The Rime [and Reason] of the “Academic Discourse”

Shuddup, I gotta story and you’re gonna wanna sit down for it…

While I’ve never read an epic poem on the subject, I have been buried in academic articles, news stories, and general conversation that all made appeal to some sort of abstract, but monolithic institutionalized system of expression and adjudication called by that name.  For those not familiar with English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” there are interesting connections between the way that many people talk about academic discourse and the way that Coleridge personifies the natural world.  In “Rime,” the world’s most annoying returning seaman bends the elbow of a would-be wedding guest and will not shut up until he recounts the story of his ship’s misadventures in Antarctica, subsequent rescue facilitated by a giant sea-bird, his slaughter of that bird with a crossbow, and finally the loss of his soul and the souls of all his shipmates to the skeletal Death and the matronly Life-in-Death as the result of a dice game.   Folks reading Coleridge’s poem complained–almost as much as that fictional wedding guest might have–about the poem’s length and incomprehensibility, so later additions of the poem included a gloss that explained away the work’s moral as a cautionary tale of the dire consequences of violating the natural order.

Now, in this day and age we are unlikely to ascribe the tragedy of a wrecked voyage and a lost crew to the vengeful South wind and wrathful South Sea spirits, let alone to devil and his hag-like mistress, but it is surprising how many people personify “academic discourse”and speak of violations of “academic discourse” in a way not unlike the way that poem characterizes the natural world.  That is to say failure to learn, reproduce, and respect the conventions of academic discourse will prevent one from succeeding in the academic game–academic discourse as body of legal precedent–or that by bowing to the conventions of academic discourse one will find themselves slaves to certain ways of thinking, writing, and the scope and method of their work constrained.  Thus, from one perspective, the task of education is to inculcate the conventions of academic discourse–because there is an intrinsic relationship between those conventions and the method of scholarship–while the other camp attempts to teach scholarship as something entirely distinct from hegemonic conventions of the academy–because those conventions are tools of existing institutionalized powers and are dismissive of marginalized ideologies.

Frankly, I don’t have a horse in that race.  It seems to me that the conventions of academic discourse are both prescriptive–limiting that types of speech that are legitimate and descriptive–describing the sorts of expressions that have been successful in gaining a hearing.  While it is true that a journal article written in text-speak would be an unlikely choice for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, the ideas that may be communicated through academic conventions are myriad and varied.  Instead, I’d like to speak to incoming student’s perceptions of academic discourse and use the distinction between the prescriptive and descriptive to explain–and hopefully help students to acclimate–to the pedagogical manifestations of the two warring views.

Some of my undergraduate experience–with a couple notable exceptions–tacitly assumed high academic rigor–with its requisite conventions of academic discourse–were very much separable from the endeavor of education proper.  In part this was due to their commendable goal of keeping classroom instruction “relevant” and “applicable” to “real life.”  I mean no disrespect with my use of scare quotes, but I would want to register my wholehearted complaint that life in the academy is just as real, theoretical knowledge just as applicable, and intellectual pursuits just as relevant as anything generally given the mantle of practical education.  The difference between the work of the academy and work carried out in professional and personal callings is merely one of order–the concerns of the academy tend to be more universal and the concerns of professional and personal life more particular.  I would even go so far as to say that neither is necessarily more originary or foundational than the other–for whether theory is extracted from experience or whether experience confirms what was already theorized, the two should are addressing one and the same truth.

From the perspective of those institutions academic discourse was at best unnecessary ornamentation added to truths more properly written in sentences shorter than fourteen words with less than two syllables each or at worst shameful and self-aggrandizing displays designed to cloak the lack of real insight and value in one’s work.  The dangers of wholly committing to this perspective are the pragmatic fact that the use of academic language and the entering into a pre-existing academic discourse is the price one must pay to engage in the academy and the realization that academic language does tend to lead to a more rigorous pursuit of truth with fewer possibilities for logical fallacy and rhetorical flourish.

My graduate experiences, to the contrary, at Chicago have assumed commitment to a certain flavor and method of academic discourse is the universal and sole determining factor of scholarly work’s quality.  Now, there are disagreements as to which flavors are legitimate and which methods should be employed, but the general sense is that the presuppositions and predilictions of this academic discourse are the only one’s worthy of seriously considering.  The dangers of wholly committing to this perspective are the pragmatic fact that one may very well ignore valuable insights and marginalize minority perspectives and the realization that academic language is not always the most readily translated into other community’s discourses and can be inherently elitist and distasteful to some.

A useful third way between the two extremes is to recognize both the rhyme and reason of academic discourse.  Academic language sometime sounds and functions the way it does merely because of convention which is arbitrary and historically determined. As such there is no great value in imitating its conventions when others will suffice or even improve the intelligibility of one’s message.  However, there is also a reason behind the texture and convention of the language and conversations that constitute scholarly discourse.  There are logical and pragmatic reasons why an argument framed this way or that is more likely to persuade and clarify or avoid fallacy and obfuscation.  It is my belief that whether one generally understands academic discourse to be prescriptive–and rightly or wrongly so–or descriptive–and necessarily or unnecessarily so–it is possible to engage it (or engage in it) in a way that makes one a better thinker, planner, and doer that if one were to simply ignore its existence.

So, is my discourse too academic?  Here are the main points translated:

1) Some people are unnecessarily wary of learning to write academically for several reasons

2) There are excellent pragmatic reasons to do so not limited to the fact that success in higher education demands a familiarity with academic ways of writing

3) There are also dangers in becoming isolated from the ways that other communities write and think not limited to possibility of an inability to communicate outside of the academy.


2 comments on “The Rime [and Reason] of the “Academic Discourse”

  1. deathandvulgarity says:

    I enjoyed this post for two reasons.

    First, “Rime” is wonderful and I love Coleridge dearly.

    Second, I’ll be teaching Wash U’s introductory Writing I course to 14 freshmen in two semesters. I think about teaching quite often and wonder how I will “pitch” writing to students often disgruntled to be in this introductory course.

    I’m wondering if you see a difference between “academic discourse” and “research writing” and “good writing” in general and “good thinking” most broadly. That is, in an introductory writing course, should a primary goal be to show that research papers are not insular academic circle-jerks but rather, form one’s mind to the task of quality research, proper citation, argumentative organization, and vivid writing that most will need outside the academy? Should I try and teach that this paper writing isn’t merely paper writing but also forms the basic mechanics of how one can be an effective administrator/leader/manager (e.g. doing “research” by figuring out what people want, summarizing, put together competing claims, figure out a solution, and state it tactfully but forcefully to employees)? Just so happens that we’re using paper instead of a work group.

    More so, my highest hope for an introductory class is that students can actually find a little pleasure in thinking about a topic, forming it into a coherent argument, and communicating it eloquently. I think that is where the theoretical/practical divide begins to break down, when thinking becomes a pleasureful habit.

    • maphman says:

      Thank you for your kind comments! I am currently taking a class at UChicago called “Composing Composition” which is a class geared to those who intend to teach writing classes or classes whose evaluative structures will be based on student’s ability to write academically. Thus far, two positions–with two competing presuppositions about academic discourse–have arisen regarding what the “best” way of inciting students to write and write well.

      1) Academic discourse is a rarified and snooty sort of endeavor that is big on rules and regulations, but short on actual communicative value. These folks often voice the opinion that writing courses should teach academic discourse only as one of the myriad of possible ways that students should learn to write and think within. They fear the idea that if a course pushes the mastery of academic style to the exclusion of other ways of writing, students will reject the course as mere hoop-jumping and not “buy-in” to the approach. Therefore, they prefer approaches that situate academic discourse within the other genres of writing–business letter, email, short story, etc.

      2) Academic discuouse is the pursuit of knowledge in all its vast multiplicity of manifestations. The rules and commonplaces are the result of pragmatic appeal to “what works” and what “making for good thinking.” These folks tend to argue, as you have, that academic discourse prepares one to pursue quality research, engage in proper citation, practice argumentative organization, and vivid writing that will pay dividends for the rest of the student’s life. They fear that if the course pushes too many genres or focuses resources on less technical genres that students will fail to learn the skills they need to succeed both in the academy and in general. Therefore, they prefer approaches that employ actual academic papers as models, present templates and argumentative strategies, and do their dead-level best to make writers suitable for the academy.

      My position is that academic discourse a communal endeavor and to engage in research oriented writing is a social pursuit–an attempt to enter the conversation already in progress. I am less concerned about the charge of being “insular” at least in part because I acknowledge that the academy is not the only discourse into which students might need to speak. Now, that being said, I do agree that good writing is the result of good thinking, and good thinking re-enforced by careful and clear writing. I do believe that teaching “good thinking”–critical thinking approaches–and “good writing”–critical thinking practices–are what undergraduate education exists to do.

      I think if I were to deploy a particular “pitch” to composition students in a required course I would begin by laying out the pragmatic reasons for learning to read and write within academic discourse: better grades, more opportunities, skills applicable to all of life, but pepper it with language that alludes to the access academic writing gives one. As a kid, I hated to be kept out of places or kept out of conversations. As an adult I could call this behaviour a desire to have access to all the discourses I might possibly need something from. I chafe against the idea that somewhere there are people carrying on discourses about things that fascinate me that I can’t engage in because I don’t know the language or have the skills. Mastery of the academic discourse, like learning any new language, allows one access to a whole new vista of resources, people, and places.

      Now, that kind of “access” talk isn’t going to excite every single student, for them the pragmatic benefits might be enough. I’m not sure that every student–at every point in their life–is open to learning a skill as rigorous and challenging as research writing. For those folks, one can imagine a writing course that tries to teach academic skills but apply them to non-academic genres.

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