Students’ Perceptions of Academic Writing as a Mode of Communication

Mojdeh Majidi

Instructor: Natasha Artemeva

Carleton University, 2005



The social theory of writing and the new rhetorical genre studies (Bakhtin, 1986; Miller, 1984/1994; Freedman & Medway, 1994; Dias, Freedman, Medway, & Paré, 1999) suggest that upon entering the university, student writers engage in situations in which they have to produce written texts, particularly academic essays as responses to the motives socially accepted and defined in academia. In this study I intend to use the new rhetorical genre theory to examine students’ perceptions of academic writing as a mode of communication in academia. I would like to investigate whether students see their essay writing as a way to participate in academic communication; to what extent they perceive their writing as a way through which they can engage in academic social discourse; and whether they consider themselves as members of academic discourse community.


Literature Review and Theoretical Background

In my search for the resources I found two studies that that have examined the same research issue. In the first study (Gambell, 1987), students’ attitudes toward writing are investigated according to process-based approach to writing and in the other one (Nelson, 1990), many contextual factors involved in how students interpret and respond to academic writing tasks are examined from the social perspective on writing. However, neither of these two studies has investigated the students’ perceptions of academic writing from the new rhetorical genre perspective as discussed by scholars such as Miller (1994), Bakhtin (1986), Swales (1990) and Giltrow (2002). In this study I intend to discover students’ motives to write, their interpretations of writing as social action realized in essays and some textual features of an academic essay genre. As Miller (1994) argues, these features and regularities are the results of the rhetorical situation that comprises the purpose of writing, classroom social context, the course materials, instructor, student writers, etc. 



This qualitative exploratory small-scale project is based on 20-30 minute tape- recorded interviews using seven open-ended questions (Appendix A). In addition to the analysis of the interviews, I have conducted textual analysis of the final drafts of the first essays that the study participants wrote in their master’s program. In textual analysis, I have focused on some of the genre specific features of an academic essay, which are: discursive “I”, discipline specific terms, nominal style and citations.

The study participants include two male and two female students in their second semester of the master's program in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (SLALS) at Carleton University. The participants have been recruited individually and on the volunteer basis.  For conducting this project I have received the ethics committee approval and offered the participants anonymity by using pseudonyms, which are Jack, Sara, Mary and Peter.


Interview analysis

 While listening to the tape-recorded interviews for several times I realized that many of the concepts discussed in the interviews were interrelated. Therefore, I decided to discuss the main themes in the interviews rather than the answers to each single question. The main four themes that will be discussed are: 1) students’ social motive to write, 2) rhetorical situation and the writing process, 3) students’ sense of the addressee and 4) students’ sense of belonging to academia.

1. Students’ social motive to write

 In students’ view the social motive to write academic essays is learning and grasping concepts covered in their courses. As Freedman (1996) notes, the social motive of student writing at university is “epistemic” (p. 92); that is, students interpret knowledge that is in the literature, think about it, synthesize it and finally demonstrate their understanding of it through writing.  Through writing students do not produce new knowledge; however, as they mention in the interviews, they demonstrate to the instructors that they have learned the concepts covered in the course, fulfilled the course requirements, presented their own opinions and structured their own taughts.

2. Rhetorical situations and the writing process

The interviews demonstrate that students’ interpretation of the rhetorical situation and their actions realized in the essays are affected by various contextual factors. Factors such as the instructor’s explanation of the required writing task, the assigned readings in the course, the classroom activities and the instructor’s lectures have a crucial effect on the stages involved in the writing process starting from choosing the topic to writing the final draft. Based on the interviews it can be said that writing for students has been a complex process of thinking, evaluating published scholars’ ideas and developing a stance and presenting ideas considering the instructor as the sole reader.

3. Students’ sense of the addressee

The interviews clearly demonstrate that all the study participants have partially tacit and partially explicit knowledge of the instructor who they identify as their only reader to whom they direct their essays.  Also the interviews suggest that knowledge of the reader, the addressee, that has been gained through the discursive classroom context have helped the students to interpret and respond to the writing task and produce samples of the academic essay genre.

4. Students’ sense of belonging to academia

 The last and the most important theme is that all the study participants have the idea that through academic essay writing they do not get into the center of the academic discourse community. They consider themselves as “novices” in academic discourse community since 1) they have no reader except the instructor, 2) they are not yet specialized in a specific field of study in the discipline since they are all at the beginning of their graduate studies, 3) their essays are not published anywhere, and 4) they are still learning rather than producing new knowledge (Swales, 1990, p. 27). These opinions suggest that students are “as apprentice[s] on the margins of community membership” (Ivanic, 1998, p. 297) who see “themselves as learners rather than researchers” (p. 297).


Text analysis

 The features I have analyzed are discipline specific terms, nominal style, discursive “I” and citations. For analyzing these features I have taken into account Giltrow’s (2002) discussion of these features as constituent of academic essay genre.

Discipline specific terms

The most explicit feature in the essays is discipline specific terms that are understandable and frequently used in Applied Language Studies. In other words, these terms characterize the academic essay genre produced in Applied Language Studies discipline (Freedman, 1996). Using these terms without explaining them in most of the cases suggests that the student writers have adopted the role of contributors to academia rather than “a student role” or learner role (Ivanic, 1998, p.297). Also the students’ use of these terms as “presupposed shared knowledge” between themselves and the instructor as a full-fledged member of the disciplinary discourse community conveys the impression that the students have a sense of belonging to the community (p. 302).

Nominal Style

 Nominal style refers to the use of noun phrases that may impose a high cognitive load on the reader and even distort the communication between the reader and the writer. All the students have used noun phrases, the majority of which are likely to be easy to understand for the instructors since they are “expert” members of the disciplinary discourse community (Swales, 1990, 27). Students’ avoidance of using big noun phrases as an evidence of “plain writing” suggests that they have intended to prevent ambiguity on the part of the readers as well as to communicate with their reader (Giltrow, 2002, p. 219).

Discursive “I”

            All the students except Peter have used discursive “I” in their essays. According to Ivanic (1998), it can be said that Peter’s avoidance of the first person suggests his “relatively objective view of knowledge-making” and that he is not  “personally involved” in what he is writing about (pp. 272-273); he seems to be distinct from his subject of study. In all the cases discursive “I” is followed with verbs such as suggest and propose that refer to some “discourse action” (cf, Giltrow, 2002, p.235). These verbs not only show the organization of the argument that helps “readers manage the content of their mental desktop” (p. 238), but also as Chafe (1986) argues, suggest that the source of knowledge is student writers’ belief; conveying the impression that student writers are responsible for “knowledge claims and beliefs” (Ivanic, 1998, p. 308). In addition to discursive “I”, Jack has used first person plural “we” in his essay that may suggest his sense of belonging to academia.


Students' use of citations as “one of the distinctive sounds (and looks) of scholarly writing suggests that they use citations to seem “impressive and authoritative” (Giltrow, 2002, p. 32 & 38). Citations not only demonstrate the student writer’s knowledge of “research communities’ beliefs” (p. 27), but also the social nature of thinking and writing: writing occurs in a context that comprises the writer, the addressee, the purpose of writing, etc., all of which influence the writing process as well as the written product, academic essay genre. Students have used citations or “hearsay” as a reliable source of evidence to show their attitudes toward knowledge (Chafe, 1986, p. 263). Naming the sources of citations, students have used different citation techniques to back up their own ideas, to present a claim in a new paragraph and to define a complex theoretical concept. 



The interview and text analysis have shown that from the students’ point of view, the social motive to write is indeed epistemic in that through writing in the academic essay genre they reproduce the already existing knowledge they have learned. In other words, they do not write to construct knowledge and contribute to academia but to get a deeper understanding of the concepts and demonstrate their understanding to the instructor. Their interpretation of writing realized in the essay genre is affected by the academic discursive context in which they have been immersed; that is, by the instructor’s lectures, assigned readings etc. According to Miller (1994) and Giltrow (2002), the analyzed textual features are the reflections of the specific disciplinary social context in which the action of essay writing has been conducted. Although the students do not consider themselves full-fledged members of academia, their essays appear to reflect their learning of the concepts shared in the disciplinary discourse community and the techniques used in the community for “interpreting the world” (Giltrow, 2002, p. 27).



By analyzing students' interviews and their essays, I have examined their perspectives on academic writing and explored their sense of belonging to academia as expressed through writing. This study reveals the determining role of the academic context in students’ perceptions of academic writing and demonstrates the crucial role of instructors in providing such a context. Future studies with students from other disciplines and even with instructors from different disciplines will provide a more comprehensive understanding of students' and instructors' perceptions of academic writing. Examining instructors’ perceptions of academic writing will probably demonstrate how they respond to students’ academic essays and how they provide the context in which writing is performed.


Implication of the study

Providing students with the opportunity to have readers other than the instructor may have a positive effect on their interpretation of academic writing. Having readers other than the instructor gives the students the feeling that they do not write just to fulfill a course requirement and to be assessed by the instructor to get a grade; they write to express their opinions about concepts shared in the disciplinary discourse community that gives them self-confidence about their writing in academia. Therefore, printing all the essays written in a discipline in the form of booklets and keeping them in the library for borrowing will probably allow students in the same discipline to read each others’ essays and even provide feedback which would help them to develop a sense of academic writing as a mode of communication not only between a student and the instructor but also among students. 









Appendix A: The interview questions


1.      What kind of writing activities do you do as a university student?

2.      What do you think is the purpose of writing the term paper?

3.      What do you think are the specific characteristics of a term paper (essay)?

4.      Can you explain step by step what do you do for writing the term paper? What are the reasons or purposes of each action you go through?

5.       For whom do you write your paper? To what extent you know your reader?

6.      What issues do you take into account while writing your term paper? 

7.      Do you consider yourself as a member of academic social discourse when you write your course paper? Can you explain that?

































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