Tag Archives: Conventions

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?



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.



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…


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


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:


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 …