.

Archer, A. and E. O. Breuer, Eds. (2016). Multimodality in higher education. Leiden/Boston, Brill.

Bennett, K. (2009). English academic style manuals: A survey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(1), 43-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jeap.2008.12.003

Bennett, K. (2015). The Transparency Trope: Deconstructing English Academic Discourse Discourse and Interaction, 5-19 doi: 10.5817/DI2015-2-5

Collier, A. (1994). Critical realism : an introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy. London, Verso.

Tribble, C. (2009). Writing academic English—a survey review of current published resources. English Language Teaching Journal, 63(4), 400-417 doi: 10.1093/elt/ccp073

Tribble, C. (2015). Writing academic English further along the road. What is happening now in EAP writing instruction? English Language Teaching Journal, 69(4), 442-462. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccv044

 

 

 

Writing as an act of love

It’s not about cheating, it’s about care, passion and taking responsibility

cocteau

Écrire est un acte d’amour. S’il ne l’est pas, il n’est qu’écriture (Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman (downloaded from Google Images)

Ghostwriting. A rotten issue that is not going to go away unless universities profoundly change their attitude to and understanding of what academic writing is, why it matters and how we learn to do it.

Several stories on how students cheat by paying ghostwriters to write their essays and on the essay mills that supply them have been hitting the headlines, such as this one, which appeared yesterday.

I have also drawn attention to unfairness in our academic writing expectations, the ethics surrounding essay mills, and the problem with not recognising academic writing as an actual subject or discipline .

What these stories on essay mills have in common (including reader comments) is that they often forefront the behaviour of the students as cheats, of the essay mills as moral corruptors and of the universities as upholders of standards and integrity, the sorry victims of an army of lazy, conniving, quick-fix customers who are undermining their credibility and who need to be punished and shamed.

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My recent Tweets on this issue

I so profoundly object to the discourses surrounding ‘academic misconduct’ that I am compelled to point out a number of alterantive perspectives, all of which forefront the conditions that allow misconduct to fester and essay mills to profit.

Clearly, I do not condone cheating and I am not so naive as to believe the world is full of do-gooders who are hapless victims of an unfair system. But nor do I condone what I consider to be unhealthy academic writing cultures within universities which seem to be fundamentally and irresponsibly ignorant of a rich and established tradition of scholarly research on academic writing and how you learn to do it.

Some anecdotal evidence

Firstly, I have been teaching university students for 25 years in the UK and in Italy and I like them, trust them, find them interesting, learn from them, respect them. A very small number of these students cheat for no other reason than laziness and lack of interest, but some cheat because they are consumed with anxiety or lack self-esteem; others because they simply do not understand what is expected of them.

Secondly, I have recently become involved in an initiative to support home students with their academic studies – ie those students who have been through the British education system (as opposed to international students who have not). This is because, surprise surprise, home students also struggle with understanding the expectations of academic writing! This initiative is part of a wider university strategy to provide drop-in student services: with the huge amounts students pay in fees, universities need to be seen to be helping. Whether they are or not is contentious.

I have read some published work on how home students struggle with the transition from A-Level writing or Access courses (see for example Lillis 2011 and other work by academic literacies scholars) and on who is/should be responsible for helping these students: their departments, EAP centres, student services, writing centres, library staff? But talking to the students allows me to hear and see first hand what feedback their subject tutors are giving them and to glean insights into what is worrying these learners.

Here is a representative example of what I hear (from an undergraduate):

I got 48% in my midwifery essay and I don’t understand why. I got distinctions in my access course and when I was writing this essay, I thought it was good. I put in references, I looked at different aspects of the research question, my sister, who is really good academically, advised me to start with some context and give some definitions, but my tutor said I had too many ideas and they weren’t really connected to the main question. I also don’t really know what a paragraph is or how long it should be and what should go in the introduction and conclusion? Is the conclusion just a summary? I need to start writing my second essay and I just don’t know where to start now. I want to do it right, but I don’t know how. How do you write an academic essay? How is it different to what they taught me on my access course? I know people who have done A-Levels and they also say it is completely different to an A-Level essay

There is so much to unpack here. As an EAP teacher and academic writing researcher, this is my daily bread and it makes my heart sink to hear this. In a 30-minute drop-in session, I cannot possibly address systemic historical and political dysfunctions in how Further Education and Higher Education join-up, especially now that the UK has roughly reached its university widening participation targets of 50% of 18 year-olds (which means a huge range of students from diverse scholastic backgrounds). Nor can I single-handedly change each academic department’s perception of its own responsibilities when it comes to essay writing. But I can blog about it so let’s see who else out there shares some of my perspectives on this.

Some academic evidence

Much has been written on the issues raised by the student above. I’ve already mentioned work being done by academic literacies scholars. However, there are deeper and wider contexts in which all of this takes place. For example, ongoing work by researchers at Lancaster University on The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation is drawing attention to how academics themselves struggle to write and to meet the demands of an ever increasing marketisation of writing which requires them to publish in some journals and not others or to privilige some genres (eg the academic journal article) above others (eg the monograph or audiovisuals, and other multimodal texts). backThis leads to what Les Back has called a culture of ‘absenteeism’ because academics can’t meet their own writing targets if they have to be in their university offices, and therefore available for students, during the day. Consequently, universities are full of empty offices and the “smooth running of universities depends on those who are left behind. Usually referred to as ‘support staff'”(p. 104 of Academic Diary).

And there is the influential work of Charles Bazerman who draws attention to the ways in which writing shapes disciplinary epistemologies. This means that we cannot divorce writing from the socialisation processes that create it and this, in turn, means that academics and students alike need to be socialised into writing by their departments and  not be palmed off to drop-in sessions like the ones I am doing or forced to resort to essay mills (see also this impressive collection of Open Access research on  academic writing which, when taken together, provides ample evidence that writing is a highly complex cultural activity, not a transferable skill).

Solutions

These, first and foremost, need to rein in some of the more legalistic and accusatory tones  that end up stigmatising students as cheats when some are are genuinely struggling through no fault of their own. Yes, of course some cheat because they are lazy, but that is so far removed from the issue at stake that it shouldn’t even enter into the debate (yet it always manages to and ends up skewing the whole problem).

Here is what Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottigham, has to say and why I find it problematic, despite it being well-intentioned (my reactions are in red):

  • “Companies like this are profiting from students cheating. This is their raison d’être. The approach they take makes it very difficult to detect, but the sector has to find a way to deal with this corrupting activity. Legislation is not the only way forward – we do need a multi-faceted approach as the QAA suggests including:
  • educating students better about the importance of submitting their own work

students know about the importance of submitting their own work. The question is how to foster their passion for writing and their engagement with their discipline, and to raise their awareness of how the two are related. We need to inspire students to write their own work and to care about it, and we need academics in each discipline to do this

  • improved study skills provision

no, writing is not a skill, it is an embedded disciplinary social practice. See, for example, Ursula Wingate here and Joan Turner here. This is why it can’t be outsourced to somebody who is not socialised in the academic discipline that the student is learning to engage with. Students who already come from academic backgrounds, both in terms of family life and in terms of schools, adapt more quickly to university writing, but even they need nurturing once at university because they are unlikely to have written essays in the disciplines they are now studying

  • ensuring more assessments are designed to prevent plagiarism opportunities

this I agree with but not if the rationale is to ‘prevent plagiarism’. The rationale should reflect what counts as academic writing and the values we place on it, including process writing, multimodal writing, writing for different audiences.

  • working together across the sector, with the QAA and other agencies, to take on the cheating companies profiting from our students
  • ensuring university regulations specifically address essays procured in this way, including listing companies to be avoided, and stressing the punishments that will be fairly and rigorously applied to those who cheat

There would be far less need for law enforcement strategies if universities took a bit more responsibility for how their sector approaches the representation of knowledge. I urge students to speak out about this. What do they think is going on and what are they doing about it?

And to finish, here is Les Back again on how we should re-evaluate what academic writing means (p. 64, my emphasis):

More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically than an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking with interlocutors that remain anonymous. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.