Note from the editor || Rethinking academic writing again and again

Brian Hotson is the editor of Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders.

 

Welcome to a new semester and a new academic year.

I’ve been reflecting on “rethinking academic writing,” a subject that often comes up in conversation this time of year, with a new semester, new students, and old assignments looking for new life. A conversation with some colleagues on this jogged my memory of a Scientific American piece, The Scientific Paper is Obsolete, which caused a stir in this spring. This lead to more research (aka, the google rabbit hole): Death of Scientific Journals after 350 Years (FEMS Microbiology Letters, 2018); Revisiting: Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? (Scholarly Kitchen, 2016); and Blogs v. Term Papers (NYTimes, 2012).

From the New York Times piece,

Writing term papers is a dying art, but those who do write them have a dramatic leg up in terms of critical thinking, argumentation and the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market.

***

‘She’s right,’ Mr. Fitzhugh [of The Concord Review] says of Professor Davidson. ‘Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.’

***

‘We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,’ says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. ‘We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.’

***

The term paper has been falling from favor for some time. A study in 2002 estimated that about 80 percent of high school students were not asked to write a history term paper of more than 15 pages.

***

Through some other research I’m preparing on multiliteracies and Englishes (a word underlined in red by MS Word), I’ve looked back on academic writing and language here in Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1838, at the opening of Dalhousie College (now Dalhousie University), the sixteen students in the first class, “most of them without good preparation” for university, Dal’s first president, Thomas McCulloch, decided to hold “special night classes in composition and logic,” with a “practical emphasis on both writing and oratory” (Hubert, 1994, 31). Sounds like a writing centre.

Students of the period were required to submit their papers in Latin, Greek, and English, and to avoid “all Provincial accents, and other improprieties” (Hubert, 1994, 27). McCulloch rejected this—he was interested in vernacular English for academic purposes, rejecting Latin and Greek as an academic language. McCulloch writes,

But that the boys in Halifax or elsewhere spend six or seven years upon Latin and Greek and then four more in college partly occupied with the same languages is a waste of human life adapted neither for the circumstances or the prosperity of Nova Scotia. (Hubert, 1994, 31).

For McCulloch, education is “particularly calculated to qualify the mind both for the acquisition and the communication of knowledge,” “exercise the thinking powers,” and connect the acquisition of knowledge with a corresponding improvement in the power of communication (Hubert, 1994, 29). This caused controversy and a backlash. McCulloch died in 1843; Dalhousie became a high school until 1863.

This then reminded me of the 1974 CCCC’s position statement, Students’ Right to Their Own Language,

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

It would be strange now to ask an Economics student to hand in a paper in Latin; yet, how far have we come from 1974? How much grammatical and syntactical hand-wringing? Lunsford asks, correctly, to keep argumentative clarity and see what happens with form and format. Robert Fisk’s recent piece, Take my word for it, the English language is facing destruction, who usually has intelligent things to say, reflects fear of reality, a misunderstanding of the culture of language, as well as a misunderstanding of writing development, the same fears as in 1838 and 1974.

But another common thread for both 1838 and 2018 is verba volant, scripta manent: the importance of clear, thoughtful writing remains.

 

October 4 – added Roger Graves’ work, Writing instruction in Canadian Universities, to the References section. – editor

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References

Clarke, M. (2016) Revisiting: Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? Scholarly Kitchen: Official Blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. Retrieved from https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/10/26/revisiting-why-hasnt-scientific-publishing-been-disrupted-already/

Fishk R., (2018, Sept 27). Take my word for it, the English language is facing destruction. Independent Minds, Independent (online). Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/english-language-destruction-technology-internet-jargon-political-war-poets-a8523796.html

Grave, R. (1994). Writing instruction in Canadian Universities. Winnipeg, MB: Inkshed Publications.

Hubert, H. (1994). Harmonious perfection: The development of English Studies in nineteenth-century Anglo-Canadian colleges. (MSU Press Canadian series #5). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Richtel, W. (2012, Jan 20). Blogs v. Term Papers. New York Time (online). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

Silver, S. (2018). Death of scientific journals after 350 years. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 365(14). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/femsle/fny130

Students’ Right to Their Own Language. (1974, 2014). Conference on College Composition & Communication: National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from http://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/srtolsummary

Victor, B. (2011, May 24). Scientific Communication As Sequential Art. Retrieved from http://worrydream.com/ScientificCommunicationAsSequentialArt/

 

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