Making Academic Discourse Exciting: Advice for Digital Immigrants – July 2014


Stylish Academic WritingEnglish Version

In the April newsletter, I wrote about e-publishing options and how digital publishing might benefit our field.  This article is an example of how eBooks from other fields can also be of benefit to us.

Making Academic Discourse Exciting

In the summer, I frequently try to catch up on the reading that I have not had time to do during the year.  My iPad is loaded with both books and journal articles to broaden my familiarity with current thought in our field.  I must admit that this reading is a mixed blessing.  Some of what I have read is extremely well written and meaningful.  But at times, I encounter a journal article that has a promising topic but that still puts me to sleep.  Have you experienced struggling through arcane sentence structure and technical jargon to uncover the valuable ideas?  I know that I have.  I also know that at times, I have written in such a style thinking this style was required to be accepted in academic circles.  Yet I just discovered a book that promises that this form of discourse does not have to be our destiny.

Join the Revolution

A colleague, Patty Gordon, recently introduced me to the book, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword.  She had received it as a gift from Dr. Laurie Swabey who finds it to be a useful tool for teaching writing.  A quick internet search revealed that this book is available in multiple formats, including for free on  Sword aims “to start a stylistic revolution that will end in improved reading conditions for all.” (p. 6.) Sword argues that just because written academic discourse has often been boring and convoluted, that doesn’t mean it needs to remain so.   Sword undertook a research study to look across disciplines and identify what effective and engaging writing looks like.  She analyzed 100 guides for academic writers and 500 research articles from peer-reviewed journals (50 in each of 10 disciplines).  Through her work, she found that there were some consistent principles that appeared in the guides. I list her findings here:

  • Clarity,Coherence,Concision:Strive to produce sentences that are clear,  coherent, and concise. 
  • Short or Mixed-Lenth Sentences:Keep sentences short and simple, or vary  your rhythm by alternating longer sentences with shorter ones.
  • Plain English: Avoid ornate, pompous, Latinate, or waffly prose. 
  • Precision:Avoid vagueness and imprecision. 
  • Active Verbs:Avoid passive verb constructions or use them sparingly; active  verbs should predominate.  
  • Telling Story: Create a compelling narrative.  (p. 40-41)

Other features that are not as unanimous, but are also recommended by many of the writing guides:

  • Use of personal pronouns
  • Careful use of jargon
  • Personal voice
  • Creative expression
  • Nonstandard structure
  • Engaging titles.  (p.41)

I have not had time to finish the entire book, so I can only provide a cursory review.  But given the easy access of the book through technology and the affordable cost (free if you are willing to read it on your computer) I thought it was worth sharing. I look forward to using some of the rest of my summer to finish it and hope that it will give me ideas for improving my own writing – and prove to be a tool for our profession to build on our strengths with language and take our professional discourse to new levels.

Academic Discourse is More than Writing

Of course, as a field, we also use signed languages as part of our field of academic discourse.  I think it is important to acknowledge that and give as much consideration to signed discourse as we do to the written forms.  For myself, I am appreciative of the work being done at Gallaudet University in focusing on academic uses of American Sign Language. I offer a couple of resources which I have found to be beneficial.
ASL in Academics Lecture Series:  This series was originally developed at the request of faculty at Gallaudet who wanted resources on how to use ASL within different academic disciplines. It includes the following letters:

  • Academic Discourse in English & ASL by Raychelle Harris
  • ASL vs. English Semantics by M. Bienvenu
  • University Student Learning Outcomes & ASL by Gene Mirus
  • Using ASL to Discuss Biology by Raymond Merritt
  • Using ASL to Discuss Human Development & Psychology by Daniel Koo, Raylene Paludneviciene, & Caroline Kobek-Pezzarossi
  • Academic ASL in the Sciences by Caroline Solomon

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The Deaf Studies Digital Journal:  Published by the ASL and Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University, the Deaf Studies Digital Journal has scholarly research in the following areas:  articles, commentary, literature, visual arts, and film & video.  All of the information is provided in video format in American Sign Language.  It’s fourth issue, focusing on the history of Gallaudet University, was published in the spring of 2014.
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Furthering Professional Discourse

These resources promise to support us as educators.  They also can be useful tools for our students and mentees.  I hope you find them to be as helpful as I do in raising the clarity and engagement of discourse in both written and signed form.