Swales and Feak on Audience

In preparation for a series of posts on Nigel Caplan’s “genre makeovers”, I had a look at John Swales and Christine Feak’s very influential Academic Writing for Graduate Students. (Caplan mentions it in this makeover.) I think I now understand why I feel myself somewhat at odds with the English for Academic Purposes field and its “anti-five paragraph essay campaign.” Caplan’s main objection to these exercises is that “they lack situation, audience, purpose, and meaning.” And I have been arguing that this isn’t as obviously true as he thinks: the situation is the classroom, the audience is a classmate, the purpose is to expose your ideas criticism, and the meaning is the content of the course. But then I read the opening pages of Swales and Feak’s book and realized what I’m up against:

Even before you write, you need to consider your audience. The audience for most graduate students will an instructor, who is presumably quite knowledgeable about the assigned writing topic and will have expectations with which you need to be familiar. Other possible audiences include advisors, thesis committees, and those who will review research you may want to present at a conference or publish in a paper. Your understanding of your audience will affect the content of your writing. (p. 4)

This understanding of the audience will indeed affect the content of our students’ writing and it is precisely this, not the five-paragraph form, that makes Caplan yawn at the prospect of reading another set of student essays. While the actual reader of a school assignment is, of course, usually the instructor, and while a paper does need to satisfy its reviewers before it is published, the implied reader is always an intellectual equal, a knowledgeable peer. The instructor is not expecting to be impressed with the depth of the student’s understanding of the material (but is, of course, happy to be surprised); the grade is given on the basis of how well the student engages with the material at the level set by the class. The peer reviewer, likewise, is always reading the paper on behalf of the disciplinary community that the writer is presumably a part of. In other words, Swales and Feak simply get the audience of academic writing wrong. This has far-reaching consequences.

Audience, purpose, and strategy are typically interconnected. If the audience knows less than the writer, the writer’s purpose is often instructional (as in a textbook). If the audience knows more than the writer, the writer’s purpose is usually to display familiarity, expertise, and intelligence. The latter is a common situation for the graduate student writer. (p. 6)

In actual fact, the latter is a common misconception about academic writing, one that is perhaps understandable among undergraduates (though still wrong) but absolutely in need of being abandoned by graduate students. They must feel like their purpose is, not to show the teacher that they are smart, but to open their thinking to criticism from people who are qualified to tell them they are wrong. If they are to “display” anything it is their awareness of possible sources of error in their thinking and their willingness to stand corrected if they’ve made a mistake. The common situation of the scholar (and that is what a student is trying to become) is where the audience knows about as much as the writer on the subject at hand. The business of scholarship is to expose ideas to criticism.

I can see that I have my work cut out for me. But I think my plan still holds: I’m going to work through each of Caplan’s “makeovers” and show that the introduction of “genre” considerations really just affords us an opportunity to return what a rather reductive understanding of “essay” removed from the more familiar school assignment, namely, the situation, audience, purpose, and meaning of traditional scholarship, ordinary academic work. With those things firmly in mind, the five-paragraph essay offers a rich, if of course limited, opportunity for experimentation.

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