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Basic Academic Writing

Most graduate students and professors are so accustomed to the conventions of academic writing that they rarely think about it as they read and write.  The moves they need to make to construct a good argument come naturally to them and it’s easy to forget that this is a consequence of years of reading and writing in this particular style. Undergraduate students sometimes complain that they don’t understand what exactly it is that their professors want from them and that the rules of academic writing just aren’t clear.  Rhetoric is often the ONLY time in their college career that an instructor will focus on teaching the structure of an argument and the conventions of academic writing rather than assuming the students have already mastered them.  Rhetoric, in other words, is an opportunity for students to learn the rules of the academic game.

There’s not a lot of time, in one semester, to teach students all they need to know about academic writing.  But they should be able to learn recognize the structure of an argument and some of the key moves they need to make when writing papers. 

Here are some things instructors do to help students learn to recognize the moves made by academic writers:

  • At the beginning of the semester, students are given a handout describing some of the key elements of an argument (see example, "Six Important Features," in the box below).
  • For every reading assignment students are asked to make two sets of notes in the margins. The first documents what the author is saying - a summary. The second records what he/she is doing in terms of the argument structure - sketching the context, making a claim, providing evidence...etc. The second set of notes, in other words, creates a map of the structure of the essay. The instructor can show students how to do this on the board and with examples.
  • Students bring a "brief" of each reading to class. The brief describes each of the key elements of the argument (the problem, the claim, the evidence etc.) in one or two sentences. Students compare their briefs with each other and with the instructor's brief. 

Learning the moves

  • Class begins with a music video. Students are put in groups and given a simple prompt ("Does this video reinforce stereotypes about women?"). Working together they have to construct a simple argument using each of the elements you've identified as important. E.g. The problem: Music videos have been accused of promoting stereotypes of women as sex objects. Your claim: This video does not... Your evidence: Women are shown building bridges... Dealing with objections: Even though the women in this video are wearing bikinis, it's obvious it's just so they can stay cool.... Conclusion: Not all videos need to objectify women to appeal to young audiences... 
  • The students read and compare several examples of different thesis statements from their assigned readings and discuss the advantages of each.
  • Students are given examples of "poor, better and best" thesis statements (see links below). They compare them and discuss what makes one better than another. They work in groups to re-write a poor thesis statement to make it better.
  • Students are given examples of introductions and/or thesis statements from previous (annonymous) student papers. The instructor models how to rewrite one. Students break into groups and rewrite the others. 
(Grammatical errors and sentence-level difficulties are also problems in some student writing. Rather than devoting a lot of time to grammar in class, it's usually better to do the occasional mini-lesson covering the most common mistakes and /or refer individual students to grammar handbooks)

On-line resources for teaching argument

From Darthmouth College
From Oregon State (who also teach rhetorical analysis)

Writing a Thesis
From the UI writing center
From the OWL at Purdue
Writing a thesis statement from the University of British Colombia.

Unity, Coherence and Transitions
From University of British Colombia
Handout on transitions
Handout on Transitions

Or some common argument fallacies from University of British Colombia

Writing a Conclusion
UI writing center
University of British Columbia

The six important features of academic writing

Six important features of academic writing

  • Sketching the context of the argument, or describing the problem being addressed (the introduction)
  • Making a claim / writing a thesis statement
  • Providing supporting evidence
  • Dealing with objections and counterclaims
  • Writing a conclusion
  • Making transitions