Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ethnographies of academic writing seminar

This was a seminar held at the Open University on July 16, coordinated and led by Theresa Lillis. The full name of the event was 'Ethnographies of Academic Writing in a Global Context: the politics of style'. Theresa is running a longitudinal research project called Professional Academic Writing in a Global Context (funded by ESRC) looking at practices in writing for publication in English-language journals by non-native-English-speaking scholars - the seminar topic was based on ideas derived from this, particularly ideas around what is at stake in academic text production in global contexts, and how an ethnographic approach can help us to understand the significance attached to 'style'. See the outline programme.

Highlights that stuck in my mind were: Ana Moreno's fascinating exploration of the different ways that English and Spanish academics express critical comments in book reviews; Constant Leung and Brian Street's interesting discussion of methodological issues involved in using multiple and multimodal sources of data about students writing, which never quite crossed the line to talking about students' own multimodal text production; Lucia Thesen's critical but ever so understated observations on the way that an academic literacies/ethnographic perspective can itself be problematic for research carried out in Africa, in its orientalising effect (my word not hers) representing local contexts, strange data, and problematic theorisation etc.; Mary Scott's informal discussion of 'ethnopoetics' informed by striking examples of extracts from student essays transformed stylistically by being presented as poems.

As is often the case with mainstream writing-focused events (as with WDHE 2010, reported on in an earlier post), I was a bit frustrated with the continuing scarcity of work that uses the theoretical and methodological insights from this field to examine emerging media-intensive practices in both actual and virtual contexts of writing. If applied linguists would pay a bit more attention to learning technologies, I tell myself, it might be easier to get learning technologists to think seriously about students' writing.

In my own presentation to the seminar I talked about a bit of desktop research I've been doing into the meaning of the term 'scholarship' as applied to academic blogging. Starting with the premise that all scholarship must be discipline-related (which seems true to me, although some people may want to dispute it), I sought to characterise some academic blogs that I found through Technorati, Scienceblogs, and other sources, as to whether or not they conformed to conventions of writing 'typical' for their disciplines. I used Bazerman's 1981 paper 'What Written Knowledge Does' as a model. Bazerman looked at canonical research articles in the fields of molecular biology, sociology of science, and literary criticism, and distinguished them according to how they treated the assumed 'fixity' of the knowledge they were dealing with, how they engaged with the literature of the field, how they positioned their assumed readership, and how the authors represented themselves. I applied his criteria to selected postings from academic bloggers in the same 3 fields, namely: Pharyngula (PZ Myers), Understanding Society (D Little), and DG Myers' blog on literary criticism.

I'm still writing up this paper for conventional publication (not entirely a digital scholar as yet) so I won't go into any more detail here. Suffice it to say, that the three posts I mentioned above do reproduce Bazerman's features of typicality for their disciplines to an interesting degree. Interesting to me that is -- I sensed that the seminar audience found it quite interesting, but were not convinced it had much to do with ethnography, nor with the real business of academic writing.


  1. Whilst commenting on your own blog postings might be like being seen talking to your invisible friend I thought that (after some reflection and one conversation) I ought to put the record straight on two things re: this ethnographies of academic writing seminar. One is that this work doesn't itself represent the 'mainstream' in research on academic writing - being closer to cultural studies in its focus on the methodologies of researching socially constructed phenomena such as style. The other is that the very fact that I was invited to talk abaout blogging at the seminar means that the event was looking to engage with new media contexts of writing - it also had a pre-session virtual discusssion strand run by Lynn Coleman and Jackie Tuck, who talked about the experience of setting it up and managing it.

  2. Very interesting article about academic writing i really much appreciated this thanks for shearing with us.