What makes writing ‘academic’? Part I

Threshold Concepts

A post about giving academic writing proper disciplinary status

Since writing this in Patter and this in The Guardian, and since this series of posts was published, I still don’t understand why Academic Writing does not have disciplinary status.

Bar a few exceptions, it is rare (in the UK, where I am based) to find job adverts for Lecturers in Academic Writing; when you do, they tend to be posts created to help people become ‘better writers’ (e.g. in Writing or Graduate Centres, or Libraries) rather than to educate in matters of writing by foregrounding the nature and the disciplinary status of Academic Writing.

Academic Writing continues to lack disciplinary status despite: a) the recent publication of Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s edited book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, which features contributions from US writing experts including Charles Bazerman and David Russell; and b) the significant contributions of the field of academic literacies, which has continued to foreground the diversity, the affordances, and the mobility of both writing and writers.

Musee Marseille
The many Things that Things afford (Boys Diving at the ‘Musée des Civilisations d’Europe et de Méditerranée'(Marseille, France) through Tessellated Structure by Rudy Ricciotti, show how to make full use of what is available to us (Photo by Julia Molinari, 2016)


What Adler-Kassner and Wardle have done is foreground some of the threshold concepts that make scholarly writing what it is. If you are an (emerging) academic writer or you teach academic writing, there is nothing especially novel about this book (pun intended!): hence the refreshingly honest title of ‘Naming What We Know’. What the book does do, though, is collate what we know already by listing and naming 37 foundational concepts that, when taken together, would warrant academic writing being given disciplinary status.

The 37 threshold concepts of writing are clustered around the metaconcept of:

‘Writing is an Activity and a Subject of Study’ (p. 15).

Below, I have copied 5 main threshold concepts (which in the book are further broken down); what I’ve then done is single out some of the key concepts/quotes that can help me establish what it takes for writing to be academic.

Concept 1: Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity

  • Writing is a Knowledge-Making Activity (by Heidi Estrem)

“Understanding and identifying how writing is in itself an act of thinking can help people more intentionally recognise and engage with writing as a creative activity, inextricably linked to thought. We don’t simply think first and then write. We write to think” (emphasis in original, p. 19).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to make us think.

1.5 Writing Mediates Activity (by David R. Russell)

“The concept that writing mediates activity [eg a STOP sign or a performative] is troublesome because it goes against the usual concepts of writing as ‘just’ transcribing […] thought or speech.” (p. 27)

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to make things happen.

Concept 2: Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognisable Forms

2.1 Writing Represents the World, Events, Ideas, and Feelings (by Charles Bazerman)

“Recognising the limitations of our representations can lead to an appropriate modesty and caution about what we and others write, and about decisions and calculations made on the basis of representations. Alfred Korzybski stated this concept vividly by noting ‘the map is not the territory’ (Korzybski 1958, p. 58). Yet knowledge of this concept helps us work more effectively from our verbal maps in the way we view and contemplate the world represented” (p. 38).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to leave open the possibility of other interpretations.

Eidetic (visual) modes contribute to Understanding because they leave open the possibility of other interpretations and broaden our representational toolkits http://spinweaveandcut.com/about/

2.4 All Writing is Multimodal (by Cheryl E. Ball and Colin Charlton)

“ […] there are still two major misconceptions associated with multimodality. First, some assume all multimodal texts are digital […]. Second, some assume that the opposite of multimodal is monomodal. In fact, there is no such thing as a monomodal text [eg. the five-paragraph essay uses visual and spatial modes such as fonts, margins, spacing, etc., in addition to the linguistic mode].


Monomodality, then, is used (incorrectly) to signify a lack of multiple media or modes when really what a user might mean is that a structure like a five-paragraph essay privileges the linguistic mode over the spatial or visual modes” (pp. 42-43).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to recognise the affordances of different modes.

Concept 3: Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies

3.0 Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies (by Tony Scott)

“When we seek to ‘apprentice’ students into academic writing, what ideological imperatives are being asserted in the ways we choose to conceive of academic writers and writing?” (p. 50).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to respect that writers are different.

3.1 Writing is Linked to Identity (Kevin Roozen)

“The act of writing, then, is not so much about using a particular set of skills as it is about becoming a particular kind of person […]. It also means recognising that the difficulties people have with writing are not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence or a diminished level of literacy but rather to whether they can see themselves as participants in a particular community” (p. 51).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be negotiated with the writer.

3.2 Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary (Kathleen Blake Yancey)

“People who want the teaching of writing to be uniform – mapped across grade levels, for instance, with all students inventing in the same way, drafting in the same way, and using the same language – find this threshold concept frustrating, in part because they had hoped a single approach would enfranchise all writers” (p. 53).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be varied.

Concept 4: All Writers Have More to Learn

4.0 All Writers Have More to Learn (Shirley Rose)

“There is no such thing as ‘writing in general; therefore, there is no one lesson about writing that can make writing good in all contexts” (p. 60).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be situated.

4.3 Learning to Write Effectively Requires Different Kinds of Practice, Time, and Effort (Kathleen Blake Yancey)

“ […] writers necessarily also work in multiple modalities – whether the modality be on the page through document design or on the networked screen bringing words, images, videos, and sound into a single text. In an age when so many spaces and affordances are available, writers need considerable practice keyed not only to fluidity and technique but also to differentiated practice across different spaces of writing, working with different technologies of writing” (p. 65).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to be understood as an affordance.

Concept 5: Writing is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity

5.4 Reflection is Critical for Writers’ Development

“Reflection has the unique ability to connect across the various threshold concepts because it offers writers the ability to be active agents of change, making meaningful contributions to any rhetorical exchange” (p. 79).

In other words, for a text to count as academic, it has to give space to reflect.


  • Adler-Kassner, L. and Wardle, E. (2015) (Eds) Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies Utah State University Press, pp. 1-216
  • WAC edited book by Lillis et al.

8 thoughts on “What makes writing ‘academic’? Part I”

  1. Hi Julia,
    Very interesting post. I was at the threshold concepts conference in June. It was fascinating being part of that group as many participants were American librarians and writing centre staff. I’ve got a post on it pending. I’ll get round to finishing it soon – will let you know.

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