On Writtenness, its geopolitics, and other academic values and assumptions

Disclaimer: this is a massive post, written mainly for my own needs. However, it is of interest to academic writing teachers, which is why I want to share it. At around 1,350 words, I indicate where you can probably stop reading. Sorry.

Writtenness: a very timely, relevant and ongoing controversy

The term writtenness accentuates the linguistic materiality of a text as well as its status as completed labour. As such, it marks the value of the text itself, the comunication of the content, rather than the content itself […]. I am making a case for the positive recognition and acknowledgment of the intellectual endeavour required to a achieve a level of writtenness that complies with what has been culturally constructed as ‘good’ writing (Turner, 2018, page 23).

IMG_20180519_073138865Joan Turner’s recent book makes 5 broad claims:

– Firstly, that the intellectual and cultural labour that goes in to meeting the expectations of English-speaking academic writing standards is undervalued or simply ‘taken for granted’ by academics (page 178).

– Secondly, that the negative attention given to ‘bad writing’ and malpractice (e.g. the use of ghostwriting agencies and the culture surrounding (il)legitimate proofreading services) outweighs any positive attention given to the enormous efforts that L2 students do make in order to be judged, by our standards, as ‘good’ writers.

– Thirdly, that academic readers need to cooperate with writers and make more of an effort to understand and value their content rather than the form of their writing (page 194).

– Fourthly, that rather than reject other styles and rhetorics of academic writing (namely, the diverse ways of writing that students bring with them), academics should integrate them into their academic practices (pages 240-242). This is because if we really are committed to being ‘international’ universities (pages 125 and 127), then homogenising language and writing so that it meets an ideal standard (or ‘imaginary’, pages 124, 130, 131 and 142) of what ‘good’ English and writing are, ignores the fact that English is part of a protean, not a static, landscape (pages 230 and 252), i.e. one that is shifting, one that is multilingual and one that is global.

– And fifthly, that judging L2 students by L1 standards of language proficiency is simply not fair, and that L2 standards need to be measured against L2 capabilities (page 253).

I am not convinced by the internal coherence of Turner’s book (I found it unhelpfully repetitive, and I think you would need to have read her previous writings to appreciate where she is coming from, i.e. post-colonial studies, critical EAP and Academic Literacies) nor by what seems to me to be a somewhat muddled way of simultaneously talking about what is the case (descriptive), what should be the case (normative) and what could be the case (predictive). However, the issues she broaches are close to those of my research and I am very grateful to her for having voiced them because they raise prickly sensitive hackles on the spines of those who trade in language, literacy and academic discourse and are the cause of one of the deepest schisms in our field.

Rubbing new salt into old wounds: does language proficiency entail academic proficiency?

As I read Turner’s book, this newspaper article also appeared (my bold), highlighting a familiar, but rarely challenged, refrain, one that is also echoed by teachers of L2 (second language) academic writing and university subject specialists, namely that we need to raise the level of English proficiency for admission to university:

International students accept their offers in good faith, believing that if they have met the entry criteria, their English must be good enough to allow them to fulfil their academic potential. But the fact is that an IELTS score of 5.5 – or even one a few notches higher – may not be sufficient for them to learn and perform at the true level of their ability (newspaper article, May 10, 2018, ‘Language requirements for international students are too low’, Times Higher Education)

The article obliquely scratches the surface of what also concerns Turner – specifically, the importance of achieving writteness in academia (that is, of achieving a value that brings together the need for good form and the socio-cultural effort required to achieve that form  – I think this is what Turner is saying, but sometimes I feel she slips from descriptive to normative claims, so I am not sure). However, the article misplaces the blame for ‘bad form’ by situating it squarely in the lap of low thresholds of language proficiency rather than in the lap of a whole culture that takes writtenness for granted and that ignores the intellectual labour involved in becoming a ‘good’ writer.

Turner, on the other hand, argues that proficiency in English is unlikely to be the real root of the problem (pages 132-3). Rather, the test construct of IELTS as an academic entry exam encourages the conflation of good writing with language proficiency. Since IELTS does not integrate reading and writing, understood as academic literacies, nor does it require knowledge of academic discourses (including disciplinary discourses) or develop research dispositions and attitudes to referencing and critical engagement, it does little to ensure that “lecturers will have no difficulty in reading sudents’ work” (page 133).

The above Times Higher Education article encourages this conflation of language proficiency with cognitive ability by reporting on a recent study by York University which shows that below a certain threshold of language proficiency, “English skills constrain academic success” as well as the cognitive abilities required to achieve academic success, such as processing vocabulary and reading speed.

However, equating ‘having cognitive ability’ with ‘understanding academic discourse’ (its culture, its history, its values and aims, its complexities, conventions and contradictions) seems mistaken, to me: the fact that language and cognitive processing are indeed correlated is uncontroversial only insofar as language has been set as the default mode against which we all seem to uncritically measure intelligence (but there are other ways of capturing intelligence) .

I don’t think we can generalise this correlation without evidence. In other words, I don’t think we can claim that having a minimum/maximum threshold of lexical items lodged in your brain is more likely to help us understand academic discourse. Academic discourse is not the same as language (understood as the total sum of lexical items). Academic discourse, as it is currently conceived, necessitates language, I agree. But language is by no means a sufficient condition to guarantee fluency in academic discourse.

Tests that measure the correlation between cognitive ability and language proficiency are limited to controlled environments that test very small and targeted language situations. They do not test the understanding of academic discourse. Anecdotally, at least, I have come across highly intelligent, imaginative and critical students whose language proficiency has been comparatively lower that those with high IELTS scores, and who, longer term, have done much better academically, generally because they are more creative (they know how to draw on a range of modes to get their ideas across and have multiple strategies for decoding texts, not those foregrounded by IELTS, which misleadingly assumes that all paragraphs have a self-contained main idea and an obvious topic sentence).

But I see something far deeper going on here, something which lies at the very heart of how we measure intelligence, criticality, creativity and understanding and how we value them as academic dispositions:

as long as higher education remains dependent on (and reduced to) monolinguistic (English) and monomodal (writing) proficiency and as long as we continue to measure academic success (almost) exclusively against language proficiency, then we will necessarily judge students who come to university with diverse repertoires and capabilities (multilingual, multimodal, dyslexic, autistic, artistic, socially and culturally rich) as ‘deficient’. By demanding and expecting linguistic homogeniety, what we are are asking for is also ‘cultural and social’ homogeneity. And by asking everybody to speak and write in the same way, just like we did with RP (Received Pronunciation, page 35), we are creating the conditions for a homoginised academy that communicates via a mono-literacy.

A perfect bluebrint for #Brexit.

Fortunately for deaf and dumb students, the above article does admit that ‘you can be intelligent without being linguistically proficient’:

We tested the non-verbal intelligence of both groups [international and home students] and found no differences.

So why does language have to continue to be the benchmark against which we measure the full range of human intelligence?

This massive pre-amble allows me to make my first link with Turner’s book.

You can stop reading. What follows is a massive rant intended soley for my own research uptake

Ontological complicity: a very British philosophical legacy

Writtenness is a complex, multifaceted textual reality which is reduced soley to grammatical accuracy. This reduction happens largely because for the discipline-based reader, writtenness beyond the level of the sentence merges with content, and is therefore submereged in ontological complicity with content (page 181). I take this to mean that we conflate good writing with good thinking.

Turner calls this conflation an ‘ontological complicity’. She blames the philosopher John Locke for having spawned a legacy that conflates good thinking with good language (pages 5 and 179), a legacy compounded by the scientific writings of the Enlightenment, by the Orwellian trope that good prose is ‘like a window pane’ (page 36 and 48) and a legacy that endures in the way we teach and assess academic writing (page 50):

If you cannot write well, you cannot think well; if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you (Oscar Wilde)

Turner’s problem with ontological complicity – conflating good writing/language with good thinking – is that (page 34; see also page 233):

judgments about academic writing are necessarily ideological, but […] there is a general lack of awareness of those culturally immanent ideological roots. Judgments of writtenness, of how a text is written [its clarity, precision, transparency], tend to operate implicitly rather than overtly.

This ‘implicit ideology’ has also been discussed in Michael Peters who argues that ‘clarity’ is not a straightforward concept because so much taken for granted knowledge, cultural capital and understanding of critical literature, etc. needs to be available to the reader before a text can be understood.

Moreover, to state that ‘good writing = good thinking’ ignores a rich tradition of structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist critical theory and critical discourse analysis that raised serious problems for the correspondence theory of truth, namely what exactly does language refer to or signify? The fact that this tradition of linguistic critique has been largely ridiculed and replaced by the plain English ordinary language movement does not invalidate the serious critical theory questions which I think still remain: what exactly does language refer to and do we really all ‘clearly’ see the same referents? (page 42).

Given current socio-political discourse, I very much doubt that language is ‘clear’ and that we are all seeing the same referents:

‘Brexit means Brexit’.


All of this can be further related to another thread in Turner’s book, namely her contention that judgments about what constitutes ‘good writing’ echo snobberies about what constitues ‘good speaking’.

Writtenness: the RP of academic writing

RP (received pronunciation) was until recently deemed a hallmark of ‘proper’ spoken English. The fact that less than 2% of the world’s English speaking population have ever had this accent has significantly shifted attitudes about what it means to speak ‘properly’.

Although attitudes have shifted regarding RP, this, according to Turner, is not the case with attitudes regarding what counts as (good) academic writing (page 7):

writtenness is a cultural ideal, whose values are implicit rather than explicitly espoused. Indexed by evaluative tropes such as ‘polished prose’ (see Chapter 4) and assumptions of precision, accuracy and stylistic elegance, it is saturated with ideological and cultural value. As such, it is similar to the position of RP (received pronunciation) in spoken language. However, unlike RP, whose ideological resonance has been extensively commented upon in sociolinguistics […], the ideologies, social identifications and linguistics assumptions of written language have generated much less concern.

She goes on to compare this, on page 211 (my bold), with how we now accept different pronunciations (thanks to sociolingusitc work on International English and ELF _ English as a Lingua Franca) but remain disdainful of similar diversities in writing, such as non-conventional spellings and personal identity:

While the textual projection, as well as the subjectivity of personal identity is the focus of research and discussion in the field of writing research (see, for example, Ivanic, 1998; Canagarajah, 2011; Tuck, 2017), in the institutional context, expectations of conventional correctness at the micro-level as well as genre structuring maintain a deontic and moralizing authority.

In other words, writing research shows that there is considerable diversity and mobility out there and that this diversity is valued, integrated across the linguistic landscape and harnessed (cf. Blommaert, Lu, Horner, Lillis, et al.). However, the institutions themselves (possibly the institutions funding that very research!) are slow to recognise and respect the protean nature of global Englishes.

Controversies and significance: my take on all of this

As soon as anybody suggests we question the standards by which we judge language, writing and literacy, controversies spark and the usual reactions flare up. These are manifest in fiery ongoing media debates about correct grammar, punctuation and language use, but also in my EAP field, where teachers and examiners disagree about what counts as ‘academic writing’ (let alone ‘good’ academic writing!). I also have anectodal evidence of how sensitive all this is from conference talks and corridor discussions, feedback on student writing and comments on blogs.

The most common reactions are along these lines (in italics):

  • we need standards, we can’t just accept anything

However, as far as I know, nobody has ever said we don’t need standards or that anything goes. Rather, the question is ‘what standards’, ‘whose standards’ and ‘for what purpose’? We set the standards. We can also change the standards depending on what we are looking for.

  • those who question the standards are the very same people who got into power via those very standards. They are at best hypocrites; at worst, taking risks with powerless students

This is the case and it isn’t . Either way, so what?

There are some who both question and flout the standards (notably, in extremis, @Nsousanis (who teaches, does and publishes visual scholarship) and @aydeethegreat (who teaches and does rap scholarship) but also Dr Hleze Kunju who wrote his PhD in isiXhosa).

And even if it were the case that those who question the standards whilst at the same time making use of those standards to express themselves, how or why does this invalidate their call for questioning those standards? I write. That is what I do best. Why shouldn’t I do what I am best at. It doesn’t mean that everybody is also good at writing, so why should I force them to reach my standards when perhaps they have other ways of demonstrating their intelligence and understanding? Academia is about developing intelligence and understanding. That is its ultimate goal. If I do that best by speaking or drawing, why should that be of less value than writing?

By invalidating the principle that standards can be questioned in virtue using the very standards that are being questioned, we are invalidating the call of anybody who questions a system in virtue of them having been brought up in that system. In other words, I can be anti-racist and anti-elitist (i.e. I can question the system that encourages racism) even though I am white and have had a very good education: I can’t help being white and having a good education. Why does that prevent me from wanting to live in a society where you can be white and educated as well as black and educated? By questioning the system I am the product of, I am not a hypocrite. Rather, I am saying that I want the system to open up so that others are not discriminated against.

  • students need to know the rules before they can break them

Arguably and possibly. But this isn’t the point. The underlying issue about standards and rules relates again to which rules we have decided are universal and that everybody must subscribe to. For example, most of the EAP discourse I come across still foregrounds impersonal forms (e.g. the passive, no personal pronouns). But this ‘rule’ is only true of some academic writing traditions and rhetorical choices, not all. So, on what basis has EAP adopted this as a blanket rule for ‘academic writing’? A similar argument can be advanced for what counts as a standard paragraph, and so on (I’ve developed some of these ideas here and here). See also Turner pages 111 and 169

The significance of Turner’s work in this regard relates to what she calls the ‘taken for grantedness’ of writtenness, namely that we take good writing for granted. She says we are keener to notice and point out grammar mistakes when they intrude and interfere with our reading than we are to acknowledge the intellectual labour and ideologies that underpin the standards by which we judge ‘good writing’. In this respect, Turner refers  to the work of Mary Scott (page 234, my bold) :

She discerns an underlying critique of the assignments that students in the discipline of education are being asked to do, because they seem to necessitate a transferral of their home contexts of teaching to that of the United Kingdom. As the students feel unable to express their critique explicitly, Scott finds it in the multimodal resources they bring to their texts.

In other words, the ‘critique’, the intellectual labour, the analysis, the critical thinking, is there. It’s just not expressed the way we expect it to be or want it to be or prefer to be via the conventions of our standards of what counts as academic.

  • language is the best mode for academic argument

The fact that it is an historically established mode in Western academic culture does mean it is the best mode or the only mode, nor does it mean that we all understand the same thing by ‘argument’.

For example.

‘Argument’ has a long debated and contested history (see Stephen Toulim). It takes many forms and serves diverse purposes, yet we all talk about it as though we all and always mean the same thing by it. This is despite the fact that it ranges from analytical deductive propositional forms to full blown visuals, with an awful lot in between.

– Deductive arguments, whereby the conclusion is contained in the premises, can be expressed in two modes, propositions (language) or symbols (signs):

If all men (A) are mortal (B) and Socrates (C) is a man (A) then Socratese (C) is mortal (B)


If A=B and C=A then C=B

This is known as the transitive law and is a common feature of logical argumentation. It is one of the rarest forms of argument outside of mathematics and logic, yet we lambaste students for not being ‘logical’. Strictly speaking, we are asking them to do the impossible.

– Visual arguments are commonly deployed by lawyers who submit artifacts as evidence (videos, weapons, clothes) as powerful sensory and emotive proofs that build up to a conclusion (see Gilbert, Michael A. 1994. Multi-modal argumentation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24(2): 159–177.)

Arguments can also be deductive, inductive, abductive.

The point is that we tell our students we want them to present a ‘good argument’, but do we really know what we are are talking about?

So much for ‘clarity’, ‘precision’ and ‘transparency’ and for good prose being like a window pane.


Students get conflicting messages from us because in many cases, we ourselves (teachers, academics, subject specialists) don’t articulate what we mean by the language we use. We assume it is ‘clear and transparent’, but my simple examples above show that one of the most common words in academic discourse, ‘argument’ has several denotations.

This lack of clarity has several consequences for L2 students entering academia:

1. When students are confused by what we ask of them and about how realistically they can fulfill these expectations, and when their academic success is so massively high stakes, they are more likely to resort to ghostwriting agencies (Turner, pages 176-203)

2. By being unclear [sic] about the meaning, importance and boundaries of what counts as ‘legitimate proofreading’, we show just how imprecise language can be, we betray our ignorance of writtenness, of that highly complex and contested relationship that exists between form and content and the arbitrariness (‘fuzziness’, page 194) with which we decide what constitutes ‘legitimate help’ with writing: “When writtenness is reduced to grammatical accuracy” (pages 180 and 181) and when “Proofreading as a practice is less intellectual, and therefore the cost of writtenness is disguised by the cheaper intellectual price of proofreading (page 175)”, we undermine our own endeavours to teach academic writing.

3. Writing landsapes are mobile (pages 242, 252-3, 256-7). Whatever we are teaching at any given time will have to be re-learnt or adapted by the students when they enter new contexts. Because of this, teachers of writing need to educate about writing (page 242), so that students can deal with new contexts and new expections (page 242):

Arguably, [writing researchers] are more disposed to interrogate the assumptions of Western cultural rhetoric than might be the case for academics readings texts for arguments witin a specific disciplinary context

In other words, should writing researchers be educating the academics about writing?

In this regard, EAP tutors behave like handmaidens to the disciplines (what Raimes (1991) has called ‘the butler stance’), serving (training) rather than enlightening (educating), playing catch-up to try and capture what they think the disciplines do more than what their students need, are able to achieve, and possibly even want. On reason for this is that what EAP tutors are doing is (page 137, my bold):

at best offering ‘support’, at worst, remidial instruction. This creates a great deal of friction between EAP practitioners and their discipline-based colleages, as well as with the institutional management. […] I give examples of an ‘us and them’ ethos which arises because of it. For example, the notion that EAP practitioners play a defensive role, shielding academics from what is deemed poor English. Here, the status of their role is dimished by the perception that they are correctors or proofreaders, rather than doing substantial analytical and pedagogic work.

The ‘analytical and pedagogic work’ that Turner refers to above, is the work of education. I see EAP as educating about academia. This includes broaching a fuller range of conventions and academic traditions, but also educating the person, exploring dispositions and capabilities, and providing choices.

5. A further implication of her book is that some of the mess around writtenness and its standards might be cleared up by judging students against more realistic and humane criteria, criteria that fully acknowledge the effort they need to make to ‘sound native’ and criteria that respect their basic human right to fulfill their potential as a person, a person who is also multimodal, multilingual and multicultural.

4. This potential might include integrating their multilingualism into their academic writing. It might also include allowing students to communicate in modes other than language (Cook 2002: 335 cited in Turner, 2018, page 253):

The crucial implication for education is ensuring that the standards against which L2 users are measured should be L2 user standards, not L1 native speaker standards

“It is not a question of whether education should prepare for the future. If education is growth, it must progressively realise present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements” (page 56)

This would seem to suggest that students should be treated on their own terms, respected humanely and fairly for the experiences and knowledges they bring with them in the present (see the philosphy of John Dewey) and that their human capabilities (see Martha Nussbaum on ‘capabaility approach‘) should be nourished so they can fulfill their potential, which may to varying degrees, also coincide with the (imagined) requirements of a discipline:

The capability approach purports that freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of what people are able to do and to be, and thus the kind of life they are effectively able to lead. The capability approach is generally conceived as a flexible and multi-purpose framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being

L2 students are reductively branded as such: Language 2. What does this mean? English being their second language? Or their own language being of secondary importance? Again, these labels, what exactly do they designate?. In fact, they are often multilingual students, so perhaps ‘Ln‘ would be a more appropriate label (back to how ‘precise’ language is – not).

In labelling students, just as we blanket label them as ‘international’ (maybe a Spanish student seems herself as ‘Spanish’ not ‘international’ – we have re-defined ‘international’ to mean ‘not English’ which is totally arbitrary), rather than allowing them the space to label themselves, are we frustrating their capabilities (in the Nussbaumian sense) rather than nurturing them? Are we training them rather than educating them (see Dewey on an empassioned distinction between ‘education’ and training’ (pages 13 and 29).

5. Turner also calls for greater reader cooperation (page 13, 258-261):

I also critique the smooth read ideology and argue that, especially given the international use of English, it needs to be replaced with a more flexible, interpretative stance on the part of the reader. Rather than place the onus on the writer to provide a smooth read, the contemporary reader in international higher education needs to have the ability to cope with a rougher ride as it were, through a text.

6. We need more integration between what students bring to the university and what we want them to learn (see this article for a case study at Beirut University). This integration would be a way of valorising their previsous experiences and nourisshing their capabailities (Turner, pages 240-24):

Rather than ban the rheotrical preferences of other writing traditions, why not bring them in

7. We need to admit that we are all trying to work out where and if content and form merge. According to Turner (page 238, my bold):

The expectation for the smooth read is so taken for granted that it is particularly problemtic when the attention of academic readers is drawn to the prose itself, rather than the message being conveyed. It is also the barrier that militates against tolerance of difference in rhetorical styles, diversity in the use of English, and more flexible reading positions

Here, Turner implies that the medium is not message. This seems incompatible with the  modern media and communications tropes that the medium is the message and seems to muddy Turner’s waters: can we and should we separate the two? Is she saying that proofreading needs to separate form and content for it to be deemed ethical? This is where I think she muddles things (page 189):

proofreading is good if it priviliges content and bad if its role is to claim credit for grammatical accuracy. Such contradictions highlight the ambivalence and cocneptual fuzziness around the role that writtenness plays.

and then on page 194:

Some people seem to be able to make a clear-cut distinction, which social practices such as that of proofreading facilitate, but the divisions in practice are fluid and inconsistently made. Inconsitency and fuzziness extends also to assessment practices around writtenness as well as to assessment criteria

However, what I think matters here is that once we do separate content from form and deny that ‘the medium is the message’, we immediately open up the possibility for different forms of academic communication, dethroning language as the reigning mode. We democritise modes (the affordance of modes)

Final thoughts

This book needs to be understood within the broader tradition of Academic Literacies, Critical EAP, Post-colonial Studies, WAC/WAD (Writing Across the Curriculum/Disciplines) and Translanguaging (and the work of Suresh Canagarajah). It brings together much of what Joan Turner has already written about, which explains why many complex and contentious claims are not fully developed or referenced/justified. The book is part of an ongoing conversation in these literacy traditions and generated this Twitteration