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We Need to Talk about Academic Language

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Elizabeth Olsson | 3 June 2019


Hedging? Straw men? Delimitations? Epistemology?! I may be a native English speaker but I can’t say that I ever came across these concepts before I started my bachelor’s degree. And, even then, it took an awful lot of head scratching and time in the library before I developed any sense of what these concepts meant. (No, I’m not ashamed to admit that I started my university career before “google it,” entered the popular lexicon.) Which is to say that the academic language that scholars employ in their work on a daily basis is not the language most people use during a typical interactions. Nor is this language often taught in secondary schools. (Trust me, I have worked as a secondary-level English teacher on two continents, so I know what I’m talking about.) Academic language is foreign to the vast majority of university students and, like all foreign languages, it needs to be explicitly and continuously taught if we want our students to learn it.

Unfortunately, most of us do not integrate explicit instruction of academic writing, reading, and oral presentation into the courses that we teach. This is not to say that we’re doing something wrong. After all, most of us were forced to learn academic language through a long and painful process of socialization and trial and error. In other words, most of us weren’t explicitly taught how to formulate a counter-argument, we picked this up on our own. Moreover, very few of us have undergone extensive pedagogical training. Instead, we are considered qualified to teach university courses because we are experts in our fields. But this means that we know how to engage in an academic conversation, it doesn’t mean that we know how to teach others to do the same. As a result, we, as academics, tend to develop the skills necessary to teach our subject content and we hope--- or perhaps even expect--- that our students will figure out the rest on their own. And this is where we get into trouble.

Our students are struggling to learn academic language because we are struggling to teach it and something needs to be done. We need to start (better) incorporating academic language instruction into our courses. Here are a few suggestions about how to go about it. First, we need to recognize that we have two roles as university instructors: to teach our students discipline-specific content and to explicitly instruct our students on the academic language skills they must develop in order to understand and engage with that content. Unless we start critically reflecting on what both of these roles entail and how there are inextricably linked to each other, we will continue running into profound pedagogical problems.

Once we have accepted our dual role, we need to better incorporate academic language instruction into our courses. We need to teach our students how to reference and how to read academic texts. We need to instruct our students on the intricacies of argumentation and providing constructive feedback to their peers. The easiest way to do this is to walk our students through the ways in which we, ourselves, understand and employ these skills. After all, we may not be trained pedagogues but we are competent academic conversationalists and it is the competencies that we bring with us to these conversations that we need to teach our students.

Third, we need think of university education as one phase in a long process of academic language development. No student can master these skills in a single course or even a single year of study. These skills take time to learn and develop. As a result, these skills need to be introduced and built upon throughout every university program that we offer. This will take a fair amount of coordination between course leaders, but unless we do this, our students simply won’t develop the academic language skills they need to write a thesis at the end of their time with us. And we all know that this is a huge problem.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to end this piece with the embarrassing admission that I still have difficulty distinguishing between epistemology and ontology. (Phew, I said it!) Which leads me to my fourth and final suggestion: We need to be more open about our own academic language struggles with our students. If our students simply look at our literature lists, they will think that we know exactly what we’re doing when it comes to academic language. I don’t know about you but I sure don’t. I am constantly learning new concepts and approaches, and this learning does not come easily. Sometimes I learn by participating in seminars. Sometimes I learn while reading an excellent article. Sometimes I learn by drafting, redrafting, and drafting some more. But mostly I learn by making mistakes. And, instead of hiding these mistakes from my students, I try to point them out as often as I can. Do you know what? It works. Instead of coming across as the incompetent fool that I sometimes think I am, my students see me as someone they can relate to and even trust. So, yes, I struggle with writer’s block and I procrastinate an awful lot. Yes, I have had articles rejected--- multiple times. And, yes, sometimes I have no clue about what I’m doing even if I sound as though I have everything figured out. Any questions?


Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She serves as the Writing Coach in the introductory course to international relations, IR1111. She is launching a Writers’ Workshop for Ph.D. students this autumn.



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