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By Cally Guerin

Mary Jane Curry, Fangzhi He, Weijia Li, Ting Zhang, Yanhong Zuo, Mahmoud Altalouli & Jihan Ayesh (2021) An A to W of Academic Literacy: Key Concepts and Practices for Graduate Students. University of Michigan Press.

This book is jointly written by the eminent academic literacy scholar, Mary Jane Curry, along with a group of graduate students at Rochester University in the USA. Curry is well known for her work that engages directly with the politics and implications of globalisation in which “standard English” (or “Englishes”) has become the common language of academic scholarship. I was keen to see how these authors together explored core concepts of academic literacy that are important to post/graduate writers. Arguably, the co-authorship of this book with international students performs Curry’s position on academic literacy. And the book does satisfyingly deliver significantly more than a standard dictionary of terms or advice to novices. The information offered is not so much about “correctness” as a guide to navigating the contested, shifting terrain of research writing.

This glossary of key research writing concepts is approachable and readable. Topics ranged from detailed elements of writing (e.g., footnotes, sentences, title) and thesis sections (e.g., bibliography, introduction, literature review) to concepts such as “case study”, “comprehensive examinations”, “digital genres” and “publishing doctoral research”. All are highly accessible. We are treated to short entries that are nicely laid out on the page so the reader can see the whole entry across the two pages at the same time. The cross references to other entries in the book are helpful to further clarify the terms being used.

Each entry has four parts: Description; Variation and Tensions; Reflection Questions; and Graduate Student Voice. This format recognises that the generally accepted description of a term or concept is only a starting point for complex ideas. 

I like that the definitions are not too prescriptive. Instead, the approach emphasises the disciplinary conventions and norms that come into play for work at doctoral level, and also acknowledges that these conventions change over time. The clear indication that there are different understandings and expectations around key terms is especially useful for those working across disciplines. For example, the entry on “Peer Review” identifies the conventions of single- and double-blind review and which disciplines tend to use these differing practices. Similarly, the entry on “Methodology/Methods” explains how these elements differ according to discipline. Attending to these disciplinary variations is consistent with the book’s broader philosophy that the concept of standard English(es) is part of the sociocultural context of research writing: all discussion of academic literacy is contingent on context.

The Reflection Questions are handy not only for students themselves, but also for supervisors and writing teachers on identifying problems or misunderstandings in their students. The additional comments from the “Graduate Student Voice” boxes bring the whole research writing process to life.

When doctoral writers receive advice or feedback that uses some of the terms in this book, they don’t necessarily understand what is meant, especially in the shifting contexts of research writing. In my own work with research students, there are several confusing topics that crop up repeatedly, so I jumped straight to those entries: Argument, Style, Voice. Although the entries on these topics are short, they do manage to communicate the basic concepts and offer sound advice. There are also helpful comments on linguistic aspects of the writing and brief examples to illustrate the points being made.

The concise descriptions of terms are ideal for those who are new to research, but you’d need to follow up on the extra references to develop more detailed, nuanced understanding. These are big topics (most could be the focus of a two-hour workshop). The book includes a useful appendix for further reading with lots of helpful suggestions that those running writing workshops are likely to find relevant and informative. Nevertheless, these short entries provide a useful starting point. 

This is a book to dip in and out of, to use as issues arise for the doctoral writer who needs clarification about a term. From my perspective, the entries with a specific writing focus are the most useful. Although some writers might feel that the explanations are too simple for their needs, the citations and recommendations for further reading are well chosen to lead them to reliable, credible scholarly resources. This book is well worth a look for anyone working with novice doctoral writers.