AcWriMo as an opportunity to examine our goals
Director of the University Writing & Speaking Center Maureen McBride discusses Academic Writing Month and encourages reexamination of academic language
It’s Academic Writing Month. I had to look this up to see what the organizers actually intended for this celebratory month. I always think of November as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, but apparently it is also Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo (you would think the director of a university writing and speaking center would have known about this great celebration of academic writing, but I didn’t). While I don’t think the acronym is quite as catchy as NaNoWriMo, I do love the intention behind this program—to encourage scholars to form writing groups and to set writing goals.
The use of writing groups, of peers who are working toward common goals, has been proven effective and is a foundational principle of the University Writing & Speaking Center, so I am in support of AcWriMo. But, and there is always more that we can examine and challenge, I think AcWriMo is also an opportunity to consider what academic writing is and also what it isn’t, or perhaps what it shouldn’t be and what it can be.
Academic writing is a form of communication that is not used in our everyday lives. Our students, our faculty, our administrators are unlikely to be using Standard Academic American English (SAAE) in dinner conversations or other interactions with friends and family. Students, in fact, learn very little “academic writing” in K-12. Then they are thrust into not only the expectation of mastery of academic writing, in all its various forms—lab reports, personal essays, research papers, grant proposals, needs assessments—but also an expectation to adhere to the written conventions of SAAE, which are also only learned for the purposes of communicating in specific educational environments. In our examination of academic writing, I think there is opportunity for us to ask ourselves what is gained when a student chooses not to adhere to expectations and standards they were not invited to contribute to.
I say this as a person who actually enjoys academic writing, especially reading it. I will take a stack of peer reviewed journal articles to the beach with me or camping and sip a cup of coffee listening to the water lap against the shores at Tahoe or feel the dry desert breeze against my face while I consume the latest research or the newest arguments that are affecting my field. So, I value academic writing. But I also know it is a form of communication created by people in the majority to bolster people in the majority. I know that I must examine, and I believe we must examine, how academic writing can be limiting, oppressive, and voiceless for some of our students and even some of our faculty members.
For me, I am constantly asking myself questions. What is the purpose of academic language and writing? What values are embedded in our expectations of standardized forms of language that have been used as oppressive tools for hundreds of years? Adherence to standards of language can be a useful tool to aid in communication. But understanding when commas or spelling are actually affecting understanding versus acknowledging when the variant from the standard is merely annoying is an important distinction. I am not advocating for a free for all in writing or academic language expectations. I am advocating for us to consider the benefits and the potential harm that can be perpetrated when we don’t examine if we are valuing compliance more than critical thinking or creative problem solving.
So, what should be our goals? Well, I think AcWriMo is a great time to support our early career faculty with their research and writing, to form connections with colleagues by forming writing groups, and it is also time to reflect on our teaching and the future of education and of academic writing. I am asking if and how academic writing can become more representative of the diversity of thought, experiences, perspectives that make our institution interesting and vibrant and rich with the “bold ideas” that administration is calling for in our next strategic plan. To do so, I think we must be intentional in cultivating new ways of expressing our ideas. We must consider how to move beyond simple adherence to genres and language forms used only in our classroom contexts and our academic journals. Through my work at the Writing & Speaking Center, I know that there are many faculty supporting students to see more possibilities in how they communicate their ideas and what forms that takes. As a university community, we can support more innovation through considering what scaffolding—lessons, discussions, activities, resources, support, encouragement—we need to provide to our students. We can help our students understand conventions and expectations; we can encourage new approaches to help them successfully communicate their diverse ideas, their innovative research, their creative problem solving when it does not fit within our current molds of “academic writing.”
I hear about so many students who are hesitant to seek support from the Writing & Speaking Center for fear of their ideas being judged for not adhering to the standards of academic writing. Students are often surprised by how supportive the peer consultants are in helping them communicate their ideas, sometimes by helping them understand the expectations of their classes, professors, disciplines, but more by helping students bring their voices, their ideas and contributions, into their assignments—because that is the beauty of higher education—the invitation and encouragement of new voices, of new ideas, of new ways of solving problems.
So, my bold idea right now is an invitation to all of us to acknowledge the purposes and the limitations of academic writing expectations and to encourage new ways to examine how we communicate in academia. Certainly, AcWriMo seems like a good time to put words onto the page or screen in ways that make connections with other people, not just in ways that adhere to standards of one group’s version of what academic writing can be.
Maureen McBride is the director of the University Writing & Speaking Center. Her research interests include peer-to-peer support, collaboration, writing center studies, reading-writing intersections, mentoring, and aesthetic dimensions of writing. Maureen has published in several journals, including The Peer Review, Praxis, College Composition and Communication, Composition Forum, and Assessing Writing.