Tag Archives: Higher Education

On Writtenness, its geopolitics, and other academic values and assumptions

Disclaimer: this is a massive post, written mainly for my own needs. However, it is of interest to academic writing teachers, which is why I want to share it. At around 1,350 words, I indicate where you can probably stop reading. Sorry.

Writtenness: a very timely, relevant and ongoing controversy

The term writtenness accentuates the linguistic materiality of a text as well as its status as completed labour. As such, it marks the value of the text itself, the comunication of the content, rather than the content itself […]. I am making a case for the positive recognition and acknowledgment of the intellectual endeavour required to a achieve a level of writtenness that complies with what has been culturally constructed as ‘good’ writing (Turner, 2018, page 23).

IMG_20180519_073138865Joan Turner’s recent book makes 5 broad claims:

– Firstly, that the intellectual and cultural labour that goes in to meeting the expectations of English-speaking academic writing standards is undervalued or simply ‘taken for granted’ by academics (page 178).

– Secondly, that the negative attention given to ‘bad writing’ and malpractice (e.g. the use of ghostwriting agencies and the culture surrounding (il)legitimate proofreading services) outweighs any positive attention given to the enormous efforts that L2 students do make in order to be judged, by our standards, as ‘good’ writers.

– Thirdly, that academic readers need to cooperate with writers and make more of an effort to understand and value their content rather than the form of their writing (page 194).

– Fourthly, that rather than reject other styles and rhetorics of academic writing (namely, the diverse ways of writing that students bring with them), academics should integrate them into their academic practices (pages 240-242). This is because if we really are committed to being ‘international’ universities (pages 125 and 127), then homogenising language and writing so that it meets an ideal standard (or ‘imaginary’, pages 124, 130, 131 and 142) of what ‘good’ English and writing are, ignores the fact that English is part of a protean, not a static, landscape (pages 230 and 252), i.e. one that is shifting, one that is multilingual and one that is global.

– And fifthly, that judging L2 students by L1 standards of language proficiency is simply not fair, and that L2 standards need to be measured against L2 capabilities (page 253).

I am not convinced by the internal coherence of Turner’s book (I found it unhelpfully repetitive, and I think you would need to have read her previous writings to appreciate where she is coming from, i.e. post-colonial studies, critical EAP and Academic Literacies) nor by what seems to me to be a somewhat muddled way of simultaneously talking about what is the case (descriptive), what should be the case (normative) and what could be the case (predictive). However, the issues she broaches are close to those of my research and I am very grateful to her for having voiced them because they raise prickly sensitive hackles on the spines of those who trade in language, literacy and academic discourse and are the cause of one of the deepest schisms in our field.

Rubbing new salt into old wounds: does language proficiency entail academic proficiency?

As I read Turner’s book, this newspaper article also appeared (my bold), highlighting a familiar, but rarely challenged, refrain, one that is also echoed by teachers of L2 (second language) academic writing and university subject specialists, namely that we need to raise the level of English proficiency for admission to university:

International students accept their offers in good faith, believing that if they have met the entry criteria, their English must be good enough to allow them to fulfil their academic potential. But the fact is that an IELTS score of 5.5 – or even one a few notches higher – may not be sufficient for them to learn and perform at the true level of their ability (newspaper article, May 10, 2018, ‘Language requirements for international students are too low’, Times Higher Education)

The article obliquely scratches the surface of what also concerns Turner – specifically, the importance of achieving writteness in academia (that is, of achieving a value that brings together the need for good form and the socio-cultural effort required to achieve that form  – I think this is what Turner is saying, but sometimes I feel she slips from descriptive to normative claims, so I am not sure). However, the article misplaces the blame for ‘bad form’ by situating it squarely in the lap of low thresholds of language proficiency rather than in the lap of a whole culture that takes writtenness for granted and that ignores the intellectual labour involved in becoming a ‘good’ writer.

Turner, on the other hand, argues that proficiency in English is unlikely to be the real root of the problem (pages 132-3). Rather, the test construct of IELTS as an academic entry exam encourages the conflation of good writing with language proficiency. Since IELTS does not integrate reading and writing, understood as academic literacies, nor does it require knowledge of academic discourses (including disciplinary discourses) or develop research dispositions and attitudes to referencing and critical engagement, it does little to ensure that “lecturers will have no difficulty in reading sudents’ work” (page 133).

The above Times Higher Education article encourages this conflation of language proficiency with cognitive ability by reporting on a recent study by York University which shows that below a certain threshold of language proficiency, “English skills constrain academic success” as well as the cognitive abilities required to achieve academic success, such as processing vocabulary and reading speed.

However, equating ‘having cognitive ability’ with ‘understanding academic discourse’ (its culture, its history, its values and aims, its complexities, conventions and contradictions) seems mistaken, to me: the fact that language and cognitive processing are indeed correlated is uncontroversial only insofar as language has been set as the default mode against which we all seem to uncritically measure intelligence (but there are other ways of capturing intelligence) .

I don’t think we can generalise this correlation without evidence. In other words, I don’t think we can claim that having a minimum/maximum threshold of lexical items lodged in your brain is more likely to help us understand academic discourse. Academic discourse is not the same as language (understood as the total sum of lexical items). Academic discourse, as it is currently conceived, necessitates language, I agree. But language is by no means a sufficient condition to guarantee fluency in academic discourse.

Tests that measure the correlation between cognitive ability and language proficiency are limited to controlled environments that test very small and targeted language situations. They do not test the understanding of academic discourse. Anecdotally, at least, I have come across highly intelligent, imaginative and critical students whose language proficiency has been comparatively lower that those with high IELTS scores, and who, longer term, have done much better academically, generally because they are more creative (they know how to draw on a range of modes to get their ideas across and have multiple strategies for decoding texts, not those foregrounded by IELTS, which misleadingly assumes that all paragraphs have a self-contained main idea and an obvious topic sentence).

But I see something far deeper going on here, something which lies at the very heart of how we measure intelligence, criticality, creativity and understanding and how we value them as academic dispositions:

as long as higher education remains dependent on (and reduced to) monolinguistic (English) and monomodal (writing) proficiency and as long as we continue to measure academic success (almost) exclusively against language proficiency, then we will necessarily judge students who come to university with diverse repertoires and capabilities (multilingual, multimodal, dyslexic, autistic, artistic, socially and culturally rich) as ‘deficient’. By demanding and expecting linguistic homogeniety, what we are are asking for is also ‘cultural and social’ homogeneity. And by asking everybody to speak and write in the same way, just like we did with RP (Received Pronunciation, page 35), we are creating the conditions for a homoginised academy that communicates via a mono-literacy.

A perfect bluebrint for #Brexit.

Fortunately for deaf and dumb students, the above article does admit that ‘you can be intelligent without being linguistically proficient’:

We tested the non-verbal intelligence of both groups [international and home students] and found no differences.

So why does language have to continue to be the benchmark against which we measure the full range of human intelligence?

This massive pre-amble allows me to make my first link with Turner’s book.

You can stop reading. What follows is a massive rant intended soley for my own research uptake

Ontological complicity: a very British philosophical legacy

Writtenness is a complex, multifaceted textual reality which is reduced soley to grammatical accuracy. This reduction happens largely because for the discipline-based reader, writtenness beyond the level of the sentence merges with content, and is therefore submereged in ontological complicity with content (page 181). I take this to mean that we conflate good writing with good thinking.

Turner calls this conflation an ‘ontological complicity’. She blames the philosopher John Locke for having spawned a legacy that conflates good thinking with good language (pages 5 and 179), a legacy compounded by the scientific writings of the Enlightenment, by the Orwellian trope that good prose is ‘like a window pane’ (page 36 and 48) and a legacy that endures in the way we teach and assess academic writing (page 50):

If you cannot write well, you cannot think well; if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you (Oscar Wilde)

Turner’s problem with ontological complicity – conflating good writing/language with good thinking – is that (page 34; see also page 233):

judgments about academic writing are necessarily ideological, but […] there is a general lack of awareness of those culturally immanent ideological roots. Judgments of writtenness, of how a text is written [its clarity, precision, transparency], tend to operate implicitly rather than overtly.

This ‘implicit ideology’ has also been discussed in Michael Peters who argues that ‘clarity’ is not a straightforward concept because so much taken for granted knowledge, cultural capital and understanding of critical literature, etc. needs to be available to the reader before a text can be understood.

Moreover, to state that ‘good writing = good thinking’ ignores a rich tradition of structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist critical theory and critical discourse analysis that raised serious problems for the correspondence theory of truth, namely what exactly does language refer to or signify? The fact that this tradition of linguistic critique has been largely ridiculed and replaced by the plain English ordinary language movement does not invalidate the serious critical theory questions which I think still remain: what exactly does language refer to and do we really all ‘clearly’ see the same referents? (page 42).

Given current socio-political discourse, I very much doubt that language is ‘clear’ and that we are all seeing the same referents:

‘Brexit means Brexit’.


All of this can be further related to another thread in Turner’s book, namely her contention that judgments about what constitutes ‘good writing’ echo snobberies about what constitues ‘good speaking’.

Writtenness: the RP of academic writing

RP (received pronunciation) was until recently deemed a hallmark of ‘proper’ spoken English. The fact that less than 2% of the world’s English speaking population have ever had this accent has significantly shifted attitudes about what it means to speak ‘properly’.

Although attitudes have shifted regarding RP, this, according to Turner, is not the case with attitudes regarding what counts as (good) academic writing (page 7):

writtenness is a cultural ideal, whose values are implicit rather than explicitly espoused. Indexed by evaluative tropes such as ‘polished prose’ (see Chapter 4) and assumptions of precision, accuracy and stylistic elegance, it is saturated with ideological and cultural value. As such, it is similar to the position of RP (received pronunciation) in spoken language. However, unlike RP, whose ideological resonance has been extensively commented upon in sociolinguistics […], the ideologies, social identifications and linguistics assumptions of written language have generated much less concern.

She goes on to compare this, on page 211 (my bold), with how we now accept different pronunciations (thanks to sociolingusitc work on International English and ELF _ English as a Lingua Franca) but remain disdainful of similar diversities in writing, such as non-conventional spellings and personal identity:

While the textual projection, as well as the subjectivity of personal identity is the focus of research and discussion in the field of writing research (see, for example, Ivanic, 1998; Canagarajah, 2011; Tuck, 2017), in the institutional context, expectations of conventional correctness at the micro-level as well as genre structuring maintain a deontic and moralizing authority.

In other words, writing research shows that there is considerable diversity and mobility out there and that this diversity is valued, integrated across the linguistic landscape and harnessed (cf. Blommaert, Lu, Horner, Lillis, et al.). However, the institutions themselves (possibly the institutions funding that very research!) are slow to recognise and respect the protean nature of global Englishes.

Controversies and significance: my take on all of this

As soon as anybody suggests we question the standards by which we judge language, writing and literacy, controversies spark and the usual reactions flare up. These are manifest in fiery ongoing media debates about correct grammar, punctuation and language use, but also in my EAP field, where teachers and examiners disagree about what counts as ‘academic writing’ (let alone ‘good’ academic writing!). I also have anectodal evidence of how sensitive all this is from conference talks and corridor discussions, feedback on student writing and comments on blogs.

The most common reactions are along these lines (in italics):

  • we need standards, we can’t just accept anything

However, as far as I know, nobody has ever said we don’t need standards or that anything goes. Rather, the question is ‘what standards’, ‘whose standards’ and ‘for what purpose’? We set the standards. We can also change the standards depending on what we are looking for.

  • those who question the standards are the very same people who got into power via those very standards. They are at best hypocrites; at worst, taking risks with powerless students

This is the case and it isn’t . Either way, so what?

There are some who both question and flout the standards (notably, in extremis, @Nsousanis (who teaches, does and publishes visual scholarship) and @aydeethegreat (who teaches and does rap scholarship) but also Dr Hleze Kunju who wrote his PhD in isiXhosa).

And even if it were the case that those who question the standards whilst at the same time making use of those standards to express themselves, how or why does this invalidate their call for questioning those standards? I write. That is what I do best. Why shouldn’t I do what I am best at. It doesn’t mean that everybody is also good at writing, so why should I force them to reach my standards when perhaps they have other ways of demonstrating their intelligence and understanding? Academia is about developing intelligence and understanding. That is its ultimate goal. If I do that best by speaking or drawing, why should that be of less value than writing?

By invalidating the principle that standards can be questioned in virtue using the very standards that are being questioned, we are invalidating the call of anybody who questions a system in virtue of them having been brought up in that system. In other words, I can be anti-racist and anti-elitist (i.e. I can question the system that encourages racism) even though I am white and have had a very good education: I can’t help being white and having a good education. Why does that prevent me from wanting to live in a society where you can be white and educated as well as black and educated? By questioning the system I am the product of, I am not a hypocrite. Rather, I am saying that I want the system to open up so that others are not discriminated against.

  • students need to know the rules before they can break them

Arguably and possibly. But this isn’t the point. The underlying issue about standards and rules relates again to which rules we have decided are universal and that everybody must subscribe to. For example, most of the EAP discourse I come across still foregrounds impersonal forms (e.g. the passive, no personal pronouns). But this ‘rule’ is only true of some academic writing traditions and rhetorical choices, not all. So, on what basis has EAP adopted this as a blanket rule for ‘academic writing’? A similar argument can be advanced for what counts as a standard paragraph, and so on (I’ve developed some of these ideas here and here). See also Turner pages 111 and 169

The significance of Turner’s work in this regard relates to what she calls the ‘taken for grantedness’ of writtenness, namely that we take good writing for granted. She says we are keener to notice and point out grammar mistakes when they intrude and interfere with our reading than we are to acknowledge the intellectual labour and ideologies that underpin the standards by which we judge ‘good writing’. In this respect, Turner refers  to the work of Mary Scott (page 234, my bold) :

She discerns an underlying critique of the assignments that students in the discipline of education are being asked to do, because they seem to necessitate a transferral of their home contexts of teaching to that of the United Kingdom. As the students feel unable to express their critique explicitly, Scott finds it in the multimodal resources they bring to their texts.

In other words, the ‘critique’, the intellectual labour, the analysis, the critical thinking, is there. It’s just not expressed the way we expect it to be or want it to be or prefer to be via the conventions of our standards of what counts as academic.

  • language is the best mode for academic argument

The fact that it is an historically established mode in Western academic culture does mean it is the best mode or the only mode, nor does it mean that we all understand the same thing by ‘argument’.

For example.

‘Argument’ has a long debated and contested history (see Stephen Toulim). It takes many forms and serves diverse purposes, yet we all talk about it as though we all and always mean the same thing by it. This is despite the fact that it ranges from analytical deductive propositional forms to full blown visuals, with an awful lot in between.

– Deductive arguments, whereby the conclusion is contained in the premises, can be expressed in two modes, propositions (language) or symbols (signs):

If all men (A) are mortal (B) and Socrates (C) is a man (A) then Socratese (C) is mortal (B)


If A=B and C=A then C=B

This is known as the transitive law and is a common feature of logical argumentation. It is one of the rarest forms of argument outside of mathematics and logic, yet we lambaste students for not being ‘logical’. Strictly speaking, we are asking them to do the impossible.

– Visual arguments are commonly deployed by lawyers who submit artifacts as evidence (videos, weapons, clothes) as powerful sensory and emotive proofs that build up to a conclusion (see Gilbert, Michael A. 1994. Multi-modal argumentation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24(2): 159–177.)

Arguments can also be deductive, inductive, abductive.

The point is that we tell our students we want them to present a ‘good argument’, but do we really know what we are are talking about?

So much for ‘clarity’, ‘precision’ and ‘transparency’ and for good prose being like a window pane.


Students get conflicting messages from us because in many cases, we ourselves (teachers, academics, subject specialists) don’t articulate what we mean by the language we use. We assume it is ‘clear and transparent’, but my simple examples above show that one of the most common words in academic discourse, ‘argument’ has several denotations.

This lack of clarity has several consequences for L2 students entering academia:

1. When students are confused by what we ask of them and about how realistically they can fulfill these expectations, and when their academic success is so massively high stakes, they are more likely to resort to ghostwriting agencies (Turner, pages 176-203)

2. By being unclear [sic] about the meaning, importance and boundaries of what counts as ‘legitimate proofreading’, we show just how imprecise language can be, we betray our ignorance of writtenness, of that highly complex and contested relationship that exists between form and content and the arbitrariness (‘fuzziness’, page 194) with which we decide what constitutes ‘legitimate help’ with writing: “When writtenness is reduced to grammatical accuracy” (pages 180 and 181) and when “Proofreading as a practice is less intellectual, and therefore the cost of writtenness is disguised by the cheaper intellectual price of proofreading (page 175)”, we undermine our own endeavours to teach academic writing.

3. Writing landsapes are mobile (pages 242, 252-3, 256-7). Whatever we are teaching at any given time will have to be re-learnt or adapted by the students when they enter new contexts. Because of this, teachers of writing need to educate about writing (page 242), so that students can deal with new contexts and new expections (page 242):

Arguably, [writing researchers] are more disposed to interrogate the assumptions of Western cultural rhetoric than might be the case for academics readings texts for arguments witin a specific disciplinary context

In other words, should writing researchers be educating the academics about writing?

In this regard, EAP tutors behave like handmaidens to the disciplines (what Raimes (1991) has called ‘the butler stance’), serving (training) rather than enlightening (educating), playing catch-up to try and capture what they think the disciplines do more than what their students need, are able to achieve, and possibly even want. On reason for this is that what EAP tutors are doing is (page 137, my bold):

at best offering ‘support’, at worst, remidial instruction. This creates a great deal of friction between EAP practitioners and their discipline-based colleages, as well as with the institutional management. […] I give examples of an ‘us and them’ ethos which arises because of it. For example, the notion that EAP practitioners play a defensive role, shielding academics from what is deemed poor English. Here, the status of their role is dimished by the perception that they are correctors or proofreaders, rather than doing substantial analytical and pedagogic work.

The ‘analytical and pedagogic work’ that Turner refers to above, is the work of education. I see EAP as educating about academia. This includes broaching a fuller range of conventions and academic traditions, but also educating the person, exploring dispositions and capabilities, and providing choices.

5. A further implication of her book is that some of the mess around writtenness and its standards might be cleared up by judging students against more realistic and humane criteria, criteria that fully acknowledge the effort they need to make to ‘sound native’ and criteria that respect their basic human right to fulfill their potential as a person, a person who is also multimodal, multilingual and multicultural.

4. This potential might include integrating their multilingualism into their academic writing. It might also include allowing students to communicate in modes other than language (Cook 2002: 335 cited in Turner, 2018, page 253):

The crucial implication for education is ensuring that the standards against which L2 users are measured should be L2 user standards, not L1 native speaker standards


“It is not a question of whether education should prepare for the future. If education is growth, it must progressively realise present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements” (page 56)

This would seem to suggest that students should be treated on their own terms, respected humanely and fairly for the experiences and knowledges they bring with them in the present (see the philosphy of John Dewey) and that their human capabilities (see Martha Nussbaum on ‘capabaility approach‘) should be nourished so they can fulfill their potential, which may to varying degrees, also coincide with the (imagined) requirements of a discipline:

The capability approach purports that freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of what people are able to do and to be, and thus the kind of life they are effectively able to lead. The capability approach is generally conceived as a flexible and multi-purpose framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being

L2 students are reductively branded as such: Language 2. What does this mean? English being their second language? Or their own language being of secondary importance? Again, these labels, what exactly do they designate?. In fact, they are often multilingual students, so perhaps ‘Ln‘ would be a more appropriate label (back to how ‘precise’ language is – not).

In labelling students, just as we blanket label them as ‘international’ (maybe a Spanish student seems herself as ‘Spanish’ not ‘international’ – we have re-defined ‘international’ to mean ‘not English’ which is totally arbitrary), rather than allowing them the space to label themselves, are we frustrating their capabilities (in the Nussbaumian sense) rather than nurturing them? Are we training them rather than educating them (see Dewey on an empassioned distinction between ‘education’ and training’ (pages 13 and 29).

5. Turner also calls for greater reader cooperation (page 13, 258-261):

I also critique the smooth read ideology and argue that, especially given the international use of English, it needs to be replaced with a more flexible, interpretative stance on the part of the reader. Rather than place the onus on the writer to provide a smooth read, the contemporary reader in international higher education needs to have the ability to cope with a rougher ride as it were, through a text.

6. We need more integration between what students bring to the university and what we want them to learn (see this article for a case study at Beirut University). This integration would be a way of valorising their previsous experiences and nourisshing their capabailities (Turner, pages 240-24):

Rather than ban the rheotrical preferences of other writing traditions, why not bring them in

7. We need to admit that we are all trying to work out where and if content and form merge. According to Turner (page 238, my bold):

The expectation for the smooth read is so taken for granted that it is particularly problemtic when the attention of academic readers is drawn to the prose itself, rather than the message being conveyed. It is also the barrier that militates against tolerance of difference in rhetorical styles, diversity in the use of English, and more flexible reading positions

Here, Turner implies that the medium is not message. This seems incompatible with the  modern media and communications tropes that the medium is the message and seems to muddy Turner’s waters: can we and should we separate the two? Is she saying that proofreading needs to separate form and content for it to be deemed ethical? This is where I think she muddles things (page 189):

proofreading is good if it priviliges content and bad if its role is to claim credit for grammatical accuracy. Such contradictions highlight the ambivalence and cocneptual fuzziness around the role that writtenness plays.

and then on page 194:

Some people seem to be able to make a clear-cut distinction, which social practices such as that of proofreading facilitate, but the divisions in practice are fluid and inconsistently made. Inconsitency and fuzziness extends also to assessment practices around writtenness as well as to assessment criteria

However, what I think matters here is that once we do separate content from form and deny that ‘the medium is the message’, we immediately open up the possibility for different forms of academic communication, dethroning language as the reigning mode. We democritise modes (the affordance of modes)

Final thoughts

This book needs to be understood within the broader tradition of Academic Literacies, Critical EAP, Post-colonial Studies, WAC/WAD (Writing Across the Curriculum/Disciplines) and Translanguaging (and the work of Suresh Canagarajah). It brings together much of what Joan Turner has already written about, which explains why many complex and contentious claims are not fully developed or referenced/justified. The book is part of an ongoing conversation in these literacy traditions and generated this Twitteration

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:

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!

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.

SETs (Student Evaluation of Teaching surveys): wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Survey fatigue, and other reflections on Higher Education in the UK

Not all that counts can be measured and not all that can be measured counts (can’t remember who said this, but it’s true)

Several thoughts and (re)sources on how university teachers are being (d)evaluated and how students see Higher Education have been languishing  in my head, my Twitter feed, emails, and ‘to be filed’ folders, so this post attempts to bring them together, spurred by an @PhilOfEdGB talk given yesterday by @JoshForstenzer at the Philosophy Department of the University of Nottingham (where half of my PhD is based).


A wolf in sheep’s clothing (Francis Barlow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The essence of Dr Forstenzer’s talk was this: current government trends to privatise Higher Education and to introduce Gold, Silver, Bronze rankings for universities based on how well they do on the TEF (the Teaching Excellence Framework, designed to measure teaching quality in higher education) are ideologically-driven by neoliberalism (whereby free-market competition determines what counts and doesn’t count as ‘education’). Such trends further eschew evidence which actually undermines any significant correlation between privatisation (of which SETs are an expression)  and improved educational quality. Forstenzer further claims that, as such, the TEF is simply a ‘managerial tool’ devoid of Teaching & Learning value.

To my mind, too, there are several problems with privatisation that are based on principle, and not on whether privatisation may or may not work under certain circumstances (I am sure that there are places where it works a treat, but that is not the point).

Firstly, the very principle of privatisation undermines one of the main purposes of higher education, that is the ability of universties to ‘out-think all others‘; secondly, privatisation clips the wings of HE at the outset by denying it the possibility to be truly imaginitive, creative, and multiversal (see also here, here, here, here, and here); thirdly, it enshrines the teacher-student relationship as one of seller-buyer, which is wrong because of this (i.e. the purpose of higher education is not to make loads of money and get a good job) and because of this (which undermines the entire mechanism and aim of SETs); fourthly, as both a teacher and a student (and a citizen, consumer, and parent), I am sick of surveys: a) they detract from valuable teaching time and rapport-building; b) they are irrelevant to my relationship with my supervisors; c) they are uttterly unreliable; fifthly, privatisation fuels job insecurity.

I therefore share the following view:

University, particularly in the humanities, is, or should be, a door into doubt, not a leap into “knowledge”. And unless you understand that it is there to help you to frame questions, rather than to give you answers, the numbers of those disappointed with higher education is unlikely to fall in the near future (@timlottwriter)

Josh Forstenzer’s advice on how to counter these government trends is as follows:

  • for students: join your Union and speak up for your right to be educated, not trained to do a job (you can get the training once you get the job);
  • for university teachers (and concerned parents, like myself): join your Union and speak out against being demeaned by metrics that have no value and join lobby groups such as this one (not sure if this is the one Josh meant, so apologies if it is not)

(This post was rushed. All comments and corrections welcome, as ever)

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.

The Future University (Part VI)

Chapter notes (VI)

The following notes, taken from Ronald Barnett’s edited collection on what a university might be in the 21st century, relate to two key concepts (or possibilities) for imagining the ‘future university’: the first is the concept of ‘care’; the second is the concept of ‘wisdom’.

Like the notions annotated in the previous 5 posts, these two notions also foreground a vision of higher education which seems to me to be many times removed from the vision outlined in the UK government’s Green Paper.

Dall’Alba draws on Martin Heidegger‘s concept of care as a defining characteristic of humanness. She warns against having an instrumental approach to education because “of a danger that the pervasiveness of such an instrumental, exploitative view may eventually mean we are unable to understand ourselves in any other way” (p. 114).


Monkeys dressed as apothecaries caring for sick animals (Wellcome)

For Heidegger, the concept of care refers to the care that we have for ‘others’ and for ‘things’ in the world (as outlined in his book Being and Time). From this, Dall’Alba argues that (p.115):

Conceiving education in terms of care for others and things turns attention differently towards education. Not only does it feature what students are expected to know and be able to do (an epistemological dimension), but also who students are becoming or, in other words, how they are learning to be (an ontological dimension)

She gives the example of how knowledge of the built environment and nature requires both the capacity to learn and to care and argues that inherent in the concept of ‘care’ is the notion of ‘responsibility’: responsibility to and for others, the environment, education, research. As such, the telos of developing knowledge and skills becomes one of care and responsibility which in turn opens up new directions and futures, new ‘possibilities for being’ (p. 116-119). These new possibilities require us to become ‘attuned’ to knowing and to knowledge in ways that allow us to detect possibilities for teaching and learning, research, and outreach into the wider community (p. 120).

Thus, the purpose of a university education, in Dall’Alba’s vision, is to learn how to be, not how to do (p.122).

  • Creating a better world: Towards the university of wisdom (by Nicholas Maxwell)

Maxwell’s thesis is that the current dominant knowledge-inquiry model of a university education – 1) acquire knowledge; 2) apply this knowledge; 3) solve the world’s problems – is fundamentally flawed because merely having knowledge of and knowing how to apply technology, for example, does not entail the avoidance of destruction and injustice (eg climate change and inequality).

Establishing what 1) is the first instance, and then getting from 1) to 3), therefore, requires a further step, and that step is ‘wisdom’.


Athene cuniculariaa (Goddess of Wisdom and War)

Maxwell therefore proposes that university education endorse a wisdom-inquiry model (again, this is far removed from the vision of the Green Paper, but it is also far removed from the vision of what even a primary and secondary education should be about, as outlined in the recent statement from the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, who essentially argues that ‘facts’ should come before critical thinking, as though determining what ‘a fact’ is in the first place were unproblematic and did not require us to think critically about the nature of reality, i.e. the nature of ‘facts’, whether physical, psychological or social).

Here is what is wrong, according to Maxwell, with a knowledge-inquiry model (p. 124)

Knowledge-inquiry demands that a sharp split be made between the social or humanitarian aims of inquiry and the intellectual aim. This latter is to acquire knowledge of truth, nothing being presupposed about the truth. Only those considerations may enter into the intellectual domain of inquiry relevant to the determination of truth – claims to knowledge, results of observation and experiment, arguments to establish truth or falsity. Feelings and desires, values, ideals, political and religious views, expressions of hopes and fears, cries of pain, articulations of problems of living: all these must be ruthlessly excluded from the intellectual domain of inquiry as having no relevance to the pursuit of knowledge

Maxwell proceeds to unpack this statement (from p.124 to 137), essentially arguing that the rationality we inherited since the Enlightenment has to be put to ‘good’ use; in other words, it has to further social improvement. This can best be done through a process of wisdom-inquiry in which wisdom is (p.137):

understood to be the capacity to realise what is of value in life, thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides.

[Clearly, this begs a whole load of other questions, namely ‘what is of value in life’ (ontology) and how to find out (epistemology), which is why, in my view, everybody should be brought up and educated to think philosophically so that at least we can articulate an account of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, even if ultimately we disagree with each other about what that account might be; but at least we would stand a better chance of understanding each other ….]








The Future University (Post V)

Chapter notes (V)

The picture emerging from these chapters (see Posts 1, 2, 3, and 4) is one that portrays the University as a historical cluster of contradictory traits that shatter any illusion of agreement as to what a university was or is or does or could be. As such, Kavanagh claims (p. 101);

If identity is an emerging property in a network of relationships, then the idea of the University is perhaps best understood through analysing its relationship with other institutions over time (101)

and (p.102):

A “foolish institution” means that it is always defined by its unique relationship with another institution

In liking the University to a Fool, Kavanagh has in mind the court jester figure common in medieval literatures, including the works of Shakespeare (King Lear), whose multiple identities (both friend to and critic of the Sovereign), ambiguities (both sexual and intellectual) and unclear allegiances (both dependent on and scornful of the Master) made him/her a figure to be wary of, to be both ridiculed and respected.


The Fool or Court Jester: a Master or a Slave?

Similarly, the medieval university was beholden to the Church but that loyalty soon proved to be conditional as the Church lost its power during the Enlightenment and the Reformation and as scientific or natural philosophy societies, such as the Royal Society, began to emerge. As such, the 19th century university began to question its allegiances. It became influenced by Kant’s intellectual authority and his claim that certain faculties -such as law, theology, and medicine – were imposed by others, whilst other faculties – such as philosophy and reason – could remain independent and free.

Accordingly, Kant argued the it was the duty of the State to protect such freedom.

Soon, however, as 19th century Europe also saw the rise of nation-states and industry, the State-as-guarantor-of-reason soon gave way to the Nation-as-guarantor-of-culture. This university became influenced by Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University which established the view that the pursuit of a university education should be ‘an end in itself’. This notion further evolved into the idea that the purpose of university should be for the betterment of humanity, not just for the betterment of the nation-state.

The Humboldtian German ideal remained anchored to this view, namely that of the university as a place of human betterment, research, and scholarship. This is the ideal that inspired the American universities of the late 1800s (see my posts relating to this starting with the first here).

However, ‘human betterment, research, and scholarship’ needed to be funded and undergraduate study provided that income; it also provided the human resources for civic society, ie the professions and industry, forming characters to work in law, medicine, and engineering.


Arlecchino: Servitore di Due Padroni (Commedia di Carlo Goldoni)

And then came the war(s). During this time, universities were also called upon to serve the war industry, thus becoming ‘fools’ to the Military Sovereign whilst simultaneously being influenced by the ideas of John Dewey who called for Justice and Emancipation to be the Sovereigns of Social Justice, guiding and shaping the university’s identity.

Fast forward to 2016, and it is easy to see how the current entrepreneurial university, favoured and nurtured by the UK (see the 2015 Green Paper), has evolved from these many competing, fuzzy, tense, confused and contradictory identities, settling now on the idea that a University has to train for a job like some kind of elite recruiting agency serving many communities, functions, and interest groups, behaving more like a multiversity than a university (p. 105).


Taking a break: which audience will the Fool play for next?

The university as Fool now starts to make sense. The Fool tells “stories that are embedded in a framework of norms and values that connect the moment into longer conversations over time and space” (p. 106-7). The Fool has audiences, in the plural (107):

First and primarily, the Fool speaks to his King, his Sovereign [i.e. his Paymaster]. Second, he also addresses other characters in the play [ie his Co-Actors]. Third, he has conversations essentially with himself, about his own position, and the Fool’s role in the world [ie Reflection]. Fourth, he routinely makes witty remarks about topical issues engaging the viewing audience of the time but which have nothing whatsoever to do with the play [ie Public Engagement?].

[my comments]

When viewed through the lens of the Fool, the idea of the ‘University’ comes to look like more of an oxymoron (ie trying to be and do a myriad of contradictory things).

But as Kavanagh reminds us (p.110):

oksúmōron actually means ‘pointedly foolish’.