What is academic discourse?

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What is academic discourse?

As an undergraduate, you become more aware of a style of presentation that influences your essay writing. Reading academic textbooks and journal articles, attending lectures and being part of a student community has exposed you to a habit of writing that might be termed 'academic discourse'.

An academic discourse contains its own conventions about how to present research, and how to read and respond to research. The problem is that the requirements of academic discourse are often implicit and as a student you are expected to gain a grasp of academic literacy without necessarily being given instruction in how to utilise these conventions of academic writing.

The dissertation represents the culmination of your undergraduate work, and allows you to put into practice the knowledge and skills gained over the past few years. The purpose of the web site is simply to draw attention to the notion of academic writing, or writing for academic purposes, in order that your dissertation efforts are not lessened or compromised by flaws in presentation.

The advice in this section is about observing basic grammatical conventions that typify an academic writing style. It is not about referencing or citation rules, which your department will advise you about, and which you should have already practised when writing course essays. Although your skills in essay writing will progress throughout your studies, through feedback from tutors or peer review, attention to specific points of writing style is often overlooked during the pressures to complete other work. Writing a dissertation is a considerable intellectual exercise, and some time should be spent upon its composition in order to best display your efforts and demonstrate your capabilities as a student.

The process of academic writing

All writing is tailored to an audience, which shares certain conventions of style and grammar. Newspapers represent an obvious example of how one area of writing practice (journalism) can have so many variations in discourse. Without delving into issues of power, representation, or political bias, it is worthwhile noting that academic essays require a certain formality which places the writer in the background, and allows the exposition of a carefully worked argument to come to the fore.

As a student of the social sciences, your dissertation may include statistics, graphs, or other representations of data, and it may include multi-media components as well as text. However, in addition to presenting data, your aim is to persuade the reader that you have understood the processes of research and can present that research in a clear and intelligible manner. Key to this is the need to think of your writing in stages. For example:

  • First draft sketches an overview of the dissertation and breaks up the presentation of findings into appropriate chapters.

  • Second draft revises your arguments, enhances the exposition of your thesis and begins the check for grammatical ambiguities.

  • Third draft corrects punctuation and errors in referencing in accordance with your particular course requirements and, if necessary, re-arranges some of the content.

  • Fourth draft clarifies any remaining arguments.

The above is an indication of the possible stages of writing, and merely illustrates the process of reworking your essay, a task which is often avoided, because of the time factor involved, but which is essential if you are to produce a quality dissertation that does justice to your research.

Write clearly, concisely, and try to avoid long, awkward clauses that risk losing the interest or attention of the reader. Your immediate audience will be your peers and tutoring staff, who will be conversant with theories and terminologies specific to your area of study. However, don't rely on a showy display of 'jargon' to hide a poorly structured thesis - again, clarity of argument and an incremental exposition of the research findings will provide the most accessible means of communicating your work for assessment. You may find it helpful to visualise the process of essay writing as a flow-chart model, which will help to allocate content into an appropriate structure for your first draft.

Understand the structure of paragraphs

A paragraph tends to develop a single idea or unit of meaning and a series of paragraphs form an essay. The dissertation is similar to an extended essay, often combined with other methods of analysis, which builds into an account of a piece of research. An 'academic' style for paragraphs in the dissertation might observe some of the following:

  • The length of the paragraph. Vary the length to avoid monotony; however on average you will probably find that between two to three paragraphs per page (double spacing) is sufficient. Paragraphs offer natural pauses, and very long passages threaten to lose the reader's attention.

  • Write sentences with clear topics and paragraphs with a clear aim. Paragraphs often begin by stating the topic idea, and end by linking back to the overall theme (of the dissertation or chapter section). Keep in mind that the each paragraph has a focus and it is clearly evident in the paragraph. If the dissertation theme is held back and not stated until the reader reaches the end of a chapter, the reader may have lost the focus of why this particular piece of research is crucial to the study. During the stages of rewriting, look for points where the argument has become separated from the main thesis, and if necessary make some of your paragraphs conclude by referring back to this so that it has a clear relationship with the topic.

  • Write unified paragraphs. Use words and phrases to link sentences and paragraphs together, such as although, however, in contrast. These phrases work to imply change, to supplement, or to conclude. Be careful not to use them needlessly in order to fill gaps.

  • Use alternatives to common words. This is a basic principle for all forms of writing, and helps to avoid monotony. The most frequent use of this will be when using pronouns (I, he, she, we, it, they, that) to replace the subject of a sentence. Related to this is the concept of 'elegant variation', which some view as rhetoric or studied avoidance for the sake of clear exposition. The best approach is to balance your writing with synonyms, but not to avoid repeating terms when they are important to the expression of your argument.

Adopting a suitable writing style

As mentioned earlier, acquiring the ability to write academic essays is a developmental process which improves during the course of your studies. This overlaps with other criteria which mark your passage as a student - your developing subject knowledge and confidence in thinking critically. However, this process of learning is often taken to be implicit, and explicit training in the conventions of academic writing is not usually anticipated as necessary. In order to identify some concepts of academic discourse, it would be useful to look at a few examples and examine some aspects of the underlying grammar.

It is usually easier to identify clear, concise writing by looking at examples of sentences which are confusing and misleading. One key area of difficulty for students, when writing 'academic discourse', is the use of active and passive constructions. Essentially, these aspects of sentence composition affect the ordering of the relationship between the subject, object and verb elements. Passive constructions can often be spotted by noticing the use of the verb 'to be' with the past participle of a transitive verb, as well as the use of multiple prepositions. Here is an example:

'The necessary method of identifying the cause for the social groupings to operate was determined'.

Prepositions are shown in italics, and the sentence concludes with a typical past participle construction; 'was determined'. The above sentence could be written using a more active voice, which places the past participle at the beginning of the sentence and reduces the number of prepositions:

'We analysed the cause of the social groupings with an appropriate method'.

The above example may be extreme, but it highlights some basic grammatical principles which, if followed, help to present academic research lucidly and cogently. For many students, writing under other pressures, spending time converting all passive constructions into active phrases will be excruciating and needless. In fact, there is often a tendency to use passive constructions when the writer is not quite sure of how to express a particular idea or concept, or has only partially conceptualised the principle of research to be discussed (passive constructions can also be used inappropriately as filler to make up word count). Take time to reflect on your key themes and create a flowchart or other schematic aid to guide you through the overall plan of your work (as discussed earlier). This will help concentrate your writing, keep you on track, and minimise the risk of 'over-writing' by compiling loose arguments with too many passive constructions.

There is an important caveat here. Passive constructions are abundant in academic writing, and an essay full of active sentences will not translate into a recognisable academic essay. As in most things, a considered balance to your writing, and a reflective approach, will aid in communicating your results most effectively.

Some other grammatical issues

This section is a useful overview of grammatical usage and style. It is important to stress that these are not 'rules', nor a prescriptive type of grammar that all academics adhere to, but they are a set of points with which you should be aware of and with which will improve academic discourse:

  • Leave out needless words. Try to avoid phrases such as 'It can be seen at this point of the enquiry that...' Again, you will find examples of these phrases in journals and textbooks, however for the sake of clarity in your own work it is better to keep a limit on them.

  • Use specific terms rather than abstractions. Show your mastery of technical concepts relevant to your discipline, but try not to over-complicate the explanations of these terms in relation to your research.

  • Limit the use of adverbs and adjectives. Control the use of those adjectives which create a sense of vagueness when describing your research findings. Although questions of objectivity/subjectivity are crucial to social science research, evaluation via academic discourse is carried out through the exposition of the research, rather than through qualifying statements.

  • Choose words with precision. This sounds obvious, but if you are not clear about the choice of words then your dissertation reader may get the impression that you have not thought enough about the topic under discussion.

  • Avoid groups of adjectival nouns. As with the use of passive constructions, you will see examples of this in academic discourse, however with a little reworking you can eliminate some of the more extreme forms. For example, rather than writing 'media distribution policy examination group', you could write 'group to examine media distribution policy'. The first example might legitimately be a group slogan; however when used in written form it is awkward and may lose the reader's interest.

  • Misplaced modifiers. These occur in many forms of writing, and derive from our tendency to use such forms in speech, where the meaning is easier to understand through other contexts. Words like only, just, nearly, are often placed into sentences at points that create ambiguity. In academic discourse, their presence creates vagueness and potential confusion. For example, 'We only read the two transcriptions from the police files' could be written as 'We read only the two transcriptions from the police files'. This seems like a minor change, but it makes an important difference in emphasis.

  • Dangling modifiers. This happens when the modifying phrase improperly modifies part of the sentence. This often happens with participial phrases. For example, 'Reading the reports on global poverty, the conclusions were convincing'. You will probably understand the meaning of this sentence, however it is not exactly clear about the relationship between the two parts, the participial phrase (which starts the sentence) and the modifying phrase. They could be describing different actions. An alternative might be 'Reading the reports on global poverty, we found the conclusions convincing'. This makes explicit the relationship between each part of the sentence.

  • Squinting modifiers. This is due to the adverb's tendency to roam across the sentence. Again, its presence may not radically alter the sentence, although it does create more ambiguity by looking towards different parts of the sentence. For example, 'The theme was discovered often during the initial literature search'. Here, often seems to look both ways and creates an uncertain sense of movement across the sentence. A simple way to make often modify discovered (the intention of the phrase) would be to write 'The theme was often discovered during the initial literature search'.

There are many more points of grammar which identify academic discourse. Remember, if the clarity of your exposition is blunted, then your dissertation will not achieve its full potential in communicating your research. Therefore, be aware of the norms of academic discourse, incorporate them where you can, and be vigilant when writing your dissertation. Try to follow the process of writing in stages, and work through your dissertation at each of these stages by reiterating your argument, presenting your research, and clarifying your interpretations of this research. It was stated at the beginning of this section, the 'rules' of academic discourse are not prescriptions made to curtail your creativity, but rather a set of conventions which situate you as a student within an academic community. Be confident about your own research, write with care, and enjoy this opportunity to present your findings. Good writing cannot make up for inadequate research, but it is important get the most value out of the process of discovery.

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