Tag Archives: Academic Writing

Walking the tightrope of academic writings

Pulcinella’s balancing act

There is a perilous paradox in the established literatures on academic writing that suggests we have choices in the way we write academically.

By established ‘literatures’ I mean the textbooks and advice guides, including those ‘How to’ photocopied handouts you get in Student Services, aimed at university student writers. The literatures that tell you to keep your style formal, clear, precise, impersonal, logical, critical, deferential. Advice that isn’t really advice, but a precept. Joan Turner explains all of this here.

By ‘choices’, I mean other ways of writing. Writing that is more creative, more personal, more original, more multimodal, more visual, more layered. Invitations to explore and experiment, to find ‘your’ voice, contribution, originality. The idea that you can be playful, take risks, and survive. See for example, Archer and Breuer and Thesen and Cooper.

'L’altalena dei pagliacci' di Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

L’altalena dei pagliacci (o dei Pulcinella), affresco, Ca’ Rezzonico (Palazzo del Settecento), Venezia

The two sets of advice – the literatures versus the choices – don’t sit comfortably together, in my experience. In fact, in my experience, they massively irritate each other. They encourage each other to polarise by entrenching their respective advocacies.

Those in the established ‘literatures’ camp fear those who advocate choice because choice means anarchy, the erosion of standards and heterogeneity (diversity); those in the ‘choice’ camp resist the literatures because these embody an imperialist, rationalist paradigm of exclusion, transparency and exactitude.

Parallels with the current political climate – polarised between the Right that is hard-lining and the Left that is flat-lining – are hard to resist.

And it is equally hard to communicate all of this to students because they rely on you for guidance to pass the assessments that are based on the advice of the established ‘literatures’, not the advice of the ‘choices’.

In this sense, a teacher of academic writing can feel a little like Pulcinella, the Neapolitan character in La Commedia dell’Arte, who somehow muddles through his contradictions, swinging perilously between being rueful and jocular, popular and alone, accepted and rejected, paradoxically lazy but ingeniously inventive.

 

 

Writing a PhD Chapter: incubating, owning, learning

Little chronicle of becoming un-stuck

The chapter-writing phase of the PhD is seriously challenging me. I’m in the process of writing one now, but also allowing for respite via a blogging interlude, because I’ve been at it all day, and have 30 minutes before I need to be somewhere else, and there is no more historical literature on academic writing that I can tackle in half an hour. I want to record what this moment feels like in the spirit of other reflective, research process posts such as this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one

Incubating it

The chapter I am currently writing is the 2nd of 6 that I have so far proposed to my supervisors. In retrospect, the first one was really easy – it didn’t feel like it at the time, it does now (cliched child birth analogies come to mind, but I won’t go there!). This one has been a beast. I thought I had it sorted 2 months ago. I had done all the reading, left myself a month to write it (ca. 12,000 words), and when I actually sat down to write, I had about 3-weeks to the deadline. But nothing coherent popped out, just copy-and-paste words stuck in a document hoping something would make sense. Serious writer’s block prevented access to my study, my computer, and any attempt to open a ‘new document’.

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Overwhelmed

Part of the problem, I now realise, is that this chapter is linked to the previous one and paves the way for the next one; it does not stand alone, and all of my readings don’t take any of this into account! How inconsiderate of them! It’s me who needs to make the connections, work out their relevance to what I have said and what I am going to say. So I underestimated how much incubation/gestation is required between reading the stuff of others and writing my own when ‘my own’ consists of chapters, not stand-alone assignments reporting what others have said.

Owning it

I have been so restless and disorientated in the incubation process. I tried to fight it by sitting myself at my desk. But to no avail. I eventually gave up and accepted I could not write. I ate, had family time, slept, ran, took a blank sheet of real paper, a physical sheet of A4, sat on a sofa in a different room and wrote down a stripped, penned, unreferenced memo – akin to a tweet – of what

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Back to basics

I wanted to say in this chapter. I went back to my computer feeling that I owned the readings, that they were serving me, not me serving them.

Learning it

I’ve been writing since early morning. It is flowing. I now have far too many words, but I know that is a good sign because I need to say it all before I can strip it back and edit it for my readers. What is making it flow is that I am learning from it and enjoying it, and this is keeping me keen and interested. I am not simply performing. I am actively, visibly making my contribution.

Letting it go

Clearly, these are just process thoughts. Tomorrow may be a total disaster. Inevitably, when they do eventually receive it, my supervisors will rip the chapter apart. But that’s not the point. The point is that I needed to get myself to the point of writing it. I am now at that point. I am writing, but as usual, I now have only a few days rather than a whole month left to finish, so this post ends here.

ps. Moral of the story

Don’t give up, keep pushing!

Thank you & sorry to a few people

Academic Messiness, but also Honesty and Integrity (I hope)

This teaching term is turning out to be unpleasantly busy, stressful, messy. I said ‘yes’ to too many projects before Christmas, and now I’m paying for it.

So I wanted to publicly thank a few people I have been neglecting and who are having to pick up the pieces of my disorganisation and my anxiety. I could not do a PhD, work, commute, parent, shop, cook, and generally function without them. I am also travelling very far next week, the furthest I have ever been, and I am feeling anxious: partly because it is so far; partly because I am presenting some of my research. I will be alone and very much outside of my comfort zone.

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Where I spend a lot of my life

The following is not necessarily in order of guilt. Maybe in order of priorities … It’s just that the linear format of this medium obliges me to write in an order that suggests preferences, but I am sincerely grateful to everyone.

  • My son: I was horrid over Christmas because I had a Chapter to write and really didn’t want it to be Christmas. He is adapting to a new form of mothering: Remote Mothering. I phone him, text him, email him to find out how school went and what he wants for dinner. He is getting used to hearing me say ‘non adesso, amore’ (trans. ‘not now, darling’). He is a lovely boy who always asks me how I am when I get home;
  • My partner: he does a lot of my parenting, sorts out home technology, sources books and resources for me, fixes my car, cooks, and generally keeps things running smoothly, calmly and happily. We’ve agreed that if he is thinking of leaving me, he can only do so after I have passed my viva :-/;
  • My colleagues at CELE, University of Nottingham: they are covering lessons for me when I go to conferences and other PhD-related activities, sometimes at quite short notice (but I do return the favours!); they also put up with my lippiness and outspokeness, and I am sure I really piss them off (sometimes);
  • The School of Education, University of Nottingham: they are supervising and helping to fund some of my PhD and conferences, and have been really patient with me when I have missed deadlines or messed up applications or been late with meeting various deadlines;
  • My supervisors: they are encouraging, communicative and generous with their time and their guidance. I think they are slightly w(e)ary of where I am going with some things, but maybe that is why they are being so nice – just to make sure I stay level-headed and don’t give up. Either way, they are allowing me to believe I actually have a valuable PhD contribution to make and they are allowing me to do exactly what I want; they are also making me reflect a lot on how I teach and advise my students;
  • cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

    ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman: a story of friendship

    My family and friends: both local and abroad. I am hopelessly crap at staying in touch (I always have been, but not as bad this). I think of them a lot, resolve to write or skype or send gifts, but then too much time passes and too much stuff happens to be able to just have a casual chat or send a short note. Each chat or meet-up would need hours and hours of catching-up, so I end up simply not not calling or writing;

  • My neighbours: I have really nice neighbours. Sometimes they are very noisy, though; sometimes they park in my parking space which drives me insane; one of them always knows when I am home and rings the doorbell to tell me something totally unimportant (to me, anyway). Predictably, I have got annoyed with them but then apologised as I realise I am particulalry impatient and over-sensitive to noise, and intolerant of other people who have normal lives that include leisure, gardening, listening to music, doing DIY, playing with toddlers, having time to chat.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to my presentation slides …

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.

Writing about writing

In search of completion: preparing to write the thesis and the genres it requires

thesisSince October, I have been thinking about my own thesis. What’ll be in it and in what order; what forms it will take and modes it will include; how it will compare to other theses and in what sense that matters; how long it will take to write; how I remain ‘in the zone’ for another two years without becoming even more anti-social, mono-thematic, scruffy, fat, and self-absorbed …

appearance

Only a graphic novel can convey what doing a PhD does to your appearance

I have spent the last 4 years part-time reading about the history of academia and of ideas, and then writing what I can only describe as ‘epistolaries’ to my supervisors, bits of process writing that have no clearly defined genre: they weren’t essays or chapters or annotated bibliographies or reports or summaries or book reviews, or anything that I had ever written before or seen in the research writing guide books. They were sort of responses or reactions to our meetings and emails, prompts and props to break the ice at the start of a supervisory meeting; they were more like reflective pieces or bulletted slides to show where I was intending to go with things. In Italian, I would collectively call them pro-memoria: things that serve to jog your memory. I think, at one point, I called one piece of writing a ‘Clarification’. Another time, I just had images on a loop to exemplify some point or other. Oh, and then there is this blog … So, I have actually written thousands of words in the last 4 years. I haven’t actually counted them, but a lot of this blog is going into the thesis, and every ‘epistolary’ was about 10,000 words, and there were probably around 5 or 6 of those, plus the email exchanges, the conference and seminar presentations, and the draft papers I have written which I have not yet submitted to a journal.

But now I am on a ‘proper’ writing rota. I have to write chapters, about 6 or 7 in all, and all those pieces of writing, conversations and annotations have to coalesce into recognisable and acceptable’academic writing’, the very topic of my thesis, the very phenomenon I am deconstructing and reformulating. And I have just submitted a draft chapter (which took me over 2 months to write) that self-consciously follows all the conventions that I am questioning: in fact, as I was writing it, I was conscious of how its very form was progressively, word-for-word, being undermined by its very content, i.e. my argument!

How supine am I?!

As I was writing, I was also desperate to close my Word .doc and write a blog post instead, and I think the reason is that blogging is so liberating, it’s a little box where you can store all the thinking, evidence and annotations that can be retrieved at a later date, when they become relevant to other contexts and projects, and, crucially, to delivering some poignant rebuttal! I submitted my chapter late last night, have been at work all day, and now I can write this post! Liberation!

A blog post also affords a sense of completion in the same way that going into the kitchen and making dinner has a clear beginning, middle and end. That’s why I prefer washing up to ironing (which I actually never do): I don’t have a dishwasher, and I don’t want one. Washing up is cathartic.  Doing a PhD for so many years makes you crave completion because after a while, however much you are devoted to your subject, you do get bored with it.

bored

L’ennui

I may refer back to this post and the ones I wrote here and here as part of my reflections on the actual process. And, NTM, start to link and group these posts better.

 

Multimodality and fairness in #acwri

Could a multimodal approach to academic writing be a harbinger of fairness in recognition of a diverse 21st century literacy landscape?

Some key quotes and reflections from recent #acwri readings

This post is linked to others on multimodality here and here. It helps me keep track of readings, but it may be of interest to both teachers and learners of academic writing including Research Writing, EAP (English for Academic Purposes), Academic Literacies, and Writing Studies. All bolds are mine (they refer to key words in my research).

Multimodality refers to a field of application rather than a theory (Bezemer and Jewitt, 2010, p. 180 cited in Archer and Breuer, 2016, p. 1).

Most research on academic discourse has been based on the analysis of written text and as a result, most classes on the teaching of academic writing have concentrated on language (p.1)

What is seen as ‘academic’ writing is contestable and always emergent (p.2)

[…] the writer does not have complete freedom to change genre characteristics – especially if the writer is not a long-standing member of the academic community (Bhatia, 2004, 2010; Hyland, 2004 in Archer and Breuer, p. 3)

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Me discussing multimodality with a group of EdD students using ‘Unflattening’ by Nick Sousanis to explore how argument can unfold in a visual mode.

When comparing academic texts emanating from different academic contexts, one can see that students from English speaking backgrounds tend to focus on creating linearity in texts that contain content that is topic relevant […]. Other academic approaches, for example, in France, Germany, Russia, Arabia, do not cohere to this rule of linearity but prefer to present a wider picture of the topic or of taking different perspectives on them. Reading these texts is more demanding , and could result in academic communities being seen as elitist, trying to ‘keep out’ readers that do not belong to the academic community. These traditions tend not to ‘sell’ ideas as does the English academic community, but rather to ‘tell’ them […] and the text is understood as working as a “stimulus for thought or even intellectual pleasure” […] (p. 3)

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 (p. 4)

The cartoon argument below sharply brings into focus the claims made in a recent  Times Higher Education article in which the writer argues that the priviliging of writing in academic assessments leads to inequalities and discrimination.

I would also argue that priviliging writing leads to missed opportunites for exploring diverse epistemological commitments and perspectives because different modes afford different things: this cartoon, for example, connects more directly, in my view, with our embodied experiences of education than a verbose academic abstract or quote might do, and if one of the purposes of academic communication is to trigger action – see Threshold Concept # 1.5: Writing Mediates Activity – then, arguably, this visual stands a far better chance of generating discussion (at least).

unfair_assessment

I also find the comments posted in response to this article indicative of profound political and ideological orientations towards education more broadly, and to academic writing (literacy), specifically. I’ve copied these comments below hoping to hear what others think:

unfair_assessment_commentinequalityInterestingly, Commentators #2 and #3 seem to be unaware of the fact that it is possible to “rethink the relationship between modes, for example, the interaction between image and writing in a text” (p. 7) and that a fairer, more just and more inclusive approach to academic writing consists in “recognising student ‘interest’ […] and agency as people who choose how to represent meaning from a range of possibilities […]” (p. 7).

These commentators also seem to assume that writing (i.e. language) is the best and only way to put forward an argument and be ‘scholarly’. This view is challenged by many in the field of literacies and writing studies such as Archer and Breuer (Eds), by Andrews (2010), and Andrews, Borg, Boyd Davis, Domingo and England (Eds) (2012). In their extensive body of research on what argumentation is and what the best way of advancing it might be given the range of modes available to us, they strongly argue that relying on language alone limits our academic expression.

Archer and Breuer’s edited collection provides many examples which extend our conception of academic writing beyond its propositional remit (i.e. language) and towards its mutlimodal affordances whereby mode is undersood as a “socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning” Kress cited in Archer and Breuer, p. 5).

I’m ending this post with a visual reflection on why education matters.

valu_of_education

On the value of Education

References:

Archer, A. and Breuer, O. (2016) ‘A Multimodal Response to Changing Communication Landscapes’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston: 1-17

Andrews, R. (2010) Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through Theory and Research Routledge

Andrews, R., Borg, E., Boyd Davis, S., Domingo, M. and England, J. (Eds) (2012) The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses, Sage

Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening, HUP

Photo credits: I am ashamed to admit that I dowloaded these straight from the Internet and now can’t re-trace their origins. If anybody objects to me using them here, please let me know and I will either credit them (if you know their source) or take them down.

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)

References:

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

Review of “Teaching and Researching Writing” (Hyland 2016)

A personal review and commentary

I’ll start by quoting from one of the themes that single out this latest edition (the 3rd) – first published in 2002 – namely digital advances and social media:

Most blogs … show a careful informality, strong stance, tolerance of views and creative linking (p. 243)

Aside from making me think about whether my own blog fits – or should fit – (any of) this description, it has also got me thinking about the extent to which such bloggy properties apply to ‘canonic’ academic writing (see, for example, Patter’s views on blogging as #acwri).

But I’ll save those reflections for another post ….

What I liked about this book

There is lots in here to like if you are as nerdy about academic writing as I am.

A nerd

A nerd

First and foremost, for me, is the breadth of Hyland’s literature review. This is because I have been finding, as I do my own research on writing, that I often gloss over the basics, the things that ‘I’m meant to know but actually don’t really‘.

Hyland’s review covers familiar writing orientations such as those which are text-focused (following the structuralist tradition of De Saussure and Chomsky, p.4); writer-focused (following the expressivist tradition of Elbow and Murray, p.12); and reader-focused (following the social constructivist tradition of Nystrand, Park, Barton, Fairclough, pp.21-30) as well as providing examples of research methods and methodologies ranging from Think-Aloud Protocols, to Interviews, Corpus Studies, and Ethnographic Case Studies all of which he illustrates with examples, commentaries and relevance to the orientations mentioned above (Ch. 4, pp.73-141).

The other thing I found useful was the way he succinctly summarises a tradition by outlining its purpose – or what it is a response to – and then promptly shines a spotlight on its limitations (as he sees them).

For example:

Ethnographic approaches … take a more contextual view of writing than positivist approaches and presuppose a more prolonged engagement with the research site (Hyland: 85)

however, they are:

sometimes criticised for a lack of generalisability to other settings (Hyland: 86)

In fact, this rhetoric of ‘here is what the theory says’ and then ‘here is what is wrong with it’ recurs throughout the book. Pages 165 to 166 are a prime example (of which there are many). This is where Hyland outlines the affordances of critical pedagogy (with reference to Benesch) and then proceeds to draw out its weaknesses by carefully reviewing the literatures (eg Usher and Edwards; MacCallister; Grande; Pennycook). This passage is a brilliant example of what a literature review should do because what emerges from these pages is the conversational, dialogic character of a literature review. It’s a passage that would lend itself beautifully to being re-genred – to borrow from Fiona English – as a dialogue or graphic vignette.

More specifically …

Hyland raises issues such as ‘what’s the basis for believing that you can teach writing as a set of generic skills that prescribe accuracy and the avoidance of error? (Hyland, p.146-147; 151). A view that Hyland claims (albeit with no evidence) is:

still very much alive in many classrooms around the world, especially where English is taught as a second or foreign language. In many schools, writing classes are grammar classes in disguise and students are asked to write simply to demonstrate their knowledge of syntactic rules. In these situations, grammatical accuracy and clear exposition are often the main criteria of good writing (Hyland, p.146)

He goes on to claim that:

This autonomous, decontextualised view of writing also carries over into the design of many large international exams (Hyland, p.147)

and that:

focusing on accuracy is exactly the wrong place to look for writing competence, as there is little evidence to show that either syntactic complexity or grammatical accuracy are the best measures of good writing (…) no particular feature can be said to be a marker of good writing (ibid)

Other issues he broaches are ‘how did the view of writing as a social practice come about, what was it a response to (Hyland: 93; 157)’? He also has a fair amount to say about feedback and the part it plays in writing development (e.g. Truscott, pp.62-70), as well as a critique of the research construct of Coxhead and Nation’s early Academic Word List (Hyland, p.206) swiftly followed by an endorsement of its newer version, the Academic Vocabulary List of Gardner and Davies (Hyland, pp. 216-210). Plagiarism, concordance software and reference lists divided into topics such as EAP, ESP, and Literacy are also given prominence as is a final list of web resources on writing, researching, teaching, etc. (although these being web-based, they may have since evolved).

What I was less impressed with …

Important caveat: The following is intended to highlight what a 4th edition might include, and is not in any way aimed at undermining Hyland’s valuable resource and reference book: my intention is to share knowledge that may also be relevant to others interested in this field and, rather more selfishly, to help me revise and reflect on my own knowledge and understandings, so far.

Despite many references to the ‘Literacy’ studies conducted by Barton, Hamilton, Ivanic, Clark, etc. (eg. pp.134-136), there is no reference to its related tradition, the field of Academic Literacies, in the plural form.

This seems like a significant omission in a literature review of ‘teaching and researching writing’ given the prominence that the Academic Literacies tradition has in this field, including the field of EAP, which Hyland belongs to.

Yet, on page 50, at the end of his Chapter on ‘Key Issues in Writing’ Hyland claims:

This chapter has examined some of the key issues in writing today. Because it has been necessarily selective, I have chosen to look at topics which have not only motivated much recent thinking in the field but which also best illustrate where contemporary research into text and composition is going, and which reflect our current understanding about writing

(My bold)

I would argue, rather, that it is not so much ‘necessarily’ selective as ‘personally’ (as all selections are). This is because many key studies on writing are not there. For example, although a reference is given to Lea and Street’s influential 1998 article on Academic Literacies (on p.230, but misleadingly under the singular heading ‘Literacy’), no update is given of subsequent research in the field, including that by Scott and Lillis (2007); Wingate and Tribble (2011); the 2012 Special issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes on Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics (edited by Caroline Coffin and Jim Donohue),  this edited collection; and Lillis and Tuck (2016, forthcoming in Hyland’s own Handbook of EAP). This tradition has been prolific, and the need for it to be understood in the plural has been argued by Scott and Lillis, 2007.

Other omissions include recent work by Lillis and Curry on literacy brokers (credited, rather, to Shuman 1993 and Barton and Hamilton 1998, p.37); reference to the field of research writing (other than Swales), for example, Paltridge and Starfield; and reference to the work of Europeans and South Africans  who are raising important questions about periphery writing.

And on a more personal note, describing Patter in terms of a ‘link to several blogs on academic writing’ (p. 257) is wholly inaccurate.

Recommendations

This is a great resource for EAP practitioners, in particular, and for those embarking on a related MA because it provides a range of examples of the main methods and methodologies for doing research into writing (in educational settings). However, I don’t feel it is advanced enough for those thinking of doing doctoral research on writing, despite my initial claim that it provides a general overview.

My main reason for this reservation is that it is too broad and insufficiently focused on the ontological, epistemological, and ethical underpinnings of ‘what writing is, how we know what it is, and who are we to make such judgments’. It doesn’t, for example, deal with the theories of language (eg integrationist, representational, critical, etc.), of literacy (eg normative, social, educational, political) or ideology (eg dominant literacies) that underlie our orientations to writing.

I would therefore tentatively suggest that ‘EAP’ and/or ‘in higher educational settings’ be added to the title of any future edition in order to capture the predominantly EAP and tertiary lens on writing that this book embodies.

PLEASE comment, qualify, correct me, challenge me on any of the above. I need it!

 

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Taylor and Francis for sending me an inspection copy of this book. They asked for feedback. I hope this counts.

References:

Hyland, K. (2016) Teaching and Researching Writing, Routledge

Lillis, T. and Curry, M.J. (2010). Academic writing in a global context . London: Routledge.

Lillis, T. and Tuck, J. (2016). Academic Literacies: a critical lens on writing and reading in the academy. In Hyland, K. and Shaw, P. (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of English for Academic Purposes. London: Routledge.

Paltridge, B., Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Supervisors. London: RoutledgeFalmer imprint of Taylor & Francis.

Scott, M. and Lillis, T. (2007). Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics 4(1), 5-32.

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

Wingate, U., and Tribble C. (2012). The best of both worlds? Towards an English for academic Purposes/Academic literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education 37(4), 481-95.

Acknowledgment

On writer autonomy (when ‘real’ writers break the rules)

When ‘real’ writers break the rules

Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to write a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch in a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimitated by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, to take a breather, assimilate what he has heard, and then find his place again on the page. (Pinker, 2014, p.145)

Dessin_de_Grau_pour_JD_de_mode_partrue_dans_le_journal_hollandaisAdvice on how to write academically abounds, especially when it comes to style, and we all have writing pet favourites, sources we turn to for composition guidance. If we read too much advice, though, we soon start to see that it can conflict, so generally we choose one writing guru, and stick with him/her.

Sometimes, this advice verges on the prescriptive, mainly because it needs to be assertive rather than reflexive, and because we need quick fixes to our ‘numb de plume‘ (aka writer’s block) so that we can get back to our manuscripts or so that we can teach.

The advice I am thinking of includes such rules/guidelines as: paragraphs must contain around 5 to 6 sentences; they must be signalled by a clear topic; they need to wrap-up in order to pave the way for the next paragraph. Or: avoid brackets and footnotes because if what you are saying is important, it needs to be prominent, not hidden behind bars or relegated to solitary confinement; in other words, if it’s not important, don’t write it. However, not everyone in academia agrees with such rules…

Grafton

The footnote is ‘the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data’ and other reasons to appreciate it

I confess to finding all this advice confusing, both as a student who has to write academically, and as a teacher who has to teach this stuff, because I don’t always see it happen in practice. Maybe I’m exaggerating. It’s not that it is ‘confusing’ – I get a) why this advice exists (e.g. widening participation has opened the doors to academic discourse for many people who have not been brought up on a (Western) diet of academic writing/composition); and b) why it is like it is (e.g. readership has also widened but the time to actually read/concentrate has shrunk, ergo, everything needs to be signalled and standardised so that busy assessors, reviewers and editors don’t get lost in unwieldy and complex ideas written in non-standard forms).

Nevertheless, I also confess that I prefer a process approach to teaching writing rather than a prescriptive one (so I tend to favour the Susan Feez / Hallidayian approach to genre, for example, which looks back on what has emerged from text exploration, as opposed to a more Swalesian approach which tends to anticipate what writing will look like): this means that I like to explore with students what writers actually do, what choices they make and why, and then negotiate what we, the students, want our writing to look like, and why.

Here are the two examples from my own research readings that have triggered this post. They show how ‘real’ writers break the rules (I’m sorry they are out focus: I will try and sort this later, but it is not the content I am drawing attention to, it is the fact that they break the rules of paragraph advice and of how we use brackets – there are references at the end).

This is from Uzuner, p. 256 (EAP): SEE YELLOW HIGHLIGHT

Uzuner

What I notice here (yellow highlight), is a one-sentence paragraph (if it still counts as a paragraph). Why does she do it? It must have been deemed ‘academic’ or else the Journal of English for Academic Purposes would never have published it. Yet it breaks the very rules that EAP is fond of!

And this is from Skow, p. 447 (philosophy of science): SEE BRACKETS in YELLOW HIGHLIGHTS:

Causality

What I notice here is an entire paragraph (a huge one at that) which is entirely bracketed. Why does he do that? Whose writing advice has he followed!?

My answers to why these writers have chosen to ‘break the rules’ is that their academic writing reflects/represents/embodies (I still don’t know how to say this) their academic thinking. They shape or mould their writing to provide a window into their reasoning. In turn, the writing shapes the knowledge they are communicating (Bazerman) so that it is received by the reader in a certain way.

In Uzuner’s case, it was a brief, independent concluding thought that needed its own paragraph space: the one-sentence paragraph thus becomes the shape (the embodiment?) of that brief thought.

In Skow’s case, it was an axiomatic thought, one that needed to be established early on in order for the rest of his argument to be founded on a premise (i.e. his definition of an ‘event’), but one that does not recur: it’s as if he is telling us “ok, let’s just get this out of the way now so that we don’t have to keep coming back to it; and let’s not dwell on it hugely”. His long bracket paragraph becomes the shape of this thinking: long, important, anxiomatic, but essentially not the main focus of his paper.

As always, please share any reactions to this …

References: