‘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.

7 thoughts on “‘Do I sound academic?’ via @seburnt”

  1. I completely agree with a lot of your points here and for me it’s all about what comes first; the accepted norms and principles of academic writing (as circulating within the EAP world, ‘correct’ or not) or the needs of the students. For me, it’s all about the need of the students to communicate their ideas in a way that comes across as they intend and THEN how they can use appropriate language to go about doing that (which may include AWL-type vocab or hedging or whatever). Often my students will write something that I guess probably isn’t coming across as they intend – because it sounds rather ‘childish’ or simplistic or just confused – so we’ll spend time trying to get to what they were trying to express (in terms of content and tone) and we work together to find the best language to achieve that.

    I think that tools like the AWL can be useful as a starting point – when students are writing oversimplistic, vague high-school style essays and don’t know where to start choosing the more precise vocab they need to express ideas clearly – but it should certainly never be seen as an end in itself (and I don’t think was ever intended to be!).

    Students and teachers need some general principles around which they can structure their learning (otherwise it would all just become a confusing mess on all sides), but I think it’s down to the teacher to get the balance right between introducing generally useful principles but also seeing how those apply to what the student might need. And that ‘might’ is important too, especially for pre-sessional students (or those whose academic path isn’t yet fixed) – we often don’t know exactly what they’re going to need, so there needs to be an element of student autonomy too – showing them how they could apply certain principles in different contexts, how they can notice/analyse for themselves, etc.

    1. Hi Julie, thanks for responding– I share your underlying approach which is to recognise that there are different contexts requiring different responses; to do otherwise would be to accept the law of the ridiculous reverse! Plus, trying to blog generalities from each of our specifics can lead to information gaps/blind spots that would need much further clarification.

      But, to return briefly to Tyson’s prompt, I think that his question does beg the more fundamental ‘what does it mean to sound academic?’. Given the evolving plethora of academic identities, styles, purposes, etc., (eg Open Access writing that needs to fit neatly within the margins of a tablet screen, ergo no long-winded integral citations) it is misleading for us and for students to think that there is a clearly demarcated academic style. And if we accept that there is no clearly demarcated style, then helping students to find their own academic voice becomes a much more negotiated process, rather than one of transmission.

      This means that, sometimes, it may indeed be better to sound ‘childish’ or ‘simplistic’, if by that you mean ‘clear and to the point’. If an ‘academically unacceptable’ phrasal verb or even use of slang happens to lead to clarification and further critical debate, then that use of language is ‘academic’ in relation to the purpose it serves, not in and of itself. Just think of those Bob Dylan quotes used in medical journal titles recently (I blogged about this a few posts back): is using Bob Dylan in a serious scientific paper academically acceptable? Or is it ‘childish and simplistic’? When you listen to the reasons that these doctors gave for using Bob Dylan lyrics, it makes perfect ‘academic’ sense. And you won’t find those in the AWLs …. 🙂

      1. Hi Julia,
        I completely see what you’re getting at, but don’t you have to understand the ‘rules’ before you can break them? Students must at least understand the impact of what they’re writing. To do that, they need to know what is conventionally academic and what might stand out as marked in a particular context.

        When I said ‘simplistic’ or ‘childish’, I meant quite the opposite of ‘clear and to the point’. I’m talking about students who use lots of vague, unqualified adjectives like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘big’ without explaining further what they see as good/bad or how large ‘big’ is. I’m also talking about students who’ve been coached to write IELTS essays and throw in discourse markers willy nilly without really understanding them.

        It’s one thing for a writer to make informed choices about style, it’s quite another for a student to come across as oversimplistic or confused in a way that they never intended just because they lack the linguistic tools to do otherwise.

  2. I really have no idea whether my comment is appropriate or not. But I worry about judgements of students’ writing sounding childish. I found this extract of a book review by an established academic interesting… What would be your value judgement of this?

    “This is a slim volume, and yet it manages to pack into its small space as much tedium as can be found in a whole issue of the Federal Register while still leaving the uninformed reader as uninformed as before. I can think of no introductory textbook, in any field, that so thoroughly, scandalously, fails as this one does.”

    This quote comes from http://canlloparot.wordpress.com/xtras/crap-books-3/

    1. Thanks Alex – ok, nice challenge! And thanks, Julie: this is in reply to you both.

      First, the quote above is ‘academic’ for at least the following combined reasons: 1) it is chocka with relevant critical stance – a requirement of book review genres; 2) this stance is evidence-based (the full version of this review has many examples which seem relevant); 3) the word ‘small’ is a relevant choice here (i.e. it doesn’t need any of the further precision-bestowing qualifiers that Julie mentions); 4) the overall choice of language (adjective-laden, repetitive and emotive) is relevant to the blog (and therefore mode/genre) this guy wants to run.

      If he sent it to the JEAP as a book review, they might ask him to rein in the repetition and emotive language, but they wouldn’t expect him to change his stance or his evidence for it. On the other hand, if he sent it to the LSE blog, they might actually publish it (see the style of this scathing critique of academic journal practices (where academic toe nails are mentioned: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/01/08/letter-to-academic-publishers-bishop/)

      Second, on rule-breaking. I actually don’t think we do need (to be taught) rules to become educated and autonomous. What we need is to observe what is relevant to us and to others, engage in conversations about the consequences of adopting one or other approach, and then decide what to do about it. Language choices, not rules, then emerge. And these choices cannot always be universilised (i.e. transferred to other contexts). If students are being tested on the AWLs, then AWLs choices it is. If they are being tested for IELTS, then they learn to play the IELTS game. The EAP I teach requires neither.

      Here is an EAP reference that removes the need to teach AWLs (by Hyland and Tse):

      and one on ‘stupid’ grammar rules from the Chronicle of Higher Education that requires us to keep asking critical questions about ‘the rules’:

      ps in all this discussion, originating in @seburnt, I am assuming we are talking about the contested academic rules that relate to meaning and use (e.g. when do I use a passive?), rather than the form (e.g. does a passive always need ‘be’?).

      1. Just a quick reply to your ps … I don’t think you can separate out the ‘when do I use a passive’ from the ‘how do I correctly form a passive’ type rules for most students – confusion and awkard writing often comes as a result of issues with both.

        1. I disagree – adult learners in university study, from UGs to PhDs, are capable of understanding this, and much else besides. ‘Form’ is about prescriptive rules and these can easily be reproduced: this is the purpose of mechanical drills and de-contextualised exercises.

          But ‘form’ is not what makes the text academic, in my opinion. If it were, all manner of texts (like the hoaxes published by Springer) would count as academic.

          What is significantly less rule-driven is ‘use’ and ‘meaning’ because this requires acculturation into academic discourses and voices. And academic writing is all about discourses and voices, in the plural. This, I am arguing, requires noticing, negotiation and choices, not prescription and rules.

          This means that, when writing essays, mistakes in ‘form’ can actually be symptoms of having misjudged the discourse rather than the mechanics of the passive.

          In practice, this means that when a student asks “Do I sound academic?”, my answer is unlikely to depend on whether they have used a passive, AW, or other; it is more likely to lead to a conversation about ‘what do you want to say, to whom, what do you want to sound like and lets explore the choices’.

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