Do I Believe in Academic Writing?

Over the last year, I’ve come to see more clearly the fallacy, the siren call, and the truth that is “Academic Writing.”

Oh, certainly it exists — academic writing is writing done by academics or scholars for professional academic/scholarly/knowledge-creation & dissemination purposes.  The issue that I’m more interested in, however, is not whether it exists, but to what extent it exists as a broadly teachable & transferable genre, especially in the context of FYC and General Education.

Here’s the list of problems that I see, in no particular order:

  • Academic writing sounds like a nice, clear genre, especially for purposes of assessment and program review. (And certainly we, as academics, know what we mean when we say it)
  • Genres are incredibly and notoriously difficult to clearly define and mark off.
  • Academic writing, even if it is a genre, is too much of an umbrella genre (like nonfiction) to be a helpful or meaningful distinction for student writers.
  • Academic writing, as an umbrella genre, contains and makes use of many different rhetorical moves, ways of knowing, methods of inquiry, and the like.  Though many of these are held in common by subgenres, there are very, very few that are fully and broadly transferable.
  • Academic writing, as an umbrella genre made up of a multitude of highly mixed and ever-changing genres, discourse communities, and discursive practices, is something that no single instructor (usually trained in English, often specifically in Composition and Rhetoric or Technical Communication) can realistically be expected to introduce student writers to (“teach”), because they don’t have backgrounds in all of those discourse communities.
  • Transference in writing/literacy practice does exist, but is problematic and the process is often oversimplified. (Alex Reid wrote a great post about this and the larger issue I’m grappling with.)  The transfer isn’t easy or obvious, because it takes a great deal of practice and experience writing in different contexts and for different purposes.  As Steven Krause points out, though students might be writing a lot, and even in different ways, they don’t always make the transfer.
  • Most student writers won’t ever do (however much we might dream) “real” academic writing as most college educators conceive of it–they generally don’t have the background in a particular discipline’s theory, terminology, and methodology to do original academic work (an oft-cited goal).

So, back to my title question: Do I Believe in Academic Writing?  Yes. That’s like not believing in Fiction.  It undoubtedly exists as a set of practices and objects and as a kind of abstract genre.

Do I Believe Academic Writing is Teachable in FYC?  No.  Not as some pure abstract genre that can be defined, demarcated, illuminated, and practiced over the course of fifteen weeks to an extent that students can reasonably be expected to practice it two or three years after FYC.

So, what am I teaching? What’s the point of my “Composition and Research” course? (Which, by the way, contains the following course description–one I largely wrote myself:

Required for all degree programs, this course continues the study and practice of expository writing begun in English 1310, and will focus intensively on academic writing and conducting scholarly inquiry.  Classes, limited in size, are workshops with individual instruction.

Ostensibly, it’s to teach the “research paper,” a genre that’s just as murky as “academic writing.”  Fully aware that these genres are not just arbitrary but perhaps fictional, what am I teaching?  I’d like to think it’s something like this, which appears on the assignment sheet for my iSearch assignment:

The point here is not to prepare you for some neatly defined genre of “academic essay” that you’ll all have to write in your future college career—there’s not one, and there’s certainly not one that all of you will write in your varied majors and thus can reasonably expect to practice in a course taught by someone who doesn’t write in those discourse communities.  Instead, it’s to get you to focus on the process of asking interesting questions or pointing out problems, rigorously looking for answers or solutions, and communicating those results in a thorough and well-written manner.  I’m just as interested in your research as I am in your writing—we’re going to attend to both.


Musings unformed, ill-formed, and incomplete…


One thought on “Do I Believe in Academic Writing?

  1. I’m interested in your thoughts here… Since were “deconstructing” the current model of FYC, I’m wondering what you’ve been thinking might replace this model.

    I,too, often worry that we’re teaching students antiquated methods of writing, researching, etc. I’m just not quite sure what models might replace the “academic paper” and “research paper.”

    Rather than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” I wonder if part of the problem is that the “academic paper” has been “current traditionalized” to the extent that it’s completely de-contextualized to the extent of absurdity. (3-5 sentences, no “I” in the paper, no subject headings…)

    The struggle comes from getting students to consider their writing in class in part of a larger rhetorical context…Maybe the blog might be a way to help them make that transition. Hmm… now I’m thinking about stuff… (it’s too early in the morning for all this “thinking.”)

    Which brings me to my next question: When you gonna start making the conference circuit with us?!? We all need to hang out and have some beers… 🙂 (FRS in February? I still want to do a panel if you’re game.)

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