Tag Archives: EAP English for Academic Purposes Academic Writing Interdisciplinarity Disciplines University Scholalry Activity

Writing as an act of love

It’s not about cheating, it’s about care, passion and taking responsibility


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.


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).


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.

What counts as an ‘academic discipline’?

Disciplinary matters

What counts as an academic discipline matters to me on two fronts: firstly, because my research on academic writing is allowing me to reflect on why academic writing is not classed as a discipline (in the UK, at least) given its rich history and scholarly identity; and secondly, because I teach EAP (English for Academic Purposes), and over the years the issue of whether EAP is a discipline or not resurfaces, mainly because its recognition within and without the academy remains contested (debates surrounding this contention can be found here).

Moreover, academic disciplinary boundaries also matter when it comes to justifying and establishing the remit of current and future disciplines. For example, the dicipline of Science evolved from Natural Philosophy; Psychology came into its own once its links with Philosophy and Medicine were scinded; Anthropology and Sociology clearly overalp, but what has traditionally distinguished them is their methodology (ethnography in the former case, statistics in the latter; yet, more and more Social Scientists are using ethnography as their preferred methodology, including Educationalists); and current university degree courses on Peace, War and Terrorism are new: do they count as ‘disciplines’ and if so, on what grounds?

As universities increasingly have to vie for custom, academic departments are opening and closing their doors on the basis of ‘student demand’. As a consequence, academics are increasingly having to re-negotiate their own identities and scholarly remits at a time when job security, the purpose of higher education and ‘post-truth‘ politics are being hotly debated and are likely to be having an impact on how academia is being understood. Research funding is also linked to how secure and recognised an academic discipline is. All of this, therefore, raises legitimate questions about ‘what counts as an academic discipline’ and to what extent do current affairs determine this.

I’ve come across this helpful and clarificatory resource which contextualises the above debates surrounding disciplinary boundaries (the document has further references on (inter)disciplinary issues). Below, I’ve copied the 6 criteria for establishing ‘what counts as an academic discipline’ that Dr Armin Krishnan lists on pages 9 and 10 of his report:


‘Discipline’ has a rich and complex etymology which highlights tensions between agency and structure

The term ‘academic discipline’ certainly incorporates many elements of the meaning of ‘discipline’ discussed above. At the same time, it has also become a

technical term for the organisation of learning and the systematic production of
new knowledge. Often disciplines are identified with taught subjects, but clearly
not every subject taught at university can be called a discipline. There is more to
disciplines than the fact that something is a subject taught in an academic setting.
In fact, there is a whole list of criteria and characteristics, which indicate whether
a subject is indeed a distinct discipline. A general list of characteristics would
include: 1) disciplines have a particular object of research (e.g. law, society,
politics), though the object of research maybe shared with another discipline; 2)
disciplines have a body of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their
object of research, which is specific to them and not generally shared with
another discipline; 3) disciplines have theories and concepts that can organise
the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively; 4) disciplines use specific
terminologies or a specific technical language adjusted to their research object;
5) disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their
specific research requirements; and maybe most crucially 6), disciplines must
have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities
or colleges, respective academic departments and professional associations
connected to it.Only through institutionalisation are disciplines able to reproduce themselves ‘from one generation to the next by means of specific educational preparation’. A new discipline is therefore usually founded by the way of creating a professorial chair devoted to it at an established university.
Not all disciplines have all of the aforementioned six characteristics. For example, English literature has the problem that it lacks both a unifying theoretical paradigm or method and a definable stable object of research, but it still passes as an academic discipline.Generally it can be said that the more of these boxes a discipline can tick, the more likely it becomes that a certain field of academic enquiry is a recognised discipline capable of reproducing itself and building upon a growing body of own scholarship.

Are you dealing with any of these issues? If so, I’d love to know your thoughts, especially on whether academic writing should be classed as an academic discipline!

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Technical_drawing?uselang=en-gb#/media/File:Zentralperspektive_zeichnen.png

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 …