Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#1)

The myth of transience (or how writing is disembodied from core knowledge communities)

This (and some posts to follow) is an annotated critical engagement with David Russell’s (2002) book Writing in the Academic Disciplines: a Curricular History.

In his Introduction, Russell draws our attention to how higher education in America has dealt with writing instruction. He identifies 1870 as a watershed moment. This is when “discrete academic disciplines” (p. 3) were formed. It is also when the Academy moved explicitly from an oral classical tradition to a written tradition and when widening participation began to challenge the linguistically and socially homogenised community of priviliged students’ access to higher education:

Before the advent of the modern university in the 1870s, academia was indeed a single discourse community. Institutions of higher learning built an intellectual and social community by selecting students primarily on the basis of social class (less then 1% of the population was admitted), which guaranteed linguistic homogeneity (p.20)

This ‘homogeneity’ ensured stability. However, as more people were admitted to university, specialisation ensued. The Academy also needed to meet the demands of both research and service (to industry and the wider public). The result of this is that, since 1870, we can no longer speak of a single ‘academic community’ but of many:

academic communities are in one sense united through their common missions (teaching, research, and service). But disciplines have been so diverse, so independent and bound up with professional communities outside academia that they require no common language or even shared values and methods within the university in order to pursue those missions (p. 22-23)

In fact, Russell claims that the discourse of individual departments shares more with professionals outside of academia than it does with other departments in academia. This would explain why interdisciplinarity is often viewed with suspicion (p. 23), namely because if the different disciplines involved do not share common methods and language(s) then they cannot communicate intelligibly.

The fragmentation of knowledge into discrete and specialised academic communities has given rise to the ‘transience’* of academic writing (I explain ‘transience’ below). What this means is that because the specialised knowledge communities did not consider the ‘teaching of writing’ to be part of their disicplinary remit, they adopted quick fix solutions to writing instruction: this is because they either assumed that secondary school had done its job of teaching pupils to write, or that knowing how to write fell under the remit of English language departments. Disciplinary experts did not view writing as a way of learning the discipline, rather they viewed it as something that needed to be learnt before embarking on the discipline (p. 15). In other words, writing was not viewed as an integral means to understanding and shaping disciplinary epistemologies, but as extrinsic to knowledge discourses (i.e. ‘someone else can teach it’).

* this term – ‘transience’ (as in transitory, temporary) – comes from Mike Rose who in ‘The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the university’ College English 47 (1985): 355 claims that:

… the belief persits in the American university that if we can just do x, or y, the problem of poor student writing will be solved  … and higher education will be able to return to its real work (p. 7)

This is what I was alluding to when I wrote this for the Guardian and this for Patter. In each piece, I was drawing attention to how the teaching of academic writing in many institutions of higher education still seems extrinsic to the disciplines; rather, it is relegated to the remit of writing workshops (for undergraduates, postgraduates, as well as faculty staff), graduate centres, and EAP units, as well as writing agencies, some of whom will actually write essays for a fee.

On page 9, Russell asks the question that is guiding my research:

what is academic writing (…)? What is an academic community? …As Rose concludes: “Wide-ranging change will occur only if the academy redefines writing for itself, changes the terms of the argument, (and) sees instruction in writing as one its central concerns”.

Please share your reactions to the above. Do you relate to any of this? Does Russell’s historical perspective resonate with you? How have you learnt to write ‘academically’, and how do you adapt your writing when moving between, or out of, your disciplinary community(ies)?

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