The Value of Academic Writing

Of late, my job has been teaching something called “academic writing.”  Naturally, I’m inclined to ask: what’s the point of such instruction?  The conventional answer is that academic writing courses help students succeed in college.  Whether a student majors in business, biology, or whatever, they will have to write texts that make arguments, cite sources, etc.  A general academic writing course early in college helps prepare students for this work.

I don’t think the conventional wisdom is necessarily wrong.  Though one can argue that there’s no such thing as “writing in general,” I do think that being made to study and produce carefully considered, supported and revised prose for a semester does, in an important way, help students succeed in college.  I also think, though, that conceiving academic writing instruction as merely college prep is limiting.  I’d like to suggest that in its demands for elaboration and revision, academic writing pushes back against a pervasive cultural tendency towards sound bites and hot takes.  As such, it serves a social purpose larger than simple college prep.

To ascertain the social benefits of academic writing instruction, we first have to define the term “academic writing.”  By academic writing, I don’t mean an “objective” rhetorical posture, or any specific genre, or set of discipline-specific moves or skills.  Instead, I mean what could be called “critical discourse” or “elaborated code.”  That is, writing that slows down and makes its assumptions explicit, takes the time to lay out definitions, charts the connections between ideas, addresses counterarguments.

Integrally, the essence of “academic writing,” as I see it, is not just in the formal features of a text, but in the process of textual creation.  To rightfully be called “academic writing” a text needs to undergo a process of drafting, evaluation and revision.  Non-academic writing is typically a one-off deal.  It’s thrown into the world and is successful if it achieves its immediate goals, if it’s “good enough.”  Academic writing, on the other hand, is created, then evaluated and revised.  It has its limitations as a means of thinking and communication revealed and addressed.

So, in short, academic writing is defined by elaboration and revision.  Why is this sort of writing valuable?  On a personal level, I’d argue, academic writing as a product and process is a useful technology for getting your thinking straight.  It helps you see (and perhaps address) contradictions in understanding.  This straightening process, in turn, helps you engage the world in more productive ways.

On a social level, carefully considered prose helps us connect with one another—empathize and understand—and ultimately cooperate to get things done.  It’s cliché, but also true, that everyone “sees the world from a different perspective.”  One of the main goals of language (perhaps the main goal) is to bridge perspectives.  We codify our perceptions and desires in writing as to make them available to others.  When our codes are incomplete or jumbled—when too much of the stuff that allows meaning to be made is hidden or inaccessible—writing is prevented from fulfilling its bridging function.  The result is disagreement and social friction.

So academic writing, as I’ve defined it, is a valuable technology.  The habits denoted by the term are also becoming increasingly rare.  As I’ve discussed before on this blog, current material conditions encourage the use of highly restricted code.  In the face of information excess, writers must make texts more condensed, more restricted. They must produce text faster, with less time for reflection or revision.  The result, as predicted, is the widespread failure of communication and cooperation.  When assumptions aren’t made explicit, when cause and effect isn’t charted—when code is not elaborated, in other words— writing becomes unable to mediate between people who don’t share a preexisting set of values and beliefs.  As a result, writers become unable to speak to/with people outside their own community.  This sort of disconnection, of course, is what we experience everyday online

To summarize, we can say that the habits associated with writing in an academic mode, particularly elaboration and revision, work to resist some of the worst tendencies of current public discourse.  In teaching academic writing, therefore, we not only help individual writers succeed in college, but perform an important social (even political) function.  Of course, as many have argued, there’s no guarantee that the habits learned in writing class will manifest in other domains.  But I highly suspect they will (humans are, after all, creatures of habit).  We simply need to ensure that students 1) have the ability to write in elaborated code, 2) have the ability to revise, and 3) can see the value in these “academic” ways of being (both inside and outside the classroom).  If an academic writing pedagogy does these things, it promotes the greater good.

Rise of the Bottom-Feeders: Online Discourse, Politics and the Academy

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.