notes on Peter Elbow’s “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues” (1991)

Notes on Peter Elbow’s “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How It Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues” (College English 53.2 (1991): 135-155)

Elbow argues for need to teach nonacademic in addition to academic discourse in first-year writing courses.

1. “life is long and college is short”

n He says employers complain that students have to unlearn academic writing. [Is that true?? What specifically about their academic writing must they unlearn, he doesn’t say. Maybe the nominalizations, over-formality, that kind of thing?]

n If we teach just one discourse, students won’t learn to like writing in general

n Teachers often resent writing that’s easy (and easy writing can happen if you’re a writer not just an academic) (136)

2. We should teach this one kind of nonacademic discourse: discourse that renders experience not just explains it. [This would help improve the world, that’s for sure – the way we relate to and treat each other.]

n E wants a “larger view of human discourse.” (137)

n Students need to learn to render their experiences

n Lit texts do it

n No other dept will do it

n Not just affective, helps cognitively (to find insights we wouldn’t normally find)

3. Being able to translate to everyday language means real understanding

n Vygotsky and Bakhtin agree (137)

[I don’t know – If students learn to master academic discourse, that confidence would have to transfer some to writing in general… though it occurs to me that since I studied lit I ended up gaining knowledge of other styles, modes, genres (though I didn’t try them). And perhaps had I tried them I would’ve understood them more (which is an argument FOR personal experience).]

We cant teach academic discourse, anyway, because it doesn’t exist. (138)

n Flower: “there is no Platonic entity called ‘academic discourse’ which one can define and master”

n E gives examples of different discourse styles: high Germanic scholarship (cite everything), “talky British” (keep cites to a minimum) (138)… Poststructuralist, German Critical/Marxist, Psychoanalytic, composition, etc etc. (139). Plus the difference between the way academics write to each other and how they expect students to write to them.

o Sarah Freedman’s research: “teachers were often bothered by the writing of the nonstudents – the “grown-ups” as it were – because it wasn’t sufficiently deferential.” (139)

n E: can’t tell students whether or not to use a lot of signpots (that varies), whether or not to bring in their feelings or personal reactions (that varies), whether or not to give evidence from the poet’s life (that varies), what kind of footnoes to use (that varies). (139-140)

[Yes. This reminds me of the concept of “adiaphora” in theology (and in stoicism): “things indifferent,” things that are neither moral or immoral (stoicism), things that are neither required or prohibited for faith (theology). In theology, those are things that are distinctives of particular faith traditions or religious orders or distinctives of local areas or individuals. That’s what’s going on in academic discourse, too: somethings are “right” in one discipline, but “wrong” in another. Neither is part of the essence of the discipline, but are ways the discpline expresses itself. I guess one difference between the theological use and the academic use of “indifferent things” is that a student should know those difference, should know “I should use this citation method in this class but not in my other.” On the other hands, Christians don’t necessarily need to know – though they should! – that “We Presbyterians do this but Roman Catholics don’t for this reason – but both are distinctives not signs of apostacy.” Just as critical thinking is the essence of academic discourse (I think), faith/love is the essence of Christian faith. The rest is adiaphora (though still important to individuals and to their communities and how they live out their faith and love… though still important to academic discourse communities and how they explore their questions and pursue their goals].

E discusses academic discourse. (140ff) He critiques the idea that we can be completely objective without reference to persons speaking and listening (without reference to rhetoric).

(141) [Yes. We train ourselves to look for context (date, author’s assumptions, previous discussions), but then we try to cover those tings up when we write.]

E discusses 3 implications of writing so detachedly (adv ?)

n Students’ “mistakes” (using first person too much, using second person too much, refering to other writers with too much familiarity (“Ernest” for “Hemingway”)) may be highlighting that academic discourse is too detached. [Interesting point! I did that when I was a freshman – wrote about what “Emily” did in her poetry and was told to say “Dickinson”]

n We must balance objectivity and subjectivity. (141) “Good academic discourse” presents “clear claims, reasons and evidence, but not in a pretense of pure, timeless, Platonic dialectic but in the context of arguments that have been or might be made in reply (141-142). [Makes me appreciate how much Dr Thompson (historical theology prof at Fuller Seminary) emphasized rhetorical analysis (though that’s probably because he is a historian and historians think in terms of contexts and people as actors): training us when analyzing a text to focus on context, of, say, how Anselm was using his terms, what his context was, what questions he was responding to, what his assumptions were. This is so different from the way new crit would have us interpret lit.]

n E – the person who can’t write mixing objective and subjective, who just writes objectively, is probably self-deluded anyway, since we can’t be purely objective. Writing objective/subjective writing is ideal because it’s most real, most critical, most aware. (142)

n Nonacademic writing can be just as intellectual/critical: Montaigne, Woolf, Orwell, Joan Didion, etc. They write with evidence and reasons, but some profs wouldn’t accept their writing! [I’m thinking, though, I would include their writing within the definition of “academic” – though I know many others wouldn’t.]

n Linda Flower’s definition of academic discourse: (1) integrates sources with one’s knowledge and (2) uses those sources for one’s purpose. (142)

n E: “we must beware of talking as though the academy has a monopoly on a sound intellectual stance toward one’s material and one’s readers.” (143)

E discusses stylistic conventions of academic discourse, using ex of James Berlin paragraph. (143ff)

n (Too many) nominalizations (though not Berlin)

n Signposting

n Explicitness (be clear!)

n Inexplicitness (hide yourself!) – The double negative combined with understatement. Ex. Saying “My reasons for presenting this analysis are not altogether disinterested” instead of “I have a stake in this analysis.” (144) Also ex of Berlin concluding his P with “a sentence about the ESSAY arguing rather than HIM arguing.” (emphasis mine)

n Academic discourse is direct about the argument, but hides “the texture of feelings or attitude that lie behind that position.” (145)

n Unnecessary formalness: “mode of operation” (nominalization) instead of “how they act” (active verb)

n Unecessary jargon

o Using “epistemic” instead of “knowledge” may mean (a) “we like this term” or it may mean (b) “I want to exclude outsiders from this discussion.”

n E: there is a “certain rubber-gloved quality to the voice and register typical of most academic discourses – not just author-evacuated but also showing a kind of reluctance to touch one’s meaning with one’s naked fingers.” (145)

n E gave examples of changes academic editors made to his already-accepted articles. WOW. Ex “who has a strong sense of” changed to “who retains a deep conviction that”.

E discusses 4 things taught by these surface “mannerisms”:

(1) Explicitness/control of all meaning is possible

(2) We do not invite nonacademics into conversation

(3) Tone conveys insecurity or anxiety (147): “Think about how we talk when we’re nervous: our voice tends to sound more flat, gravelling, monotone, and evacuated. We tend to “cover” ourselves by speaking with more passives, more formal language, more technical vocabulary.” YES.

(4) There’s an element of display. Many keep writing as if they’re writing to their teachers.

ALL OF THIS à is how we try to gain authority, ETHOS, but that’s a big price to pay (having to use a style that “excludes ordinary readers and often makes us sound like an insecure or guarded person showing off.”) (148)


Separate learning academic TASKS from learning academic STYLE.

The goal should be to teach the intellectual TASKS of the academy, and if we do that without also burdening them with a certain style, it’s much easier for students to learn those tasks. (149)

n And besides, some students are really good at sounding academic really don’t think very well. They just sound good.

n Metacognition and metadiscourse help students these intellectual tasks.

n Process writing helps

n Flower: “metacognition could play a large role in helping students to learn and engage in new types of discourse.” (149)

n E: “students probably wouldn’t think so clearly and frankly about their own thinking and discourse if they weren’t using ordinary language. The vernacular helps them talk turkey.” (150) [ah ha – emphasizing metacognition via process helps students understand discourse which in turn helps them do better in college in general and life in general.]

n Richard Rorty: “I think that America has made itself a bit ridiculous in the international academic world by developing distinctive disciplinary jargon. It’s the last thing we want to inculcate in the freshmen.” [Interesting! European academics don’t use jargon?]

n If students learn thinking, they’ll pick up the style, AND the style will be better. (150)

Elbow’s teaching strategies: He has students write a draft and then revise it in two different directions and then discusses the differences in class (he gives lots more details, p 150-151). EXCELLENT IDEA.

CENTRAL PRINCIPLE = We can’t teach particular conventions, must teach something universal. CAN teach principle of discourse variation. Rhetorical rather than formal. YES! (152)

And besides… there’s a lot of change anyway. E gives examples of deconstructionist attacking existence of plain meaning, feminists attacking primacy of linear or hierarchical, Bruner et al attacking assumption that narrative doesn’t contain logic as well as “academic” modes do, genres are becoming blurred anyway.

So… in the classroom he focuses “on relationships with various live audiences” (153) and less on style (though some).


2 thoughts on “notes on Peter Elbow’s “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues” (1991)

  1. I love this conversation. I struggle with how to balance the personal and the “academic” in my class. I used to ask for more personal experience papers, but realized that there is an academic discourse that students need to learn in order to succeed in college. Often they wrote great expressive papers, and then fell apart when asked for more traditional academic styles of writing. What I try to encourage now is flexibility, the recognition of audience and purpose as primary to effective writing. But it’s a tough balancing act, and I don’t know if I succeed. It’s going to be fun getting a glimpse into the composition conversations again through your experience in graduate school!

  2. Hi, Shannon.

    Thanks! I was going to ask you about your experience using “personal” writing assignments in your classes. Sounds like your approach is very similar to Elbow’s — in that you’re emphasizing giving your students skill/knowledge re audiences.

    I don’t cover it in much detail in these notes (above), but Elbow gives details about his assignments in class (pages 150-151). The basics of it, though, are that he has his students write something and then he has them take their drafts in two directions: say, revise for a more standard academic audience and then revise for a more casual audience. Then he discusses the differences in class. I wish I had the article right here in the front of me, because he gives more nuances and details. But that’s the gist of it.

    I’d heard/read of assigning personal AND academic papers, of mixing the personal INTO academic papers, but I hadn’t heard of his idea of having students write two versions of papers. Ever tried anything like that?


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