What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One)

A summary of my talk at the (Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association [AULLA]) Storytelling in Literature, Language and Culture conference in Auckland (8 Feb 2011) . . .

It has become a commonplace in writing programmes and other scriptophilic zones of the academy that the mainstay of academic writing, the academic essay, as taught, written and read, is formulaic and deforms what can be thought and written in the academosphere — and that story has only a marginal role in the academic essay. The story, we are told, is not good for the academic essay.

By way of a provisional answer to the question posed in the title . . .

1          story: the essay is neither written nor read in the academosphere

The standard answer to the question might be that there is no narrative in the academic essay — except perhaps as a grabber/hook in introductions or to convey or contextualise data that requires it. This might be seen as a bad thing. This might be a reason why academic writing is not usually read for pleasure, is less readable than it need be, and is not read so much as mined or fished.

Two moves recommend themselves: we can [#2] uncover the back story of the academic essay or [#3] include more story in it (to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it). To the first . . .

2          history: the essay as written and read to measure . . .

The “mo” (pre-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a matter of fact might be to historicise academic writing: to ask how it got to be the way it is (i.e., it originates in the disputatio and epigram), to provide a historical back story for academic writing. Narrative was excluded from the essay because of the logical (scholastic) and scientific (Baconian) bias of early academic writers, these biases being exacerbated by humanities scholars trying to scientise their writing, to mobilise the authority effect of science (and science writing), and the increasing scientism of the university as an institution, and by academics using the essay to assess students.

Through these processes, the scientific paper that reports on research, viz. epistemic (expository/epideictic [for display]) rather than heuristic (performative/personal) writing, comes to dominate the academy.

  • epistemic: “relating to knowledge or its verification,” from Gk epistēmē “knowledge.”
  • heuristic: “serving to discover or find out,” from Gk heuriskein “find.”

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768).

What we know as “academic writing” emerged with the research university in von Humboldt and Kant’s reforms of the German university at the end of the eighteenth century, which reforms demanded continuous examination by others and of oneself (accountability) by means of [a.] numerical governance and grading (calculability) and [b.] an insistent process of writing by, about and “around” students (grammatocentrism) (see Keith Hoskin on the genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university).

Or secondly: we can include some more story in it — to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it . . .

3          story+/Story: the essay is written and read (to a degree) . . .

The “pomo” (post-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a problematic might be to put some narrative in — after the example of New Historicism — somehow to reflect the nature of writing as narrative and/or to acknowledge the metanarratives and justify our appropriation of the metanarratives in which such writing must be embedded (becoming aware of the frame story), thus to uncover the big stories embedded in academic writing — for example, the story that academic writing mimics scientific enquiry.

Arataki Visitor Centre, Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, Auckland.

Or the best: in a twofold move that intersects both options, we can map the forms of story in the academic essay to see why stories have become formulaic and deformative.

4          stories

The non-standard — and most salient — answer to the question is to map the narrative forms, the story arcs, that are implicit in academic writing, in order to disclose its possibilities and the reasons it has been closed down. This requires a mapping (topology/symbolic geography) of the essay as narrative, i.e. imaging (via a visual outline or metaphor) as an alternative to scripting (a verbal outline).

There are two main forms of essay, the point-first or round-trip essay (the epistemic report on research) and the point-last or one-way journey (the heuristic essai).

type point-first (PF) essay point-last (PL) essay
image round-trip one-way
end returns to its starting-point arrives at an end-point
function epistemic heuristic
mode of writing expository, epideictic performative, personal
logic tautological dialogical
mood indicative, thus factual subjunctive, thus fictive
mode of address informative interactive

The first dominates writing in the academosphere, in the form of the thesis and proof essay, a.k.a. the five-paragraph theme, and at the level of the paragraph the Schaffer model. Why?

The PF essay embodies the econometric design-drive of the academosphere, which projects aims (teloi, i.e., ideal ends), objectives (skopoi, i.e. means) and clearly defined outcomes (ekbaseis, i.e. adequate ends), in the service of outputs, or rather, an efficient relationship between inputs and outputs. Everything in this end-stopped world must be seen as if in hindsight, in retrospective anticipation (i.e., from the outcome [o] backwards): they “will [always] have been” necessary. It is a future anterior world, a closed loop the process of which achieves a predetermined outcome (see the top left figure below).

  • The point-first essay embodies this design-drive: it can more readily be templated due to its tautological nature — we know where the story is going because its path is singular and returns to its starting point (see the right top figure below).
  • The point-last essay works against it: it can resist the template due to its dialogical nature — (it seems that) we don’t know where the story is going because its path is multiple and doesn’t return to its starting point, rather, in its most common versions it quests for or circles an endpoint (see right bottom figure below). (I say “seems” because many such essays — Derrida’s or Barthes’, for example — only appear dialogical, as do Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates’ eironeia turns out only to be a simulated ignorance in the end.)

So where to from here? The two point-last figures above give us two versions:

  • the essay that explores various paths until it decides on one (the upper figure), and
  • the essay that explores an issue from various perspectives (the lower figure).

(For more, see part two, which will follow anon . . .)


4 thoughts on “What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One)

  1. I’m wonderfully intrigued by your brief observation that academic writing (as such) emerged in the late 18th-century with the developments in the German university. Did your complete talk at the AULLA conference go into any further detail on this issue (of the emergence of what we understand as “academic writing”), or include any further references to discussion of this elsewhere?

    And what happened to the promised “part two”? (Which, if it indeed followed anon, I cannot find here! I would be most interested to read it.)

    • Hi Carl,
      Part two is almost done. I’m sending the whole thing off to a journal, so I’ll post it here when it’s done (I’m just writing the conclusion).
      One place to look on the link between the academic essay and the growth of the research university, is Michael A. Peters, “Academic Writing, Genres and Philosophy,” Academic Writing, Philosophy and Genre (Chichester, UH: John Wiley, 2009), 1-13, esp. 6-9 (“Academic Writing and a Brief History of the Essay”). (I hope the link works.)

  2. Hi,
    You written in a good way. There is less work on academic writing. Your effort is great. This is not comprehensive written style on any topic. There may be included sequence to proceed toward conclusion. I read and thought about not clearing the concept. Improve it, give it a logical order and also give references for the convenience of others. Take the period of Plato and see what happened to the academic writing.
    Prof. Saleem

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