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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 academic prose.

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.

Students’ Testimony

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 writing:

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 and dense.

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).

Compositionists’ Testimony

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 Cooper, 2).

* * *

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.

Academic Occasions

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, 1999.

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 46.7(1984).

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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