Ian Bruce on the Accommodationist/Critical Binary

In Academic Writing and Genre (2008), Ian Bruce reflects on the debate between those who adopt an “accommodationist” pedagogy in their writing instruction and those who adopt a “critical” pedagogy. The goal of the first is to help students “master the conventions and values of academic writing”, while the second “encourages the questioning and challenging of such norms and values”. Actually, he draws the distinction a bit more categorically. Those in the first group, he tells us,

proceed on the basis of an accommodationist (sometimes referred to as assimilative or pragmatic) pedagogy, which assists students to master the conventions and values of academic writing in an uncritical way. (p. 10)

Thus, the opposition to the “critical” approach is essentially there by definition. I agree with him that such a “simple binary” is not the best way to frame a constructive debate. But I’m not sure that merely adopting both approaches is the best way forward either. I will quote his proposal at length and then offer my alternative.

The view taken in this book is that effective writing pedagogy that uses a genre-based approach (as a means for developing novice writers’ discourse competence) has to be both accommodationist and critical at the same time. Accommodationist here is taken to mean exercising a discourse competence by being able to understand and appropriately draw on the various types of systemic knowledge necessary for producing discoursal outputs. Critical here is taken to mean a novice writer being able to exercise an authorial voice by individuated and innovative use of the various aspects of discourse knowledge at his/her disposal. (p. 10)

The problem with this approach, to my mind, is that it requires us to adopt a dual perspective, letting both sides win, but leaving the barrier between them in place. We might say it fails to fully transcend the binary that Bruce is rightly dissatisfied with. The most effective way to deconstruct the binary, in my opinion, is to recognize that you can’t “accommodate” the norms and values of academic writing in an “uncritical” way. Indeed, criticism is one of the central values of academic writing. I go so far as to say that it’s the core “business” of scholarship. Likewise, you cannot exercise “discursive competence” in an academic context without also exercising an “authorial voice”; you can’t draw on disciplinary knowledge “appropriately” without making “individuated and innovative use” of it.

My feeling is that the “critical” pushback against “conventional” academic writing too often challenges a caricature of what it means to be “academic”: boring, formal, reserved, dispassionate. What we really need is a single, unified understanding of the use of academic language that maintains the essential tension between philosophical clarity and poetic intensity, which is the hallmark of good writing in any genre. Students and teachers can of course focus on one or the other, but they are not thereby choosing between accommodating and criticizing academic norms. They are accommodating the critical norms of academic work.

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