Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tips on (or Genre Features of) Academic Blogging

I wrote this for a class I taught last year, but I thought it was useful enough to post here.

Academic blog posts can be written in a freer and looser style than traditional academic writing. Feel free to write about academic subjects in a more conversational way – using contractions, slang, and colloquialisms is appropriate, to a degree. You don’t have to do this, but getting your point across is more important than following the conventions of Writing a Good Term Paper or whatever.

Think about how much ground you’re trying to cover. A short blog post (1000 words is more like a maximum than a minimum for blog posts) can only probably cover one issue in detail – don’t try to tackle every aspect of a complex issue, but focus in on what interests you (and readers) the most.

Write for a “general reader.” (Even though multiple editors have told me that no such person exists.) Imagine a well-educated reader who does not know much about your topic – maybe a well-read fellow student who hasn’t studied the things you have. This will mean avoiding jargon and explaining things that might not be familiar to non-specialists.

Linking is one of the great advantages of academic blogging – rather than having to scroll down to a reference list, readers can click right on whatever you want to point them to. There are no rules about how to do this, but in general, it helps to give readers a sense of what they’re getting into when they click – probably at least some combination of author, title, publication, and general topic will be useful. Feel free to link to anything you think will be of interest.

Brevity and readability are probably bigger concerns in blogging than they are in traditional academic writing. Consider writing in relatively short paragraphs. (Speaking of paragraphs, indentation is not necessary and looks weird online – leave a space between paragraphs instead.) The use of lists and bullet points can be beneficial in getting your point across.

On a related note, images and other design considerations, like headings, fonts, the use of space, and so on, are much more important in blogging than in traditional academic writing. Think about how the visual organization of your post impacts the reader. Would supplementing a post with an image of the thing you’re writing about help readers understand your topic? Would headings help readers understand where you make shifts in topic or argument? Could visuals that are not directly related to your argument add something to the post? 

(Don't forget to use images that you have permission to use without paying for – read this for a useful primer.)

Finally, the following articles offer useful advice on academic blogging in general:
  • Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer Pat Thomson, Times Higher Education academic-writer
  • Effective Academic Blogging
    Joe Essid, Writer’s Web
  • How to Write an Academic Blog
    Corey Tomsons, Thought Capital 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Shadow Academia

I've been kicking around this notion of "shadow academia" for a couple of years, inspired by the definition of Shadow Cabinet from the British parliament system:

The Shadow Cabinet is a feature of the Westminster system of government. It consists of a senior group of opposition spokespeople who, under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, form an alternative cabinet to that of the government, and whose members shadow or mark each individual member of the Cabinet.[Wikipedia]

Shadow Academia as I am coming to conceptualize it describes the activities of a group of academics usually (but not always) outside of the Anglophone Centre (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) whose activities and scholarly output resemble those of the Anglophone centre at a surface level and are done in ways that somehow mimic "traditional" Anglophone-centre academia, but are not recognized by and/or are clearly and deeply sub-par when compared to "traditional" academia. I have to be careful here, because good work can be and is done in shadow academia, but its key feature is mimicry or aspiration to appear to be Anglophone-centre without being so. This is a loose definition that I'm just trying to develop, so bear with me, but I think Shadow Academia includes, on both the student side and the scholar side, what I'd call "para-academic" institutions and practices.

These include, on the scholarly side:

(Potentially) predatory journals and publishers: Much has been written about this, and a colleague and I have a book chapter on the subject out soon, but essentially these are publishers that charge a premium for a rubber-stamped "peer-reviewed" publication. Crucially, these journals/publishers are frequently branded as "international" and are published in English, and the majority of the scholars who publish in them are from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe -- places where the requirements for promotion are strict and involve publishing in English-language international journals. Not all these publishers are strictly "predatory" -- many exist in a copacetic and symbiotic relationship with academics in non-Anglophone-centre contexts who need the publication venues and are unable to get published in more "mainstream" journals. Graduate students in the Anglophone centre are often taken in by these publishers, publishing articles in journals that only sound legitimate or publishing dissertations with vanity presses. While these things can help scholars in other contexts, they can damage the careers of people aspiring to work in the Anglophone centre.

Spamferences - Similar to predatory publishers, these are conferences that exist pretty much solely to pad CVs, make money for organizers, and, occasionally, give academics excuses to travel to tourist destinations.

The next two on my list are more student-facing, and rather than mimicking Anglophone-centre practices, they exist in tandem with or in a sort of meta-relationship to Anglophone-centre academic institutions and practices:

Ghostwriting/contract cheating services: These exist in an interesting grey area between legitimate and necessary services like editing and tutoring. Often targeted at international students via flyers on university campuses or social media platforms, these are basically paper-writing services staffed by grad students or out-of-work PhDs who will write pretty much any academic paper, from a short essay to a thesis or dissertation, for a chunk of cash. I can say anecdotally that there's a perception among academic staff that this type of cheating is rampant among international students -- particularly those from China -- in the Anglophone centre. I personally don't believe this, but I've been surprised in the past and hope to do more research on it.

Test prep, study abroad prep, and study abroad agencies -- I mostly know these in a context that involves the Chinese international student diaspora, if you will, though they all exist across the globe. This is basically a para-academic industry focused on prepping students to go abroad. New Oriental is the prime example, but there are myriad businesses with varying degrees of legitimacy and/or shadiness. Some are clearly unethical/illegal -- stories of faking credentials abound -- but others are more ambiguous, like the tutoring/exam prep services advertised at my institution, taught by recent graduates who can provide current students with notes, copies of old exams, etc.

There are probably more businesses that would fit into the rubric of Shadow Academia (holler at me with suggestions), and I'm not sure that all four things listed above all belong in the same general category. But the fact is, these mini-industries would not exist if there were not a huge demand for education and/or scholarly activity that is perceived to have at least the four following allegedly positive qualities:

  • English-medium
  • International
  • "Western"
  • Association with "Highly ranked" universities 
This is what I'm thinking so far. This is more complex than I've had time to get into here, but this is developing. Let me know what you think.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The next four years of conferences on my radar

This was a crazy conference year -- CCCC, AAAL, TESOL, CASDW/Congress -- too much. Not even done yet -- I'm just starting the season and I'm spending all my PD money. I need to pace myself a little, and I think I can.

so, assuming 2017 is basically over for me conference-wise, here's what's on my radar:

2018: Basically nothing, which is fine by me. Save some of that pro-D money. Maybe I'll write something. Maybe I'll go to Congress (CAAL/CASDW) in Regina for a couple of days. Possible involvement in hosting a conference at end of summer, but TBA.

2019: Congress (CASDW/CAAL) at UBC first week of June = no-brainer. For sure. Not much else on the radar.

2020: AAAL and TESOL are in Denver, which is where my in-laws live. Pretty sure.

2021: CCCC is in Spokane, where my parents live. Pretty sure.

Not sure where SSLW/IAWE are but if they are in cool places I might try to hit each one up 1x in the next 4 years too.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

On doing writing but not composition

I wrote this on this bus this morning, inspired by Frederik DeBoer's piece " We Don't, In Fact, Know What Works in Composition.

While a large portion of my teaching and research involves the teaching, learning, and practice of academic writing (much of it at the undergraduate level), I do not or cannot primarily consider myself a “compositionist.” There are a two major reasons for this that I can discern:

1)    My academic training. I have an undergraduate degree in English literature and “creative” writing, and an MA in English, but after that I made a fairly clean break with “English” as a discipline. (I’ve talked about thisbefore, but like many people who plant their flag in a vague territory called “writing,” I’m obsessed with disciplinarity.) Even while I was in my MA program, I aligned myself mainly with applied linguists even as I enjoyed reading and writing things for more rhetoric and composition oriented courses. Doing a PhD in language and literacy education and becoming firmly ensconced in the world of scholarly applied linguistics and English language teaching (even though, again, I primarily have taught writing across my career) has made me feel more acutely the gap between what I know about and what people who work in English departments know about. I went to MLA precisely one time, and even though there were people whose work I’ve read and who you could say are somewhat “in my field” there, overall I felt alienated and bemused. I will attend my first CCCC this year; I have a feeling I’ll feel a little more at home there, but not as much as I would at AAAL, TESOL, or (especially) SSLW. I commented at SSLW two years ago that identifying as a second language writing scholar actually makes me feel more confident about being able to fall in with various crews at different conferences. I don’t know if I feel equally at home in all the conferences I go to, but I could imagine continuing to rotate between, say, AAAL, TESOL, CCCC, and SSLW (with a side of IAWE) for some time without feeling too out of place. (The ability to do this is probably largely thanks to Paul Matsuda, who is active in all those organizations, as far as I know. Matsuda is probably an unconscious model for many young L2 writing scholars, his prolific output and late-night hours notwithstanding.)

2)    My location in Canada. I’m only now, after 6 years of PhDing at UBC and 1 1/2 years into my first job at a Canadian university, coming to terms with the blessing (not curse) of working on writing in the Canadian milieu. At first I was frustrated that in Canada there is not much of a tradition of “college writing” in the way there is in the US, and that scholarship from Canadian universities is rarely recognized by those in the US who teach writing to university students. However, as I start to take another look at US-based composition studies – which I remember thinking was remarkably myopic and US-focused, even when I was an MA student 10 years ago – I’m thankful that I can do “writing stuff” in Canada without getting mired in the kinds of political and cultural issues that US composition does. Not that they don’t do good or interesting work – many of them do – but many (not all) US comp teachers, when I encounter them at conferences, seem to have an interest in doing something that doesn't look all that much like the work I’ve been doing at Canadian universities for the last 8 years. That said, work on academic writing in Canada is – or can be – a small community under a big tent. There are people who do political and cultural studies work under this tent, and there are teachers of technical writing, and people who run writing centers, and applied linguistics, and so on. It’s my hope – through my recently begun co-editorship of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse& Writing/Redactologie—to bring as many people under this tent together as possible. I don’t know what this means for our relationship to US composition – and I’m reluctant to use a word like “our” there or to even suggest that I know what it would mean for “Canada” and “America” to have a “relationship” in this field – but I hope to be able to play some part in building a small but broad community of scholars who care about, among other things, writing in higher education.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On the artificiality and the realness of academic writing

I've been trying to articulate for a long time the tension I feel between the relatively staid, formulaic way we tend to teach writing in the places I've taught it, and the inherent sense of possibility and promise I intuit about the act of writing itself.

After a longish lecture on introductions, paragraphs, and conclusions yesterday, I attempted to explain this to one of my classes. (I tried again in the second class and was able to get it across in a more abbreviated fashion.)

As a teacher of writing in a high-stakes "foundational" writing course which in some ways exists in relationship to the dreaded "writing-as-skill" discourse (which frankly I am not as scared of as some people), I feel a tension between:

a) the fact that what I teach, assign, and assess are basically "mutt genres," or rather all a part of the meta-genre that I call "Prove You Can Do What I Asked You To Do So You Can Pass This Class and Get On With It." (Formerly known as "Prove You Can Write an Essay," but not everything we assign in the course is an essay.) In other words, we have very specific types of assignments with very specific rubrics, and we do practice versions and then final in-class versions in which students are tested on whether than can write a summary, a critique, and an "essay" based on fairly explicit, strict conventions laid out in a textbook and/our lectures; and

b) the fact that I truly believe that aside from that somewhat artificial, overly school-ish rhetorical setting, which does not feel very "real" or "writery" -- not even when compared to what I believe/assume is assigned in other courses at the university -- when it just comes down to the rhetorical triangle of writer-topic-(imagined-or-real) audience, something true, good, and powerful can happen, that if somehow one of the in-class essays a student wrote blew away and ended up on a streetcorner in Saskatoon or Cleveland or Bristol or Mumbai, someone could pick it up, read it, and go "Huh! I never thought of that before! That's really interesting! That changes how I think about this thing!" ...Or that even I, the teacher who grimly sits down to grade 36 very similar essays, could have the same experience.

In a way this is a tension between camps in writing studies -- very broadly, current-traditional vs. expressivist (except I wouldn't claim either of those traditions, really, being an applied linguist by training) -- but I can't help feeling there's a dynamic tension here that could produce a new way of looking at the kind of class I teach.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Everything adds to being in another world."

The ideal lecture theatre is vast, truly vast. It is a very sombre, very old amphitheatre, and very uncomfortable. The professor is lodged in his chair which is raised high enough to see him; there is no question that he might get down and pester you. You can hear him quite well, because he doesn’t move. Only his mouth moves. Preferably he has white hair, a stiff neck and a Protestant air about him. There are a great many students and each is perfectly anonymous. To reach the amphitheatre, you have to climb some stairs, and then, with the leather lined doors closed behind, the silence is absolute, every sound stifled; the walls rise very high, daubed with rough paintings in half-tones in which the moving silhouettes of various monsters can be detected. Everything adds to being in another world. So one works religiously.

from an interview with a student in Bourdieu & Passeron's "Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation"

Monday, August 22, 2016

On the eve of a new academic year

1. In college an English professor once told us "papers are a chance to take care of little pieces of your soul." I sort of believed that then. I sort of believe it now. I hope I write now because I want to and because I care about what I write about, not because I feel I have to.

2.  I am not sure I could tell my students what my professor told me, and think they would believe it.

3. Even though I am not evaluated on research, I have been attempted to carve out a small program of it over the last year. It hasn't quite come together right. I've become obsessed, for some reason, with understanding writing and language from what I seem to think of as an "institutional" perspective, even though when I really think about it, I can't imagine what an "institutional" perspective would be. (That in itself is interesting, I suppose). I have been warned away, by multiple people, from doing this kind of research that digs into institutional policies, practices, etc., to avoid stirring up negative vibes. I understand this, and even though I think it would be arrogant of me to assume I'm important enough to be a nuisance to anyone who'd be implicated in this research, my goal really isn't to cause trouble. It isn't to tell everyone that they're doing it wrong.

I want to learn about the place where I work so I can do my work better, and I want to find a way to do this without getting in anyone's way. I'll probably have to think about this for a while longer before I can do it well. I am probably placing myself in the middle of conversations I don't really understand by trying to understand the 10+ year history of my institution's approach to writing and language.

4. This is going to be a much busier year than my first year was. I'm just coming off a glorious summer of parental leave (stressful in its own way, yes), looking down the barrel of a 2-2-1 year with 3 releases for admin work (including team teaching a course in the first semester, so it's really more like 3-2-1) and 4 or 5 conferences I need/want/hope to go to. Time management - never my forte - is going to be more important than ever.

5. I somehow wrote $15,000 worth of grants last year, which is really not bad considering I'd never written a grant before.

6. I also somehow became co-editor of a Canadian academic journal, which is pretty daunting, but exciting. So I'll be doing that.

7. What do I want from this year? To do my job better, to serve my students better, to collaborate with colleagues more on their projects, not mine, to avoid cynicism, to not work evenings or weekends. I don't know how much of all that will happen. Some can, I think.