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.

Talking to Yourself: Online Writing, Restricted Code & Social Fragmentation

Why is online communication so toxic?  Why does it often feel like different groups are talking past each other?  One reason might be the type of writing digital spaces encourage.  Simply put, much digital discourse—on blogs, news platforms, social media, etc.—is marked by the use of restricted (rather than elaborated) codes centered around emotionally laden, community-specific keywords.  As we’ll see, digital space incentivizes this sort of writing.  Indeed, restricted codes are often an efficient means of communication.  But (and this is important) they are not well-suited for communication between groups.  Therefore, the use of restricted codes may contribute to the sense of disconnection we often experience online.

The distinction between restricted and elaborated codes comes from sociolinguistics.  In a restricted code, certain words act as a form of shorthand—pointing to an entire complex of ideas.  This allows meaning to be conveyed with fewer words.  Such writing can be used when the communicating parties share a set of assumptions or experiences.  Elaborated codes, on the other hand, are more explicit.  Terms are defined and the connections between ideas articulated.  The text, in other words, provides more direction as to how it should be interpreted, thus allowing similar meanings to be made by people with different sets of assumptions.

Digital writing is often highly restricted.  This makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, reading on a screen is hard.  It’s physically taxing (compared to print) and within the digital environment, there’s a lot of other stuff vying for our attention.  The writer, therefore, to get read, needs to condense meaning.  It also takes time and energy to make a text more elaborated.  Digital texts are often produced quickly; both tech platforms and the current media environment push writers to emphasize quantity over quality.  Once again, this equals more restricted texts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that in the digital world, venue increasingly helps determine meaning.  As noted, restricted codes work when the writer and reader share a set of assumptions.  In a world where each reader controls her information flow, the mere selection of a venue should equate, roughly, to a defined set of assumptions.  If I’m an urban liberal, for example, I’m probably not going to read Brietbart.  A Brietbart writer, in turn, because he doesn’t need to “speak to the other,” can use a more restricted code.  A sort of feedback loop develops.  As the Brietbart code becomes more restricted, it becomes less likely that liberals will choose to read the Brietbart text.  The Brietbart writer is thus free to make his code even more restricted, and so on and so on.

From the above analysis, we can see why, when trying to communicate online, different groups might seem to be talking past each other.  As noted, an elaborated code can “stand on its own”—it contains all the information a reader needs to make meaning.  To understand a restricted code, on the other hand, a reader needs to hold a certain set of assumptions.  If she doesn’t, the text can only be read with great cognitive effort and/or is more likely to be misinterpreted.

Let’s take a look at how the above ideas play out in practice.  Twitter missives are perhaps the ultimate example of a restricted code.  Consider the text of a recent tweet:

It’s so sad to see toxic masculinity destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

This tweet received over 800 likes, indicating it successfully conveyed meaning to its audience.  The nature of this meaning, though, is not apparent on the face of the text.  This is because apart from the seemingly illogical “on the contrary,” no direct guidance is given as to how to connect the tweet’s two sentences.  A shared definition of the term “toxic masculinity” is needed to establish this connection and make the message coherent.  The tweet’s intended audience, or many of them anyway, can access such a definition.  For them, the tweet reads something like:

It’s so sad to see [a societal demand that men not show emotion] destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: [displays of emotion such as] kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

Understood in this way, the tweet makes a coherent claim.  Integrally, though, if a reader doesn’t have access to the shared definition—if they are operating with another set of assumptions towards the emotionally charged keyword “toxic masculinity”—they will not have access to this claim.  The message will likely appear illogical or as a cliched “attack on men.”  In other words, because of the highly restricted nature of the code, only readers who already basically agree with the writer can grasp her meaning.  As such, this sort of writing acts as a barrier to communication between groups.

Interestingly, the same keywords often circulate among different communities, where they have different, but equally implicit definitions.  Consider a recent Fox News article entitled “This Father’s Day let’s call toxic masculinity what it is.”  Though longer than the above tweet, this piece is also written in restricted code.  And again, it is almost incomprehensible to an outsider.  The author’s primary claim is/seems to be that the conventional ideal of manliness is good, needed and under attack.  The discussion turns around the term “toxic masculinity.”  The academic left accuses manly men of having “toxic masculinity.” They insinuate that manliness is to blame for the actions of sexist workplace monsters.  Apart from this “they insinuate” there is no further attempt to define what “toxic masculinity” might mean to the writer or his opponents.  Again, I’d argue, an explicit definition is unnecessary.  The article’s intended readers, by virtue of having chosen to read a Fox News op-ed about toxic masculinity, can be assumed to share an implicit definition of the term.  A simple reference to it invokes an entire complex of ideas, emotions and identities (undoubtedly negative), which the writer can then work against.

The tribal nature of behavior online has long been noted.  The above analysis indicates that the very language we use might be fueling this tribalism.  As noted, the use of highly restricted codes is driven by structural incentives.  That means that for people (like me) interested in curbing social conflict, there is no easy solution.  It does seem, though, that a general recognition that certain types of language are more likely to be ignored or misinterpreted by those different than us is an important first step.  Perhaps our best option is to learn to read our own texts better—to recognize the implicit definitions and missing connections—and start to take pride in being (more widely) understood.

Putting the Beatles in Context

The centerpiece of my writing class is always the lived experience of the student. I try to stress though that our experience of the world is never disinterested or given. Instead, what we see and hear and feel is always shaped by various forces. Here’s a lesson plan that seeks to illustrate this point.

Note: this is for a 75 minute class.

Lesson Plan:

To begin, I had my students listen to the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” and do a short (~7 minutes) freewrite describing the experience. My prompt asked them simply, how does this song make you feel? What does it make you think about? Why?

* This activity could utilize any piece of music, as long as 1) the students are not overly familiar with it and 2) it has a substantial entry on Wikipedia. “A Day in The Life” works particularly well, I found, because of its challenging nature and the well-documented (and interesting) circumstances of its composition.

After freewriting, I asked if anyone knew anything about this song (some recognized it was the Beatles, but no one knew its name). I then told them the name, and asked them to go to the relevant Wikipedia page and do some research. “Find out where this song comes from,” I asked. I gave them 15 minutes to read about the song. Though instructed to start with the song’s Wikipedia page, they were encouraged to follow whatever research path grabbed their attention.

We then listened to the song again, and did another freewrite. My prompt this time asked them to note any differences in what they heard or felt or thought. In short, I wanted them to reflect on how background knowledge changed their experience of the song.

Theoretical Justification:

I know from my own experience that learning the context and compositional background of a piece of music (or film or text) inevitably alters how I engage with that work. I was hoping that my students would experience the same effect, and that reflecting on those changes would make them more aware of how knowledge (and context in general) shapes their understanding of the world.

I also feel that engaging deeply with an object (especially a disruptive one like this song), and attempting to share that experience, is a fundamentally beneficial activity for young writers. It forces them to put their subjective experience in symbolic form. It’s also useful for them to see how others make sense of a shared object. This tracks with one of the main goals of my class—to better understand how we see the world, and how this differs from how others see it. Though I didn’t focus on it much, the varying research paths taken could also provide fruitful grounds for discussion.


After our second freewrite, we spent ~45 minutes discussing what we had written. I started off by having some students read their first freewrite aloud. Their responses were varied and fascinating. Some students wrote of being “confused” and “scared” by this “trippy” song, with orchestral parts which reminded them of the score to a horror movie. Others wrote about how some parts (Paul’s verses, in particular) reminded them of childhood. The dominant tendency, after doing some research, was to focus more on the lyrics and the story behind the song (IE, an acquaintance of the Beatles dying in a car wreck). This, predictably, lead to the students hearing an increasingly plaintive element.

Perhaps the most telling response was from a student who wrote about how at first, the unusual structure of the song caused her “anxiety.” This anxiety was relieved once she did some research and “knew what the song was about.”  This response says much about this student’s relationship with novelty.  It is my hope that after exploring this relationship in the classroom, she’ll be more inclined to take note of it in other contexts.


This was a fun exercise, and I certainly saw changes in my students’ experience of the song.  I’m inclined to believe though that to really facilitate the kind of inter-contextual transfer I’m seeking, it may be necessary to have the students draw some generalizable conclusions from the activity. Towards that end, perhaps this in-class activity could be followed by an essay assignment in which students discuss this “experiment” and what it says about the relationship between knowledge and lived experience.

In group discussion I’d also like to put more emphasis on what the differences noted “mean.”  For example, the song’s background story made one student feel less anxious.  What does this change say about the importance of narrative coherence in her world?  Certainly this question was implicit in our discussion; if I were to teach this activity again though, I’d like to make it explicit.

Twitter and the Trump Tapes (A Lesson Plan for Freshman Composition)

I recently had a successful class session which involved evaluating tweets made in response to the infamous “Trump tapes.”  I thought I’d share my lesson plan, in case any other teachers are interested.

Some background: I teach freshman composition at a large public university. The theme of our course is “thinking about thinking,” with the underlying premise being that this sort of (self-)reflection is necessary to be a successful writer.  We do a lot of activities which involve trying to understand the worldviews (or ideologies, you could say) which underlie certain claims.  This activity is in that vein.

Note: This is designed for a 75 minute class.

Background Material:

Prior to this class session, we watched and discussed this interview with Professor Nicholas Epley, a behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago.  In it he discusses “egocentrism” and how individuals innately view the same event (he uses 9/11 as an example) in different ways.

My class also uses a standardized heuristic to critically analyze statements.  We created this together and have termed it “The DACO method.”  Here is a handout which explains this method and provides an example.  In short, it involves taking a statement or belief and tracing the Definitions and Assumptions which underlie it, the Consequences to which it could lead, and where it fits in a range of Other Opinions.  For this lesson plan to work, it’s not necessary that you use the DACO method.  If you do want to use it though, it may be useful to go over the above handout as a group.

Lesson Plan:

I began the class by breaking the students into groups of 2 or 3.  I then explained that we are going to watch a video that illustrates Epley’s point about the subjectivity of interpretation.  We then viewed this CNN report featuring the video in which Donald Trump is caught making various vulgar comments about women.  [Note: this version of the video is edited slightly, but still pretty offensive.  You may want to issue a “trigger warning.”]

After watching the video, I distributed this handout, which lists 8 tweets interpreting said video.  Tweets, of course, are very short, which makes them neat encapsulations of the writer’s worldview.  Using our DACO method, we then worked together as a class to interrogate the first tweet.  The goal was to try and understand “where the writer is coming from,” how they see the Trump video (and the world at large) and how we can learn to negotiate with such a perspective.

The first tweet states –> If you’re like ‘that’s just men being men’ after listening to the #Trump Tapes it’s seriously time you get some new male friends.

My class discussed how “men” and “friends” might be defined in this case.  We then discussed the assumptions at play, particularly how this writer likely views Trump’s comments as unusual and wrong, and anyone who engages in such talk as shameful.  Regarding consequences, we decided that this writer wants less vulgar talk because it’s “offensive,” meaning it upsets certain people.  Going deeper, we realized that the writer may believe that such talk leads to physical violence.  He or she may therefore view their tweet as a part of an effort to reduce such action.  Finally, we discussed a range of other opinions.  Opposing opinions can often be generated, we found, by challenging the writer’s premises.  For example, if an opponent could show that vulgar talk doesn’t lead to violence, the argument implicit in this tweet would fail.  Such a belief (that vulgar talk doesn’t cause physical violence) is an example of an “other opinion.”

After analyzing the first tweet as a class, each group worked separately to analyze the other 7 tweets.  After about 20 minutes, they were asked to present their findings to the class, facilitating another group discussion.


Overall, I found this to be a fun and intellectually lively activity.  The tweets examined come from a variety of perspectives; through critical analysis the students had the opportunity to dwell in those perspectives, enriching their understanding of the other (and the way s/he thinks and writes).  Because tweets are so short, such analysis requires both creativity and attention to the nuances of language.  Also, by examining the intended consequences of each tweet– which I frame as “what the writer is trying to accomplish”—the students began to think about rhetorical tactics.  This are all valuable outcomes, in my opinion.


On Bad Writing

In my last post I wrote about unsophisticated discourse.  Today I’d like to discuss some of the features of such writing.

It seems to me that one of the key features of “bad” writing is a reliance on dichotomies: liberal/conservative, good/bad, etc. Of course, every academic since Derrida has warned against the dangers of binary thinking. I don’t want to join that chorus. Oppositions, binary or otherwise, can be useful– they’re a form of abstraction which allow us to cut the world into manageable bits. Of course, as online trolls and lazy students demonstrate, the power of abstraction can also be abused. So then, what distinguishes good abstraction from bad?

One key, I think, is that the writer recognize, and signal to the reader that he recognizes, that oppositions are just tools for thinking. There is, of course, no such thing as “liberal” or “conservative.” These are just symbols we use to signal a certain web of political commitments. Such a web naturally has contradictory element. A sophisticated writer/thinker knows this. For example, instead of “all liberals hate America,” she may write, “liberals have a tendency to be critical of the dominant culture.” The nuance in the latter statement indicates that the writer knows that an abstraction is just an abstraction. The former writer, on the other hand, seems to fetishize his abstraction. The term “liberal” appears monolithic to him, and therefore, he appears simple-minded to us.

Unsophisticated writers also use a lot of insults. On the clickbait website I discussed yesterday, it seems that every other post refers to someone as “stupid” or a “moran.” Why is this? Are people with low literacy skills just jerks? No. Following my always generous sensei Dave Bartholomae, I see these writers as trying to express their experience using the limited linguistic tools available to them. There is pain in their world. They have named that pain “liberal” or “Obama.” And by writing, for example, that “Obama is a hommos muslim,” they are attempting to share their subjective experience of this pain.

So in short, as a writing teacher, when I see writers resort to petty insults I want to find out what’s really bothering them. They are undoubtedly feeling some complicated stuff (all feelings are complicated). They’re just expressing it in a way that users of SWE/SBL find simplistic.

Is Literacy Inherently Liberal?

Yesterday I wandered into a dark corner of the web: the comments section of some obscure right-wing clickbait purveyor. As a writing teacher and student of rhetoric and composition, I find such spots fascinating.   Some thoughts.

First, what is up with all the misspellings and crazy grammatical constructions? I ask this question in all seriousness. Let’s be clear– I am in no way a SNOOT. In fact, in my writing classes I make an exaggerated show of not caring about grammar. But still, on this particular website, almost every comment contains non-standard language. Why?

The easiest explanation is that the people attracted to right-wing clickbait (stories about hero police dogs, etc.) are simply not very “literate.” They are older, perhaps didn’t go to college. This lack of linguistic sophistication is reflected in both consumption (what they choose to read) and production (their commentary).

Let’s unpack this further. In this case, sophistication = socialization. Proper bourgeois subjects like myself (and most likely my reader) have been trained in certain habits of thought and action. These include linguistic norms and rules relating to evidence, logic and narrative coherence. We write in Standard Written English (SWE), understand the world via Standard Bourgeois Logic (SBL). Our click-baited friends, for whatever reason, have internalized different standards. To us, therefore, both their choice of reading material (“libtard teacher stomps on flag”) and language use (no distinction between your and you’re, seemingly random capitalization) seems alien.

The above is pretty basic stuff. A more interesting question is whether discursive practices and social/cultural/political values are linked. Does the internalization of SWE and SBL push learners towards a certain political alignment? Or in other words, if one can write a coherent paragraph is he or she less likely to be attracted to the ideas underlying “Obummer” clickbait?

This is a difficult question. Of course there are both left-wing and right-wing clickbait websites. And of course, one can be discursively sophisticated and hold right-wing views. It does seem though, at least from my admittedly bias perspective, that the least “literate” discourses lean conservative. Hence my titular question.

How to Write the Internet

Let’s talk about writing. Specifically, how to write for a broad audience about complicated, rather esoteric topics in a public, online forum (such as this blog). I’m a writing teacher, but at the moment, I will admit, I don’t really know what such a space requires. One of my goals in starting this blog is to find out.

Stylistically, I want to keep it simple: short paragraphs, as little jargon as possible. I want to talk about big issues in rhetoric, philosophy and education in a way that’s interesting and accessible to people both inside and outside of academia. So in a way, this project involves translation. It also involves practical application. In short, I hope to show how abstract scholarly concepts can help everyone, not just scholars, better understand the world. We’ll see how that plays out!

I may not know what I’m doing, but I do know what I like. In that regard, I’d like to present two recent articles, both from, which I think well represent “how to write the internet.” The first is “The Myth of the Hero Cop.”  Here, David Feige shows, quite persuasively, I think, how the US public’s adulation of police officers is both ill-founded and socially destructive. It’s more dangerous to be a black man in Baltimore than to be a cop—that’s a powerful claim. And it makes this article a powerful (and important) piece of public rhetoric.

The second is about little league sports. Here, Justin Peters draws upon personal experience and scholarly sources to make what I feel is a rather counter-intuitive argument about how organized youth sports basically suck. The perspective (as with the previous article) is fundamentally pragmatist, I.E. concerned with real-world thinking and being and its effect on lived experience. This is what I respect and what this blog will try to emulate.

Until next time.