What is Academic Writing? Part One

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Each semester, I administer a writing sample on the first day of class.  It is completely superfluous.  While other institutions might use a first day writing sample as a diagnostic to confirm or revise placement, my institution is barred by state law from any sort of remediation so placement isn’t an issue.  Still, the writing sample gives me a quick sense of where the class is as a whole, helps me quickly identify students who might need extra support, and provides an introduction to the theme of the class through a response to a quotation from our first reading. This year, instead of crafting a prompt from our first reading I decided instead to simply ask students, “What is academic writing?”  I figured the responses would serve some of the same purposes.  But it also seemed like a particularly appropriate question because this semester I am teaching the first course in our writing sequence, which most students take in the fall.  I was hoping to reveal any hidden assumptions about the course students might have, particularly since this population tends to be especially at risk of failing (since most of them didn’t pass the course in the fall). The results of the sample weren’t particularly surprising, though they were revealing.  I’d like to discuss them in this series of posts (broadly, of course, for IRB-related reasons).  Though the sample size is really quite small I think these students nevertheless reveal some of what many students bring to our classrooms. For example, the one thing mentioned most was grammar.  Students think academic writing means writing with perfect (or at least good) grammar and writing skills.  Part of me internally sighs at this assumption, since the focus of our course is on critical thinking.  But in reading the responses I’ve started wondering if I’m wrong and the students are right. After all, at least once a year there’s someone in our institution claiming that “students can’t write.”  Increasingly, I am contacted by publishers and companies marketing a host of assessment tools, all of which strongly highlight an ability to track error across an entire writing program.  And of course, there’s a growing discourse of “accountability” in legislatures and in the public sphere.  Everyone, that is, is clamoring for grammar. It’s not that I don’t address writing and language issues in my classroom: our program teaches students to recognize, track, and correct their common patterns of error.  But for me, correct writing is just writing, maybe even just writing.  That it is correct doesn’t mean it does much of anything.  And as I write that I realize that one of my own assumptions about academic writing is that it does something.  For our program, that “something” has to do with academic discourse and argument through expository writing but I guess “doing something” is the basis of any rhetoric. I plan on addressing this assumption and unpacking it in class next week but I am wondering if you’ve encountered the same sort of (mis)understanding about academic writing.  How do you address it?  And what is academic writing for you?
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.