by Georg Eickhoff
translated by Jonathan Monroe
First published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 12, 2001
Used with permission.
When American soldiers came home from World War II, the homeland wanted to reward
its returning heroes with educational opportunities leading to increased upward
social mobility. In the meantime, however, the young men had gotten older. Moreover,
as institutions of higher learning came to understand, they had forgotten how
to write. So it was that in 1949, in an effort to address this issue, an association
of university English teachers founded the Conference on College Composition
and Communication (CCCC).
The teaching of academic writing became in subsequent years institutionalized, professionalized, and ultimately ritualized. Poet and literary critic Charles Bernstein described what academic writing in the 1970s had come to: "Topic sentence. However; but; as a result. Blah, blah, blah. It follows from this. Concluding sentence." An alternative to this state of affairs has been sought meanwhile in a stronger turn to discipline-specific content. Two international conferences on academic writing, at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) and the Rijksuniversität in Groningen, The Netherlands, recently took up these timely concerns.
The American educational system invests higher education with more general tasks than its German counterpart, with departmental specialization occurring only in the third year of study. A specific American tradition of "academic writing" has thus taken shape, first of all as an offering for first-year students, but also as a general measure of the quality of learning at all levels of the curriculum. A basic skill like writing is thus taught in the United States in a manner that is at once sophisticated and geared to the purposes of specific departments and disciplines. In the European tradition, by contrast, questions devoted to writing and the construction of knowledge might well be perceived as signaling a lack of intellectual sophistication. Europe could learn from academic writing in America how to improve the quality of academic prose through extensive practice and close revision without relegating students to a state of childlike speechlessness.
With its annual "Consortium for Writing in the Disciplines," Cornell University seeks to play a leading national and international role as a center for academic writing. Jonathan Monroe, director of Cornell's writing program, had on hand a number of guest scholars, as well as representatives from other colleges and universities seeking to enhance their quality and reputation within higher education. In presentations strongly oriented toward particular areas of specialization across the disciplines, the core question that arose repeatedly concerned ways in which teachers could stimulate interest and enthusiasm among their students in their respective fields of knowledge. Exploring in depth a variety of forms of academic texts that generally remain beyond the purview of a typical introductory course in Germany, students have an opportunity for more frequent and continual feedback. This process in turn strengthens the identification of the students with their major, their course of study, and their university.
The Knight Institute at Cornell understands itself as a catalyst for institutional change that is designed to improve the quality of instruction throughout the entire University. To this end, entering students have recently been assigned as required reading Jared Diamond's Pulitzer prize winning historical study Guns, Germs and Steel. "The idea of a required reading marks a cultural break for Cornell," says Jonathan Monroe, "particularly in light of the high value placed on academic autonomy by the University's founder, Ezra Cornell."
Monroe's colleague, Nancy Sommers, director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University, presented the results of a four-year study on the impact of writing instruction among Harvard undergraduates: Academic writing, the study suggests, encourages especially the development of the student's intellectual and scholarly abilities. The portrait that emerges is of a gradual acculturation into the "scholarly community." Professors of various disciplines described how varying the forms of "writing assignments" can enhance the effectiveness of instruction, as well as, not incidentally, the enjoyment students find in learning. Cornell Teaching Assistant Nancy November, for example, had students in her music course on "voice" write a letter to Theodor W. Adorno responding to his remarks on Beethoven's chamber music. The epistolary form helped students discover and learn to give shape to "their own voice," a central theme of discipline-specific academic writing. Another form, which Megan Thomas assigns to her students, is an essay on a topic drawn from reading the daily newspaper. Both November and Thomas systematically integrate informal academic journals as required writing for their courses.
Susan McLeod from Washington State University discussed the state of writing instruction in Norway and offered an appreciation of her Norwegian colleague, Olga Dysthe, the grande dame of Scandinavian pedagogy. As the keynote speaker opening the Groningen Conference on "Teaching Academic Writing across Europe," Dysthe presented a historical overview of writing instruction from Aristotle to Mikhail Bakhtin.
The Groningen conference offered a wealth of solid practical examples, but comparatively little theoretical reflection. The excellent workshop of pragmatist John C. Bean (Seattle University) presented a number of successful teaching strategies in the United States, but elicited no discussion. Coinciding with the founding of the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, the conference was announced as the beginning of a European writing movement and concluded with an inspiring celebration of the enduring value and purpose of education. Harvey Kail (University of Maine) presented a brilliant talk describing the writing center as a sacred place of non-trivial exchange focused on writing, a site of initiation in which knowing and unknowing come together, through a community of writing experts, into a mythical-mystical union.
Both conferences demonstrated that one doesn't do justice to academic writing in approaching it solely, as was the case with the returning World War II veterans, as a skill that is lacking among first-year students. Subordinating the importance of writing instruction and the quality of academic writing, or assuming writing skills to be a given at the outset, risks leaving untapped the potential the art of writing has to contribute to the construction of knowledge and meaningful dialogue among the scholarly community.