Teaching and Learning the Basic Tools of Academic Prose

Recently, I held a writing workshop with university students. We talked about how and why one uses academic language. I have ceased being surprised when I hear about what supervisors and teachers are saying. For example, the students are not allowed to use “I” in an academic paper nor are meant to include their own opinions in an essay. There is certainly nothing wrong with setting some rules for writing assignments. That is what researchers usually find when they want to publish a research article. The teachers and supervisors forget, however, to give the students sufficient reasons why this is so; forget to tell them that this might only apply for this specific assignment; and forget to tell them how they can write in order to stick to those rules. They don’t teach them the basic language tools that no researcher writing academic prose can do without.

In the case of not using “I”, we have a variety of ways to write about a topic while still bringing our opinion or perspective to the text. We can do it as if the study or research is responsible (“This study argues that…”) or create an even greater distance with other means (“As will be shown…”, “It can be postulated…”). The latter usually appears with passive sentences that create their own stylistic challenges. There is, however, also the possibility to talk about other texts and sources while at the same time saying what we think about them. After all, what will interest our readers is not simply whom we read, but also what we think of their research and how our research relates to them (the niche we want to occupy). That is where reporting verbs, hedges and boosters, and other rhetoric formulas come into play: “Miller discusses X, while Barns asks why…”; “According to Bourdieu…”; “Jones correctly suggests the thesis that…”; “Contrary to the position put forth by Adams, this study suggests that…” and so on (see the very helpful book by Graff and Birkenstein: “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2006). This is how we discuss the work of others, while identifying their position as well as ours – even without the need to write “I”. In this way, we engage in controversies and debates in our field of research, instead of just listing research results without any comment.

I guess many university teachers and supervisors (in Switzerland at least) assume that the students will learn these basic tools by themselves. I learnt it that way as well. While this may happen incidentally by imitating what we read, there is still much that can go wrong: when students don’t truly understand what they are imitating and when and how they should use it. If teachers and supervisors told their students how and why they should write in a certain way, they would learn to write more consciously. They would use these tools of academic language more strategically for the purpose of communicating questions, arguments, or results. Then, they would also better understand the many corrections and (if they’re lucky) comments in their graded assignments and could learn from them.

To the teachers and supervisors: If you don’t know how exactly the academic language works yourself, even if you do it correctly and have for a long time, please get someone else to explain it to your students before they start their assignment (e.g. a writing coach like me). You will do yourself a big favour (the papers will turn out much better) and you will allow your students to learn the basic tools they need to write academic prose. Those students who decide to pursue a PhD will thank you, because then they will be able to focus on more important things such as getting funding, doing research, and learning to be a researcher who has something to contribute.


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