Earlier in the fall, The Atlantic ran a series of articles about teaching writing in American schools. One of the major themes in the conversation was the tension between writing as a form of self-expression and writing as a matter of adherence to established convention. That theme as it pertains to the way we should teach kids to write in the first place, while fascinating, is obviously outside the scope of this blog. But I am intrigued by the way that this dichotomy can influence our understanding of academic writing. Does strong academic writing come from an authentic sense of self-expression or does it come from an adherence to the existing genre conventions in the field? This formulation may appear impossibly stark, but it does reflect a tension experienced by many graduate students.
Graduate students often feel that they must choose between expressiveness and convention, even though they are ideally doing both. They are looking to give expression to something profoundly important to them, and they are doing so within the confines of an existing form. Coming to a sophisticated understanding of that existing form is what ultimately makes the dichotomy false; our self-expression as academic writers comes from our ability to express ourselves through the productive limits of the established form. The perception that the form is a rigid imposition rather than a meaningful framework is often what causes graduate writers to feel that they are being asked to check their creativity at the door. A lack of familiarity with academic writing can make a potentially productive set of limits feel like an arbitrary set of constraints. Increased familiarity with those limits enables writers to find the space they need to give full expression to their insights.
Despite these assurances, some graduate students express concern that I am offering a vision of academic writing that is worryingly conservative. My argument, however, is that adherence to form is something other than just conservatism. The established form supports and promotes conversation, thus allowing openness and engagement. Some would argue that this view of conversation is inherently inhospitable to radical views that will inevitably go unspoken or unheard. I am not, of course, trying to dismiss the idea that there is power entrenched in the academy in ways that can determine who gets to say what. But at the level of writing, I believe that established forms are more capacious than some give them credit for. Conversation always carries the potential for something radical. Starting where others are in order to move to a new space is different from just starting in that new space. Novice academic writers have many key decisions to make about how they will orient themselves towards the status quo in their fields of study, but joining the existing conversation won’t diminish—and may well enhance—the power and innovation of their ideas.