Academic Writing

‘All our writing is influenced by our life histories. Each word we write represents an encounter, possibly a struggle, between our multiple past experience and the demands of a new context. Writing is not some neutral activity that we learn like a physical skill, but it implicates every fibre of the writer’s multifaceted being. Who we are affects how we write, whatever we are writing, whether it is a letter to a friend or a dissertation.’

Do you believe it is possible to reveal our individual selves within the constraints of the academic essay? Or do the technical conventions of the genre make this impossible? Use this passage as a point of departure for your own argument about this matter. It seems that in most institutions in university, both students and teachers seldom question the effects technical conventions of the academic essay on students’ writing.

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Do technical conventions of the genre present constraints for students in ways such as creativity and opinion? Some have argued that these conventions set up scaffolding for writers to develop and organize their ideas. Others believe that because of these conventions, there is little space for new ideas which are generated from self-opinion and experience, and the importance of voice is seldom stressed. Hence, there is the question of the possibility of revealing our individual selves within the technical constraints of the academic essay. This essay shall identify the academic conventions and discuss the several ways it can take ‘control’ of our writing in university. It will look at confronting and subverting these disabling conventions by understanding their purposes and ‘being ourselves’ while following the rules.

University has required many students, foreign or even local, to reconstruct their ‘selves’ in their writing. Socially sanctioned values and codes of behavior embedded in students who speak other languages (honorifics and various address terms) have an influence on their writing and is incomprehensible to their teachers in university (Matsuda 2001:244). So they had to replace their way of writing (in their countries or in their secondary schools) with ‘university-language’ and its styles so that their teachers can relate to it in the context of the institution. In other words, they would reconstruct themselves (their writing styles, their way of discourse) with ‘selves’ that is expected from their teachers or university-friendly ‘selves’.

From here it can be seen how revealing our individual selves may actually be going against the conventions of academic writing and what is required in university. The discourse of the institution also determines, to a large extent, how and what we write. Let us go deeper by looking at the expectations and technical conventions of writing in university and how it has presented much constraint for students.

The use of scholarship to substantiate a viewpoint or fact is a key concept of the academic essay. This sometimes overemphasized convention has even developed several options for use: the ‘Harvard in-text’ and ‘footnoting’, and perhaps several others. According to Griffiths (2000:143), references and footnoting are often seen as ‘heavily pretentious scholarly baggage’. And because they are necessary in students’ essays, they can have the effect of undermining personal confidence (Benson et al 1994:15). The convention bears ugly connotations: the views of the individual students are worthless unless they are already established by an accredited academic. Without this confidence, students tend to give lesser of themselves away in their essays – because they feel inferior to the authors they refer to and feel that their ideas are prone to criticism.

The requirement of footnoting and references also forces onto students techniques such as paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism. Such techniques when overemphasized could cause students to adopt a position of merely rearranging copied information and authors’ opinions from suggested readings (Benson et al 1994:6). While suggested readings, to an extent, can result in essays with predetermined ideas and views of those authors, norms where students’ essays have to draw from a minimum number of references can also make essays disjointed and often ambiguous in their meaning due to the wide variety of views used (Benson et al 1994:6). Students would even distort their original intended meaning or plan just to use a quotation, to fulfill academic requirements (Ramanthan ; Atkinson 1999:55).

On the other hand, students (and their teachers) that understand the purpose of footnotes and references, and use them according to their purpose, find that they work in extraordinary ways. Surprisingly, many readers ‘dig into them… as an archaeology of knowledge; a labyrinthine journey into other possible worlds, other possible visions’ (Griffiths 2000:143). Indeed, they are a sort of hypertext that offers readers opportunities to form their own course to find truth. Indeed, writing should be about passing on what one has received (Scollon 1991, cited in Ramanthan ; Atkinson 1999:245).

The conventions of writing formally can depersonalize students and remove their individuality from academic texts (Elbow 1989:243). It is common that in most university institutions, formal and ‘distant’ writing is not only practiced, but rewarded. In fact, it is a well-established convention that impersonal language be used in scientific report writing (Benson et al 1994:19). In these subjects, such as the sciences, even the use of the word ‘I’ is not advised. Students are taught to facilitate what is referred to as the ‘ego-I’ in their writing – being impersonal and overly formal, using few pronouns other than ‘it’ or ‘this’, writing long noun-y sentences, using densely packed abstractions and generalizations (Ivanic ; Simpson 1992:148). This can cause the writer to be ‘faceless’ and bear no individual self to address or interest his/her reader.

However, we should not forget that textual cues show in writing, (syntax rhythms, word choices, sentence structure, etc) giving readers a sense of a certain person speaking, almost an audible voice in the background (Elbow 1989:243). This forms writing styles in students, recognizable by their teachers. Just like an array of public intellectuals with distinctive writing styles, readers would be able to tell whose writing is whose just by reading a page or two (for example, there is a strong distinction between Julia Brett and Ben Okri’s writing).

Word limit and strict paragraph structure may be added constraints on academic essay writing. Students are taught to arrange their essays in a strict structure that corresponds to the word limit. Because students are so concerned with ‘getting the facts in’, their essays contain no style or voice at all. Students thus develop a generally boring, methodical method of writing essays (Benson et al 1994:6). There is limited attention devoted to development of students’ voice and writing style. However, the academic conventions can organize personal knowledge and viewpoint into a structure and presentation that is more likely to make sense to someone (Benson et al 1994:10).

Because the importance of presentation is thoroughly emphasized by teachers, and content is sometimes of secondary significance. Much attention is also placed on the conventions of ‘indent’, ‘double-spacing’, font and font size that sometimes these conventions precede the very content of the essay. According to Griffiths (2000:211), computers have changed how we write; it has made us less ‘playful’ and experimental; it has fooled us that we can do without linearity, continuity and momentum by using its cut-and-paste dexterity. To an extent, word-processing has influenced how and what we write, perhaps even through ‘spell-check’, ‘sentence-restructure’ and ‘word count’.

But to ignore the fact that counting words can help us set goals for ourselves; the fact that spell-check might actually decrease the number of errors in our essays; the fact that the computer has the save function to prevent us from losing our work, is being unfair to ourselves and the inventor of the computer. I believe that what we make out of what is given to us, or even what we make out of what is required of us can change how we perform in the academic essay.

Experience should be the true basis of what we write. Many students have a mindset that writing in university is disconnected from their normal, human selves. According to Ivanic (cited in Benson et al 1994:8), the dominant image of study is serious and solitary, separated from everyday life. Metaphors that many university tutors use such as ‘write up’, ‘thesis’ and ‘topic’, continue to bear the disabling effects of detachment, objectivity, limitedness and the feeling of being bounded by (Griffiths 2000:132).

University should take on a more open-minded approach to academic writing: writing that is not bound by ‘disabling’ metaphors associated to academic writing; writing that has an impact on people’s minds and hearts; writing that defends one’s true feelings and experiences. There is a saying that ‘experience, for the historian as much as any writer is the ultimate primary source’ (Griffiths 2000:132). As we discussed earlier, the depersonalization of ourselves in writing can challenged by one’s syntax rhythms, and word choices, etc. By recognizing how one links his writing to his experiences and what sort of experiences prevail, can also personalize his writing. With that, I would agree that ‘there is a bit of ourselves in the writing’ (Griffiths 2000:133).

Students who undermine the technical conventions find them less ‘restricting’, but more ‘guiding’. Those who are not the victims of academic conformity are usually outstanding, creative, free yet objective. I believe that it is when we abuse the technical conventions that they will ‘drag us down with them’. There is always a number of ways we can approach the technical conventions, and from this essay the right approaches have shown to benefit our writing. Through the influence of other writers; our critical voice amongst a sea of scholarly ideas; our use of words and sentences; and the experiences we yearn to share with our reader, it is definitely possible, sometimes even inevitable, that our individual selves rise to the surface, despite the constraints of the academic essay.

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