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Our guest blogger this week, Julia Molinari, is an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) Tutor and PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham in the UK. She is bilingual English/Italian and teaches academic writing to Home and International undergraduate and postgraduate students. Her PhD research focuses on ‘what makes writing academic’ and is supervised by the School of Education and the Department of Philosophy. She blogs at https://academicemergence.wordpress.com/ and tweets @serenissimaj and @EAPTutorJM.

By Julia Molinari

When you ask anyone this question—be they initiated or not—their answers will roughly cluster around the following features: its formality, linearity, clarity, lexical density, grammatical complexity, micro-macro structure (i.e., from paragraphs to whole-text organisation), intertextuality and citation, objectivity, meta-discursivity (Learnhigher; Bennett 2009; Bennett 2015, 6-8).

As someone who teaches academic writing to undergraduates and postgraduates with English as a first or additional language, I hear such answers all the time. And it’s clear why these beliefs persist. They persist because that is what we’ve all been taught.

But there are instances of academic writing that don’t tally with the above. In fact, there is considerable diversity and variety in how academics actually write, even within their own academic communities, so much so that in some cases the very notion of ‘writing’ may be at stake:

How important is language itself for writing? Terms like first/second language writing imply that the language used is central to the nature of the writing activity or the quality of the text. However, we now realize that writing involves more than words. Writing is multimodal, with multiple semiotic features (space, visuals), ecological resources (objects, people, texts), and modalities (oral, visual, and aural) contributing to its production and interpretation. Language is therefore only one of the resources that goes into writing. (Canagarajah 2013, 440)

In fact, both intra- and inter-disciplinary diversity inhabit our academic writing landscapes. This suggests that it is misleading to simply explain diverse academic writing practices by pointing to differences between disciplinary discourses (by saying, for example, that historians or biologists write the way they do because they are historians or biologists). It also seems disingenuous to dismiss deviations from the norm as instances of ‘bad’ or idiosyncratic writing. In fact, some argue that diversity is the norm.

I’d like to propose that we look for answers to the question of what makes writing ‘academic’ from within the de facto diversity of writing practices and that we reflect on why academic writers might be making the choices they make. Let’s start with the academic paragraph and then move on to writing itself as a mode of academic communication.

The perfect academic paragraph

Much has been said on how to write an ‘academic’ paragraph (cf. Bennett 2009, 46; Bennett 2015, 6-8). Like many writing teachers, I also devote class time to it. However, there is no such thing as a perfect paragraph. The reality is that when observed ‘naturally occurring in the wild’, a paragraph’s shape, form and length can be elusive.

Two examples can help illustrate this point. In philosophy, a ‘paragraph’—understood as having only ‘one theme’ (Northedge cited in Bennett 2009, 46)—might range from the abrupt ascetic aphorisms of Ludwig Wittgenstein to the discursive rhetorical prose of Michel Foucault.

Wittgenstein 1922, 25 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Foucault 1972, 37 The Archaeology of Knowledge

Yet each has its rationale: for Wittgenstein, the aphorism embodied his early atomistic philosophy; for Foucault, verbosity embodied the complexity of discourse and thought.

Within the field of Applied Linguistics, even articles published in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, such as Uzuner (2008, 256), can be seen to flout the very advice that EAP usually offers to students. Uzuner’s one-sentence paragraph functions as a rhetorical device for building an overall argument rather than a self-contained one.

Perhaps, then, there are other ways of thinking about the academic paragraph. As Pinker has argued (2014, 145), paragraphs can function as ‘breaks’ in our thinking, as ‘breathers’—as absences rather than presences.

When Academic Writing isn’t even ‘Writing’

If we can re-think the academic paragraph, might we also be able to re-think the very mode of writing as the only way to be ‘academic’?

Carson 2017, Sociology PhD, Clemson University, USA

Sousanis 2015, Education Doctorate, Columbia University, USA

Carson—now Professor of Hip-Hop at the University of Virginia—published his PhD thesis as a series of 34 rap/hip-hop/poetry podcasts on the sociology, rhetoric and history of black lives. Sousanis published his graphic EdD dissertation as a cartoon of visual arguments embodying the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge.

There’s more detail in the references on how and why Carson and Sousanis opted for this form of scholarship, so my point here is brief: these dissertations radically flout the conventions of academic writing by arguing their theses aurally and visually, not alphabetically. This, therefore, raises the question: in what sense can they be ‘academic’?

Some tentative answers

When I air this question amongst colleagues and students, many dismiss such examples as one-off events that are not representative of the whole. They should therefore not be presented as forms of academic ‘writing’.

Yet, it takes only one exception to show that something else is possible. And if something is possible, then, as a researcher, I feel I have a duty to understand it. My understanding is that these ‘exceptions’ are academic because they embody a set of academic practices and values that are rarely mentioned in conventional advice on academic writing. These values include being creative, shifting paradigms, making the familiar seem strange, representing knowledge multimodally, having agency (Williams 2018) and, as Sousanis (2015) argues, ‘Unflattening’ our perspectives.

What makes these examples ‘academic’, therefore, is not their textual forms but the academic social practices that they embody (Besley & Peters 2013; Barnett 2012; Warnock 1989). By shifting our focus from forms to practices, we also need an account of how writers, understood as free agents, interact with the social academic structures that they shape and are shaped by. What makes writing ‘academic’ may, therefore, reside in this interaction.


Barnett, R. (2012). The Future University: Ideas and Possibilities. London: Routledge

Bennett, K. (2009). English academic style manuals: A survey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(1), 43-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jeap.2008.12.003

Bennett, K. (2015). The Transparency Trope: Deconstructing English Academic Discourse. Discourse and Interaction, 8(2), 5-19. doi: 10.5817/DI2015-2-5

Besley, T. and Peters, M. (2013). Re-Imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

Blommaert, J. and Horner, B. (2017, March). Mobility and academic literacies: An epistolary conversation. London Review of Education, 15(1), 2-20

Canagarajah, S. (2013). The end of second language writing? Journal of Second Language Writing, 22(4), 440–441. doi: 10.1016/j.jslw.2013.08.007

Carson, A.D.: listen to his PhD here https://aydeethegreat.bandcamp.com/album/owning-my-masters-the-rhetorics-of-rhymes-revolutions and get the background here http://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Activist-Defends-His/239335; https://news.virginia.edu/content/meet-ad-carson-uvas-professor-hip-hop

Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. UK: Penguin Random House.

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard: Harvard University Press. Find out more from http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/37781 and http://spinweaveandcut.com/unflattening/

Uzuner, S. (2008). Multilingual scholars’ participation in core/global academic communities: A literature review. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 7, 250-263. doi: 10.1016/j.jeap.2008.10.007

Warnock, M. (1989). Universities: Knowing our Minds: What the Government should be doing about Higher Education. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd.

Williams, B.T. (2018) Literacy Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities. New York: Routledge.