Tag Archives: Teaching

Beyond Convention in Academic Writing

Academic Writing, Conventions, and ‘Who Has the Right’

Received wisdom continues to hold that you have to know the rules before you can break them. This is evident in a recent book (2016) on genre innovation by Christine Tardy:

intentionally departing from norms requires an understanding of those norms (p. 39)

IMG_20171007_085840From the perspective of fairness and access, Tardy also recognises (with reference to Bourdieu’s notion of ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘cultural capital’) that this can lead to an imbalance of power:

What emerges from this complicated web of authorial identity is something of a vicious cycle marked by power and access: Experienced authors gain access to the resources that allow them to produce legitimate language in legitimate forms and situations; in doing so they accumulate symbolic capital; their capital then allows them to exploit the system and perhaps stray from norms in ways that those with less capital cannot; through their distinctive uses of language they may accumulate further legitimacy and power within the market (p. 36)

I like Tardy’s book because it is both theoretical and pedagogical. It fully acknowledges the influence and importance of well-established scholarship on genre and academic writing (eg Swales, Halliday, Martin, Devitt, inter alia), yet also foregrounds the less visible work (in mainstream EAP, at least) of sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and semioticians like Gunther Kress, as well a critical language theorists like Widdowson and Pennycook, who have invoked the importance of play, creativity and non-linguistic ways of thinking and representing knowledge. Tardy further provides classroom approaches to raising students’ awareness and choices when it comes to their own writing.

But what happens when there are no obvious rules to be broken, no ready-made templates to fall back on, and you have to literally invent your own genre?

This is where Tardy’s book panders to my interests. She acknowledges the importance of interdisciplinarity when it comes to thinking about genre innovation and moving beyond convention in academic writing:

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach is also valuable for understanding genre innovation in ways that are inclusive of diverse writers and writing contexts (p. 2)

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to writing matters to me for three reasons: 1) my PhD is interdisciplinary, and I am forever trying to get the balance right between sounding like an educationalist and behaving like a philosopher (an analytical one, at that!); 2) I teach general EAP; and 3) I’m drawn to the Finnish approach of phenomenon learning.

The reason I am keen on framing general EAP writing as interdisciplinary is summed up in Judd (adapted from page 126 of Judd, D. (2003) Critical Realism and Composition Theory, London, Routledge):

The traditional lack of a subject matter in writing courses is both a strength and a weakness. Sophisticated writing cannot be divorced from a degree of sophisticated understanding of a concrete subject matter. Even if you apply formal logic to your writing and detect logical fallacies and conflicting assertions in an argument, while important, this will not necessarily lead to a more sophisticated understanding and, thus, to more sophisticated writing. “How could someone learn”, asks Frank Smith (1990: 97) “to detect conflicting assertions in a chemistry text, an article on chess, or to estimate for repairs to an automobile, without an understanding of chemistry, chess or automobile mechanics, in which case contradictions would be immediately apparent?”. The answer of course, is that one cannot […].

and moreover:

It may be unrealistic to expect that your writing will get progressively better when you are writing about several unrelated topics over the course of an academic term because little opportunity is given to you to develop a more sophisticated understanding of those topics. When there is no traditional subject matter in writing courses, we are free to select topics that are of interest to us and that lead us to understand ourselves by understanding the world and our place in the world […]. Good writing is not guaranteed by good understanding, but poor understanding almost certainly inhibits good writing.

My solution to this ‘lack of traditional subject matter’ and to the need ‘to understand what you are writing about’ has been to draw on students’ own and emerging disiciplinary knowledge with a view to interacting and collaborating with the knowledge of others. This creates an interdisciplinary writing context and raises the question of how to negotiate rules and transgress genre boundaries whilst still being recognisibly academic.


Barbara Brown’s ‘Heals Prints’ – disrupting panel boundaries – at The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

But now, the question of ‘what genre should my students write in?’ looms large.

Tardy’s book is providing me with ways to build on traditional genres in order to innovate and move beyond traditional conventions in academic writing. I am asking my students to create innovative genres because neither they or I know what knowledge will be brought to the classroom each term and what knowledge will emerge from their collaborative research. I have no template for them to follow. I rely on them to create writing that brings together content knowledge, audience awareness and modalities that effectively get their message(s) across.

Is anyone else grappling with these issues?



Walking the tightrope of academic writings

Pulcinella’s balancing act

There is a perilous paradox in the established literatures on academic writing that suggests we have choices in the way we write academically.

By established ‘literatures’ I mean the textbooks and advice guides, including those ‘How to’ photocopied handouts you get in Student Services, aimed at university student writers. The literatures that tell you to keep your style formal, clear, precise, impersonal, logical, critical, deferential. Advice that isn’t really advice, but a precept. Joan Turner explains all of this here.

By ‘choices’, I mean other ways of writing. Writing that is more creative, more personal, more original, more multimodal, more visual, more layered. Invitations to explore and experiment, to find ‘your’ voice, contribution, originality. The idea that you can be playful, take risks, and survive. See for example, Archer and Breuer and Thesen and Cooper.

'L’altalena dei pagliacci' di Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

L’altalena dei pagliacci (o dei Pulcinella), affresco, Ca’ Rezzonico (Palazzo del Settecento), Venezia

The two sets of advice – the literatures versus the choices – don’t sit comfortably together, in my experience. In fact, in my experience, they massively irritate each other. They encourage each other to polarise by entrenching their respective advocacies.

Those in the established ‘literatures’ camp fear those who advocate choice because choice means anarchy, the erosion of standards and heterogeneity (diversity); those in the ‘choice’ camp resist the literatures because these embody an imperialist, rationalist paradigm of exclusion, transparency and exactitude.

Parallels with the current political climate – polarised between the Right that is hard-lining and the Left that is flat-lining – are hard to resist.

And it is equally hard to communicate all of this to students because they rely on you for guidance to pass the assessments that are based on the advice of the established ‘literatures’, not the advice of the ‘choices’.

In this sense, a teacher of academic writing can feel a little like Pulcinella, the Neapolitan character in La Commedia dell’Arte, who somehow muddles through his contradictions, swinging perilously between being rueful and jocular, popular and alone, accepted and rejected, paradoxically lazy but ingeniously inventive.



Thank you & sorry to a few people

Academic Messiness, but also Honesty and Integrity (I hope)

This teaching term is turning out to be unpleasantly busy, stressful, messy. I said ‘yes’ to too many projects before Christmas, and now I’m paying for it.

So I wanted to publicly thank a few people I have been neglecting and who are having to pick up the pieces of my disorganisation and my anxiety. I could not do a PhD, work, commute, parent, shop, cook, and generally function without them. I am also travelling very far next week, the furthest I have ever been, and I am feeling anxious: partly because it is so far; partly because I am presenting some of my research. I will be alone and very much outside of my comfort zone.


Where I spend a lot of my life

The following is not necessarily in order of guilt. Maybe in order of priorities … It’s just that the linear format of this medium obliges me to write in an order that suggests preferences, but I am sincerely grateful to everyone.

  • My son: I was horrid over Christmas because I had a Chapter to write and really didn’t want it to be Christmas. He is adapting to a new form of mothering: Remote Mothering. I phone him, text him, email him to find out how school went and what he wants for dinner. He is getting used to hearing me say ‘non adesso, amore’ (trans. ‘not now, darling’). He is a lovely boy who always asks me how I am when I get home;
  • My partner: he does a lot of my parenting, sorts out home technology, sources books and resources for me, fixes my car, cooks, and generally keeps things running smoothly, calmly and happily. We’ve agreed that if he is thinking of leaving me, he can only do so after I have passed my viva :-/;
  • My colleagues at CELE, University of Nottingham: they are covering lessons for me when I go to conferences and other PhD-related activities, sometimes at quite short notice (but I do return the favours!); they also put up with my lippiness and outspokeness, and I am sure I really piss them off (sometimes);
  • The School of Education, University of Nottingham: they are supervising and helping to fund some of my PhD and conferences, and have been really patient with me when I have missed deadlines or messed up applications or been late with meeting various deadlines;
  • My supervisors: they are encouraging, communicative and generous with their time and their guidance. I think they are slightly w(e)ary of where I am going with some things, but maybe that is why they are being so nice – just to make sure I stay level-headed and don’t give up. Either way, they are allowing me to believe I actually have a valuable PhD contribution to make and they are allowing me to do exactly what I want; they are also making me reflect a lot on how I teach and advise my students;
  • cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

    ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman: a story of friendship

    My family and friends: both local and abroad. I am hopelessly crap at staying in touch (I always have been, but not as bad this). I think of them a lot, resolve to write or skype or send gifts, but then too much time passes and too much stuff happens to be able to just have a casual chat or send a short note. Each chat or meet-up would need hours and hours of catching-up, so I end up simply not not calling or writing;

  • My neighbours: I have really nice neighbours. Sometimes they are very noisy, though; sometimes they park in my parking space which drives me insane; one of them always knows when I am home and rings the doorbell to tell me something totally unimportant (to me, anyway). Predictably, I have got annoyed with them but then apologised as I realise I am particulalry impatient and over-sensitive to noise, and intolerant of other people who have normal lives that include leisure, gardening, listening to music, doing DIY, playing with toddlers, having time to chat.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to my presentation slides …