|‘Writing is never general’
Specifically, Wardle (who writes from a US Composition Studies perspective) claims that (pages 31-2, bold added):
Donald Judd also argues (from a US perspective), drawing on Critical Realism, that writers always need a reason to write, a reality to write about. He therefore encourages writing teachers who have the task of teaching ‘writing in general’ (school teachers, first year composition studies (in the US) or general EAP (in the UK), to design tasks that engage their student writers meaningfully. He has some well thought-through, generalisable and educationally-sound suggestions that don’t necessarily require writing to be discipline-specific (but they do require caring about a topic and having an audience in mind).
From an EAP perspective, I think this quote from Huckin, 2003 (abstract, p.3) more or less sums up my own stance on this:
In commenting on Huckin, Hyland (2016, p.18) claims:
So, this got me thinking, as usual, about how we teach writing on a general EAP course. I know there are many who think EAP should not be general (I have references for this, sorry – I just don’t have them to hand, it’s late, it’s Saturday, I have food in the oven), but the fact is, most EAP is taught ‘in general’. And given that it is, how can we turn this to our advantage, make it a meaningful experience for our students and ourselves, and perhaps even give it an added edge over and a separate remit from English for Specific Purposes, which seems to attract far more sympathies and favourable arguments than English for General Academic Purposes?
I have several ideas, including ideas on giving general EAP an interdisciplinary identity and focus (but more on this another time and in another post/article). In the meantime, I have proposed the following summer staff development session where I work. It still hasn’t been accepted by my department, but regardless of this, I wanted to share my thinking on how to meaningfully go about teaching general EAP with my wider #tleap community.
And the reason I wanted to do this is because I want to know what you think – what should and could we be teaching on ‘general’ EAP, given Wardle’s and Judd’s, and those who favour ESAP (English for Special Aademic Purposes), consensus on the non-feasibility of teaching writing ‘in general’?
On being bold and assertive yet modest, honest and humble
We (teachers of academic writing, at least in #tleap) tell students to write assertively and with confidence (in this paper I argue that or this shows that); to be tentative and modest (it could be concluded that or my suggestion is); to acknowledge the ideas of others (as so-and-so has shown), but mainly so that students can assert a bold position that cements their right to be writing in the first place (in conclusion, I have shown that).
Although I teach writing, I am also learning to write research, so this post is mainly a reflection on how I want to sound in my own writing: bold, assertive, modest, honest, humble? All and other? And prior to this, how am I to make sense of what I read.
Here’s an example of the kind of bold writing that I am talking about (underlined indicates the language of boldness):
What kind of entity is a committee, a book group, or a band? I argue that committees and other such social groups are concrete, composite particulars, having ordinary human beings among their parts. Thus, the committee members are literally parts of the committee. This mereological view of social groups was popular several decades ago but fell out of favor following influential objections from David-Hillel Ruben. Recent years have seen a tidal wave of work in metaphysics, including the metaphysics of parts and wholes. We now have the resources to rehabilitate the mereological view of social groups. I show how this can be done and why we should bother.
Academic writing hasn’t always been and isn’t always bold and confident like this. There was a time when it was more exploratory and tentative, in the French sense of ‘essayist’ (essayer), when Montaigne’s essays (1500s) were held up as paradigms of good academic writing, even in the sciences (early essays in the Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1600s, still had a personal, exploratory, discovery-oriented and descriptive quality about them rather than the methodologically assertive, controversial and factual/objective veneer of later articles).
Two critical reading incidents have brought about this reflection. The first is that, when I read across my disciplines – Writing, Philosophy and Education/Sociology – I see many bold discipline-marking claims being made. Often these claims are borrowed from other disciplines, and when they make their way into their new disciplinary home, they are asserted with such factual aplomb that those then reading this knowledge secondhand take the claim for granted (for example, a student of Education who reads an educational paper that draws on Philosophy might think there is no problem with framing whatever ontologies they are concerned with as, say, family resemblances rather than as having unequivocally fixed referents).
Here is a more specific example. Sociologists, Educationalists and Applied Linguistists (and many others) borrow an awful lot of ideas from philosophy (I do, too): Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblances, Philosophy of Mind’s Emergence, Einstein-Schlick’s Relativity, Complexity Theory’s Dynamic Systems, and so the list goes on. But when all these theories find their way into disciplinary domains wherefrom they did not originate, they often get cherry-picked, watered down, mis-represented, re-cast and applied with a confidence that never seems to acknoweldge, let alone do justice to, the still unresolved disputes about their coherence in the original theories that spawned them.
Here is Keith Sawyer, a sociologist, who at least attempts to trace theories of Emergence back to the Philosophy of Mind, where they first ’emerged’. He does this to try and make sense of the Cartesian mind/body dualism that still haunts us and that crops up in many current approaches to knowledge. Sawyer highlights how sociologists have co-opted the concept of Emergence without acknowledging its inherent inconsistencies and problematic nature (page 552):
contemporary sociological uses of emergence are contradictory and unstable; two opposed sociological paradigms [methodological individualism and methodological collectivism] both invoke the concept of emergence and draw opposed conclusions. The problem arises in part because sociologists have not developed an adequate account of emergence. In this article, I make an initial attempt to develop a foundational account […]
I like the fact that Sawyer:
- a) recognises the origins of the concept (the article is called Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory);
- b) acknowledges shortcomings in his own discipline (Sociology); and
- c) has the humilty to say he is going to ‘attempt’ to develop what ’emergence’ might mean in his own discipline.
In other words, he is not lifting the term from philosophy, airbrushing the many problems it has with its referents and simply dropping it unproblematically into his own discipline (as Sokal has accused the postmodernists of doing). He is attempting to make sense of what Emergence might mean when used as an orientation towards the understanding of complex social phenomena, of reduction, emergence and supervenience. The fact that Emergence theories originated in Philosophy and Natural Philosophy (as Science was known pre-1800s) does not mean they cannot be used as heuristics or paradigms in other disciplinary fields. But their meaning and reach needs to be re-established when they are exported or transplanted into another discipline, such as Sociology. And, in this article, I think Sawyer shows us how one might go about doing this.
The second critical reading incident comes from being constantly reminded that there is so much we really do not understand. The history of science, and of ideas generally, is replete with examples of how we got it really wrong and of how much we still don’t know. Einstein himself was considered to be heretic and to have threatened the whole edifice of science with his purely theoretical and non-empirical claims (pages 48-9):
Planck’s idea, which restricted the ways that material objects could vibrate, was the first quantum hypothesis ever, and although it was surprising and hard to reconcile with previous laws, it did not seem profoundly threatening to the entire edifice of physics.
But to suggest that light had a particle nature [as well as wave] was definitely threatening. Thanks to James Clerk Maxwell’s great equations, published in the mid 1860s, and Heinrich Hertz’s great experimetns roughly twenty years later (and countless other pieces of evidence), anyone who knew anything about light was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that light was waves; indeed, that fact was an unshakable pillar on which huge amounts of the physics of the day rested. It was therefore a complete and radical break with virtually all of classical physics when Einstein proposed that light might consist of particles. This heresy really did threaten the entire edifice.
Since knowledge is so big and so dependent on how we frame it and how we use it, I sometimes wish there were less hubris in the way we write academically, even in the modes we choose to represent it, and more recognition that we are more than likely to be wrong, or at least only partially right.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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
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.
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!
In search of completion: preparing to write the thesis and the genres it requires
Since October, I have been thinking about my own thesis. What’ll be in it and in what order; what forms it will take and modes it will include; how it will compare to other theses and in what sense that matters; how long it will take to write; how I remain ‘in the zone’ for another two years without becoming even more anti-social, mono-thematic, scruffy, fat, and self-absorbed …
I have spent the last 4 years part-time reading about the history of academia and of ideas, and then writing what I can only describe as ‘epistolaries’ to my supervisors, bits of process writing that have no clearly defined genre: they weren’t essays or chapters or annotated bibliographies or reports or summaries or book reviews, or anything that I had ever written before or seen in the research writing guide books. They were sort of responses or reactions to our meetings and emails, prompts and props to break the ice at the start of a supervisory meeting; they were more like reflective pieces or bulletted slides to show where I was intending to go with things. In Italian, I would collectively call them pro-memoria: things that serve to jog your memory. I think, at one point, I called one piece of writing a ‘Clarification’. Another time, I just had images on a loop to exemplify some point or other. Oh, and then there is this blog … So, I have actually written thousands of words in the last 4 years. I haven’t actually counted them, but a lot of this blog is going into the thesis, and every ‘epistolary’ was about 10,000 words, and there were probably around 5 or 6 of those, plus the email exchanges, the conference and seminar presentations, and the draft papers I have written which I have not yet submitted to a journal.
But now I am on a ‘proper’ writing rota. I have to write chapters, about 6 or 7 in all, and all those pieces of writing, conversations and annotations have to coalesce into recognisable and acceptable’academic writing’, the very topic of my thesis, the very phenomenon I am deconstructing and reformulating. And I have just submitted a draft chapter (which took me over 2 months to write) that self-consciously follows all the conventions that I am questioning: in fact, as I was writing it, I was conscious of how its very form was progressively, word-for-word, being undermined by its very content, i.e. my argument!
How supine am I?!
As I was writing, I was also desperate to close my Word .doc and write a blog post instead, and I think the reason is that blogging is so liberating, it’s a little box where you can store all the thinking, evidence and annotations that can be retrieved at a later date, when they become relevant to other contexts and projects, and, crucially, to delivering some poignant rebuttal! I submitted my chapter late last night, have been at work all day, and now I can write this post! Liberation!
A blog post also affords a sense of completion in the same way that going into the kitchen and making dinner has a clear beginning, middle and end. That’s why I prefer washing up to ironing (which I actually never do): I don’t have a dishwasher, and I don’t want one. Washing up is cathartic. Doing a PhD for so many years makes you crave completion because after a while, however much you are devoted to your subject, you do get bored with it.