15 May 2012

What is Academic Writing?


My Master’s Thesis Part 2

The Definition of Academic Rhetoric

“If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue
Or walk with kings nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much...”
— Rudyard Kipling, “If”

In a book called Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines, Chris Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki take an in-depth look at academic writing and “alternative rhetorics” (or writing that isn’t academic). As the first order of business, they define academic writing so they have a basis on which to judge the alternatives. Because there are so many perspectives from different teachers and disciplines—they create an absolute definition, the essence of the term, that can be broadly applied. Their definition is helpful as a starting point for my argument too. According to their definition, academic writing has three criteria:
  1. “Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study” (5).
  2. “The dominance of reason over emotion or sensual perception” (5).
  3. “An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response” (7).
Let’s look at each of these in turn. First, academic writing must include “clear evidence... that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study” (5). I used to work as a usability designer for a software company, which further ingrained my natural drive toward simplicity. I mention this because I’m about to oversimplify—but I see this first criteria as ethos—an appeal to the writer’s character and credibility. To prove their ethos, writers need to show they’ve worked hard to understand what has already been said in the conversation. They have to be fair-minded, even when that means admitting cons in their own argument and pros in their opposition’s—another sort of ethical appeal that shows the writer is a good person. (Wayne Booth called this compassionate and even discourse rhetorology [Ogden 1], which I cannot treat here—but I at least wanted to point out the footprints leading in that direction.) Academic writing needs to have an author who is well informed and unbiased. This is a baseline we can agree on. But I think an even higher standard should be met—which I will explain presently.
Second, academic writing supports the “dominance of reason over emotion or sensual perception” (5). Again, stretching this to Aristotle’s model, you might call this logos. Essentially, this means a writer must use clear logic—logic built stone upon stone and crafted with integrity, with no fallacies or illogic of any kind. This is also a strength of academic writing we can agree on—at least in the way I rephrased it. But the quote includes an underlying assumption: that logic and emotion are two competing forces, and whenever one appears it’s always at the expense of the other. I have a problem with this assumption, which I will explain below too. But let it suffice, for now, to say that academic writing must have strong logos.
Third, for writing to be academic, it has to be targeted at an “imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response” (7). This is surely the biggest stretch so far, but we might say this is how the writer connects emotionally with the reader (or, in this case, does not connect)—in a word, pathos. This paints a picture of a person—an audience—who can think clearly, abstractly, and in complicated terms—a sophisticated reader, not crowds and not the common man. If that is indeed the case, then I have to disagree with this one too, because it is slanted against emotion—focusing exclusively on the person’s logic and leaving out everything else. (I would argue that a connection of pure logic is not a human connection.) But this last criterion does have two redeeming qualities: (A) An academic writer should imagine a reader; that is, he isn’t casting his words into a void, but is directing them toward a real person—a human being. And (B), this reader is a person who values logic.
To sum up then, academic writing includes these minimum criteria: ethos (an informed and open-minded author), logos (a reasonable and logical argument), and pathos (a connection with a rational reader). But this is the status quo, the baseline. From here we climb higher.

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