Tag Archives: Academic Writing

Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP

‘Writing is never general’

This is what Elizabeth Wardle tells us, on page 30 (see also a review of the whole edited book on Bad Writing Advice, here). And I agree, kind of …

Specifically, Wardle (who writes from a US Composition Studies perspective) claims that (pages 31-2, bold added):

A better conception of writing is one in which we all remember (realistically) our own experiences learning to write in different situations, and then apply that memory to our expectations of what we and others are capable of achieving. A better notion of how writing works is one that recognizes that after learning scribal skills (letters, basic grammatical constructions), everything a writer does is impacted by the situation in which she is writing. And thus she is going to have to learn again in each new situation.

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:

While agreeing with some of Hyland’s criticisms of the ‘wide-angle’ position (for example, that generalized LSP [Language for Specific Purposes] can fail to appreciate the distinct linguistic and rhetorical features of specialized discourses), the paper criticizes his ‘narrow-angle’ position as well by pointing out that it can easily lead to a teacher-centered prescriptivism and to an overly rigid focus on certain forms and tasks at the expense of others. Furthermore, such an approach fails to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them in their professional careers.

In commenting on Huckin, Hyland (2016, p.18) claims:

This straightjackets creativity and encourages a dull conformity to convention and a static, decontextualised pedagogy, particularly if teachers fail to recognise genre variation. Such an approach may produce unimaginative and formulaic essays, and fail to prepare students for the unpredictable new forms of communication that await them inh their professional careers.

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?


Is general EAP stochastic, and is order even meant to emerge?

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’?

Proposal for a general EAP Staff development session:

DRAFT title/abstract.

Academic WritingS: Diversity, Plurality and Multimodality, and why these matter

Given the research indicating shifts in traditional writing norms and the de facto diversity of academic writing genres, why does general EAP conflate ‘academic writing’ with the traditional academic essay or research report, both of which also embody empirical and epistemological assumptions that not all academic traditions value? To what extent, therefore, does a general EAP course justify its choice of genres and capture and deal with their diversity? Should it deal with writing diversity? If not, why not? If yes, how?

This session/symposium/forum/panel is aimed at showcasing diversity in academic writings and at providing a reflective space for considering ways in which general EAP teachers might make sense of it. Making sense of it matters because our students, particularly our PG students, are part of a new era in Higher Education, where competition (for funding applications, grants, etc.), academic communication (within and across disciplines), publications (in traditional/Open Access/Digital/Multimodal journals and on social media such as blogs), public engagement, collaboration and influencing policy are taking centre stage. It also matters ethically, educationally and democratically, in the Deweyan sense of harnessing learners’ diverse experiences and aspirations – in other words, what choices do we give our students, what’s our rationale for selecting these choices, what choices are we comfortable giving them, and to what extent are we ourselves even knowledgeable about or interested in these wider academic/educational practices and values?

How are we preparing them for all this? Should we be?


Knowledge and Academic Writing

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).


My readings and notes

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:

  • a) recognises the origins of the concept (the article is called Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory);
  • b) acknowledges shortcomings in his own discipline (Sociology); and
  • c) has the humilty to say he is going to ‘attempt’ to develop what ’emergence’ might mean in his own discipline.

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.

dementedThe 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.


Gustav Klimt’s Philosophy Mural, intended to depict ‘The Triumph of Light over Darkness’. Instead, he depicts humanity as “just a freakish fluke in a huge and utterly alien world” (page 69 of Exact Thinking in Demented Times)

The PhD as a … 3D Stereogram

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.


You don’t expect to see something stand out, so seeing the 3D object for the first time can be surprising

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:

  • hold the image close without trying to focus on it. Then step back slowly keeping your eyes relaxed. The ‘point’ should jump out at you;
  • stand about an arm’s length away from the image and focus on something behind it. Shift your field of vision to the picture without shifting your focus. You should now see the ‘point’.

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.




Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

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.


A Cornucopia

Since I have been here before, and become unstuck, I am not too worried (just a bit), and since I am bursting to write, I’ve resorted to my bloggy cornucopia for release.

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. Writers-Block

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.


Becoming unstuck

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:

  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was arguably co-authored by his wife and Ezra Pound, both of whom had to heavily edit it many, many times before it became what it has become.

IMG_20171026_174904914I 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)

  • Sawyer develops this idea with reference to other writers, highlighting that writing is a craft that requires hard work, multiple attempts and failures, that the Romantic impulse and one-off inspiration is not enough to get you through to your final text, and that the actual act of writing is helping us to think through our ideas:

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.


Mam Tor, Castleton – I still have a fair whack to go ….




Beyond Convention in Academic Writing

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)

IMG_20171007_085840From 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 […].

and moreover:

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.


Barbara Brown’s ‘Heals Prints’ – disrupting panel boundaries – at The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

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?


Celebrating Academic Blogging

Why blogging matters (to me)

Amidst suggestions that they still don’t quite hit the academic ‘G’ spot – see here and here – below is my impulsive, knee-jerk (ergo non-academic) celebration of the blogs that are having a HUGE academic impact on my research, thinking, and teaching.

In fact, I’d argue that they are all ‘academic’ on the grounds that they have meaningful impact: they are transformative because they are engaging a wide-ranging academic community of teachers and researchers, including me, who would otherwise not be aware of these ideas. If this kind of impact is not ‘academic’, then why is it not?


Blogging sheds glimpses of light (image from Wikicommons)

Since I work across several inter-weaving domains (education-philosophy-EAP (English for Academic Purposes), the following collection of blogs may seem random to you, but it makes perfect sense to me.

I list my regular fixes/fixtures (i.e. ones I have set up alerts for) in no particular order and off the top of my head (mainly from memory or a as a result of those I have read most recently), but if you know of other blogs that you think should also be on my radar, then do let me know:

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)


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.


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.


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




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’.



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


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.


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 …