What Are the Common Characteristics of “Academic” Writing?

All teachers who see the FYC course as an introduction to “academic” or “college” writing express (or at least imply) a definition of it. All too often that definition takes the form of reductive “rules” about style or organization that may apply to some academic writing, but that mislead students into thinking too simplistically or that just mislead. For example, the oft-repeated dictum “Don’t use ‘I’ in college papers” eliminates whole disciplines and ignores the changes in style, method, and point of view that have influenced all fields to some degree. Similarly, the common FYC arrangement pattern of ”thesis—supporting paragraphs—conclusion” oversimplifies or radically distorts the structures of the vast array of genres that students may be assigned across a curriculum.

I will cite in brief excerpt here two statements of characteristics of academic writing, each by a well-known scholar, and summarize a formulation of the most “essential” tasks of academic writing from a popular WAC-oriented FYC textbook. Among the features all three share is the sense that the commonalities of academic writing consist of attitudes and intellectual operations--not features merely of style or format. Note that all three leave unanswered—inevitably—specific questions about ideas, evidence, research methods, organization, and style that can only be answered in specific environments.

The first excerpt is from an essay by Patricia Bizzell:

“For one thing, such discourses employ a grapholect, the most formal and ultra-correct form of the participants’ native language, treating as ‘errors’ usages that would be unproblematic in casual conversation. Also, traditional academic genres shape whole pieces of writing, such as the lab report, the reflective journal, the critical essay, the research paper, and so on. Finally, the ones in power in the traditional academic community create discourses that embody a typical worldview. This worldview speaks through an academic persona who is objective, trying to prevent any emotions or prejudices from influencing the ideas in the writing. The persona is skeptical, responding with doubt and questions to any claim that something is good or true or beautiful. Not surprisingly, the persona is argumentative, favoring debate, believing that if we are going to find out whether something is true or good or beautiful, the only way we will do that is by arguing for opposing views of it, to see who wins. In this view, only debate can produce knowledge…Additionally, the persona is extremely precise, exacting, rigorous—if debate is going to generate knowledge, all participants must use language carefully, demonstrate their knowledge of earlier scholarly work, argue logically and fairly, use sound evidence, and so on.”

[from ALT.DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy, eds. Schroeder, Fox, and Bizzell. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook/Heinemann, 2002, p. 2]

The second, very brief, excerpt is from David Bartholomae’s 1985 essay “Inventing the University” (originally in When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems.  Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985, pp. 134-165; repr. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997, pp. 589-617):

“…the [academic] writer works against a conventional point of view, one that is represented within the essay by conventional phrases that the writer must then work against.” (p.607)

The summary is of Writing and Reading across the Curriculum, by Laurence Behrens and Leonard Rosen, now in its 8th edition from Longman. At the heart of this book is the teaching of three modes that the authors regard as “the essential college-level skills”: summary, critique, and synthesis (xxxiv). These skills answer what they see as four assumptions by faculty that they say “underlie practically all college writing assignments”:

·        that you can research and assess the value of relevant sources;

·        that you can comprehend college-level material, both print and electronic;

·        that you can synthesize separate but related sources;

·        that you can intelligently respond to such material. (xxxiii)

All three formulations show respect for the great diversity of possible assignments by not attempting to reduce academic writing to simple specifics. It is still the responsibility of the individual teacher to help students learn how to identify and act on the specific expectations in diverse classes. See my attached “rubric” for an outline of how teachers and students in FYC might conduct such an inquiry.


What Should First-Year Composition Students Learn about Writing across the Curriculum?

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