Tag Archives: multimodality

Academic Writings as Open Systems

Using Critical Realism to Explain Diversity in #acwri

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.

Threshold Concept #2.4

All writing is multimodal

This blog is allowing me to trace my research thoughts on #acwri (academic writing). As such, it is a multimodal affordance, affording several opportunities, including: allowing me to write more frequently and freely than my PhD is letting me; making my thinking visible to my Self and Others; forcing me to present a publicly-digestable thought (rather than an incoherent note in the margins of my books); capturing quotes from books that I have borrowed and have to give back ☹; creating links with other thoughts over the last 3 years …

This post most directly links to this one (on Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing) and to this one (on the multimodal affordances of different types of text*).

img_20160718_191627757Cheryl Ball and Colin Charlton (Threshold Concept #2.4) – in this edited book by Adler-Kassner and Wardle – argue that in order to understand what writing is, specifically ‘academic’ writing, we need to conceive of text* as being multi-modal matter, language being just one of many modes that make a text ‘academic’ (other modes include, eg. image, music, gesture).

The following quotes are linked to this threshold concept and come from my recent readings on how the PhD thesis itself is being and will be affected by the ‘epistemological commitments’ (Kress, 2012: 254-5) of multimodal forms of knowledge representation.

I have reported them here with no further comment, other than to say that they form part of my research warrant:


Like any other doctoral student, as my writing developed I became increasingly aware of the ill-matched relationship between the capacity of my chapters and the data I wanted to fit into those chapters (Fransman, 2012:150)

img_20160927_174114I became increasingly frustrated with the difficulties of presenting data and discussion on contemporary multimodal communication practices in traditional format (Yamada-Rice, 2012: 157-8)

There is a general assumption that language is a communicational and representational medium which is fully adequate to the expression of anything that we might want to express: that anything that we think, feel, sense can be said (or written) in language. The obverse of this assumption is that if something cannot be expressed in language … then that thing is in any case outside rational thought, outside articulate feeling, and therefore need not be said or should not be said (Kress, 2000: 193 cited in Yamada-Rice, 2012: 173, my bold)

A big issue for the PhD now is to assist in a whole set of questions which are the result of social matters as much as of the technologies of dissemination, representation and production. PhD researchers are called upon to provide tools for recognistion of that which has hitherto not been recognised, left aside. They will increasingly be asked to do the unusual, the entirely innovative, in a genre beset by still relatively tightly controlled convention. That is, PhD researchers for a while to come will face the problem of a mis-match between their university’s regulation and what the world around the discipline and the university both enables and demands (Kress, 2012: 256, my bold)

*“what counts as text includes both permanent (eg published books, written reports) and performative (eg oral story-telling, informal conversations” (Kress: 221) and “By ‘text’ I refer to Halliday’s (1978) definition of a cohesive unit of meaning used for purposes of communication rather than a paraphrase for written language” (Yamada-Rice: 166)


Fransman, J. (2012) ‘Re-imaginging the Conditions of Possibility of a PhD Thesis’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 138-156

Kress, G. (2012) ‘Researching in Conditions of Provisionality’in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 245-258

Yamada-Rice, D. (2012) ‘Traditional Theses and Multimodal Communication’ in The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Eds. Andrews, R.; Borg, E.; Boyd Davis, S.; Domingo, M. and England, J.) Sage Publications: London: 157-176