Thoughts on teaching “academic style”

In the first week of our course, there is a lesson on “academic style”. It’s one of those “easy to teach” lessons where the materials give black-and-white answers. But I often feel a bit uncomfortable with these black-and-white (but not necessarily clearly transferable) rules, which seem quite arbitrary to me at times, so what must it be like for students! E.g. why are they not allowed to use “surprisingly” if, at the same time, we encourage students to “show their stance through the use of adverbs” such as “this clearly shows”? Or why this: “If it is necessary to estimate numbers use approximately rather than about.”

Prompted by a tweet (this is becoming a theme here 🙂 ) and by this blog post, I started to think about my own perception and development of what makes writing academic. There are a few strands to this, including studying in Germany, studying in Durham, studying Linguistics (i.e. doing some research on academic writing) and being an EAP teacher. Here, I am looking at writing style, rather than the credibility/criticality aspects of using sources and developing arguments/theories.

My current conclusion is twofold:

1) it depends on context, audience and all that, in addition to the obvious disciplinary differences – sounds like such a commonplace, but I get the feeling that not all EAP teachers communicate this to their students

2) maybe a better guiding principle is clarity. Be as precise as possible, or maybe, as precise as necessary/appropriate (which is so much harder, since it depends on social context rather than on linguistic possibility) – and this principle can guide style choices, e.g. it might be a rationale for using “many” over “lots of”.

Studying in Germany over 10 years ago, we thought that “complicated” was “academic”. My husband, then studying Philosophy (specifically, Hegel), would write grammatically correct sentences that were over half a page long. We were encouraged to waffle by requirements for assignments to be “at least 20 pages long” (no upper cap) as opposed to “max. 5000 words”. This is as much a matter of academic tradition, possibly also in the subjects we studied, as it is of style, but it’s my background/starting point for developing as an Academic English writer.

Coming to Durham, I learned all sorts of rules and tried to apply them. Then my in-sessional teacher read my essay and pointed out some instances where I could do better – “but you taught us to do this!”, I would argue. She then explained that once you’ve reached a certain level, you can break some rules if you know what you’re doing. (I later went on to write a Masters dissertation on that question – does career stage have an effect on what’s ok in writing style?)

I watched my husband write his PhD thesis and it was a complete U-turn from his first-year writing on Hegel. Sleek, precise, highly readable, even entertaining, it made its way into in-sessional materials. Most of what made his writing so “good” is what I would advise students not to do, e.g. contractions.

As a result, I’m very reluctant to say to my students “it’s not academic”, or worse, “it’s just not academic”. I rather say “in this context, it is not appropriate” and like to continue with “because”, although this often doesn’t happen, isn’t easy, or the student isn’t interested. Often this “because” is something like “because in this discipline/on your current course/your subject teacher is very clear about…” and that’s how I try to defer responsibility and, for example, reconcile my own knowledge that using first-person pronouns is indeed “academic” with my duty to prevent students from getting lower marks in style if they do use them.

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