Saturday, October 9, 2010

Academic Writing

My Hispanic Civilization course has a very strong written component. The first essay students have to write is usually based on their personal impressions of the course. The second essay always has a much more academic topic. After teaching this course a few times, I have noticed that the students write the "personal" essay a lot better than the "academic" one. The essays look like two completely different groups of students wrote them. The grade for the second essay usually drops at least 20% in comparison with the first.

The problem that almost all of my students have (with very few exceptions) is that, as soon as the more academic topic is mentioned, they immediately switch to this extremely pompous, tortured and stiff style of writing. For them, the words "academic writing" and pomposity are somehow synonymous.

Does anybody know when the students acquire this habit of writing academic essays in such an affected tone? Is this something they are taught to do in high school? Since almost everybody does it, I have to assume that the phenomenon is widespread.


Vinod Khare said...

How about other academics who write in such pompous language. I know that's where I get my pompous style from.

Melissa said...

I'm not sure either. Do your students also have a tendency to use big words they don't feel really comfortable with/don't really understand the usage of? It's like they're expecting some kind of syllable bonus. It's painfully obvious when someone's using a big word to intentionally sound intellectual; it sounds clumsy, stilted, and unnatural.

el said...

Second Vinod Khare. At least in Israeli school I never had to write anything in academic writing. There was an exam in composition, but the writing wasn't even close to academic, as I understand it.

Were I your student, I would ask you to help us by bringing several excerpts and / or entire essays in stiff vs. good style of writing and dedicate at least 15 min of class to explain the difference. Our composition teacher brought us numerous examples of good essays. How could your students deliver well, if they had never seen any good examples? I probably wouldn't be able to either.

Personally, I would be able to understand the best only with at least 5 passages / short paragraphs of good writing and 5 of tortured one. You could put all of them on one page in 2 columns:
right – good
left - bad

You could take them from the previous semester or, even better, write yourself:
right - a good paragraph
left - a bad one, expressing the same idea

Your post reminded of the humorous (to me) Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" May be you should give it to your students, so they'll get the point better. (I am serious.)

Btw, today I ended reading a great book "THE HOUSE OF BILQIS" by ABIDI, AZHAR Recommended.

Pagan Topologist said...

Yes, this is taught in many high schools. I have often talked to high school students who work on essays being sure never to express an opinion but merely quote other people's opinions with proper citations.

Clarissa said...

The funny thing is that my students have seen good essays. Their own first essay was really good. It's the "intellectual" topic that forces them to come up with things like, "There was a dark cloud all over Spain at the time when the minstrel let the sorrow of his heart pour onto the page, which resulted in the collection of poetry that still makes every single person in the universe shudder with delight."

Also, as Melissa says, a "syllable bonus" is definitely there. Endless words that mean absolutely nothing in this context, etc.

sarcozona said...

Some if it is definitely from high school and intro college composition courses. But I think a lot of the problem is that students don't have as much to say, or worry that their analysis/thoughts sound stupid, so they couch it in language that they think "sounds smart."

And longer words get you to the page count faster.

NancyP said...

Every student should be required to read Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language".

I find it amusing as well.