Graduate School Student Blog

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Who are we writing for?

Person reading at a museum

By: Kelsey Danks
Social Studies of Gender, 2018 Cohort

“Write as though your reader has no experience in your topic.”

This is the phrase I’ve heard over and over in various forms, usually at the end of lectures between the essay being assigned and the essay being due. I understand the student wants to know “How do I write this in a way that is sophisticated and accessible enough to be understood but intelligent? How can I emulate the authors that I read in your class?” The teacher is explaining “Please use an appropriate tone in your academic writing. Assume the reader is experiencing your subject for the first time.” But I find that this hasn’t been the answer the student is looking for because it doesn’t explain “how”. They deflate and maybe ask a follow up question relating specifically to citations but ultimately, they’re no closer to understanding what tone to use on their papers.

Past an introductory level teachers start to assume knowledge of their students, and students start to assume knowledge of each other. Somewhere around the bachelor’s thesis level, after ten years of being drilled to use an elaborate code in our essays, many of us start to panic about what knowledge is commonplace and understood by all and what we need to actively describe in order for the essay to be comprehensible for the average reader. Seemingly, the more we specialise, the harder this task becomes. When you study one thing day in and day out, it is hard to take a step back and realise what information you are taking for granted. While we use reflexivity to understand where we stand as a researcher in relation to the subject of study we don’t often use it with us as the academic in relation to our audience.

Elaborate and restricted code is a concept first published by Bernstein in 1971, it is the idea that we speak in different ways in different situations and this has an impact on how we interact with the education system specifically. If simplified for the sake of the blog format, restricted code is when you work under the assumption that those around you are experiencing the same context, elaborate code is when you speak with the assumption that those around you may not have that context.

For example: “Bojo’s at it again.” (Restricted)

Versus: “I see from the newspaper I am reading that Boris Johnson, leader of the British Conservative party, is once again trying to attack the European Union from a position of right-wing populism as we discussed a couple of days ago.” (Elaborated)

Restricted code is often associated with the working class, thanks to Bernstein’s original paper ​Class, Codes and Control: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Language. ​Bernstein asserts that education teaches in and demands elaborate code of its students, something that working class students are often limited by due to their restricted code of dialect, slang, less complex syntax and vocabulary etc. and are thus penalised by a system which does not recognise restricted code. This is not to say that working class children are idiots, nor that they cannot learn elaborate code, nor that middle class children do not use restricted code, only drawing awareness that working class children may be at a disadvantage when they first enter the education system.

I would assert, however, that we return to restricted code the further into academia we delve. This is a theory I have with little academic grounding, but hear me out. We ​must make assumptions about our readers in order to write otherwise we will be immobilised by descriptive definitions. We cannot start every essay discussing the importance of Marx, Freud and Foucault before leading into our actual thesis, it is usually enough for us to state “This directly relates to Foucault’s theory of discourse.” with a citation or say “Socialism” without going through the history of Marx’s writings and we would expect our reader to nod along. If you would like to test this for yourself, go ahead and read an article in a very different discipline and highlight everything you don’t understand. If (like me) you’ve forgotten how to perform basic addition, check out a STEM article such as Software Engineering Principles Applied to Computer Assisted Language Learning ​or BLOCK-SYMMETRIC AND BLOCK-LOWER-TRIANGULAR PRECONDITIONERS FOR PDE-CONSTRAINED OPTIMIZATION PROBLEMS a​nd see how far you can get without getting confused (hint: the second one is harder!). And sure, we can argue that social sciences have a different formula or a different audience to STEM articles but that would be to miss my point. We move back towards a more restrictive code the more specialised we become and essay based disciplines such as social sciences and humanities have not acknowledged this process.

We are not here to necessarily illuminate the shortcomings of academia or overturn it, but it would be sensible to answer the question posed by the student at the beginning “How should I write my essay?” One could go the ‘Judith Butler’ route and just write in a way that is utterly incomprehensible to all but the most closely matched peers. On the other hand, students often go the other route and become overly descriptive in their writing and end up taking word count away from their analysis. So how do we find the line in between these extremes?

My personal feeling is that we should move away from the concept that anyone could be our audience and begin focusing on a likely audience. Can my essay be understood by anyone in my subject? In my major? In my class? A useful way forward out of the paralysis of over-explaining would be to begin to write for yourself but at a lower academic level. For example, at a Master’s level you should write for who you were at a bachelor’s level; at PhD, you write for masters’ students and so on. I think a lot of us are naturally inclined to write like this anyway because when we acquire new information we’re more likely to assume that no one else knows it.

So, next essay, don’t try to write “for everyone”. Instead, imagine what you didn’t know at bachelor’s level and write for that version of you.

August 3, 2020

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