Miscellaneous

How Do Academic Writers Engage With Existing Scholarship? | Rewriting by Joseph Harris

I have been taking language classes all of my life, but for some reason, I was never really taught how I should cite existing scholarship. I knew that I was supposed to say something new and also acknowledge the contribution of other scholars in the field, but I didn’t know how to do that.

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Enter Rewriting by Joseph Harris. Rewriting is all about how scholars and essayists position their arguments in relation to those of other thinkers. If there is one book that I would put into the hands of every incoming graduate student in the humanities, Rewriting would be it.

Harris focuses on three ways that academic writers engage with existing scholarship: forwarding, countering, and taking an approach. Forwarding is when a writer “takes terms and concepts from one text and applies them to a reading of other texts and situations” (6). The goal of forwarding is to show in what way an argument, term, or concept has been helpful in thinking about a new text. Countering is more intuitive. It involves disagreeing with a reading or a concept. The final way – taking an approach – involves applying a theory to a new set of texts or adopting the style of a certain author.

However, before an academic writer can forward, counter, or take an approach, she must come to terms with the scholarship. she must first be able to summarize in her own words the major arguments of the article, book chapter, or monograph in question. In order to find the gap in the scholarship, she must understand the scholarship.

I found the first chapter on coming to terms to be the most useful because it sets the groundwork for the later chapters on forwarding, countering, taking an approach, and rewriting. Here is how Joseph Harris explains coming to terms:

[T]he phrase suggests, a settling of accounts, a negotiation between reader and writer. In coming to terms, you need both to give a text its due and to show what uses you want to make of it. You are not simply re-presenting a text but incorporating it into your own project as a writer. You thus need not only to explain what you think it means but to say something about the perspective from which you are reading it (emphasis, my own) (15).

Harris recommends three practices to come to terms with a text:

  1. summarizing the writer’s project
  2. highlighting key passages and words
  3. considering possibilities and limitations of the approach

Only after an academic writer has come to terms with the text, can she begin to consider how an idea might be forwarded or countered. I often lose sight of the general approach that a scholar is taking, focusing instead on the facts. On the contrary, Harris views all writing – but specifically, academic writing – as a kind of negotiation. Forwarding, countering, and taking an approach involve negotiating terms, approaches, and truth claims. Even when a scholars counters, Harris believes that she should acknowledge her indebtedness (however little) to the formulations being countered. But before she can acknowledge her indebtedness to scholarship she must first come to terms with the scholarship.

Note that all strategies of engaging with existing scholarship are ways of saying something new. The goal of academic writing should never be the regurgitation of past scholarship. When quoting from a work, the writer must demonstrate how the quoted passage contributes to the development of her own argument. This is why your high school teacher taught you to never end a paragraph with a quote.

As I’m writing this post, I am deeply aware of how hard it can be to come to terms with a text. Even Rewriting, despite giving clear and practical advice, can be challenging. I find it hard to summarize in writing the major moves that academic writers make. Thankfully, Harris illustrates what he is teaching. He situates his own craft book in relation to other books on academic writing. Furthermore, he never asks the secondary sources he cites to do the work for him. Instead, he explains how a quoted passage from a novel or essay illustrates the various moves of academic writing.

My only criticism is that Rewriting is riddled with typos. The proofreader must have been on leave because there were typos or every few pages. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a better book out there about how academics engage and cite the work of others.

Reflections

Write the Synopsis First | Academic Writing

academic writingIn the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with AuthortTube (the writing community on YouTube). Although I do not write fiction, so much of what authortubers talk about applies as well to academic writing. Most recently, I came across a series of videos about the process of writing a synopsis. The synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of your book’s plot.

Most writers only prepare a synopsis when they are ready to query agents. Academic writers may even skip this step entirely. But what if we wrote our synopses first? What if, instead of figuring out our arguments while we write, we were to write a 1-2 page summary of our articles or book chapters?

If I cannot summarize my argument in 1-2 pages, I will not be able to do it in 20. For the past few years, I have found organizing my papers particularly challenging. I worry that I have strayed from my original argument. I don’t always know why my argument is important or how it fits in the existing scholarship.

Therefore, I will begin my next academic writing project with a 1-2 page synopsis. I hope that this exercise will make writing the article that much easier.

Reflections

I Haven’t Published a Paper Yet… | Academic Writing

laptop turned onIn the United States, PhD programs are 5-7 years long. Although programs expect students to finish in 5 years, most do not. Before starting my program, I thought I would begin publishing articles at the start of my third year. For two years in a row, I’ve vowed to submit my work to an academic journal. Yet despite what hiring committees might claim about the importance of publishing in graduate school, PhD programs privilege coursework over publications and grants – at least in the humanities.

Don’t get me wrong. There are steps I could have taken to get this article written. I could have scrolled less, managed my time better, and woken up earlier. There are certainly students who have published by the end of their third year. However, I would like to bring attention to the hefty work load students assume in the first 2 to 3 years of their programs. This semester, I have a lighter workload than usual because I am studying at the University of Geneva, where students complete 1, maybe 2, assessments for each course and read one book per course per semester. Yet, my colleagues back at my home university are required to read hundreds of pages per week, teach beginning language courses, and grade numerous assignments. Where can they find the time to write presentations, book chapters, and/or articles?

If national conferences, single-author papers, book chapters, and grants are the current metrics of academic success, why don’t graduate programs prioritize these tasks ? Why don’t professors encourage their students to work on a single piece all semester, rather than in the final three weeks of class? I am convinced that a course dedicated to academic publishing would give students the time and resources to prepare a piece for publication. Besides, I’ve learned more from the act of writing research papers than from reading a series of semi-related books for a course.

As I enter 2020, I know that my resolution will once again be the submission of a paper for publication. I really need to set aside time every week for important task. But I also have a PhD exam at the end of the spring semester covering 70+ texts as well as final exams for the courses I’m taking in Geneva. Here’s to 2020!

Reflections

On Graduate School (again!)

Every Thanksgiving, I intend to catch up with my work but I never do. I read a few things, but only one book was course-related. Tomorrow, my colleagues will also complain that they didn’t get anything done during the break. But it was an American holiday. I got to spend some much-needed time with my family.

I returned an hour ago from the Philadelphia airport. Thankfully, I caught the last trolley for the night. I forgot that public transportation is limited on Sunday nights. Although I can’t say that I have jet lag, flying always makes me tired, no matter how short the flight. I am also extra-alert during security and on public transportation. You never know who you’ll encounter.

But I’m back.

And now, I have a million and one pages to write by the end of the December. I’m glad that I have been writing daily for the past few weeks because I need the self-motivation to write every day in December. Of course, I am still in the planning phase. I barely know what topic I will be writing about, let alone what sources to cite. The writing marathon occurs during the last few weeks of each semester. I’ve been doing one for years, but this year’s will be the hardest one yet. NaNoWriMo participants don’t have to edit their writing, but graduate students have to write 15-25 pages for multiple classes AND write them well.

Marathon writing just doesn’t seem very efficient or practical. Why are we assigned so many books?

The truth is that I’m kind of tired of taking courses. I just want to start my dissertation research already. Most of us can learn from reading lists. It’s impossible to balance the writing marathon with regular coursework. Texts are still assigned during the last few weeks of classes. Of course, no one can balance everything. Something has to give. What matters more? Writing final papers or reading an assigned book that will never appear on an MA or a PhD exam list?

I know. I know. I’m complaining. Courses aren’t completely useless. I’m just frustrated by the inefficiency of the American graduate system.

Undergrads need to pass courses so that they can obtain a degree. Their professional development mostly occurs in the workforce. They are thrown into the “real” world with some skills and basic knowledge of their field. Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are supposed to receive their professional development in graduate school. Isn’t that why we get a master’s or a doctorate?

Programs should emphasize writing throughout the semester. Writers improve through practice. Humanities students are supposed to be writers. Maybe English students have more training in that area than foreign language students, but I am increasingly alarmed by the number of fifth and sixth year students who have never published a paper. I worry that graduate programs are so course-centered that they are blind to the academic market. In a publish-or-die industry, graduate programs should train their students to publish their work. Students should also be encouraged to write for non-university publications.

True, graduate students are adults. They need to be self-driven. But graduate schools should also care about the professional development of their students. We are more than cheap labor.

Miscellaneous

University Press Week (Nov. 6-11)

This week is University Press Week. I am a huge champion of university presses and the books they publish. In a society increasingly hostile to education, one way you can fight back is to support university presses dedicated to the acquisition and sharing of knowledge!

UP Week includes a blog tour: http://www.aaupnet.org/events-a-conferences/university-press-week/university-press-week-2017/2017-blog-tour#Wednesday

You can keep up with news related to UP Week on #upweek. For tips related to academic publishing, I recommend @PrincetonUPress and their #AskanEditor series.