From Aristotle to crime scene: A forensics of the academic essay

Another article in TEXT Journal, this one on academic writing …

Writing in the academy is almost always about making a claim, or ‘case’, based on evidence, as one does in court: its rhetoric is forensic (L. forensis ‘in open court, public’, from forum), in Aristotle’s sense. Just as forensic rhetoric takes as a given the laws of the polis and is directed at persuading a judge (Aristotle 1991: 80-82), academic writing assumes a set of rules (one must be sincere, demonstrate one’s argument using evidence, and obey a certain decorum) and is written to persuade an assessor, namely a teacher or peer. And, since the Harvard ‘forensic system’ of essay writing in the late 1870s (Russell 2002: 51-63), it has often been taught in the language of forensic rhetoric: in particular, the apocryphal ‘rhetorical triangle’ of persuasion by ethos, logos and pathos (Booth 1963; Kinneavy 1971) and the informal logic of the enthymeme (Toulmin 1958). At its best, academic writing provides a forum to animate and air ideas. As such, it is amenable to what Eyal Weizman calls forensis: ‘a critical practice’ that ‘interrogate[s] the relation between … fields and forums’ (Weizman 2014: 9; compare Braidotti 2013 on the ‘forensic turn’). For Weizman, a field is a ‘contested object or site [of investigation]’ and a forum is ‘the place where the results of an investigation are presented and contested’ (Ibid.). Where forensics allows objects like bodies, weapons and scenes to ‘speak’, forensis can give voice to sites like academic architecture (Sturm and Turner 2011), forms (McLean and Hoskin 1998) or even essays. Here I explore the academic essay as a forensic site, ‘an entry-point from which to reconstruct larger processes, events and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and technologies’ of the academy (Weizman 2014: 18-19). The academic essay is at once a report on research, an argument, a fractal structure, a means of assessment and, as this essay will argue, an exemplar of and exercise in performativity (Sturm 2012).

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 . . .)

Studying Writing Studies

Current issues of the teaching flow:

Fractals: mapping a/one’s characteristic sentence, i.e. grammar, onto essay structure as a pseudo-fractal. E.g. parataxis (juxtaposition): “Tell me, how are you?”

Essay structure understood rhetorically—on the model of hypo-/parataxis. E.g. anadiplosis as the model for linking markers at the beginning of new paragraph (gradatio is even better: “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,/ And every tongue brings in a several tale,/ And every tale condemns me for a villain” [Richard III, 5.3.194]).

An ABC of syntax

Using children’s language learning as the model for understanding academic writing: children improvise, then begin to learn the rules and exceptions through practice, then become over-vigorous in their application of the rules under the impetus of error correction: erratology [science of mistakes]. The same thing happens at University, if we rigorously impose an erratological academic grammar on students: grammar A [“academic”]). Of course, students often think such an approach is what is required to learn academic rigour. Through teaching, rather than obsessively correcting, grammar B [“bad”], we can recapture the improvisation and practice phases of language learning, and thereby liberate students from the aporia of erratology. Then they are freed into the possibilities of Grammar C [“crafty,” thus the craft of grammar].

David Starkey (ed.), Genre by Example: Writing What We Teach (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2001).
Winston Weathers, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition (Hayden, 1980).