Category Archives: Identity

Posts that discuss the role that identity plays in academic writing

“Yes, you are a writer!”

I recently gave a talk for the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education about the importance of claiming our identity as academic writers. This topic is one that I have returned to repeatedly in this space. I am sharing a revised version of the talk in this post because it covers an aspect of the topic that I haven’t addressed in much detail here: the practical implications of having an incomplete identity as an academic writer. I’m also sharing this talk because it gives me an excuse to include this delightful drawing that an audience member did during my talk.

Cayley-Writing

“Yes, you are a writer” by Giulia Forsythe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I can’t tell you how much I love this drawing. I spoke for over an hour and the artist, Giulia Forsythe, captured the essence of so much of what I said. Since I’m completely lacking in artistic skill or the capacity to arrange ideas spatially, I’m in awe of Giulia’s talent. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce it here. Her website explains more about the intersection between her pedagogical work and her artistic work; in particular, I recommend this video describing her process.

It comes as no surprise that writing is intimately connected with identity: writing is obviously one of the ways in which we tell people who we are. At least to some extent, our discomfort with writing is a discomfort with the process of fixing our identity; what we say in writing will endure, meaning that our exposure to critical assessment may also endure. If this is an accurate depiction of the underlying dynamic of writing anxiety, it is easy to believe that this anxiety is exacerbated for graduate writers. If writing fixes identity, we may naturally hesitate to undertake that activity when we are unsure of our identity. Graduate school is many things to many people, but it is almost never a time of fixed and comfortable identity. In fact, it tends to be a time of porous boundaries between work and life and a time of significant scholarly uncertainty.

All of this means that writing in graduate school often becomes something fraught, which in turn means that it is something you may not do enough of and something that you may not share willingly with others. Not feeling able to write or, worse, not feeling able to share what you’ve written is a serious contributing factor for time to completion and attrition challenges. It also makes graduate study way less enjoyable than it might otherwise be. To combat these very real graduate writing challenges, we need to talk about the debilitating impact of an incomplete sense of scholarly identity during graduate school. Raising awareness can make graduate students feel better about the way that writing has become more difficult, just when they need it to be getting easier. But raising awareness only helps in the long-term: it takes considerable time to become comfortable as an academic writer. Most graduate writers also need short-term solutions to their writing challenges.

In my view, those solutions need to involve explicit writing instruction that can tackle specific issues. We know that scholarly discomfort is often instantiated in academic texts in predictable ways, and it makes sense to talk to graduate writers about those potential weaknesses in their writing. In particular, I’d like to highlight three concrete ways in which an incomplete identity can hamper graduate writing: insufficiently explaining the contribution; insufficiently managing the scholarly literature; and insufficiently crafting an authorial voice.

Insufficiently explaining the contribution. One of things that I most often see in graduate student writing is introductory material that neglects the author’s own research problem and its significance in favour of focusing heavily on the work done by others. This elision may result from a lack of confidence, but it can also result from a lack of familiarity with the generic features of academic writing. Learning the essential moves involved in introducing a research problem can help writers to overcome the tendency to under-emphasize their own contribution.

Insufficiently managing the scholarly literature. Another common issue in graduate student writing is a literature review that lacks a coherent argument about the need for the current research given the existing state of the field. Again, it is easy to see how a lack of confidence in the identity frame of academic writing makes writers hide behind the work done by others. Learning more about structuring a literature review can help writers manage the existing literature in a way that consistently supports their own eventual contribution.

Insufficiently crafting an authorial voice. Finally, I find myself talking frequently with graduate students about the problem of what can be called writer-less texts. Needless to say, being reticent about inserting ourselves into the text is often a by-product of feeling less than confident about our status as writers. It can also reflect deep uncertainty about the question of voice in academic writing. Learning more about metadiscourse and the factors that inhibit its usage can offer us tangible guidance on how to raise our own profile within our texts.

(In all three of these cases, I would recommend using highlighting to come to a better understanding of how visible we are within our own writing.)

These strategies are meant to improve graduate writing while acknowledging the underlying problem of incomplete identity. By offering concrete strategies for improving writing, I am seeking to help graduate writers improve their writing and thereby perhaps improve their sense of self as writers. At the very least, writing instruction can help us pinpoint common problems and help us to produce stronger prose. At a deeper level, however, writing instruction for graduate students can offer a greater sense of efficacy, which then contributes to a feeling of comfort with the role of academic writer. That feeling of belonging can start to strengthen scholarly identity and thus lessen identity-based writing challenges before they take root.

The title given to me for this talk was ‘Yes, you are a writer!’; I was initially hesitant about that level of exuberance but decided to go with it anyway. (One exclamation mark wasn’t going to kill me!) Embracing our writerly identity may be painful at times—it is natural to prefer identities that make us feel competent rather than ones that emphasize our status as novices—but it is ultimately valuable, both for the technical proficiency that can flourish and for the eventual feeling of comfort with the ongoing and crucial demands of academic writing.

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Adopting a New Research Identity

Most people find it easy to accept that graduate writing challenges are connected to the profound shift in identity that often accompanies graduate study. The novel challenge of graduate-level writing can be so much more than just a technical challenge, more than just a simple matter of not having done something before. In fact, a sense of incomplete identity can manifest itself in the quality of writing and even in the ability to develop a productive writing practice. While I have long believed all this to be true, the idea became much more real to me after I had the experience of needing to adopt a new research identity. When I took my first sabbatical, I was doing so in a field that I hadn’t studied as a doctoral student; as a result of this disciplinary transition, I was embarking on a research project without much relevant experience.

Over the course of this research, I undertook the ethics review process; contacted potential interviewees; learned how to make and manage digital recordings; conducted interviews; arranged for transcripts to be made; completed the data analysis; and drafted an article based on the research. Many of these activities may sound benign or even routine, but they were fundamentally different from anything that I had done before. It is unsurprising that learning these various skills was difficult, but what was striking, at least to me, was how deeply uneasy I felt throughout. Being reflective about this uneasiness was crucial both because I needed to overcome the discomfort in order to complete the project and because I could tell that understanding my own experience would help me to understand the challenges facing doctoral writers. We are all aware of the transitions that this group is making: from generalist to specialist, from student to researcher, from novice to expert. Making comparable transitions myself and experiencing a sense of being unmoored from my usual sources of professional authority emphasized the potential vulnerability of academic writers. As a teacher of writing, I benefited from this tangible reminder that the weakness of doctoral writing often come from the enormity of the identity shift that students are undertaking.

To characterize the transition from student to doctoral researcher as one of identity formation rather than as simple expertise development is a powerful way to go beyond popular—and often facile—explanations of the weaknesses in academic writing. Writing problems are occasionally straightforward matters of convoluted syntax or arcane vocabulary or disorganization, but are more often indicative of deeper struggles. To take two common examples, think of an introduction that fails to emphasize the significance of the problem under discussion or a treatment of the literature that reads like a laundry list of what everyone else thinks. Weak introductions are a consistent issue for the thesis writers that I work with; novice writers often fail to remind the reader of the significance of the current research. This omission can result from the over-familiarity that sometimes causes us to leave the most obvious things unsaid or from inexperience with writing sophisticated academic texts, but it can also result from the absence of a conviction that our contribution is worthy of being highlighted. Similarly, novice writers can struggle to manage literature reviews in a manner that conveys the preeminent importance of what the current writer has to say. Students can be taught to write better literature reviews, but the ability to do so has to be grounded in an underlying sense that they have the authority to synthesize the existing literature in support of their own project. In other words, they have to believe that their own project is a legitimate successor to the literature under discussion.

These sorts of writing problems can, of course, be addressed at the level of technical expertise: it’s entirely possible to give students a range of straightforward strategies to counteract common academic writing problems. However, delivering that advice in a way that also addresses the underlying identity tensions can provide novice writers a way out of their writing difficulties that is grounded in improved self-understanding. Once we accept that the work of identity formation will be inscribed in the texts that we write, we can seek out both technical solutions and a deeper understanding of the source of the difficulties. In my experience, students are more able to assimilate technical solutions into their own writing regimes when they see their problems as connected with a legitimate professional shift rather than simply as symptomatic of their own inadequacy. Since the challenge of inhabiting a novel identity can then be framed as an inevitable part of the scholarly development process, we can increase the chance that graduate writing support will be seen as essential. Such a framing can move our perception of writing problems from a model of deficiency to one of professional development, helping writing support to gain institutional traction. If we see the limitations of a novice academic writer as a natural by-product of the process of shifting from student to scholar, we may be better able to advance a framework for doctoral writing support that goes beyond notions of remediation to become an integrated part of doctoral education.

In Support of Academic Writing

Last fall, Steven Pinker promoted his new book, The Sense of Style, with an article in The Chronicle Review entitled “Why Academics Stink at Writing”. I didn’t write about this article at the time because I hadn’t yet read the book; while I had a lot of concerns about the article, I was reluctant to share them in the absence of an understanding of his overall intentions in the book. Over the winter break, I read the book in order to write a review; what I found was a thoughtful diagnosis of the habits that impede strong academic writing and a great deal of incisive writing advice. I recommend Pinker’s account of how what he calls the “curse of knowledge” (p. 59) prevents us from grasping what the reader needs to know. And I recommend his approach to managing complex writing, especially at the sentence level. I feel certain that most serious writers could benefit from both aspects of this book, but I remain uneasy about the overarching tone with which Pinker addresses academic writing.

My uneasiness is straightforward: I worry that Pinker’s decision to treat academic writers as a monolithic group worthy of some measure of scorn is potentially discouraging to novice academic writers. That is, it seems awful to be labouring to join a club that everyone agrees is full of people who are terrible at the thing that they do. Obviously the pressure to be productive means that all aspiring academics do want to join this club, but it’s dispiriting to work so hard for an accomplishment that is so easily and casually derided. Furthermore, since we often learn to write from exemplars, it can be perplexing to see those examples so widely condemned.

The issue is more than just a broad one of how we feel about the enterprise of academic writing. The way we talk about academic writing also has implications for actual decisions that we make as writers. Pinker mentions many things that bog down academic writing: inexpert use of metadiscourse; reflexive indications that our topics are too complex to be readily explained; nominalizations and passive constructions; imprecise or clichéd language; and excessive hedging. All these things are clearly capable of weakening academic prose, and he has good advice for managing these and other potential pitfalls. However, he fails to consider how fraught many of our academic writing decisions are. Take hedging, for example. Pinker describes “compulsive hedging” (p. 43) as a lack of commitment to our own ideas; by characterizing this familiar type of prudence as a problematic lack of confidence, he evinces a lack of interest in the complex process of developing an academic identity. An academic identity of sufficient strength to allow us to take a firm stand behind our own interpretations is not easily formed. Excessive hedging can be irksome to the reader, but it is unrealistic to imagine that novice writers ought to simply abandon their natural and often pragmatic embrace of caution. Pinker has offered ways for academic writing to get better, but he hasn’t paid much attention to why the characteristic tics of scholarly writing persist.

It’s not that I want to defend all academic writing, and it’s certainly not the case that I want to preclude intelligent analyses of why writing goes astray. As I said above, Pinker’s discussion of the curse of knowledge is very helpful and far better than the frequently heard suggestions that academic writers can’t be bothered to write well or that they can’t afford to write well lest they expose their own emptiness. But I do think it is important that novice academic writers begin writing in a supportive atmosphere with a clear grasp of the complex array of pressures attached to their writing choices. Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.

In the end, Pinker’s analysis of academic writing seems to run the risk of being disregarded by the established writers who might benefit while being taken seriously by all the wrong people. These established writers may not listen to his valuable suggestions since they likely have a certain a confidence in their existing style. My concern is that while these writers carry on undeterred, two other groups may take Pinker’s critique too much to heart. First, there are those who wish to believe that academics are engaged in an inherently meaningless and solipsistic enterprise; this group will certainly find solace in Pinker’s critique. And, second, there are those who are already daunted by the prospect of joining the academy; this group will likely feel discouraged by the view that even if you succeed as an academic writer, the accomplishment will always be clouded by a lack of respect. His “professional narcissism” (p. 41) critique may be apt when levied against the sort of senior academics that he is targeting, but it feels downright uncharitable when extended to graduate student writers. He clearly feels that there are writers who should be held accountable for continuing to provide turgid and limp prose to the world—and maybe he is right that they should know better. But there are also many developing academic writers who aren’t in a position to avoid all these potential stylistic problems, at least not yet.

Before engaging too deeply with the academic-writing-is-terrible narrative, I urge novice writers to be reflective about their own writing situation. Some of the habits of novice academic writers will reflect the challenge of trying to marshal their thoughts about complex topics for a difficult-to-define audience with a tremendous amount at stake. This challenging situation doesn’t necessarily give rise to great writing. In my view, Pinker offers us excellent advice on improving writing but fails to see how our own positions within the academy may affect our ability to take his advice. By overlooking the developmental side of academic writing, he is overlooking the crucial work associated with becoming an academic writer. This blind spot is unfortunate because the advice itself is outstanding and beautifully presented. However, improving our academic writing—a goal we can all share—takes more than good advice; it also requires a good understanding of why we struggle. And while it is obviously possible to improve our writing in the face of widespread contempt for academic writing, I wonder if it might not be easier in an environment that offers a little more support for the whole enterprise of academic writing.

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

In my line of work, I hear a lot of sentences that start, ‘My supervisor says …’. And the supervisory comment that seems to elicit the most confusion involves the concept of voice: ‘I can’t hear your voice in this’ or ‘your voice is missing from the text’. In my experience, these concerns are met with a great deal of bafflement from graduate student writers. The reason for this largely baffled response is, I suspect, the way that we tend to think of voice as a feature of literary or expressive writing. Voice is usually associated with the distinctive style of a particular author: the sum total of the way that person writes. Thus, when we hear about a lack of voice, we take that to mean a certain bland quality to the prose or a lack of overall consistency in the diction, the phrasing, the pacing, etc. Given those associations, it’s no wonder that novice academic writers may be puzzled by the suggestion that they lack a voice. Since we cannot fix a problem that we don’t understand, that puzzlement unfortunately often leads to inaction or ineffectual editing.

If, however, we shift from discussing voice to discussing contribution, writers often start to see what might be missing. ‘I’m having trouble seeing the contribution that your work will make to this area of research.’ Articulating our contribution is a significant challenge, but it is a goal that generally makes sense. Moving away from the nebulous concept of voice allows us to direct our attention towards the genuinely difficult task of clarifying our own contribution. There are lots of reasons that this task is so difficult; here are the three that I find most prevalent.

1. Modesty: One fundamental reason for downplaying the novelty of our own work is a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence often manifests itself in an unhealthy reliance upon the existing literature. If you are one of those writers who feels better when thoroughly encased in other people’s insights, you may be under-emphasizing your own contribution. You need to use the scholarly literature to set the stage for your contribution, rather than allowing it to take centre stage itself.

2. Inexperience: Our own contribution can also be neglected when we are unfamiliar with the new genre in which we are working; in other words, we may simply not know how to draw attention to our own contribution. In a recent post on introductions, I emphasize how we can craft an introduction that clarifies the centrality of our own contribution. In general, developing any sort of genre expertise requires a great deal of attentive reading of the sorts of texts that we need to produce.

3. Familiarity: In my view, the most persistent obstacle to a sufficient explanation of our research contribution is our preoccupation with our own material. While we get more and more familiar with our subject matter, our future reader maintains the same degree of unfamiliarity. The longer we spend with a text, the more implausible it becomes that we need to keep reiterating our key contribution. But we cannot ascribe an unrealistic degree of familiarity to the reader just because we are so fully immersed in the document. Finally, keep in mind that your readers will often be experts in the field, meaning that they may be very familiar with everything but the new ideas you are developing. Make sure you are emphasizing the novelty.

Overall, the absence of a well-articulated explanation of the research contribution is a significant weakness for many novice academic writers. But the problem becomes much easier to fix when we confront it head on. If we are sidetracked by the notion of an absent voice, we may fail to solve this crucial problem. To be clear, I am not saying that our academic writing can’t have a distinctive and personal voice; in the long run, most of us are striving to find just that. In the meantime, however, we can all be helped by the reminder that a clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing.

Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Identifying Yourself as a Writer

Do you think of yourself as a writer? Graduate students write a great deal but rarely think of themselves as writers. Maybe this is analogous to how we think of other activities; I love to bake, for instance, but would never describe myself as a baker. A baker is someone who has training as such or who, at the very least, is paid to do so. Since neither of those is true for me, I am just someone who spends way too much time baking. Similarly, since we aren’t generally trained as writers or paid to write, we don’t call ourselves writers. But there are implications of being a writer–that is, someone who has to write frequently in order to meet key professional goals–who nonetheless shies away from that label. What would you say if asked to finish the following sentences?

‘As a writer, I am…’  

‘As a writer, I wish to be…’

Many of us will come up with sentences like these:

‘As a writer, I am not very good (or skilled or competent or efficient or happy or effective or confident).’

‘As a writer, I wish to be finished, so I don’t have to write any more!’

In my experience, people rarely think of themselves as writers, but they frequently think of themselves as bad writers. Adopting that sort of critical stance towards our own writing could be beneficial if it was part of a broader project of developing our writing skills. But novice writers often treat bad writer as an ontological category, as a condition that will afflict them forever and always. Needless to say, it can be hard to improve your writing if you are more or less resigned to never improving. If you are inclined to think of yourself as a bad writer, try lopping off the ‘bad’. Doing so may leave you with a more hopeful construction: ‘I am a writer who needs to improve in such-and-such ways. These improvements will come from such-and-such strategies.’

I recently came across an interesting article that discusses a range of strategies designed to improve the writing process:

[W]e have identified strategies that can help novices understand more about academic writing and their relationship with writing. One strategy is to confront and talk about rather than ignore the difficult emotions that writing stirs up. This can result in two potentially enabling insights for beginning academic writers. They learn that their feelings are not extraordinary but commonplace, and therefore not something to be anxious about. And by finding that their feelings are shared by more experienced writers, novices learn that difficult emotions need not get in the way of writing, can be managed rather than erased and might even be productive in the writing process. The second strategy is to explicitly address procedural know-how and expose what goes on in the writing process. This provides novices with information about strategies for productive writing, and assures them that what they currently perceive as failings (such as having to write and rewrite multiple times) are the very means for producing good writing. Novices learn that they are not deficient or lacking in skills but doing exactly what experienced writers do. Related to this, the third strategy is to…hail novices as academic writers—to use social settings, such as writing workshops, where novices, in the presence of others, take on tasks as if they were already experienced writers (for example, to read the work of an admired author not as a student seeking wisdom, but as a one writer inquiring into how another writer writes) (Cameron, Nairn, and Higgins, 2009; emphasis mine).

These strategies are expressed as ways that instructors can help students, and they are indeed all strategies that I find useful in my teaching. But they are also approaches that you can use yourself: you can talk honestly with your peers about your writing difficulties; you can accept that writing doesn’t come automatically and seek out the support that you need; and you can consciously adopt the role of academic writer as you approach the texts that you read. Even if writing support is hard to find, I urge you to continue to look for resources to help you implement these strategies in your own writing life. The blogroll is full of excellent resources, and I will return to these issues in future blog posts. For today, I will close with a post from the Hook & Eye blog that offers one writer’s reflections on the role of identification and acceptance in the writing process.

Source: Cameron, J., Nairn, K., & Higgins, J. (2009). Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on emotions, know-how and academic identity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33 (2), 269-284.