Tag Archives: agency

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.



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)


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).


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.


On the value of Education


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.