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:
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 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