Tag Archives: Closed Systems

Academic Writings as Open Systems

Using Critical Realism to Explain Diversity in #acwri

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

623px-Damien_Hirst_(6712601297)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Advertisements