‘Do I sound academic?’ via @seburnt

In response to Tyson Seburn

Tyson’s question is:

“What’s your take on the desire for students to sound more ‘academic’ in their writing?”.

Although I fully share and adopt the pragmatism of the responses so far (as well as invoke their dissatisfying appeal to relativity), they trouble me on a deeper level because they all assume that we* (those of us teaching academic writing in EAP) actually know what it means for something to be academic. They further assume that ‘academic’ is a homogenous, static and clearly demarcated style that has no shared territory and purpose with creative, journalistic, semi-specialist and publicly-engaged writing (I’ve blogged about this here and here). Another underlying assumption is that English academic writing has no shared history with the academic writing of other countries when in fact it does (indeed, I imagine that what many of us mean by ‘academic’ is things like intros and conclusions, nominalisations, complex syntax and passives, which have their origins in Latin and positivism, and which are actually no longer that fashionable in academic writing, including the writings at the periphery of the hegemonic English inner circle).

Now, I realise that it doesn’t help students with looming exams/assignments to be told “well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘academic'”. But it does help to engage in dialogue with them – processually – about what they are trying to achieve in their writing. So, if the aim is to pass an exam with a specific spec. (intro, conclusion, nominalisations, complex sentences, etc.), then they need to judge the extent to which they are happy to follow the spec. without cramping their voice, and take stock of the consequences of challenging expectations and of engaging creatively with them. But they also need to have conversations with their tutors and examiners about the extent to which they can experiment and to what avail, so that responsibilites are shared and meanings agreed upon with the academic community/institution.

I have a specific recollection of a student who wanted to use an anectode in his introduction to make his broader, contextualising move, and hook his non-expert audience, rather than the formulaic It has long been argued that …I responded by saying I thought it was a brilliant idea because his anectode achieved the academic purpose of rendering the context to a reader that was not familiar with it. I was less interested in the display of academic language and more interested in his reasoning. But I then had to consult with ‘significant others’ because I wouldn’t be the one marking his final paper (and therein lies the problem ….).

And here is another crucial consideration in responding to Tyson’s question: there can exist a contradiction – at least in my experience of teaching both EGAP and ESAP – in what we are asking students to do and the context they are doing it in. So, for example, firstly, we ask them to ‘write for an non-expert but educated audience’ – now that requires a very unique and incredibly difficult tight-rope style which is a hybrid, and kind of made up. This is because we want them to explain things so that we can understand them. However, we then complain if they haven’t said it in a complex nominalised latinate form! Secondly, in order to identify a suitable topic for this ‘non-expert but educated reader’ (again, this begs all kinds of other considerations, eg. what sort of ‘educated’ ….), we encourage them to read broadsheet newspapers, possibly a few academic journals, and then complain that their own writing doesn’t sound ‘academic enough’ or has an inconsistent style!

We also need to de-bunk the myth that there exists such a monolith as ‘academic vocabulary’, other than in the self-referential corpus-sphere where quantifiable recurrences actually matter. For example, the words ‘sex‘ and ‘team‘  can be found respectively in Sublists 3 and 9 of the widely referred to AWLs, yet there is nothing inherently ‘academic’ about them (not in the world I inhabit, at least!). But I have taught in many, many places where these lists are thrust upon the students leading to such nonsensical questions as: How many words from the AWL should we have in a 3,000-word essay or What if my essay doesn’t contain any of the words from all 10 lists.

The students are absolutely right to ask such questions: you may as well give them the entire contents of the OED to memorise. It’s like teaching somebody to drive a Fiat 500 having previously asked them to study how many cars there are in the world, their engine sizes and their colours! How’s that knowledge going to help them drive the car they have for the distances they need!

We need to de-bunk the myth that there is an ‘academic style’ and foster academic ways of thinking, instead. These ways of thinking include explaining, describing, etc. to a range of audiences and for genuine purposes. Academic styles arise from academic needs and will therefore necessarily vary accordingly. We have to, first of all, work out what academic needs we are asking students to fulfil, then make those academic needs explicit, and then work out how best to achieve them.

So, in answer to Tyson’s question, my response would be:

1) ‘what sort of academic do you want to sound like?’ (answer: eg. one that has to explain a difficult term to somebody who doesn’t share my disciplinary background)


2) ‘what is going to allow you to sound like that?’.

And then the creative process of writing text can begin by exploring stylistic and multimodal possibilities, rather than prescriptions.

* My use of ‘we’ is controversial, I know. Please read it in the spirit of the points I am making, rather than in terms of it embodying particulars.