Academic Discourse & The Shared Values of Academic Writing*

Membership in all communities means partaking of its culture, values, goals, and means of communication. Becoming a member of the intellectual communities of the University means learning to read, think, speak, write, and learn in particular ways that are valued by them.

One of the major challenges college students face is learning how to join the intellectual community of academic writers and researchers at their college or university. Just as membership in all communities means partaking of its culture, values, goals, and means of communication, so too membership in the intellectual communities of the University means learning to read, think, speak, write, and learn in particular ways that are valued by your University community. Much communication at the University is conducted in academic discourse, the system of shared (but often tacit) assumptions that establishes what counts as “good” writing, “good” thinking, “good” style, “good” questions—even what counts as a “fact”!

Academic discourse is best defined by the VALUES it seeks to embody. Readers of your academic writing will expect you to:

  • “write to learn” (rather than write to prove what you think you already know)
  • strive for depth over coverage (while respecting the values of accuracy, sufficiency, and productivity)
  • ask questions that matter (rather than ones that are simple to answer or of idiosyncratic interest), one’s that lead to new knowledge or insights, which change the ways we look at things, or which productively challenge or reveal the unexamined foundations of widely held beliefs
  • “use methods [of inquiry] respected by the disciplines, [interdisciplines, or fields] in which you are working,” or explain how the new or modified methods you’re employing produce more accurate, sufficient or productive results
  • “provide evidence” to support your claims, be willing to consider complicating and conflicting evidence, and be willing to follow evidence where it leads
  • document the development of your ideas as well as the sources of information you used
  • situate your ideas in a well-defined field of reasoned inquiry
  • test your ideas for accuracy, sufficiency, and productivity
  • test your ideas in a community of reasoned/researched/considered judgment
  • use a voice and style respected in the field of inquiry in which you’re working

Writing that fails to embody these values—however cleanly written, whatever it’s stylistic merits, however interesting it might be to some other kind of reader—is likely to be rejected by University readers. Remember, academic writing is not universally valued. It is a system developed by and for a highly-particular community of people, institutions, and organizations trying to do highly-specialized work. Writing to other communities in other situations will require you to determine which writing values are tacitly held in that community.

*This essay builds on ideas presented by Susan Copely and others at Empire State College’s “Values in Academic Writing” published online at The Write Way, accessed Jan. 9, 2014. Quoted passages are from “Values in Academic Writing.”