What Is Academic Writing? Part Four

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I continue this series of posts thinking about student responses to a first-day writing sample that asked “What is academic writing?” (broadly, of course, for IRB-related reasons). Though the sample size is small, I think these students nevertheless reveal some of what many students bring to our classrooms. None of the responses caused me undue concern. They included many of the elements that show up in my classroom: an attention to language, the importance of citation, and organization/form. The only thing that gave me pause in reading those trends in the responses was the singular emphases that seemed to reign: This student thought grammar was all important while that student thought the key was having an introduction, thesis, and conclusion. Part of the challenge for me as I start this semester is showing students how they’re all right and all wrong, how to take what they already know about academic writing and combine it with new elements to make a more cohesive whole. On the upside, a few students talked about critical thinking (hurray!), and a few also talked about writing as a process (woohoo!). Overall, though no one student had a perfect view of the work that lies before us, each had at least a partial one. Coming together as a class, I am hoping that they can share the different pieces of the puzzle that each of them possesses. That’s how classes should work, I think. That’s what we’ve been touting since (at least) Kenneth Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’”  As a whole, the writing samples give me hope. Except for one. One student spoke a kind of truth that I think few students could or that few students have yet to encounter. That student argued that academic writing was hard to define because, with each class he entered, the teacher told him that what he was taught before was wrong. It’s this student’s response that haunts me the most because I believe him. I believe he’s been told that class after class. And I fear I might end up telling him the same, with all the best of intentions and from all my teaching and scholarly experience in the field. What a horribly confusing message for a student to have (and to have so determinedly, so fixedly, so repeatedly). His response says less about him as a writer and more about academia as an institution (and maybe about Comp/Rhet as a field). We have so many approaches as a discipline; we have so many pedagogies.  And each teacher compounds those differences. If we can’t say for sure what academic writing is, then students like that one will always get confusing if not conflicting messages. My goal for this semester is the same as my goal every semester: help my students become the best thinkers and writers they can be. It is at once a modest and ambitious goal. Today, I am left hoping it is capacious enough for the student who’s always been told that what he already knows, what he was already taught, is just wrong. Therein lies the challenge for me this semester.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.