Is There An Academic In This Text? Or, How Do We Construct Student Writers?
By Marjorie Roemer
This paper attempts to re-see the role of academic writing
in the undergraduate curriculum. Comparing alternative understandings of academic
writing as well as the nature of academic performances and the role of the novice
in learning about them, it argues for a rhetorical awareness of the role of the
individual and the group in discourse communities. By helping students to understand
discursive structures (and our own passionate involvements in them), we help them
to have many lenses for viewing their worlds. This is both more ambitious and
more “basic” than memorizing the formulaic features of the five-paragraph
essay, which students often falsely imagine to be the ultimate achievement of
These remarks are a portion of the lecture offered on April 5, 2002 in the
Faculty Center at Rhode Island College on the occasion of receiving the Paul Maixner
Distinguished Teaching Award.
What is Academic Writing – And Why Don’t We Agree?
When I thought about how I might use this occasion productively, I realized
that it would be an opportunity for me to clarify some of the ways my field of
study, composition, understands the issues of academic writing for the undergraduate
student. As the Director of Writing here at RIC I have occasion, from time to
time, to hear faculty frustration about the quality of student writing. “Can’t
they be taught correct grammar?” I am asked, as though I had determined that
students wouldn’t master grammar and was, in some direct way, responsible
for every perceived error that faculty members encounter. On other occasions I
get to hear what faculty members think are defining features of academic writing,
and, of course, I have ample opportunities to learn what students think they have
learned about academic writing throughout their school careers.
I’d like, then, to start with what students tell me about academic writing.
(In preparation for this talk, I specifically asked two of my classes to tell
me what their ideas about academic writing were, exclusive of anything they might
have learned in my course.) Here are two typical statements. First, a response
from a first-year student:
The rules were very simple for our essays, and very formal too. Each started
off with the introductory paragraph which was where we introduced our “ONE
LINE THESIS.” Teachers seemed very particular about the fact that our theory
was summed up in one sentence. Then we would start off our body of the essay.
The section was divided into three parts. The first dealt with our strongest support
of our thesis, and often involved most of the quotations and paraphrasing from
the texts that we were given to formulate our opinion by.
Finally we concluded with the conclusion. Here we would sum up our essay’s
thesis and three examples. Occasionally we would address a situation refuting
our thesis but we never would spend much time on this due to the fact that the
purpose of our essay was to support our thesis. Once we finished, our teachers
always advised us to look over the essay to make sure we had written in a formal
fashion, one that had a strong thesis and had a perspective. We were forbidden
ever to use “I” or “me” in the essay.
Here is one of my graduate students, a high school teacher, describing academic
Academic writing is the five paragraph essay; intro. paragraph, thesis statement,
three main points substantiated with evidence and a conclusion. The longer, often
it seems, the better. Don’t use “I” or a narrative style. All points
need to be backed up with evidence; no opinion, little creativity. I think of
research papers and in-class essays. I find a lot of academic writing is repetitive
These comments seem to capture the general understanding: academic writing
is formulaic (and relies, in fact, on one formula for a very short paper), reductive,
devoid of creativity, and always suppresses the personal voice and even individual
opinion. What is striking in these descriptions is the fact that they focus entirely
on external features and external features of only a very narrow band of what
might be considered “school” writing rather than academic writing. In
these descriptions I do not recognize either the writing I do or the writing I
study. (So few significant thinkers are, in fact, using the five paragraph essay
these days, or what Janet Emig disparagingly called the “Fifty-Star theme.”)
These student definitions confirm observations made some time ago about the
limitations of school writing. In a study in British schools conducted by James
Britton and another study in American schools conducted by Arthur Applebee, transactional
writing (to convey information) and mechanical writing (filling in the blanks)
took precedence over any kind of reflective or speculative writing. Britton’s
comment on this was, “The small amount of speculative writing certainly suggests
that, for whatever reason, curricular aims did not include the fostering of writing
that reflects independent thinking; rather, attention was directed towards classificatory
writing which reflects information in the form in which both teacher and textbook
traditionally present it (as quoted in Fulwiler, 8).
When serious compositionists try to identify what it is we teach students in
courses called “Introduction to Academic Writing,” their remarks are
very different from any that my students offer. They are more apt to come up with
descriptions like these (taken from the introductions to three very successful
contemporary composition texts). These come from some of the most popular and
highly regarded texts on the teaching of first-year writing.
Because we as writers are always composing new meanings, writing helps us
find and establish our own knowledge and ideas. It allows us to bring together
and connect new and old ideas: as we discover and understand new concepts, writing
helps us relate them to other ideas. Thus, writing helps us test, clarify, and
extend our understanding of the world (The Concise Guide to Writing, Axelrod and
* * *
We believe that to flourish in the academy, you must learn to read, write,
and think like a member of the academic community. So Writing As Reflective Action
is a collection of essays designed to engage you in reflective and reflexive reading,
writing, and critical thinking, practices vital to academia. Being able to function
in academia is not the whole story, however, because there is a larger community
within which you must also live and work – the world at large. It is our
belief, given a world as complex, diverse, and sometimes difficult as ours, that
students benefit from an education that helps them both to survive in the academy
and to become thoughtful, caring, and productive members of society. To these
ends, we invite you to engage in extended reflection and reflexivity, collaborative
learning, informal writing and formal writing, writing for the academy, and writing
in service to or in relationship with the community in which you live (Carter
and Gradin, 2).
* * *
In every case, then, the materials we provide to direct your work on the
essay or story will have you constructing a reading, but then doing something
with what you have read – using the selection as a frame through which you
can understand (through which you can “read”) your own experience, the
examples of others, or the ideas and methods of other writers (Reading the Lives
of Others, Bartholomae and Petrosky, 12).
What are some of the salient differences, then, between what my students seem
to have learned and what contemporary compositionists would wish to have taught
them?. In each of the composition texts there is the expectation that writing
will lead to new knowledge. In each, that new knowledge will be the result of
connections. New and old will be joined, a text will be read and it will be related
to and understood in terms of other texts, including the text of our own experience.
Finally, the compositionists suggest a rhetorical dimension (especially in the
middle example). Writing will lead us to think about purposes and audiences. In
my students’ comments there are no such concerns. The writing described is
pure demonstration; it is not inquiry and it is not a testing, clarification,
or extension of present thought. There is no space for speculation and certainly
no space for the “undecidable,” the lack of closure that so much contemporary
thought evokes. But most signficantly, nowhere in these student comments is there
a space for the rhetorical awareness that would understand the role that a discourse
community might have in prompting one sort of utterance rather than another.
How has this state of affairs come into existence? While compositionists are
as divided and contentious as the next group of academics, no one who considers
himself or herself “in the field” would argue for the kind of pedagogy
that most students seem to have internalized. I have to believe that, as in the
case of skill and drill approaches to grammar, there is a “commensensical
lore” that persists in spite of all research and knowledge to the contrary,
and students are absorbing forms and beliefs about writing that haven’t been
credible in the field for the last one hundred years.
RIC Faculty’s Testimony
What do conversations with RIC faculty reveal? (And let me say immediately
that our responses are not in any way divergent from similar conversations all
over the country.) Last January at the Faculty Development Workshop there was
a session called ”Writing Cultures: Discipline-Based Voices, Rules, and Expectations,” an attempt (and a very promising and important attempt) to look at writing in
different disciplines and to begin to talk about how disciplinarity structures
writing in different ways. The thrust of the conversation was mainly on different
external forms of writing – that is, in social work one might be preparing
students to write the case report, or in management it might be the proposal.
However, when the whole group began to talk about what might be common to these
forms or how we might generalize about these forms, we began to move away from
rhetorical considerations (audience awareness, tailoring language to different
constituencies, purposes); instead the group tended to focus again on grammatical
correctness, as though that were the only essential core in writing. Language
use is much more than a handbook mastery of syntax. Yet, it is so easy (in fact,
almost natural) when we read a set of papers or talk about writing to focus exclusively
on the tangible accessible surface and to focus little on the more salient and
more significant internal structures. In the course of this conversation on writing
cultures, one member of the panel made the following comment (I paraphrase): Journal
writing is useful for reflecting and learning about new material, but it is not
useful as academic writing because it lacks formal features.
This paper is, in large measure, a response to that comment. Academic writing
for academics is largely about positioning our own views in a field in which we
have a stake. Our writing may, and does, take many different forms: the language
of the psychologist’s article is quite different from the literary critic’s
essay. The lab report is not an ethnography. The review article is not a case
study. Genres are central to our understanding of appropriate language, syntax,
even rules of evidence and methods of argumentation. In each and every field we
need to learn genres explicitly. Learning a field is, in many ways, learning how
to talk in that field – the occasions, the purposes, the audience expectations,
the accumulated power of traditions and conventions. But a discourse entails not
just conventions, forms, manners, if you will. A discourse entails a worldview,
a way of seeing and understanding, a lens for examining. In the array of courses
that we offer students, they come to study those different lenses: what it means
to examine life as a sociologist or an anthropologist, as a psychologist or a
physicist. Our students are, in fact, not academics; they are novices, and part
of their task is to try on different possibilities, to assimilate new ideas and
incorporate them into their existing schema. Journal writing, or other forms of
informal writing, may be the most academic thing they can do – journals prompt
inquiry, the single most important activity for minds wrestling with new models
and new conceptions. Professional schools and graduate schools teach students
how to become literary scholars, or chemists, or philosophers, but much of undergraduate
education is about exploring new ideas and making them meaningful in terms of
one’s own experience. For this task, informal writing may be a very effective
means of assimilating an academic perspective.
I’d like to suggest, too, that only the tiniest proportion of our graduates
will spend their lives writing academic papers, actually using the MLA style sheet
or the Chicago Style Manual, but 100% of our students will have the necessity
to understand the world that surrounds them with the sophisticated textual strategies
that come from our courses. So, on the one hand, we can think of our students
as novice academics, or on the other, as not academics at all, but we surely must
think of them all as citizens who have the right to read their experience through
the lenses of our fields of specialization. They need access to contemporary discourses
to shape their own subjectivities in a contemporary world.
Some Ways to Look at the Larger Picture
Shirley Brice Heath, anthropologist, linguist, social historian, professor
at Stanford and MacArthur fellow, offers what I have found to be a particularly
useful formulation in her text Ways with Words when she describes school literacy
as ‘decontextualization and recontextualization of knowledge.’ She explains
that the children who succeed in school separate and name discrete items and features
of experience and can then retrieve this information and re-categorize specific
features. “In essence, this process enables the child to view each new referent
out of its context, and to approach it with decontextualized labels of identification
and attribution, rather than only with contextualized responses which link it
to specific dated events or situations” (351-52). Maybe an example would
help: Heath demonstrates the difference between children whose knowledge is largely
associational and context-specific and those children who, from the earliest moments
are encouraged to isolate specific features or characteristics of what they see.
In the first case, the children focus on the links between things – when
they saw the fire truck – what they were doing – they build a gestalt
of experience. In the second case, they focus on qualities of the fire truck – it was red – it had a siren – there are others like it. Schools tend
to value this second kind of categorizing knowledge.
In most fields of study, we are observing discrete data, taking them out of
one context and examining them and understanding them in relation to another context
that we erect from our prior reading or study, from the lens of a discipline.
So the psychologist might observe human behavior, isolate certain features, and
recontextualize those features in terms of diagnostic descriptions promulgated
in the field. The literary analyst detaches certain features of a text to examine
the patterns they constitute, often through reference to some other body of knowledge
which gives those patterns particular meaning. So, in this paper I collect certain
comments about writing and try to place them in the context of some other ideas
about discourse and learning.
To pursue this just a bit further I would like to examine with you some examples
of our own academic performances. In preparing for this talk, I read many of the
past Thorp and Maixner lectures, trying to get a feel for this particular genre,
which seemed to me to be a singular one. In every lecture that I read I noted
that the speaker felt compelled to situate himself or herself very explicitly.
So, in April, 2000 Barbara Schapiro, accepting the Thorp Award said, “Though
at times tedious and grueling, my work is also for me a passion. It is indeed
a fascination with human passion that led me to my particular field – the
application of contemporary psychoanalytic theory to the critical analysis and
appreciation of literature” (FASRIC 2000, 21). And Edythe Anthony in 1998
said, “In choosing Pasteur’s quotation to focus on today, [“In
matters of observation chance favors the prepared mind.”] I also gave some
thought to why I had bothered years ago to carefully cut these particular words
from an advertisement. After all, I usually open my mail over the trashcan! So,
these bold letters must have impressed me before they even came close to the rim.
Furthermore, they are the only such words of wisdom that appear on my file cabinet.
This kind of treatment suggests that the passage has personal relevance – a connection to my own life “ (FASRIC, 1998, 16).
Connections are the key, and passion fuels our work. But what is it that these
scholars do when presenting their work to an audience of peers? Professor Schapiro
begins by telling us something about the unconscious and the ways that psychoanalysis
as a critical tool might “lead the reader beyond the surface story.” She then offers readings from Hardy and from D.H. Lawrence. In each case she pulls
very specific details from the texts and reads them through the lens of psychoanalytic
theory, suggesting in each case what is going on beneath the surface of the text.
In Professor Anthony’s lecture, the Pasteur quote serves to introduce a narrative
about how a project that began with the examination of the brains of rats was
later applied to the brains of bats and led to an important discovery in part
because of something remembered from endocrinology class about a minute, microscopic
part of the brain, the median eminence. One of Professor Anthony’s points
is to illustrate what she calls the “capricious nature of discovery” and that we can’t know what our students will need in advance.
In each of these lectures the speaker enacts her work by sharing a discrete
example of what she does: isolating some features in her reading or observation
of data and recombining those features through access to other schema. I take
it that academic thinking always involves such moves. It has become fashionable
to refer to this as “critical thinking,” but that name seems to me often
to serve as a mask rather than an investigative tool. Getting at what we mean
by critical thinking takes more work and probably can’t proceed very far
unless we consider it field by field, discipline by discipline. For me, three
things were evident in my study of these two lectures:1) the materials and the
means for study were utterly unlike (one speaker was a literary critic and the
other a biologist); 2) the operations they were performing were very similar in
that both involved decontextualization and recontextualization – and the
recontextualizing was connected to schemata developed or developing within their
fields of study (that is, these were the property of a community, not an individual);
and 3) each was passionately and individually involved in the processes she described
and each gave testimony to her own place in this work.
Academic occasions allow us, then, to work from within a discipline, a discourse
community, and yet to make what we deem to be an individual contribution. Speaking
as a sociologist, we can, in fact, also speak as a person, a particular sociologist
with a particular history in the field. When we consider what academic writing
and academic occasions are for our students we need to think both about community
and individuals. What is the discourse community that the student comes from,
where is he (or she) in the process of appropriating the language and the habits
of mind of the new discourse community (our field or discipline)? How can we provide
opportunities that allow the novice writer to enter the mind set, the characteristic
moves, the language and the development of thought that mark one as “inside” the field? How does this writer come to have the tools (or even to understand
what it means in this field) to decontextualize and to recontextualize? What data
are he (or she) looking for, and what schema will he (or she) invoke to understand
the data in new ways? These are the larger tasks of academic writing, and they
are the ones that we often take for granted and don’t teach explicitly, in
part because we are often ill-equipped ourselves to examine these features of
our own discourse. This is what compositionists call rhetorical awareness.
The ”rhetorical turn” or the “social turn” in composition
studies is not new. What is more prominent in discussions within the field now
is the place of the personal within the disciplinary. The concept of agency has
been a troubling one in postmodern theory – if we can’t escape our own
ideological situatedness, how can we do more than replicate what has already formed
us? Robert Scholes offered us an answer early on: “the way to see one discourse
is to see more than one” (662). He charged us with making our students aware
of discursive structures by having them read and write in a range of discursive
modes. Shrinking the world of discourse to the five-paragraph theme won’t
do it. The ways we write, the ways we position ourselves as speakers, the suppositions
that we take for granted, the assumptions of our fields are all part of the discursive
structures that we inhabit, which both enable and constrain our work.
If we follow Henry Giroux in thinking that “Education must be understood
as the production of identities in relation to the ordering, representation, and
legitimation of specific forms of knowledge and power” (73) then we must
take much more seriously the ways that we construct and position student writers.
Our students are not yet academics (and they may never be academics). So the
answer to the question of my title is that for students there is not yet an academic
in the text. There is an apprentice learning what it is to be an academic and,
more importantly, learning new ways of thinking by trying on these roles. It is
important that students learn about our fields through their own attempts to write
in our disciplines, and that means not fake school tasks that ask only for recall
and correct syntax, but impassioned efforts to make new connections and to extend
their own understandings by applying the techniques and specialized tools of our
particular kinds of inquiry. Teaching students to affect a distanced, “objective” tone and to only mouth what has already been validated by authority often amounts
to teaching them to be disengaged and cynical.
I consider myself an academic, but I have on this occasion not followed the
rules my students have imagined as THE rules for academic writing: no one line
thesis in the introductory paragraph, no three part division of the subject to
structure the whole, no suppression of the personal voice and assumption of a
distanced objectivity, and no insistence on only formal diction throughout. And
those academics who have preceded me on this occasion have not abided by those
rules either. In my text and those of my colleagues that I’ve cited, the
work of academics is illustrated as an engaged, passionate immersion in ongoing
conversations, placing our experience in broader contexts of ideas, projects,
and theories that precede us. To be an academic is to join a sometimes cacophonous
conversation and to try to make a contribution that can be understood in the context
of that conversation.
I wish my students had much richer and less tidy accounts of what they’ve
learned about academic writing.
Axelrod, Rise and Charles Cooper. The Concise Guide to Writing, 2nd ed.. New
York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Reading the Lives of Others. New York:
St. Martin’s, 1995.
Carter, Duncan and Sherrie Gradin. Writing as Reflective Action. NY: Longman,
Fulwiler, Toby. Teaching With Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
Giroux, Henry. Border Crossings. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways With Words Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1983.
Scholes, Robert. “Is there a Fish in This Text?” College English
Copyright © 2002 Marjorie Roemer
Is There An Academic In This Text? Or, How Do We Construct Student Writers?,
Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.
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