Friday, March 29, 2013

The Nutting and Bolting of Academic Writing

If you were to ask me what distinguishes academic prose from other forms of writing, my answer would probably be very general. I would say something about tone, level of formality, structure, the kinds of topics, the use of sources, and other such things that might be true, but are unhelpful to an English language learner (ELL). What this means, is that when I teach writing, especially academic literacy, I am only helping my students on the macro, not on the micro level. Following Krashen and Swain (understanding that both of their work has been developed for AL rather than literacy), I have believed that copious amounts of academic input, followed by controlled output mimicking that style, would allow learners to naturally internalize and emulate the conventions of academic style.

But how can our ELLs be expected to mimic and emulate the style, when we constantly denounce plagiarism and give dire warnings of how they will fail if they copy? How can we talk out of both sides of our mouths? “You need to copy the style but not the exact contents,” we may say, but that is a hair-splitting distinction that probably makes no sense at all to a learner.

Which brings us to Swales & Feak’s book, Academic Writing for Graduate Students. This book does not tell me anything I do not already know. But I know it implicitly, from internalizing and mimicking it as I mentioned above. This approach has worked well for me, but that does not make it appropriate for ELLs. The book makes the implicit explicit, and opens my awareness of how it works in the micro level. The explicit knowledge can lead to explicit instruction, helping me to create assignments and tasks that practice these micro-level skills, building confidence in their language tools, thus feeling free to mimic without plagiarizing. What they are mimicking is not a sentence, but the ability to use a Latinate verb instead of a phrasal verb. By being specific on how academic prose functions and how it differs, the common threads we want learners to imitate start as explicit knowledge, then become automatic as the ELL writer grows in experience.

The tasks and language focus boxes given in the text provide what will probably be an ELL’s first solid look at the mechanical side of academic prose. If the student has already done some reading of academic books and journal articles (which should be some level of precursor to writing), they will recognize some of them already. Furthermore, if they do the exercises individually, review them together, and complete some extension exercises, they should be able to recognize them more easily in reading and expand their knowledge beyond the cases shown in the book. My own immediate recognition of the patterns shown convince me that the authors have done a careful and thorough job of noting and clearly explaining essential features of academic writing.

APA Corner: Title Page

The title page is your first impression. Mistakes on this section predispose the reader to judge your work more critically because you have created an image of yourself as sloppy, lacking professionalism and attention to detail. How might that carry into your research itself? Do not neglect this page. The advice on the title was interesting, as I tend to try to make a literary title, with some lyrical or referential aspect to draw interest. I suppose this comes from my undergraduate background in the humanities. Something I will have to retrain as I shift to the world of social sciences, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. I would also protest that we create as much academic language as we reproduce it, and I have always disagreed with the argument that we must master something before we can be creative. No, I say, we must be creative through and through. So what if we don't perfectly master somebody else's style? That is their style, not mine. Greco-Romans had their students take the work of the ancients and summarize, expand, transform, etc. This skilled them in Greek and Latin. Perhaps many "mistakes" are positive creations. A language of our own. Alive.