holiday question 1: Why are there so few Academic Writing courses?

This is a guest post from Julia Molinari from the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Julia is currently doing doctoral research into ‘academic writing’.

A range of motivations, both personal and professional, have triggered the following observations, and the main reason for writing this is to see who else – ‘out there’ – has been wondering why Creative Writing courses abound and Academic Writing ones are much less likely to be found!

I know many undergraduates, postgraduates and fully-established academics – all ‘native’ speakers of English – who find it hard to write ‘academically’ and who rely on copy-editors not just to proofread, but to do the stuff that transforms a text from mere writing, to ‘good’ writing, writing that will draw in and inform an intended reader (writing that is authoritative, has a voice and a clear take-home message, to name just a handful from Pat’s blog) – writing, in other words, which projects ideas and sparks off connections, writing that teleports you out of the material text (with its syntax and structure) and into a world of knowledge.

I also teach Academic Writing to ‘non-native’ HE students and over the past 20 years have come to realise that although learning certain technical skills that are associated with Academic Writing is necessary (things like nominalisations and referencing), they are by far insufficient to enable writers to create texts that take the reader into another world. Although, arguably, the non-native has to walk before she can run, I can’t help feeling that, at least my students, have to learn to run pretty quickly.

So, my point is that to varying degrees, there is a need for non-native, native, undergraduate, postgraduate and academics to learn the Art of Academic Writing, a point which is better made and substantiated by Antoniou and Moriarty (2008) who draw on the aims and pedagogy of Creative Writing courses – which they label as ‘holistic’ – to argue that universities should also develop a more visible Academic Writing pedagogy, not one that is somehow learnt by osmosis or one that that remains largely prescriptive. I would also add that we need an Academic Writing pedagogy that critically examines established conventions by looking at the extent to which these may be preventing new knowledge and voices from emerging. For example, what might the academic writing conventions for interdisciplinary research or writing about oral cultures?

In their support, Antoniou and Moriarty (2008) refer to the stress, anxiety, fear and lack of confidence experienced by some academics when it comes to writing; they talk of feelings of ‘resentment’ at being forced to write in order to get jobs and then keep them; they remind us of the fact that contemporary academic culture involves lots of teaching and admin, as well as research and finding the time to write it, so even if we have had the good fortune of having gone to the ‘right’ schools and universities, being able to write well academically, AND write prolifically, is not a given; and if we haven’t had this privileged education, then the challenge of accessing and then reproducing the academic literacies that are expected of us increase (see also Lillis 2001 on access to academic literacies).

I also wonder why it is that Academic Writing is associated with such negativity. I somehow imagine that creative writers really want to be writers, that they love the whole process of writing and that a creative writing course is designed to help you ‘find your voice’ and your style. Is this so different from academic writing?

All of this has hit home even more since reading Pat’s blogs, which, when taken together, remind me of the holistic nature of academic writing, one that involves our (multiple) identities and our physical and psychological beings (from finding a voice and having something to say to looking after our writing body). Given the high stakes of and subtleties involved in good academic writing, I wonder why so few universities teach it?

Antoniou, M. and Moriarty, J. (2008) ‘What can academic writers learn from creative writers? Developing guidance and support for lecturers in Higher Education’ in Teaching in Higher Education 13 (2): 157-167
Lillis, T. (2001) Student writing: access, regulation, desire Routledge: London.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, courses, creative writing, Julia Molinari and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to holiday question 1: Why are there so few Academic Writing courses?

  1. M. Hermida says:

    I can recommend you the Stanford online course “Writing in the Sciences”, through the Coursera platform:

    M. Hermida


  2. Reblogged this on Academic Life and commented:
    An interesting question, still awaiting an answer…

    A post from Julia Molinari, currently doing a PhD on ‘academic writing’ at the School of Education, The University of Nottingham.


  3. A great post Julia, which is so true. Here is a project which I am running at Oxford Brookes University
    We are also starting a course in June “Strategies for success in academic writing”


  4. pat thomson says:

    I suspect Julia is referring to quite long courses equivalent to creative writing degrees. These are or are part of award bearing programmes. I run courses of the extended workshop variety too, but I’m not sure this is what Julia had in mind…


  5. I will have a look at all the courses being suggested, but I suppose, as Pat suggests, I was thinking about why the role of the Creative Writing lecturer is a fully established one, whereas there is no such equivalent in Academic Writing. There are AW ‘tutors’ and ‘workshop leaders’, but are there Academic Writing lecturers who teach about the history of Academic Writing, for example, or different theories of Academic Writing, such Academic Literacies and EAP? There are plenty AW courses which seem to fall under the category of ‘service’ and I suppose I was wondering whether, given the knowledge-building capacity of good Academic Writing, it should be given more prominence in the Academy ….


  6. Mavis Smith says:

    gGood writing is always good writing whether you give it the ‘academic’ or ‘creative’ label.


  7. Nim Chimpsky says:

    This is the first time I have read Pat’s blog so I apologise if I make a point that has been made before. I totally agree with the point Julia makes; I would argue that it is indicative of a deeper problem in academia. When I was interviewed for my current position I said that I felt one of the problems in teaching undergraduates was that many academics took for granted the epistemological traditions they had bought into to the extent that they were often not consciously aware of their own assumptions. This prompted much nodding of heads and taking of notes. Now that I am in post I have found that my efforts to confront this issue in our undergraduate provision have been met with responses along the lines of ‘we don’t teach boring skills courses’. Asking academics to confront this issue is asking them to look seriously outside their own largely successful experience of university education. With teaching generally coming behind research and admin in the priorities of many institutions, the incentives for such a big cultural change are simply not there.


  8. I guess part of the problem is that this is a set of skill that is taken for granted, but ends up being one of the many ways in which an unspoken bias towards a certain kind of successful candidate, and then successful academic, is introduced in the system. Not that anybody would ever admit to that, hence the resistence and ‘blind spot’ when one questions the obvious deficit in training for PGR students in academic writing, which mirrors the insufficient training in teaching skills – although the difference is that nobody cares about teaching (in the sense that being a good teacher never got anybody a job in academia), while good writing is supposed to be at the foundation of good research.


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  10. Jane S says:

    I’ve just ordered Helen Sword’s book, ‘Stylish Academic Writing.’ I find flipping out of ‘fiction’ or ‘journo’ modes into ‘academic’ very awkward; a tendency to purplish prose WILL creep in! But forced academic writing does have its benefits; it makes you *think*. ‘Mean what you say, say what you mean.’
    My MO, to date, has been to write freely and ‘academic-ise’ later. It’s not the best solution but it serves. The oft-recommended ‘Chicago Manual of Style,’ & the ‘MHRA Style Guide Handbook’ for authors, editors and writers of theses, haven’t been a lot of help.
    However, Harvard in-line refs. are irritating. These interrupt what I perceive as a natural flow – both in the ‘voice’ in my head and the appearance on the page.


  11. UEfAP says:

    I think one simple – and I hope not simplistic – answer is that for most people academic writing is not an end in itself, whereas creative writing is!


  12. Hmmmm….I’m not sure I agree that creative writing is an end in itself (although I’m not sure what it means for something to be ‘an end in itself’). How would you classify George Orwell’s work? Creative, academic, journalistic, or a bit of all of those? Also, scientific and ICT writing is notoriously ‘creative’, as testified by the metaphors of ‘black holes’, ‘string theory’ and ‘desktop’, all of which contribute to our epistemological representations. I know many Academic Writing courses address these features, but not with the same visibility that Creative Writing courses do ….


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