Updating Academia: Rethinking the Methodology of Academic Discourse

By Nick D. Piron
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |


Academic writing is the process through which people with specialized knowledge formulate and communicate their ideas. The process helps the writer organize his or her thoughts on a particular subject, and it supports the dissemination of knowledge throughout society. In the archetypal example, when someone writes a piece intended for academic discourse, it represents their most sophisticated understanding of a subject. However, the method we use to communicate academic knowledge is not itself sophisticated.

Academic writing retains myriad formal and informal conventions that can include awkward citation-structures, the use of complex phrasing and jargon, definitions inside text, and arcane writing customs specific to each sub-genre, among other things. These cumbersome norms serve as hurdles that demonstrate an author's credibility. However, such conventions form a secondary discourse that do not weigh on the quality of the idea while nevertheless serving as gatekeepers to the publication and distribution of ideas. Furthermore, this focus on establishing credible ethos has the tendency to delay and distort idea formation. This paper shows how we can subvert this obstacle through methods given to us by digital technology and lays a framework for a new method of academic discourse.

Writing as a tool or technology is used in every intellectual field to mark an idea and allow it to be used as a stepping stone to new levels of understanding and discovery. In each genre of intellectual discourse, and in the genre of academic writing more broadly, we have established conventions that serve specific functions within the community. These functions include determining whether an idea is from a legitimate contributor, formulating a complete argument, and communicating information as effectively as possible. The creation of new media technologies has created new methods that can serve and enhance the goals of the academic community. However, the strictures imposed by the rigorous adherence to long-standing conventions continue to impede the advancement of the academic method of distributing knowledge.

This paper explores how new writing technologies have made some academic writing conventions insufficient to perform the functions needed to formulate or produce the idea-sharing processes that fuel academic discourse. To do this, I examine how writing is related to human thought organization and communication, and then I show how digital technologies better serve our society’s thinkers to engage in conversation. Some potential new components of a refreshed academic method could include authority built by collaboration, interactivity in idea-formation, and hyperlinked references. However, there is still much work left to do if we are to shift our academic communication toward a new platform. These features are but a foundation laid in anticipation of the changes needed in the academic community.

The Encumbered Writer

Let me take a moment to discuss writing in general. Some anthropologists argue that the creation of writing lead to a great human cognitive revolution (Street, 1984). Further, it is regularly acknowledged that the invention of the printing press, and its mass production of text, created a second cognitive revolution (Einstein, 1979). Whether or not these arguments are valid, there is no doubt that writing is instrumental in organizing, and then recording and communicating, ideas.

Writing is instrumental in organizing, and then recording and communicating, our ideas.

At some point in time, intelligent people began writing things down in order to pass on their knowledge. Plato had The Republic, Machiavelli The Prince; Hobbes wrote The Leviathan. Even if these pieces were intended for a direct audience, we do not canonize them for their effect on specific people. Rather, they are important because they mark a specific person’s organized thoughts. These types of pieces are what I call “academic writing.” Some scholars consider academic writing the writing done in academy, that is: at school by students (Elbow). Others consider it post graduate conversations about the cutting edge of a discourse (Hayot). I am talking about all of it. Academic writing here is any writing used to formulate, organize, and then communicate intelligent ideas.

We write academic discourse to discuss what is hot in the minds of experts in all fields of study, but we do not use cutting-edge methods for going about it. In short, our process for organizing, producing and then communicating thought is much slower and more cumbersome than cutting-edge technology could allow. It’s important to remember that academic discourse is not a finished product. It is a series of procedures that allow for idea-making. The end point in academic writing is a finished piece (for undergraduates this is a paper submitted to an instructor, for graduate level and higher this might be a piece submitted to a publisher), but this endpoint is preceded by interactions with the target that distort and delay the completion of the project.

Undergraduate students are inherently aware that their writing will be judged less by their ideas and more on their ability to understand their teacher’s perspective and manipulate their written responses accordingly. As Elbow noted, students who write in school are simulating authority on a topic while their subtext is asking the teacher “Is this okay?” He said, “We are transforming the process of ‘writing’ into the process of ‘being tested.’ Many of the odd behaviors of the students make perfect sense once we see they are behaving as test-takers rather than writers” (Elbow, 1995, p. 81). The student is not asserting their ideas, but rather arranging them so that they appeal to a single reader: the teacher. In this way ideas are not generated. They are mimicked and then rearranged to meet a goal that is not idea formation, organization and communication, as it should be. More accurately it is idea collection, organization and then communication. How can a student learn to analyze new ideas effectively if they are more concerned with parroting sources (assigned by their one-and-only reader) than with manipulating the concepts and coming to new conclusions?

The post graduate level faces the same, if not worse, challenges. The publication of intelligent idea is guarded by institutional obstacles. Hayot, in Academic Writing, I Love You, Really, I Do, explained the complexities of publishing academic papers. I quote Hayot at length to show the complexity of the process:

“That endpoint appears within a series of connected institutional structures that include large-scale nonprofit and corporate entities (the journals and publishing houses, the universities themselves) and formal and informal patterns of practice and habit, including the various instructional modes that shape the writing we do (the response paper, the seminar paper, both instructional, and the conference paper, the article, the book). Each of these modes presupposes both a set of generic conventions and a writing process by which one accomplishes them. At the lowest scale of practice, which we call style, we find the various professional conventions, including paratextual ones like titles, footnotes, or citational practice, microgenres like the block quotation or the anecdote, the various largely unconscious but nonetheless disciplinary and habitual patterns of sentence formation, word choice (using stage as a verb, for example), and epistemological and rhetorical structure, all of which can vary, of course, by subfield (so that we can distinguish the writing of a deconstructive feminist from that of a New Historicist on the basis of “style” alone),” (Hayot, 2014, p. 61).

The writer, whose main purpose it is to think, and communicate that thought, is bogged down by bureaucratic interactions with publishers, editors and other stakeholders in ‘the biz.’ Additionally, that writer (graduate student or academic author) must focus on conventions in their perspective fields of writing that do little more than lend credibility through participation in specialized writing styles. Specific conventions Hayot noticed are: rarely used resources like underlining, bolding, columns, color (2014, p. 63), adherence to awkward citation and footnote structure (p.62), necessity of jargon (p. 62), style (p. 56), and complex word choice (p. 55), among other things. The formulator of thesis is now seeing their ideas through a lens that slows and distorts them with convention; all for the purpose of displaying a credible ethos.

A thinker who wrote in unsophisticated patterns, with no discernable style, is ignored, no matter how credible their content. If the language is not immediately recognizable as academic writing in a particular sub-genre, it is assumed it is not quality work. The writer is then compelled to, in APA style, for example, focus on present-perfect tense and formatting block quotations correctly in order to be recognized by a credible publication. In APA, in text citations must appear a certain way, and introducing others’ words must occur in a particular manner. Perhaps the writer is an undergraduate literacy scholar writing about American hip-hop in an Introduction to the Arts class. When that writer (who is minding her APA style) mentions that hip-hop is a type of literacy-event, she must spend time researching, and then citing, an accepted definition of literacy. Without this definition the teacher could confuse the student’s meaning of the word “Literacy,” for the common misconception that it is simply “reading and writing,” and the ethos of a good student-writer could be attacked. The writer must distract himself from his content in order to appeal to the community. At the end of the day, Elbow would argue, all of this ethos is still put on hold when the author hands the publisher their manuscript asking, “Is this okay?”1 rather than “I have this to say,” (Elbow, 1995).

It’s no wonder that those who have the power to change academic discourse do not; though their demonstration of power is counterintuitive to their function, it is nevertheless the reason they are so powerful.

This process where we think, write, re-write to appeal to a target (or limited audience like teacher or specific publisher), submit, revise, and then resubmit is the product of an antiquated system subservient to a focus on monographic masterpiece. The goal of a writer in his or her academic-discourse career is to show a mastery of a topic. For a student, the goal is a finished final paper demonstrating that he or she retained the skills of the class, and can use them as a tool in critical thinking. For academics, the goal is a demonstration of ultimate authority through substantive, solo contribution to the field. The document noting procedure for Texas A&M tenure and promotion (2012), for example, states that promotion to full professor is usually based on publication of single-author monograph or scholarly edition to a reputable source which represents high-quality research.

Erickson and Blair noted “The typical emphasis for both tenure and promotion to associate and full professor is on a completed, presumably single-authored book.” (Erickson, Blair, 2013, p. 82). By delivering a finished single-author masterpiece, the writer demonstrates their mastery of discourse. Discourse is ultimately linked to hierarchy and social power, and mastery of discourse, Gee notes, often leads to the acquisition of social goods in society (1989). It’s no wonder that those who have the power to change academic discourse do not; though their demonstration of power is counterintuitive to their function, it is nevertheless the reason they are so powerful.

Writing Inhibited by Readers

Currently, our process for organizing and distributing new ideas is not efficient. The writer of academic discourse spends much of their time styling their work so that the academic community will accept it. Inherent in this process is a fear that their ideas are not good enough to be acknowledged by the community. While the writer is polishing her work over and over, to the point she can even bare to submit it, she is losing opportunity to have her ideas commented on, and to comment on others’ ideas.

We can resolve the inefficiency of today’s academic discourse using a reconfiguration of the idea sharing process. Specifically, I’d like to change the way thinkers correlate reading to writing. As Elbow has explained, there is a general disagreement over who has power over a piece of text: reader or writer. The writer assigns meaning to text, while the reader is free to assume whatever intention he likes. The writer then predicts the reader’s power and devotes time to maintaining ownership of their idea. Elbow said, “Where writers are tempted to think they are the most important, readers are tempted to think they are the most important party,” (Elbow, 1995, p. 75). We must note that in academic discourse the readers are writers. Academics read the work of their peers and write articles to an audience of other academics, and students, who read them and do their own writing. However, we are readers much more than we are writers. This is because there is no audience to the reader.

The academic reader often ignores their inclination to comment on the argument they are perceiving because their agenda is to create a long, complex argument of their own. The process of academic reading is a collection of inputs that usually serves only one writing output. Since this output is usually high stakes (written over a long period of time, with an endpoint in mind), it is trimmed, polished, and written with apprehension that the reader will misunderstand. This one output, the part where the reader is formulating, organizing and communicating the idea (and idea is the ultimate goal in academic writing) will take place over a long period of time; usually a semester for a student and however long it takes the academic to write. Our apprehension of high-stakes writing is, I would argue, what makes the reader much more powerful. If this apprehension is diminished, the scales are leveled, the process shortened, and the writer is given more opportunity to create ideas.

My solution to the apprehensive writer is simple: Decrease the time it takes to write so that it happens more frequently. If the writer is less worried about appealing to the reader, they can focus more on the formulation of their own ideas.

My solution to the apprehensive writer is simple: Decrease the time it takes to write so that it happens more frequently. If the writer is less worried about appealing to the reader, they can focus more on the formulation of their own ideas.

The specifics for this plan must be worked out (hopefully through that of interested contemporaries), but the idea is a reinvention of writing practices that find their credibility outside the realm of long-winded, jargon mitigated, politically correct, specific-style-adhering academic papers written primarily by one author. What I’m proposing is a platform for real-time conversation where ethos is lent by modern methods and where ideas (and thus, conclusions) are come to in collaboration with others. The focus of this platform will be sequentially similar (reading and then writing), but will feature reading as the input, focusing more heavily on a written output.

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