Why we should not be Teaching Academic Writing through the Rhetorical Patterns Approach


For students in higher education, writing is an obvious challenge. As Bartholomae (1985, p.134)puts it, the student writer’s task is nothing less than one of ‘inventing the university’:

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the universityfor the occasion … or a branch of it. He has to learn to speak our language, tospeak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating,reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.Or perhaps I should say the various discourses of our community. … [A] student… must learn to try on a variety of voices and interpretive schemes – to write, forexample, as a literary critic one day and an experimental psychologist the next,to work within fields where the rules governing the presentation of examples orthe development of an argument are both distinct and, even to a professional,mysterious.

Clearly then, this kind of writing demands high-level language skills and knowledge, the abilityto analyze and organize ideas and arguments across a text, and the awareness and flexibilityto deal appropriately with the varying and sometimes opaque register, genre and rhetoricalexpectations of different academic teachers.

To help students, especially ESOL students, with this challenge, many higher educationinstitutions provide them with EAP or English composition courses, both before and during theiracademic studies. These courses appear to reflect a fairly strong consensus about what essaywriting entails, as can be seen from syllabuses and academic writing course books. These oftenask students to learn various rhetorical formulae, such as ‘report,’ ‘position essay,’ ‘cause-effectessay’ and ‘problem-solution essay,’ and organizational elements, such as the ‘thesis statement’and the ‘topic sentence’. This suggests, at least on the surface, that many teachers, coursedesigners and textbook writers believe that they can teach academic writing through definableand predictable rhetorical and organizational patterns.

However, if Bartholomae’s view of the student writer’s task is valid, then this approach may bemisrepresenting the nature and process of academic writing because it seeks to simplify andmake regularized and predictable a task that is inherently complex, variable and uncertain. Itruns the risk of trying to turn an activity that is deeply social into a decontextualised application ofalgorithms or heuristics. In this paper, we contend that the rhetorical patterns presented in manyEAP courses do not actually exist in any coherent sense in the real world of academia, and thatemphasizing and utilizing them when teaching and assessing academic writing can have manynegative effects on students’ learning by downplaying the contextual, content-based, problemsolvingnature of authentic academic writing.

When we have presented these ideas at workshops and conferences (e.g. Davidson & Spring,2007; Palmer, 2009), we have found them to be surprisingly controversial. While some teachershave expressed agreement with what we were suggesting, others have apparently felt ratherthreatened by our arguments as if they cast doubt over many fundamental beliefs about teachingacademic writing. Indeed, we believe this quite striking difference of opinion amongst teacherssuggests there is an important issue to explore here, with quite fundamental implications foracademic writing teaching.

In the rest of this paper, we first clarify what we mean by rhetorical patterns. Then, we explainwhy we believe the concept of rhetorical patterns in essay writing to be problematic. Third,we discuss why many teachers and students like and use these rhetorical patterns. Fourth,we suggest some possible problems with relying too much on these rhetorical patterns andother organizational elements in teaching and assessment. Finally, we offer a more authenticapproach to teaching academic writing.

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