WHY SHOULD YOU TAKE A COURSE ON ACADEMIC WRITING?

Writing in academia is a bit like sex was for Victorians. Everyone does it, yet no one really talks about it. Have you ever heard a well-established academic say, ‘I’ve been really struggling to finish this journal article’ or ‘I have several unfinished drafts of a monograph in my drawer, but I’m feeling stuck?’ Of course not. The process of writing, and especially the struggles and problems that it inevitably entails, is paradoxically surrounded by silence in the upper echelons of academia. To talk about one’s writing is to expose oneself, to make oneself vulnerable. Most of us proudly display the thesis we have just submitted or the book that got accepted for publication, but keep silent about the blood, sweat and tears we poured into them.

Most students at universities are assessed largely by what they write. Academic writing is thus one of the cornerstones of teaching and learning in higher education. Yet good writing and productivity often get mystified as issues of ‘natural’ talent, or something you ‘just know’ how to perform. Struggles connected to writing, at the same time, tend to translate into a sense of individual failure, as well as feelings of guilt or shame, rather than a lack of institutional support.

A lack of guidance, as well as not having the right ‘tools’, is why a lot of students do not enjoy writing academic texts at first. Academic writing requires a particular set of skills that is different from most other types of writing. Like any other genre, it is governed by a certain set of rules and conventions, but if you are not aware of what these rules are, then writing an academic text can seem especially elusive and challenging.

Good academic writing starts with understanding your task, and what is expected of you. It is not something you can magically ‘figure out’ from one day to the next. In reality you will need to invest a considerable amount of time and energy into acquiring the necessary skills, almost as if you were learning a new language. Taking a course will make that journey much easier.

A LANGUAGE OF POWER

Academic language (similarly to, for instance, legal language) is a language of power. Even at its most ‘objective,’ it is never neutral and is always fuelled by certain interests. While some might claim that academic writing is not supposed to be ‘subjective,’ it is always done from a certain subject position and a particular vantage point, no matter how well-masked these might be. We need to talk about that power, who owns it and who gets excluded or left behind.

In addition to handing over some of the more ‘practical’ tools of writing, the workshops are also informed by larger questions. These include:

  • How can we make (academic) writing truly democratic?
  • How do women and minorities relate to a practice that for centuries was (and to some extent still is) seen as (white) men’s prerogative?
  • What are some of the difficulties that students of non-academic background face in academia?
  • What are the implications of writing in English, rather than, say, in German? How does such a practice relate to the linguistic hegemony of English? What is gained? What is lost?

If we treat writing as a practice that does not need guidance and support, we reinforce the advantages of the lucky few who enter university already prepared to write. In other words, we reinforce existing inequalities and privilege.

A PROCESS  INSTEAD OF A PRODUCT

Ideally, a course will offer new perspectives on writing, and present you with a variety of approaches to your own writing practice. The courses at Academic English Vienna shift the focus from writing as a finished product (such as an essay or an article) to writing as a dynamic process. We often feel paralysed or intimidated because we tend to focus too much on the result rather than the various stages of the writing process that will lead to that result. A great deal of writing services and courses will also stress the product by promising, for example, that they will help you write your PhD dissertation in three months! (While it might not be impossible, it is going to be a very painful three months, not to mention the quality of the piece you’ll submit.) In fact, it is much more productive to break down the writing process into smaller tasks and focus on one step at a time. You will realise that if you spend less energy on fretting about the end result, or trying to take the path of least resistance, then you will actually have a much easier time getting your writing done—and you will even have some fun along the way!

WRITING AS A FORM OF CONVERSATION

Furthermore, you will learn to think of academic writing as a form of conversation. Like any other type of writing, the writing of academic texts is a form of social practice, yet it can feel like a particularly solitary enterprise, often marred by isolation. Taking a course will help you understand the ways in which writing is a conversation - between you and your readers, but also between your text and other texts written before (and very likely to be written in the future). The idea that writing should be isolated and done completely on your own very often leads to feelings of anxiety and writer’s block. A more fruitful approach, on the other hand, is to think of writing as a form of collaboration. Taking a course with other students in a friendly atmosphere and sharing your ideas is a crucial aspect of understanding writing as a social practice.

ACADEMIC WRITING COURSES IN VIENNA

While it is very common to offer writing courses and workshops at Anglo-American universities, it is still not a widespread practice in the German-speaking context. Thankfully, there is an increasing number of such services (including various ‘Schreibzentren’) in German, but there aren’t many courses that teach academic writing in English. Moreover, classes are often big, and do not provide enough room for interaction or discussions. The courses at Academic English Vienna aim to fill this gap in Vienna by providing small-size, interactive courses to students.

If you are still not convinced about the benefits of taking an academic writing course, or simply have questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.

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