What makes writing ‘academic’?: to question, or not to question?

My PhD research is all geared up to answer this question, and I am using this, and other posts in the blog, as a form of personal and public reflective note-taking, hoping to track my thinking, and get your reactions.

The question is relevant to me in three contexts/identities:

– having been a student who has had to write ‘academically’ (from school to my MEd)

– being a teacher of ‘Academic’ English

– being a researcher of ‘Academic’ Writing

As a student, I was obliged to conform to academic conventions; as a teacher, I am obliged to re-enforce these norms; as a researcher, I am obliged to critically engage, i.e. question, them.

I admit that these three identities conflict, and that I am navigating what each day (i.e. each lesson and reading) brings to my attention.

I have been reading Shaughnessy (1998: 3) who says something that I have heard ad infinitum but have never found the reference for, until now:

… learners are perceived (…) as empty vessels, ready to be filled with new knowledge. Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.

Her basic message is that we (teachers) see students of writing as students who have ‘problems’ (she refers to the medical metaphors of writing ‘clinics’, ‘remedial’ classes, ‘diagnostic’ tests).

But right now, it is me (the teacher and researcher) who has a ‘problem’ with this….

Mary Scott has come to my rescue in many ways because she has helped me to articulate what might be wrong with seeing students as ’empty vessels’ and as ‘remedial’ cases.

Scott (2014: 215) invokes the metaphor of ‘ghosts’ in the text. These, she says, are ‘errors’ that manifest themselves as spectres (spirits) of ‘fertile facts’ (drawing on Virgina Woolf). What seems like an error to me (the teacher), is actually the tip of a student’s complex academic and social literacy that needs to be understood, rather ‘corrected’.

The teacher in me, however, says ‘standards are standards’ and that we must fix the error; but the reseacher in me says ‘what exactly are these standards?’.

This dilemma is sharply captured in Thesen and Cooper Eds (2014) who refer to ‘contact zone’ writing, the academic writing of students from multiliterate backgrounds, of students, that is, who are increasingly becoming the norm in the 21st century academy and who bring with them ‘fertile facts’, not errors. This whole collections of essays is about what risks we can take in academic writing (I strongly recommend it).

I have also been inspired (as a student/teacher/researcher) by a Radio 4 interview with the Master of Eton College, Tony Little, who towards the end of his interview shares a poignant story: it is about one of his brilliant students who upon sitting an entry exam for Oxford, failed. He failed because he saw a flaw in the exam question, questioned the question, and answered his own, corrected version, of the question. He was bascially punished for being ‘critically engaged with the form of the question’ (I so related to this story: I have agonised, as a student, over the ambiguities of exam questions and over the assumptions that underlie them).

If the ‘academic’ in Academic Writing in any way means ‘critical questioning’, then where do we draw the boundaries of what is acceptable academic writing behaviour/framing of knowledge?

Your reactions, please!


  • Shaughnessy, M.P. (1998) ‘Diving in: an Introduction to Basic Writing’ in Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Scott, M. (2014) ‘Error’ or Ghost Text’ in Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, their Theachers and the Making of Knowledge, Multilingual Matters
  • BBC Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04fc707 (Interview with master of Eton College on what makes Eton so special)



3 thoughts on “What makes writing ‘academic’?: to question, or not to question?”

  1. In the preface to his Rhetoric of Irony (1974), Wayne Booth says something that has really defined “academic” writing and reading for me: “I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…”

    I think this is a good way of putting the focus where it belongs when we’re talking about specifically academic writing: the claims authors make and the support they offer for them.

    It’s interesting that you seem to be more forgiving about errors in student writing than in the phrasing of exam questions. I always tell students that when they read an exam question they should always try to interpret it as a good question. “Given the course I’ve just taken,” the students should ask themselves, “how is this question interesting?” How does it allow them to demonstrate that they’ve read the course materials and understood the lectures? This act of interpretative “charity” actually simulates what scholars do when reading each other’s work. One presumes that it is framed by a shared body of knowledge and field of interest. And one makes sense of the words from that point of view.

    Sometimes an error in a student’s writing demonstrates a complex and valuable engagement with a difficult source text. When grading, we forgive the error (though it does sometimes warrant being pointed out) and focus on the knowledge that made it possible to even be wrong in that specific way. This, too, is something that happens all the time in the scholarly literature. We let people get away with all sorts of things because we know that our awareness of their error is based on a very esoteric reading of a particular corner of the literature. The author, we recognise, is making a conventional mistake that “haunts” the writing of many of our peers. One day we’ll figure out a way of exorcising it. But for now, we just let it go and read others for their substantive contributions.

    I think academic writing (and reading) is characterised by an interest in claims and their support. It’s when we realise that the student (or peer) is not making any definite claim, or making all sorts of claims but providing no support, that we need to “correct” them on the grounds that they’re not performing to the standard. So long as there is something there to understand, I agree with you that our first responsibility is to engage with them at that level. Of course, we may mis-understand them. And this isn’t always the fault of our reading, but their writing. And that’s why all this has to happen in an ongoing conversation.

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