What Is Academic Writing?

Recently I heard Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of  Entertainment, Media, and Society at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism give a talk called “Creativity and Collaboration in the Academy: Technology and the  Future of Research.”  The talk was fascinating, as Kaplan gave us a look at some of the projects the Center he directs, some of which focus on how television “entertainment” can disseminate good health and wellness advice, on how terrorists and terrorism is depicted on the most popular television shows—and many other exciting and educational projects:  see more at http://www.learcenter.org/html/projects/index.php

Kaplan went on to argue that researchers in the academy should be working collaboratively with each other and with partners outside the university, much as he is doing at USC.  I was delighted to hear these sentiments since I have spent the last 30 years trying to encourage collaboration and collaborative writing in the humanities.  Today, it is more clear than ever before that new knowledge is being generated collaboratively and that if we want our students to be successful we must give them more and better opportunities to work in collaborative teams.

So far, so good.  But what really got my attention during Kaplan’s talk was the way in which he delivered the research findings of the projects he and his colleagues have been working on.  Throughout this one-hour talk, he moved easily from video to slide presentations to audio and back, talking through the research and illustrating it as he went along.  Then as he moved toward his conclusion, he provided a summary overview that took the form of an animated film that looked like stills from an early silent picture.  Imagine  honky tonk piano in the background and scrolls around the sides of the frames – while inside the frames little animated figures acted out the research findings. 

What Kaplan presented was absolutely research—and tons of it.  In addition, he made a very clear and cogent argument.  And he did so in the academy.  But was this “academic writing”?  Certainly it was not what we ordinarily think of as academic writing, or research-based argument.  Rather than move from A to B to C in a linear, tightly-woven argument, this presentation of research was much more nonlinear and audience-centered: it would have been hard to come away from it without remembering the major point of the research because its presentation was so dynamic.

I still teach traditional academic writing, and I still value it.  But I want my students to be able to write a “Kaplan-like” argument.  More to the point, I want to be able to write such arguments myself and be able to deliver them in the same dynamic, memorable way that Kaplan did on this occasion.  I see changes coming to “academic” writing and I think I like what I see.  How about you?


An Anti-Lecture Movement?

Last spring the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at my university gave a lecture called “Is the Lecture Dead?” (at least that’s how I remember the title). The irony did not completely escape him—or his audience—but while he surveyed the case against the lecture method, he ended up saying that the lecture still has some value in higher education. He was witty and easy to listen to; we all applauded with enthusiasm. But I’m not so sure he is right. Most scholars in writing studies have long offered alternatives to the lecture method and argued that lectures may massage the ego of the lecturer and even entertain students, but they don’t enable learning—and especially not deep learning.

Now evidence is mounting from cognitive and neuroscientists that people can only absorb so much information at a time, that short term memory is very limited, and that we learn best when we are doing something to actively engage and produce knowledge rather than just consuming it. Recent research has convinced many scientists that lecturing has never been effective and that today—when so much information is instantly available—professors should be doing more than dishing out still more information. Instead, they should be helping students make sense of the information through active engagement.

It’s probably premature to speak of an “anti-lecture” movement, but that’s clearly what Harvard Professor of Physics Eric Mazur thinks would be very, very good for education. Mazur and other physicists are featured in an American Radioworks documentary, “Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking the Way College Students Learn,” and it’s worth checking out, if only because it reaffirms the argument that writing researchers and teachers have been making for decades. What the physicists have learned is that—even with their very best lecturers at work—students don’t learn very much about basic concepts in physics. Yet when they stop lecturing and engage students in working with one another on problem solving and explanation, comprehension scores on key concepts skyrocket. So teachers like Mazur have completely revamped their physics courses:  he now uses “peer instruction” and question-based activities throughout the term.

Hearing about this research in physics education made me want to find out what’s going on in my physics department, since professors trying out Mazur’s methods would make terrific Writing across the Curriculum partners and could also connect well with writing center efforts. Writing teachers everywhere will recognize that Mazur’s “peer instruction” calls for writing and reading and talking as ways of explaining, debating, and assimilating difficult concepts: the professor is there to help with that process, not to deliver information through lectures while students sit passively by. It’s exciting that methods we’ve been using in writing classes for at least forty years are appealing to colleagues in other disciplines as they try to figure out how to ensure that students learn as well as listen. So I say bravo for physics!  Let the anti-lecture movement thrive!