Academic Writing in the Modern University Curriculum

Abstract

Today, Russian universities face the administrative demand for boosting research publication rates, which presupposes the acquisition of appropriate academic writing skills. The discipline of Academic Writing appeared in the curricula of separate Russian universities only in the last decade. Feedback from the teachers shows that there are still many questions that need to be answered to move the learning outcomes to a satisfactory extent. Problems arising with teaching academic writing range from the absence of academic writing tradition in the national education system to the lack of students’ motivation for learning. Teachers confess they are stepping blindly in the darkness as the methodology of academic writing is still developing, and there are many unresolved questions. The matter is the discipline was borrowed from the Western and American education and needs to be adopted to the realities of Russian academic and social discourse. This proves to be a challenging task as the development of writing skills has lately been paid little attention to by our education system. Students meet serious difficulties on their way to the creation of academic texts following the norms of the international academic format and the requirements of scholarly journals. The present paper explains why the discipline of Academic Writing taught in Russian universities cannot advance the skills of research writing to the expected levels.

Keywords: Disciplinehigher-order competencesRussian educationteaching academic writingwriting for research publication purposesuniversity curriculum

Introduction

Academic writing and academic reading have become a recent part of the university curriculum as an answer to the demands from the society focused on the geopolitical urge to advance national science and knowledge-based economy. Three considerations disclose the rationale behind teaching the discipline at the university. First of all, the amount of information in the society has made it hard for the students to tell, which source of knowledge is reliable, and which is not. Secondly, clip thinking, characteristic of young people’s cognitive habits today, has brought to cognitive reduction, lack of systematic assessments, inability to interpret a printed text and take a personal stance building on one’s own knowledge and competences (Brodovskaya et al., 2019). Thirdly, and, seemingly, predominantly, the imperative of boosting the publication levels of the academic community has highlighted the backward quality of many published texts and their inability to find positive feedback from the international scientific community.

The discipline of Academic Writing has been widely discussed in Russian academic discourse in the last 6-7 years. University professors share the experience of designing academic writing courses and their results. Along with the new details of the emerging discipline and its potential, there appears a bulk of negative feedback from the teachers of academic writing who report that the majority of the students cannot overcome the challenges of academic writing. Researchers also report the evolving controversies in the conceptualization of the discipline, which lead to misunderstandings in teaching practices and unsatisfactory course results (Bogolepova, 2016; Korotkina, 2018b; Petrova, 2018; Rotgon, 2019).

This study aims at revealing the nature of the problems with academic writing as a university curriculum discipline in order to find the reasons for unsuccessful educational practices. We are going to show that the concept of the discipline is overloaded with multiple meanings. It needs to be systematized basing on the complexity level of competences it develops. We will show that disentangling the list of competences presently taught through the discipline gives way to an additional discipline in the university curriculum designed to build research writing skills.

Problem Statement

Today, in the Russian university curriculum, there is no strategically planned system of building students’ research writing skills. In universities that initiated work in this direction, research writing skills are mostly developed through the discipline of Academic Writing either in Russian or in English. However, the existing data proves that academic writing teachers experience significant challenges and do not have a clear perspective of attaining their educational goals (Chuikova, 2016; Dugartsyrenova, 2016; Korotkina, 2017b; Kouprianov, 2011; Rotgon, 2019).

In their research Belyaeva et al. (2018), present the assessment of 29 master students whose linguistic acquisition equalled B1 level of The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Even if the students were rather proficient in terms of the language, the results of an argumentative essay writing showed unsatisfactory results. Only 63% of the students managed to present the essay topic. More than half of the texts did not have the conventional essay structure (introduction, body, conclusion). Paragraph quality (thesis statement, logical coherence, argumentative evidence) was not achieved by over 80 % of the authors. We can conclude that even students at the productive levels of language acquisition cannot cope with academic writing tasks.

Some authors state that they observe no regular teaching of academic writing in Russian universities as a separate, compulsory discipline (Makovich, 2018; Morozova et al., 2018; Smirnova & Shchemeleva, 2015). At the same time, training research writing skills requires methodical and time-consuming work of both a teacher and a student. Writing for research publication purposes belongs to a higher level of writing skills and should be taught with respect to its complexity. Russian university curriculum needs changes that incorporate a bulk of disciplines that work in alignment and serve a common goal of providing the students with a set of competences necessary for successful research writing.

Research Questions

The paper addresses the following questions:

  • Why cannot the discipline of Academic Writing help Russian authors meet the requirements of international scholarly journals?

  • What changes may be introduced to the university curriculum to assist Russian authors in writing for research publication purposes?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study is 1) to explain why the discipline of Academic Writing taught in Russian Universities cannot advance the skills of research writing to the level required by international scholarly journals, and 2) to suggest changes in the university curriculum that would make it possible to reach substantial results in writing for research publication purposes.

Research Methods

Academic writing as a discipline developed in the West, primarily in the USA. The theoretical framework of academic writing is described in the works of Lea and Street (1998), Young (2006), Campbell (2014), Green and Beavis (2014), Hyland (2016), Bazerman et al. (2017), Flowerdew (2012, 2013, 2016) and others. Summing up the main approaches, we may state that academic writing is 1) the scientific and methodological branch of knowledge, 2) the direction of scientific and educational research and 3) the discipline that studies the methods and technologies for building an academic and scientific text. This paper focuses on academic writing as a discipline in the university curriculum. In the international approach, the purpose of academic writing is to develop the competences necessary to write a text in accordance with the rhetorical conventions and to educate independent-minded researchers, active participants in global academic discourse.

In the United States, writing is recognized as the basis of university studies. New knowledge, skills and abilities should be developed through written activities, reading and critical reflection. Traditionally, in the US universities, there were only courses for the freshmen (First Year Writing Course / First Year Composition). This discipline acquainted the students with various written genres and trained the skills of academic, creative, professionally-oriented writing. Students learned to distinguish between genres, work on the structure of the text and its grammatical accuracy, as well as mastered the basics of critical reading. The course was designed to provide the students with the skills necessary for a successful study at the university.

Now, while retaining the first year’s seminars, two approaches where writing is a leading activity are used at US universities: writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in disciplines (WID). WAC is a learning approach in which written competence is key, and the entire learning process is based on the active involvement of written speech activity to develop and enhance new knowledge. This kind of practice allows implementing the writing component in the structure of any taught discipline. At the same time, writing is the kind of activity that makes it possible to comprehend, analyze and critically present the information received. The WID approach involves the active use of written speech activity for the development of knowledge within one discipline, acquaintance with disciplinary ways of thinking and expression, genres and traditions of writing. In this approach, both the process of creating the text and the product of the writing activity are essential.

In Russia, the field of academic writing attracted researchers’ attention starting from the second half of the 2000s (Chuikova, 2016; Kouprianov, 2011; Krutikova, 2012; Nazarova, 2007; Stepanov, 2011). The first articles on academic writing built on English-speaking studies and mainly referred to teaching English or in English. From that time on more publications appeared on the topic, adding to the existing knowledge and adapting it to the context of Russia (Bakin, 2013; Dobrynina, 2019; Korotkina, 2017a, 2017b, 2018a, 2018b; Popova, 2015; Smirnova, 2015). The discussions mainly developed in the context of boosting Russian scholars’ publication rates and debated the problem of meeting the requirements of the international scholarly journals. Korotkina (2018c) devoted her doctoral thesis to the subject of academic writing and investigated the topic in depth, summarising the major international approaches and contributing to the innovative concept of academic writing discipline in Russia.

Since the middle of the 2000s, more and more knowledge appeared due to the relative spread of academic writing in Russian universities. The members of the Russian academia presented their experience of teaching academic writing courses designed for specific audiences. The described experiences mainly showed different interpretations of English-speaking approaches and sources (Bogolepova, 2016; Levchenko et al., 2017; Ostrovskaya & Vyshegorodseva, 2013; Samigullina, 2018). The authors presented their difficulties of the courses’ delivery and expressed their concerns on the functionality of the Russian educational approaches to teaching writing at the university. Korotkina (2018c) notes that there is a visible interest to the discipline. However, the existing data is controversial, not always consistent and needs further analysis and interpretation.

Findings

Academic Writing in Russian Universities: The Challenges

The challenges that the researchers of academic writing mention range from the absence of the discipline in the curricula to the lack of staff capable of teaching academic writing (Barbashina, 2016; Dugartsyrenova, 2016). Many researchers track the difficulties in academic writing in the lack of the tradition of academic writing itself (Barbashina, 2016; Korotkina, 2017a). The matter is in the Russian education system, there is no experience of successive critical reading and writing skills formation that encompasses pre-school education, school education and higher education. Writing a literate and informative text involves, firstly, the possession of logical, critical, argumentative thinking skills, and secondly, the ability to apply these skills when writing written text. It is admitted that in a number of universities, such skills are taught through a variety of subjects: logic, critical thinking, academic writing. This situation may be compared to Western and American universities, where academic writing disciplines are a settled part of the university curricula and traditionally operating centers of academic writing provide practical assistance in the creation of an academic text. The formation of academic writing skills among Russian students and subsequently, research scientists does not have any tangible base. That is why academic writing causes problems from the first stages. Barbashina (2016) emphasizes that the formation of academic writing skills presupposes a certain foundation. Its absence makes it impossible to create a high-quality, professional text.

Another problem, we believe, derives from the definition of academic writing as a discipline accepted in Russian education. Dobrynina (2019), for example, defines academic writing as a discipline that “teaches students generating their own ideas, structuring and organizing logically a text, providing evidence for each idea component and developing a coherent and clear text, that addresses its target reader”. Makovich (2018) claims that academic writing is not only about the creation of academic discourse texts but also refers to the organization and expression of innovative knowledge in a definite academic writing genre under the disciplinary research criteria and the specifics of the knowledge field. Korotkina (2018c) gives the following definition of academic writing: “the discipline that studies the methods and technologies for constructing an academic (educational) and scientific text. As reported by Korotkina, the purpose of academic writing is to develop the competencies necessary to write a text in accordance with the international rhetorical conventions and to educate independent-minded researchers, active participants in global academic discourse. In this context, learning rhetoric covers a range of tasks from building convincing arguments to strategies used in shaping scientific discourse; composition involves teaching practical writing skills.

In the given definitions, we can see a whole bunch of components. In general, these components may be placed in two groups: 1) those that refer to the creation of a text with the focus on its linguistic expression, logic and argumentation; 2) those that refer to the international rhetorical conventions of a specific scholarly genre (e.g., research article, thesis). The first group of components aims at the composition of any text in the academic discourse, including an educational text (lecture notes, an essay). The second group of components focuses on writing higher-order texts that are targeted for the disciplinary or interdisciplinary readers’ audiences of the global academic community.

The idea intertwined with academic writing is that of academic literacy. This is an umbrella term denoting meta-linguistic competences, the prerequisite of drafting competent scholarly texts. Smirnova (2015) defines academic literacy as the ability to function effectively in the modern academic environment: to carry out intercultural academic communication on the basis of professionally-oriented foreign texts, to think critically, to increase one's self-educational competence for educational and professional purposes. The formation of academic literacy is the development of not only reading and writing skills but a certain way of thinking suitable for a particular cultural environment. It is important to note that the key component of academic literacy is academic writing.

  • The following list of components may be tracked in the structure of academic literacy:

  • specific disciplinary skills (referencing, the composition of texts in definite professional genres),

  • interdisciplinary skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening comprehension),

  • knowledge of the academic discourse values and speech genres,

  • critical thinking skills,

  • ability to study independently,

  • motivation,

  • reflection skills.

Designing a course of Academic Writing Korotkina developed a list of competences that need to be taught in the discipline. According to the researcher, a successful student of Academic Writing course should:

know

  • the basic principles of the nonlinear construction of a scientific (academic) text as an integrated system;

  • the fundamental differences between a scientific text and a media/ fiction text;

  • international standards and requirements for the scientific text;

be able to

  • logically organize the text and its elements;

  • use various models and technologies of academic writing in their texts;

  • interact with the reader, understand and respect other person’s point vision;

  • put forward and justify their own hypothesis, formulate the thesis and develop the text from the hypothesis to conclusions;

  • critically evaluate, select, summarize and use information from various sources;

  • impartially, objectively and reasonably draw their own line of argumentation based on logic and facts, avoiding plagiarism;

  • use various types of logical order and argumentation methods;

  • write syntactically consistent and logically coherent texts;

  • express the ideas in a clear and precise language;

possess

  • the technologies for ideas generation;

  • the skills of text building based on models;

  • the skills of paraphrase and citation;

  • the skills of building a coherent and logically ordered text;

  • the skills of an academic text assessment;

  • the skills of complex grammar and logical errors’ correction (Korotkina, 2017b).

As one can see, both groups of Academic Writing components described above are taken into account in the list of skills taught through the discipline of Academic Writing. The list of competences is really long and, to tell the truth, presents a certain difficulty for accommodating in the human brain. The conceptual struggles of teaching academic writing have been admitted by a number of researchers (Bogolepova, 2016; Demidova, 2018; Makovich, 2018). No surprise, the mission of teaching such an elaborate complex of skills causes troubles for many teachers (Chuikova, 2016; Dugartsyrenova, 2016; Korotkina, 2018a; Kouprianov, 2011; Rotgon, 2019). It is necessary to introduce new and flexible models of training courses that will effectively implement modern educational concepts and form critical competencies related to academic writing as the basis for successful education at the university (Barbashina, 2016; Korotkina, 2018c; Smirnova, 2015).

Writing for Research Publication Purposes as a Discipline in the University Curriculum

An extensive list of components belonging to high-order cognitive activities can hardly be developed through one discipline. We claim that the discipline of Academic Writing in Russia has been overloaded with an honorary, yet heavy responsibility of training successful research writers due to the above-mentioned reasons, common for the national education system. Though the process of teaching writing should be started at lower stages of education (pre-school, ideally), speaking of university education, writing competence may be divided into levels, and a system of specific disciplines needs to be incorporated in the curriculum in order to reach this goal. In this system, two disciplines need to take a separate stand: 1) Academic Writing; 2) Writing for Research Publication Purposes.

Writing for Research Publication Purposes as a new research area in the Russian academic discourse was outlined by Korotkina (2018b). As the case with Academic Writing, the conceptualization of the new direction of study in our country builds on English-speaking sources (Cargill & O’Connor, 2006; Cargill & Smernik, 2015; Englander et al., 2019; Flowerdew, 2012, 2013, 2016; Kwan, 2009). The specificity of Writing for Research Publication Purposes lies in the social and political realm and persuasive powers of communication and argumentation. Its role in the creation of research publication texts derives from the necessity of following the international conventions of scholarly articles. This section of knowledge aims at providing a research publication author with the skills of orientation in social and political networks and their interests and conventions (Flowerdew, 2016). Kwan articulates the competences developed in writing for research publication purposes:

  • discursive and rhetorical skills, enabling the author to structure the text according to the rhetorical conventions of the research article genre;

  • strategic research planning skills;

  • meta-skills, including the strategic management of a research project in progress to generate timely publications for institutional appraisals;

  • communication skills, assuring successful contacts with the journal reviewers and editors (gatekeepers) (Kwan, 2009).

Writing for research should involve students in studying the examples of texts that include argumentation. It is crucial to see the main idea of the text and the way the author proves its validity. The questions that are vital for students’ understanding are a) the subject matter the author studies in his text; b) the problem question the author poses in his text; c) the sources the author uses to provide evidence for his ideas; d) the theoretical approaches the author uses in his research; e) assumptions and conclusions the author produces in the text.

Korotkina (2018b) notes that the field of Writing for Research Publication Purposes is not studied enough, and more investigation needs to be done. We cannot contradict the urge to continue research on

Writing for Research Publication Purposes. However, we consider that the apparent difficulties of teaching scholarly publication authors should encourage educators to use the existing knowledge. The content of academic writing differs in its complexity, and this fact brings to the necessity of differentiating levels of academic writing. We believe that university writing courses may be more efficient if they focus on different content and competences. The lower level of writing competences is the subject of Academic Writing discipline, whereas the higher level of competences, necessary for the publication of scholarly texts, belongs to the area of Writing for Research Publication Purposes.

Conclusion

Academic writing may be referred to the emerging disciplines of Russian education. Whereas in Western and American education, academic writing skills are commonly fostered, starting from the early stages of studies, the educational discourse of Russia incorporated the international writing norms not long ago. That is why the conceptual status of the discipline/s teaching academic writing is still evolving. The experience of the pioneers of academic writing programs in Russian universities gives data for processing and systematizing. Our analysis and the existing feedback from the teachers bring to the conclusion that a new educational discipline needs to be introduced as a part of the university curriculum.

The new discipline, Writing for Research Publication Purposes, is entitled to teach the skills required for publishing the results of educational and scientific research. Adding a new discipline to the curriculum naturally means spending more time and effort on the development of writing skills, and this is for a reason. Writing for research builds new competences that are different from the competences built in Academic Writing course. These are the competences of a higher rank. So, talking of a new discipline, we are also talking about the levels of academic writing developed at the university. Distribution of writing skills based on their complexity will allow for more attainable course programmes, which will boost learners’ motivation and learning outcomes.

In our study, we have discussed one of the problems of academic writing development. However, it is only a part of the issue. Further research of the topic is connected, among all, with the staff issue. Traditionally academic writing is taught by philologists, whose professional expertise is not always up to the standard to teach disciplinary research writing. On the other hand, disciplinary teachers may reveal a lack of professional skills sufficient for teaching a writing discipline. That is why programmes providing disciplinary teachers with the appropriate knowledge and competences need to be developed by collaborative expert groups.

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Publisher

European Publisher

First Online

28.12.2020

Doi

10.15405/epsbs.2020.12.04.116

Online ISSN

2357-1330