Intersemiosis, and other #acwri affordances

Another NtM with regard to Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing

An EAP (English for Academic Purposes) tutor recently asked me – whilst he was marking a student essay on the likelihood of solar energy replacing nuclear – whether the many images and graphs that the writer had integrated into the main body of his essay should more appropriately have been relegated to the end of his paper, as Appendices. When I asked the tutor why he felt these should be in an Appendix, he replied that he thought that ‘academic writing should not have many images’.

This response adds to a long list of other commonly-held beliefs about what makes writing ‘academic’ that I often hear in the staff rooms I frequent. These include, inter alia, the need to avoid ‘I’ and phrasal verbs; to write abstracts in the present simple; to standardise paragraph length; and more recently, to ensure that all paragraphs follow an inductive/deductive structure. Much as I understand what motivates this well-intentioned advice for novice writers, it doesn’t sit well when these same novice writers are reading academic texts that flout these conventions. An example of this flouting is considered here.


  • either we tell students that what they are reading is not academic (which is absurd, since they are reading published academic work);
  • or we tell them that they are not to use real academic writing as a model to aspire to (equally absurd, since: a) what else could/should they be reading?; and b) on what grounds would their tutors’ exemplars count as good models?);
  • or, we engage in a more complex, slow, reflective and nuanced conversation about meaning-making, semiotics, affordances, disciplinary conventions and agentic choices (all of which are far too time-consuming and abstract for the average quick-fix, fee-dependent academic writing course).

To go back to the ‘images in the Appendix’ example above, it struck me that if as teachers of academic writing we had a much better understanding and knowledge of the rich heritage that our discipline belongs to, then we would be in a far better position to discuss textual choices with students. For example, if as teachers we were knowledgeable of the fact that visuals can also be ‘read’, we might be in a better position to advise and assess student writing.


Intersemiosis, for instance, might count as one of the threshold concepts that we would need to meaningfully teach academic writing (see previous post). Roherich (2016: 195) explains ‘intersemiosis’ from a Systemic Functional perspective (c.f. Halliday, Martin, Rose). The following quote captures his argument:

Visual description allows for communication that is impossible with words alone. Without writing, ideas conveyed through images have a different impact. They have a symbiotic relationship, providing affordances for meaning making.

Similarly, Borg and Boyd Davis (2012: 22, my bold), in their historical snapshot of how academic communication has changed over the last 400-or-so years – from oral, to written, to printed, to digital – claim that:img_20160927_174114

If the dissertation is at least in part about visual evidence, the author must be free to bring that evidence to the eyes of the reader. It is normal in dissertation regulations for such pictorial and diagrammatic material to be admitted into the document. Whereas at one time the regulations might have stipulated that such graphics be placed separately at the end of the dissertaion text, now quite rightly, it is normal for the opposite to be stipulated: that the illustrations should appear at the point in the text where they are most pertinent.


The more I read about the history of how academic writings have evolved and have come to be what we know them to be, the more I see diversity and mobility even in our current practices, and the more I become aware of the socio-semiotic meanings and transformations that writing affords.

Academic writing was not always so and won’t always be so.

Academic writing is not a finite set of static skills that can be carried over from one context to another with no alteration in meanings or in ‘epistemological committment’ (Kress 2003 cited in Archer: 95): in other words, choosing to insert an image (a graph, diagram, photo) commits us to meanings that words do not afford. Using an image rather than a sentence is a way of undermining the supremacy of language (logos) in building an academic argument. That is an epistemological stance (or commitment).

This is why I find it so hard to engage with popular academic writing textbooks – such as this widely used one. The reason for this difficulty stems, I think, from the fact that our academic writing task constructs require students to read original (secondary) research so that they can write an academic research paper. And when they then read authentic academic writing as part of their bibliographic research, what they read  often doesn’t neatly map onto the prescriptions handed out by us, their writing tutors.

So, how does one capture such #acwri complexity and do justice to the richness and possibilities of academic communication without flattening its scope and diversity? How can the teaching of academic writing also become a way of puzzling over these issues rather than having to always standardise, simplify, conventionalise and reduce complexity to a series of finite steps and rules to follow?

(Answers on the back of a stamp, please 😉


Archer, A. (2016) ‘Multimodal Academic Argument: Ways of Organising Knowledge across Writing and Image’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston

Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design, by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, second edition, (2006). Routledge, ISBN 0-415-31915-3.

Roehrich, L. (2016) ‘Intersemiosis in Science Textbooks’ in Multimodality in Higher Education (Archer and Odilia Breuer Eds.) Brill: Leiden/Boston


8 thoughts on “Intersemiosis, and other #acwri affordances”

  1. Interesting read. Unfortunately I can’t answer your question, but can partly blame EAP or English for General Purposes text books (similar to link provided) and syllabi for the drive for conventions and rules, when, as we know, different subject areas have different conventions e.g. use of images and ‘I’. I believe we need to develop as ESAP practitioners and gain greater insight into different subject areas, better prepare our students to become part of their academic community, and support our students in identifying the conventions in their subject areas.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Jennifer.

      Maybe you are right that EGAP distorts academic discourse and that all writing instruction should be disciplinary (I read somewhere that there is no such thing as ‘generic writing’ – cf the 5-paragraph-essay). I honestly don’t know, though. Part of me thinks that ESAP and EGAP are qualitatively different and that as such, their uniquely identifying aims need to be better clarified.

      But given that general EAP does exist and is unlikely to go away (since it generates significant momentum in both the publishing industry and as a provider of academic study skills), then what kind of writing should it be teaching? What theories of writing should EAP be informed by (eg skills-based or social practice theories such as those underpinning academic literacies/New Literacies? Process, product, genre approaches?) and how should EAP be teaching writing (eg project-based; task-based; research-based; collaborative)? And on what basis should a provider decide which theory of writing is the one for them? And what then should be the academic and professional profile of an EAP teacher?

      I have the impression from my own experiences that general EAP tries to capture everything that academic writing is – in a sort of magpie scatter-gun approach – but then only values one genre of academic writing (eg the essay) reifying it above all other forms and mis-representing what academic writing is in the process.

      I sometimes wonder whether it might be best (and more honest) to teach ‘about’ academic writing, if that makes sense … maybe more ‘reading about writing’, than writing per se.

      I’m sure there are people out there who are getting it right! My experience is relatively narrow.

      Thanks again for your thoughts …

  2. Hi Julia

    Interesting post. On the topic of flouting academic conventions, I think one challenge we face is that previously these conventions were kept relatively stable by the presence of editorial staff at journals. Fewer and fewer journals make use of paid editorial staff in the journal publishing process. This means that the “guardianship” of academic conventions such as “one sentence paragraphs are not acceptable in academic writing” now depends on reviewers, many of whom have neither the time nor the inclination to provide feedback on conventions.

    This may be a good thing in some respects because not all conventions can be clearly shown to have functional value. However, it may also not be such a good thing because some valuable conventions may not maintained because relevant feedback is not provided.

    We often make the assumption that published writing is “good” simply on the grounds that it has been published, but there is a difference between good ideas and well expressed ideas. Many authors of journal articles are novices in the genre of writing journal articles and rely on support from reviewers and editors to help them express their ideas well. I think we can be less and less sure now how many journal article authors receive such support. Therefore, we probably should not assume that a published writer who has flouted conventions has done so intentionally. I think we can safely say that even published writers may still wrestle with expression and in the interest of being DONE (what a beautiful word) may hand things in for publication that may not always match the register or stylistic expectations of readers. In sum, this is more support for the need for “a more complex, slow, reflective and nuanced conversation” about writing.


    1. Thanks, Diane, for focusing specifically on the perspective of the journal editors.

      I think you are absolutely right to point out that much gatekeeping of academic discourse and style (‘house style’) has traditionally been the remit of editors – one reason being, of course, that the English language has never been policed by a language academy (like French) and, therefore, it has historically been the job of publishers, lexicographers and editors to stabilise it. And although I’m not making the assumption that a published writer is deliberately, or even knowledgeably, flouting conventions when they do break from tradition, I’m equally not assuming that they are mistaken (or that the editor has missed a howler): the examples I gave in a previous post indicate, I think, that the authors did know what they were doing and that their editors were attentive.

      Your comments reminded me that Since Helen Sword published her ‘Stylish Academic Writing’ in 2012, the idea of zombified academic writing (achieved through the unprincipled use of nominalisation) has become a household horror metaphor for academic writers (another influential book is by Hyot’s ‘The Elements of Academic Style’). To my mind, this suggests that academic writers (both novice and expert) can become and are sensitised to the choices they have, even when prevailing or established conventions seem to be prescribing contrary advice.

      In any case, in this post I wasn’t intending to suggest that published work counts as ‘good writing’ in virtue of its being published (I’m sorry if I gave that impression); rather, it was a speculative point about how to navigate classroom discourse when students are reading things that don’t match what we tell them and about how knowledgeable we, as their tutors, have to be about writing in order to help them make sense of – as opposed to steering them away from – the range and diversity of academic writing that there is out there: @jennifer_sizer, in her comments, is right to point out that we need to be knowledgeable about disciplinary discourses even in an EGAP context; and I was arguing that we also need to understand multimodal literacies, such as intersemiosis, because so much academic literacy is, de facto, multimodal.

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