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December 7, 2016
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(Re)Learning how to argue: The Strange case of graduate-level academic writing

(Re)Learning How to Argue:
The Strange Case of Graduate-Level Academic Writing
by Maggie Clark

Once every two weeks, fellow graduate students in my department gather to discuss reading and writing practices. We’re all at different stages in the doctoral process—some trudging through coursework, others in the midst of reading lists and exams, and others still in the quagmire of dissertation writing (and rewriting, ad infinitum). During these meetings, one student often distributes a sample of their work for peer evaluation, and almost always, that student will introduce their sample paragraph with some variation on this theme:

“I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write.”

This might seem like an odd claim for graduate students to make—we who have read so extensively, and who have spent so much time honing our analytical skills—but graduate programs (particularly ones in the humanities) demand forms of writing strikingly unlike their undergraduate forebears. Nor will that first, huge leap from undergraduate- to graduate-level writing suffice: The transition from graduate coursework to comprehensive exam essays, and then from exams to conference papers, articles, and of course the dissertation itself also involves tremendous upheavals in a student’s writing process.

As a Writing Centre tutor, I work with students at all levels of post-secondary education; as a TA, I also grade undergraduate essays. In neither position do I have the authority to change undergraduate essay expectations, but when I see firsthand what is expected of students who might one day transition to graduate-level coursework, I sorely wish I did not have to reinforce a style of writing that will not grow to meet future academic challenges.

Granted, undergraduate students already struggle just with the fundamentals of clear, precise writing. Between learning to construct complete, coherent sentences and trying to grasp what constitutes appropriate evidence for one’s claims, undergraduate students have a great deal to learn in the way of rhetoric before they can hope to master a truly “academic” voice.

Nonetheless, if undergraduate students were given more opportunity to see the “big picture” in their writing—to see how a first-year self-reflection essay fits into a journey that might very well end in published academic papers—they might have an easier time cultivating an appropriate vocabulary and argumentative style throughout both their undergraduate and early graduate experiences.

The following, then, is by no means a comprehensive list of writing components that need to be “re-learned” by new graduate students—but it is a start. Possibly the worst thing a scholar can do is convince herself that she has “arrived” at the perfect academic voice, so as long as you’re always interrogating your choices as a writer, you can at least spare yourself the rude awakening that comes each and every time a graduate student discovers that the way they wrote in the past is no longer a guarantee of future academic success.



1. Introductions

Undergraduate students are advised to get to the point in their essays—to move past notoriously generic claims like “Since the beginning of time, authors have written books that depict their inner thoughts and feelings”, and instead identify all the source texts or relevant experts central to their argument. What this amounts to by third and fourth year is essay openers like the following:

While the Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear in a range of recent literary analyses, modern scholarship remains weak on the subject of animality in relation to these characters and their speeches. In [X article], Y argues that Macduff’s brutal birth serves as a positive representation of human animality, but the presence of other animal and bodily references throughout this play suggests otherwise.

This format might suffice for the needs of a conference paper (a form of writing read at two minutes per page, for a total reading time of anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes), but it will not do for a graduate-level essay, thesis chapter, or submitted article. Rather, the very brevity and precision undergraduate students are told to strive for must be replaced with new metrics for success: Can you be both succinct and comprehensive? Does your paper tell a story? Have you mastered the art of presenting multiple histories or analyses in sequence without ever losing the reader’s confidence that everything will tie together in the end?

There is no exact template for this level of academic writing, but you can find good models to emulate by reading recent academic papers and books in your field. When you do so, pay attention to the following components:

a)How long is the introductory section? Likelier than not, the introduction is indeed a section, and not just a paragraph. What percentage of the overall paper is made up of introductory detail? When does the central argument emerge?

b)What rhetorical strategies do introductory sections in your discipline employ? Oftentimes a paper will begin with a detailed anecdote and progress to broader theoretical concepts, but another common approach is to summarize at length the history of a given discourse to date. Again, pay attention to how much space is used in forwarding specific points.

c)How is the “middle” of the paper formed? Some papers follow a highly segmented structure, with “mini-essays” on specific components of the overarching argument or topic under investigation identified by subheadings. (These papers can usually be read piecemeal by future researchers for relevant content.) Other papers, however, have no divisions whatsoever, which suggests that the author’s central argument is meant to be read as accumulating in a direct manner, without pause—like a snowball gathering speed and weight as it descends a mountain range.

d)How long is the conclusion? Some papers have extensive conclusion sections (especially those trying to gather together a range of different arguments), while others (e.g. ones using the snowball effect) might be relying on that cumulative writing style to carry the bulk of their arguments forward, and thus only dedicate a sentence or two to formal concluding thoughts.

2. Definitions

Undergraduate students are often encouraged to define central terms for their argument explicitly in their introductory paragraph, and most respond to this instruction by literally citing a dictionary definition (in early years) or a relevant expert’s definition (in upper years).

Graduate students are certainly not excluded from needing to define their terms, but more often than not, the implicit expectation is that they will define their terms in context, by applying given words directly to the situation or related concept under review.

There is sense to this move, since the audience for graduate student papers is expected to be well-informed about the field under discussion, and graduate students are themselves expected to perform as equally-qualified participants therein. Undergraduate students, conversely, are expected to demonstrate their knowledge to an informed member of a given discourse community; graduate students are meant to act as de facto members themselves.



3. The Literature Review

Undergraduate students are expected to demonstrate expertise in a given field by nodding to, at most, a handful of peer-reviewed authorities who have commented on the essay topic at hand. Not surprisingly, graduate student expectations are considerably steeper: For many an article (and of course your dissertation), you are most certainly expected to conduct a comprehensive review of all relevant literature surrounding your chosen topic. This review must both accurately summarize each highlighted expert’s argument and evaluate its significance (within the history of your chosen topic), as well as its legitimacy (as an argument unto itself and in relation to competing arguments by other experts).

In short, prepare to do a heck of a lot of reading just to craft a few splendid opening lines.

4. Rewriting (and Rewriting and Rewriting…)

In recent years, undergraduate students have been tasked with greater frequency to complete “essay prep” assignments before embarking on a full end-of-term essay. Such assignments encourage students to think about integral components of their essays well in advance of the final due date (e.g. the thesis statement, relevant sources, and supporting evidence), and offer plenty of opportunity for students to fine-tune their claims before final submission.

For graduate students, spending months on a given article, major research project, or dissertation chapter is not a choice—and most of the time, neither is receiving extensive recommendations for revising or even completely rewriting a given block of text.

These new and rigorous standards for academic rewriting have the potential to utterly drain even the most passionate of graduate students. To survive this (seemingly endless) hurdle, graduate students need to make a concerted effort to adjust their expectations and attitudes in the following ways:

a)Accept that your work as a researcher is never really done. If you can treat even your final MRP or dissertation as simply the most recent conclusion of your studies to date, you’ll be better situated to let it go and move on. Rest assured, if you continue in academia as a teaching professional, you will have your whole career to revisit and further develop arguments therein—and if you choose not to continue in academia, you’ll still leave your program with a concrete representation of a host of research and writing skills that will prove useful to you in the workforce at large.

b)Treat all criticism as constructive criticism—even if it really doesn’t feel like it. Remember: You have a committee’s-worth of academic professionals who have chosen, of their own accord, to dedicate precious time to review your work and offer suggestions that will improve you as both a writer and a researcher. Granted, some of those suggestions might feel harsh, but try to separate tone from the feedback itself, and remember that even learning how to deal with other people’s lack of tact has its benefit as an acquired skill for future work.

c)Finally, never forget why you chose your research topic, and why you chose to study at this academic level in the first place. Spending months reworking the same argument ad nauseum can seem at times like an exercise in either futility or absurdity—but ask yourself: Is there anything else you’d rather be doing? Anywhere else you’d rather (realistically) be? If the answer is “no”, then learn to enjoy the journey. You will really never “arrive” anywhere as a scholar—not if you’re doing it right, at least—but so long as the twinned processes of academic discovery and debate continue to bring you even a few moments of sheer delight, just remember that you’re exactly where you need to be.



1 person has commented
1 Boba - 28 Mar 2014

You describe the differences in expectations between undergraduate and graduate level writing eloquently, Maggie! We all wish writing were easier, and can only take comfort in how rewarding it can be. Thanks!

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