One of the big challenges of academic writing is that it forces you to think and work in ways that most of us don’t in the course of daily life. It’s not just that you have be logical and coherent — that part’s not always difficult. It’s that you have to participate in some conventions, attitudes, and methods that are out of the ordinary, especially in contemporary social media and ADHD-based culture. Academic writing appears at first glance to resemble some types of expression that take place in normal daily life but which are in fact pretty different.
The first convention/method has to do with what goes into presenting a structured argument. L. Lennie Irvin explains this cogently in his chapter What is Academic Writing.
And I’m going to quote it here because it sums it up beautifully:
Rather than a shouting match between two disagreeing sides, argument instead means a carefully arranged and supported presentation of a viewpoint. Its purpose is not so much to win the argument as to earn your audience’s consideration (and even approval) of your perspective. It resembles a conversation between two people who may not hold the same opinions, but they both desire a better understanding of the subject matter under discussion.
And this is how academic argumentation differs from arguments that take place in daily life, even political debates (which academic argument seems to resemble in some ways). Academic argumentation is not just an attempt to win, as Irvin points out (though that’s part of it — you want your position to be convincing), but an effort to understand the topic on a deeper level, a procedure that can call into question your own opinions and biases. Academic writing is ideally an investigation and inquiry into the details, complexities, and nuances of the subject. Anyone who’s been involved in political arguments on Internet message boards or Facebook knows this is a completely different set of criteria and behavior. In those arenas, there’s usually no objective consideration of the topic or an attempt to understand it better. It’s usually just trying to make your opponent look like an idiot or the incarnation of Satan or both.
Another way in which academic argument is different from ordinary daily-life arguments (especially the standard political type) is that it requires you to engage in analysis, not just reiterate a pre-determined response. Again, quoting Levin:
First, we can say that unless your professor specifically asks you to summarize, you won’t write a summary. Let me say that again: don’t write a summary unless directly asked to. But what, then, does the professor want? We have already picked out a few of these expectations: You can count on the instructor expecting you to read closely, research adequately, and write an argument where you will demonstrate your ability to apply and use important concepts you have been studying. But the writing task also implies that your essay will be the result of an analysis. At times, the writing assignment may even explicitly say to write an analysis, but often this element of the task remains unstated. So what does it mean to analyze? One way to think of an analysis is that it asks you to seek How and Why questions much more than What questions. An analysis involves doing three things: 1. Engage in an open inquiry where the answer is not known at first (and where you leave yourself open to multiple suggestions) 2. Identify meaningful parts of the subject. 3. Examine these separate parts and determine how they relate to each other.
This is very far from what happens in normal daily arguments, especially political ones, where opponents are basically just bashing each other over the head with pre-packaged ideological viewpoints. As Levin says, just summarizing is insufficient. You have to be open to multiple possibilities, various interpretations, and questioning your assumptions. And you have to back up everything you present with strong, well-researched evidence. This approach improves the quality of your intellectual inquiry and the results you get.
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