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Review: Badenhorst, C., Amell, B., Burford, J., & Peirce, K. P. (2021). Re-imagining doctoral writing. The WAC Clearinghouse.

By Fergal Treanor

“In a hegemonic system of knowledge production, a creative tension is created when subaltern, marginalized, or different voices speak” – Sharin Shajahan Naomi

What would the world be like if different ways of writing about knowledge met as equals? Re-imagining Doctoral Writing (Badenhorst, Amell et al. 2021) is a transnational, transcultural and translanguaging exploration of alternate doctoral pathways, which challenges the normative, form-dominated discourse in doctoral education. It argues for functional conceptualizations, epistemic diversity, and multiple linguistic & cultural perspectives. Education policy and institutional inertia make change difficult, but the authors relish the task. Intellectually and politically challenging, Re-imagining Doctoral Writing is a highly recommended read.

Section one begins with Catherine Mitchell’s Writerly Aspirations and Doctoral Education: Beyond Neoliberal Orthodoxies. She argues that neoliberal norms have not yet fully colonized the minds of doctoral writers. Mitchell records the “conceptual resources” first generation PhD candidates deploy when describing their motivation. The choice of first generation writers is apt, as these are less affected by prior socialisation into academic norms.

Applying the poststructural tenet that meaning emerges from situated language use, Mitchell presents revealing results. First among these is the neoliberal principle of utility maximization, a powerful “master narrative”. Many respondents identify socioeconomic benefit as their main motivation. With this comes the wish to ensure others’ welfare. This is arguably neoliberal too but can also be seen in terms of Veitapui as defined by Faʻavae (see below).

Some respondents report imagining pipe-smoking professors, in the image of Tolkien & Lewis’ inklings. The aesthetic of leafy quads and dreaming spires should not be underestimated; where neoliberalism is not dominant, what replaces it is often a soft-focus picture of traditional privilege, divested in idealistic students’ imaginations of its exclusivity, aestheticized, and – like a traditional fantasy novel – notable for the absence of social reality.

Others wish to develop as authors, to become experts in their fields. University is still seen by some as a realm of the mind, a path to intellectual freedom.

In Re-imagining Doctoral Writings as Emergent Open Systems, Julia Molinari breaks with essentialising formal categories, arguing: “There is more than one way for a text to be academic”.

Molinari’s use of emergence could well trigger a paradigm shift in the analysis of academic writing. As early as 1991, Luhmann stressed that emergent systems are irreducible – that we must distinguish between a system’s preconditions and its properties. In his example, a functioning musculoskeletal system is required for verbal interactions to take place, but it is not part of the interaction (Luhmann, 2020, pp. 248-252). Likewise, Molinari draws attention away from linguistic form – a precondition for many communicative genres. Instead, using Wittgenstein’s model of family resemblances, she develops academicness as an open system[1], asking what it is that academic texts do (apply intellectual rigour, tell truths, acknowledge others’ work, etc.).

This perspective deserves to impact EAP curricula and education policy. It will certainly ring true for critical EAP practitioners. Too many well-meaning textbooks foreground descriptive accounts of form, which constrain practice and lead to prescriptive classroom discourse. An alternative, emergence-based approach could, in Molinari’s words, “broaden how we understand and represent knowledge”.

In Meta-Generic Imaginings: Using Meta-Genre to Explore Imaginings of Doctoral Writing in Interdisciplinary Life Sciences, Sara Doody critiques an “arhetorical” approach, where texts are imagined as objective representations of research. She depicts EAP as a normative intervention, rather than a forum for exploring situated rhetorical communication. Doody critiques the concept of “translating” for other disciplines, where researchers learn to “dumb down” their thinking and oversimplify their arguments. Thus, doctoral writing “gets trapped in normalized common-sense discourses of what writing is and what it does.”

The critical analysis of what is in sections one and two leads to accounts of what can be in Sections three and four. David Taufui Mikato Faʻavae and Sharin Shajahan Naomi chart the experience of using non-western perspectives and concepts. Faʻavae elucidates the Tongan and Veitapui – embodied and emotive spaces aligned to a sense of belonging – while Naomi uses advaita / non-duality.

Faʻavae shows how even critical western authors assign privilege to institutional education, devaluing intergenerational knowledge transfer in families and communities. Instead he chooses ʻa e koloa ʻa e toʻutangata Tonga, a contextually sensitive concept of culturally shared understanding. For Faʻavae, vā and veitapiu lead to a non-antagonistic stance, where western knowledge is not rejected, and retribution replaced by reconciliation. But there is an asymmetric response to his acceptance of western ideas. What he expected to be a knowledge exchange shared by all turned out to be a unidirectional norming process aimed at all by some, “inclusive” only in the take-it-or-leave-it sense – those willing to assimilate uncritically may participate.

A similar asymmetry is captured by Naomi, in Writing a Doctoral Thesis in a Non-western Voice. She argues that colonialism “controls knowledge-making through discourse representation, epistemology and ideology”. In her case, a non-dualistic autoethnographic doctoral project collides with western agonic practices. That her thesis was accepted only after she added western style arguments and literature is painfully reminiscent of Toni Morrison (1975): “The function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do.”

Naomi’s experience shows how assimilation into western Academia reproduces this racism. Most “inner circle” anglophones (see Kachru, 1992) need never be uprooted or dislocated as a prerequisite to doctoral research. Those outside of Kachru’s inner circle, however, must surrender aspects of their identity in order to write doctorates in English and gain transnational recognition as professional scholars. For these asymmetries to be overcome, the taken-for-granted alignment between education and culture of origin should be available to all.

On the question of how to achieve this, readers will benefit from Naomi’s Hegemony of Western Knowledge section, in which she programmatically sets out to “untangle and reveal the subtle ways the hegemony of Western knowledge replicates itself and retains its power”, names obstacles to this process, and reflects on how they might be overcome.

Further chapters use cultural rhetorics, Hallidayan social semiotics, and Maton’s legitimation code theory to explore queer writing, performance art-as-thesis and decentering the author. The conclusion characterizes re-imagining doctoral writing as “unfinished business”. This invokes Antonio Gramsci’s: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Gramsci 2005). Sharing Gramsci’s pessimism, I see doctoral writing today as entering an interregnum. Readers of this book, practitioners, scholars or both, stand to learn much about the paradoxes and problems of doctoral writing today – and even about some possible solutions. What happens next is up to all of us.

References

Badenhorst, C., et al. (2021). Re-imagining doctoral writing, The WAC Clearinghouse.

Gramsci, A. (2005). Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart.

Morrison, T. (1975). Portland State University; Morrison, Toni; St. John, Primus; Callahan, John; Callahan, Judy; and Baker, Lloyd, “”Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2″” (1975), Special Collections: Oregon Public Speakers. 90. http://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/11309.

Kachru, B. B. (1992). The other tongue: English across cultures: University of Illinois Press.

Luhmann, N. (2020). Einführung in die Systemtheorie: Carl-Auer Verlag.


[1] The counterpoint, a closed system, is exemplified as the IELTS writing exam, which is evaluated according to preordained formal criteria.

Fergal Treanor teaches academic and policy communication at the European University Institute in Florence. After graduating in Russian and German from Trinity College Dublin, he earned an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the Open University and a PhD in textual pragmatics from the University of Antwerp, where he studied under Jef Verschueren. His current research examines global English from textual and policy perspectives. 

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