edited by Margaret Procter
What is academic writing, anyway, and is it what we want to teach? An exchange on the CASLL listserv last spring involved an articulate student and a range of academics -- or at least writing instructors, most of whom vigorously resisted being tarred with the student's brush. On April 16 Michael Hoechsmann of Young People's Press sent a message that included the article below; the discussion continued into early May. (The complete set of messages is available in the CASLL archives for April and May 1998.) Here is Laurance Yap's article, a sprinkling of excerpts from the responses, and a final note from Yap -- who is still a student, and still writing.
"I don't know why I'm doing this," a friend told me on the phone a few weeks ago. We were talking about a film essay she was due to hand in the next week. "I know that you're not supposed to start with a quote, but I'm going to do it anyway. It sounds so bad to say this, but I just don't care anymore."
Strange, that. If there's anything that university is about, after all, it's about caring for your writing. You've got to be able to write reasonably well to get in, and if you somehow slip through the system at admission time, you're told enough about what constitutes good writing while you're there. Writing is the foundation, after all, of academic life: careers are made on whether your stuff has been published or not; on the number of acronymed letters you can scribble before and after your name.
Yet the more courses I take and writing classes I attend, the more my own writing seems to deteriorate. Unlike most writers, I look back at work that I once put out and wonder not, "How could I have written this kind of drivel?" but "What the hell has happened? Where's my writing gone?" The narration in my short stories no longer crackles, pops, does backflips; my essays are chock-full of footnotes and page references, but lack any sort of verve or imagination. Even the articles I've recently had published in the paper lack the turns-of-phrase and one-liners that I took pride in just a scant few years ago.
Some of the fault for this decline lies with the books and articles we're forced to read in university. Since the quality of your writing is largely based on the quality of your reading, the wordy, the imprecise and often pompous drivel published by some academics has ruined many a student's talent. Things that could be said in five hundred words often are said in five thousand in an effort to make what's being said sound more important and profound than it really is; reviewing other writers' ideas is valued more than coming up with original ones. For the most part, academic life has become reading and commenting on other academics' pieces--a system that scorns "popular" work and contributes to a vicious writing cycle that makes the denseness and impenetrability of academic work worse every year.
Worse still is the unfounded attitude that only academics know what's really going on, and that reading non-academic work isn't appropriate for university. I once got burned for not being "sophisticated" enough in a first-year communications course because I referenced a book about Hollywood special effects written by a thirty-year veteran of the industry; my professor pointed to an article written by someone who had spent a couple of weeks watching what went on in a special-effects studio as something more "appropriate," no matter how inexperienced its writer. (Perhaps it was because his article had footnotes; no piece of writing, after all, is valid without footnotes.)
Having to read academic work for eight months does terrible things to your normal reading habits too. I used to be able to read a novel a day, so long as it was a good novel. But now, even the best book I've read this year* (incidentally lent to me by the same person who didn't care about her introduction) was itself digested in twenty-page chunks over a two-week period. Why? Because every dry, boring, academic article that I've read since entering university has been about twenty pages long, and the mind-numbing experience of reading them has conditioned me to the point that all of my reading acumen seems to disappear after twenty pages, no matter how good the piece is. This may be why it takes the average adult --who for the most part doesn't have homework to deal with--three weeks to read a hardcover novel instead of a couple of days.
But we can't lay all the blame for our terrible writing at the feet of what we read. A lot of the decline has also to do with what we're taught writing is about, what we're taught writing is. All of the creativity we had during junior and senior high school, if it hadn't yet been battered out of us in those two institutions, is systematically annihilated in university.
It's not the reader's interest or your thought-provoking ideas that are valued; instead, it's your ability to restate other people's viewpoints, on being able to compile the best and most beautifully-formatted footnotes. It's about MLA documentation, about underlining titles, not putting them in quotation marks; about learning how to use Ibid. instead of "same." It's about your ability to state and restate, not provoke and criticize and inflame. It's about conformity, not creativity.
Case in point. About a month and a half ago, an adviser from our school's Writing Centre came to one of our classes to tell us how to approach the upcoming final essay. She began by asking us what the elements of a good story were, and then, after listing the characteristics on the board, told us how to exorcise the story-like elements one-by-one, and replace them with "logical," "concrete" and "serious[ly] academic" arguments.
I had a problem with that, contending that a paper that managed to combine the best of both worlds--interesting plotting, vivid description, fascinating characters and controlled pacing, combined with intelligent argument and reasoned input from various authors--would result in a much more creative and thus compelling paper, one that would read better, and thus was likely to get a higher mark. After all, many of the best stories I've read have taken cues from nonfiction writing, using scientific terminology, ideological discourse and dramatic proof to better explain their characters and plot machinations.
I was wrong. "What your instructors are looking for," she said, "is not original thinking here. What they want to see is if you can read other authors and analyze their writing in an intelligent manner." Was she kidding? I thought we came to university to broaden our minds and our horizons, to exploit, not suppress, our creativity. To come up with original ideas, not to rehash some other person's work.
There is hope, though. I rebelled, and my final essay in that course, a knee-jerk reaction to the Writing Centre advisor's lecture, combined five-hundred-plus words of pure storytelling with a lighthearted, sometimes glib, but most of all, lively, tone. It had pictures and full-page headlines and typographic effects; I spent an hour and a half photoshopping the front cover. My instructor liked it enough that she gave me a perfect grade. "You don't have to have a perfect paper to get a hundred," she scrawled on it. "Sometimes, you just have to be creative."
My friend eventually wrote the wordy quote out of her film essay introduction and decided to stand on her own two cognitive feet throughout the paper, rather than relying so much on authors who were echoing each other. Reebok and Jerry Maguire took on more importance than Meaning Transfer Theory.
Not so fast, though, my left brain tells me. That book she lent me--the best one I've read this year? She hasn't even started it yet. This morning, I just rushed off the first draft of a paper for an English course and decided that that was all the time I wanted to spend on it, that the extra couple of marks that I would have gained from reading it over and making some minor revisions, adding some more footnotes, just weren't worth the time or effort. It's probably better off that way, though. At least right now, warts and all, the ideas in it are still mine.
Roberta Lee: I like to think that we Writing Centre people aren't selling out to the extent that we deserve to be stereotyped like Yap's unimaginative "advisor." Nevertheless, he does put the knife in, I have to admit: there you are, Roberta Lee, talking platitudes to those students, you who think you're above all that--ha ha.
Rob Irish: I confess, I found Lawrence Yap's piece just so much tedious academy bashing. It's all too easy to do.
Christine Skolnick: As writing centre advisors we do seem to be tethered to the generic conventions of the disciplines and courses for which the student is writing. That would seem to be the institutional rationale for writing centres; and that, I think, is the huge draw back of "substituting" writing instruction by English professors and in English departments with elaborate writing centers that merely serve other disciplines. It's not a bad thing; it's just insufficient.
Roberta Lee: Christine--I have to take exception to your remarks about Writing Centres: "tethered to the generic conventions of disciplines" ; "merely serve other disciplines." Yes, those are threats. However, we have the freedom of being outside of the constraints of any one discipline, as well as freedom from judging or grading. Therefore we aren't merely work horses or servants!
Rob Irish: I would argue first that there is nothing "mere" about entering into the discourse of disciplines. . . . I don't feel like I'm substituting anything in Engineering. It is not a matter of Engineering covering for the failure of English to offer enough composition courses. Rather my job exists because Engineers recognize the important of communication within their discipline. Unlike the advanced composition course you posit, I don't have to fabricate advertising or grant proposals because there is a real discourse, the discourse of a discipline, just waiting to be tapped.
Christine Skolnick: How is the writing assigned in Engineering courses more real than that assigned in technical writing courses? Also I don't fabricate genres or assignments. My students write job applications, journal articles, instructions for real tasks, and assignments commissioned from private industry.
Philippa Spoel: To separate the "what" and the "how" of a subject matter doesn't make sense if writing and knowing are interconnected, and if knowing includes knowing how people within a discipline communicate as well as what they communicate.
Rob Irish: From what I have seen, and tried to resist, most technical writing instructors separate "substance" from "style" and focus on the latter. As soon as that happens, the assignment is less "real". . . . So the writing loses its real focus by becoming an exercise in style, even if it is drawn from something real.
Jamie MacKinnon: It seems to me that an increasing portion of academic writing (at least the stuff I read) is needlessly wordy, overly theoretical, and ever more sub-specialized (sometimes on topics that are so narrow as to seem trivial). I find this especially true in English lit, but sometimes I wonder if it's also starting to happen in writing studies and rhetoric. . . .
I'm not sure why some academic writing is getting worse (if indeed it is). It sometimes seems to me that socio-political and epistemological theory is overvalued. Maybe part of the problem is in how academics are evaluated and rewarded. . . . What gets measured, counts, so they say. Perhaps part of the reason for bad academic writing is that increasingly, academics are responding (rationally) to the wrong reward system.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not putting down academia or even the jargon-filled and footnote-plastered writing that I so detest in it. Such research and factual muckraking is both useful and necessary. But ultimately, knowledge has to be taken outside of an academic context for it to be of use to the "rest of us"--and to do so requires writing that's lively, interesting, and accessible, usually backed up by a visually pleasing layout and nice photography. The ability to create such writing, which I'm quite sure I had in high school, is being systematically pounded out of us by professors and TAs who've all been reading only each others' increasingly specialized, increasingly impenetrable, stuff for far too long.
I thought--still think--that university was about more than our adherence to MLA footnote style. We're here to learn about others' ideas, to form our own, to go out into the world with them and change it. We can't change the world if we're only speaking to our friends and colleagues.