March 27th, 2010

I seem to have misplaced my muse. If anybody has seen my muse, please let me know in the comments.

Actually, I have a few ideas for two or three things I want to be writing, but I am really struggling to convert ideas into pretty patterns of pixels. I have about a dozen projects sitting on back burners waiting for me to find the energy and inspiration to get stuck in. But…

One thing that has been really bugging me lately is work. Well, one aspect of work. A large part of my job is teaching Academic Writing. This means equipping young Chinese with the English writing skills they will need to succeed at a Western university. Yes, there are many problems with that statement, but they’re not the issue. What’s really bugging me, and this is a bugging that has been building up over a long, long time, is the textbooks I have to use.

Now, let me start by saying that all the Academic Writing textbooks – indeed, all the English writing textbooks – I have ever seen have been American in origin. And let me continue by saying that I’m really glad that I’ve known enough educated Americans over the years to not believe that what is contained in these textbooks is in anyway representative of what passes for academic writing in America. Y’see, these books never actually teach academic writing – and that is the least of the problems. What these textbooks invariably teach is a lot of sentimental, saccharine-laden nonsense with the occasional thrust of the lance at the op-ed pages of your local newspaper. What you find in these textbooks is certainly not the kind of writing that would actually earn you a degree. Let me emphasise: The Americans I know know what academic writing is. The Academic Writing textbooks I have to use teach something that is not academic writing.

And the second reason for the need to point out the American origins of these textbooks is that almost all of them I have used have been Chinese editions of the American books. That should be fine, except that the books were very clearly written for an American audience. The topics chosen for each chapter are topics relevant to American society. The model essays were clearly written for an American audience. If I were teaching one of these “freshman comp” courses that American universities seem to have, that would not be a problem. But I’m standing at the front of a classroom in China with 30-odd young Chinese people and an American textbook having to constantly take a step back, explain the topic, alter it to suit the audience I have in front of me, and move on. See, none of the publishers seems to make even the slightest attempt to adapt the books for a Chinese audience beyond slapping a Chinese cover over it and adding the necessary publishing details and perhaps, if you’re lucky, a Chinese-language “How to use this book” page.

To give you one example (because today in class we were doing Chapter 10: Examples), the book I am currently using, in Chapter 16: Argumentation, uses as a model essay one entitled Ban the Things. Ban Them All. by Molly Ivins. It reads like the kind of cheap, easily thrown-off op-ed piece one would find in any random newspaper of more-or-less “liberal” leanings. It argues in favour of stricter gun control. My first problem with using this essay is that it appears in the Chinese edition of the textbook I have to use to teach Chinese students here in China. Here in China where gun control is not an issue. Alright, I can, based on what I have seen of the American media and conversations with a wide variety of Americans I have met both here and back in New Zealand, fill in at least some of the background information necessary to understand what this essay is all about, where the author is coming from, and where she is trying to take us to, but:

To make matters worse, Chapter 16 sets out five strategies for argumentation that I am to teach my students, namely:

  1. Use Tactful, Courteous Language
  2. Point Out Common Ground
  3. Acknowledge Differing Viewpoints
  4. When Appropriate, Grant the Merits of Differing Viewpoints
  5. Rebut Differing Viewpoints

That’s all good, and with a greater expansion on Strategy 5 and a lot of time spent on logically developing and presenting one’s own argument added in, is precisely what I’d teach. The problem is that Ivins’ essay is presented as a model of argumentation for the students to learn from and yet it starts with sarcasm and ends with ad hominem attack, makes no attempt to find common ground, only acknowledges differing viewpoints in so far as we can all acknowledge the incoherent babbling of people obviously in desperate need of psychiatric treatment (that ad hominem attack I was referring to) and therefore makes no attempt to find out whether any other viewpoint may have any merits, and therefore can’t even come close to rebutting anything. And with that, I have only just begun to critique that attempt at an argumentation essay. And I’m supposed to use this rubbish as a model to teach my students to write good academic essays?

And then there’s the structure of the books. My current textbook, for example, waits until chapters 21 and 22 to introduce such things as using the library and internet and writing a research paper. Such things as plagiarism, citations and bibliographies are buried in those chapters with far too little detail or development of the topics. My problem is that in my student days, the first thing one would do on receiving an assignment would be to pop into the Union to see who was hanging out there, or wander round to Governor’s for a coffee, or perhaps the Cook for a beer with your mates go to the library and start researching the topic. The point is, you can’t even begin to write a proper essay until you at least have the information you need to understand the topic. Shouldn’t the order be more like:

  • Chapter 1: What is academic writing?
  • Chapter 2: Decoding the assignment.
  • Chapter 3: Get thee to the library, or at least online (but no playing on Facebook!)!
  • Chapter 4: Now that you have some information, perhaps we can start brainstorming or planning this essay you have to write.


Sure, get a new book. But every writing textbook I have ever used has had problems of these kinds. It seems to be less a matter of finding a better book, more a matter choosing which mixture and arrangement of problems to deal with this time round.

2 Responses to “frustration”

  1. John Says:

    I noticed this years ago with that Academic Writing book by Anne Hogue, which seemed to be little more than a paean to American culture. When my sister’s husband lived in the States and she used to visit him, her observation was that Americans are incredibly parochial.

    I’d prefer something a little more international, but I’ve yet to see a British textbook on academic writing here. Probably they’re full of material like “The petty obsessions of the media and government” or “Asbos, Urban Badge of Honour” or “WAGS” and so on.

    Mind you, given that Britain looks an awful lot like China (obsessive surveillance and exams), the topics in a British textbook might be instantly familiar to a Chinese audience.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Agreed, international would be good.