Academic writing: saying what you really mean

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This morning I picked up this quote from a blog post Thirteen Ways of Looking at Ted Hughes by Anthony Wilson.

Teachers’ words should not be ‘How to write’ but ‘How to try to say what you really mean’ – which is part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.

Ted Hughes (2008). Poetry in the Making, p.12

The quote caught my attention because recently I have come across a number of academic articles where the author/s undoubtedly know the conventions of writing but don’t seem to know how to say what they really mean. Although the peer review process is often criticised, in my experience it can help authors to become clearer in saying what they really mean. On a couple of occasions I, with my collaborators, have had to completely rewrite an article in response to reviewers comments, even to the point of changing the title, before the paper could be published. It is really nice to get a review which says ‘no changes required’, but this has only happened to me once!

Why can it be so difficult for intelligent academics to say what they really mean? Putting aside the possibility that the author has simply not spent enough time engaging with and reading around relevant and associated ideas, two possible reasons immediately come to mind.

  1. Research is by its nature messy and emergent, so ideas are emerging and dynamic. They don’t come fully formed, but grow and develop with the on-going process of the research. It is often difficult to know when to stop the research, stop the reading, stop the data collection, stop the analysis and discussion with colleagues and just get on with the writing. Perhaps there are times when we don’t make the correct judgement about this time to stop and begin the writing.
  2. We often end up wallowing in data and find we have far too much for the 6000 word paper (or less, but rarely much more) we want to submit. It may be that the data analysis suggests more than one line of argument and you’ve spent so long on the research process that it’s hard to let go of some ideas, the result being a paper that loses focus; the author then can’t or doesn’t say what s/he really means.

Etienne Wenger has said that meaning occurs through an on-going process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language and that reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. (See Meaning is the driver of learning)

For authors of academic articles there is a tension between negotiation of meaning and reification. As Wenger says ‘Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete’ – so perhaps it is not surprising that we find it difficult to say/write what we really mean, because meaning is always up for negotiation.

May 2015 – metaphor, meaning and motion

I have committed to writing a monthly blog post this year, rather like those who commit to posting a photo a day. I have resisted the photo a day – I hate routine. Even making a monthly blog post feels too prescriptive, but given that I seem to be lacking any motivation to blog recently, this commitment to a monthly post will hopefully keep me going until my motivation comes back.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing. I have been writing a lot – just not in public!

The end of this month has seen a focus for me on the meaning of ‘metaphor’, in particular in relation to the rhizome metaphor. Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I have been finalizing a paper about the rhizome, how it is understood and how it applies to teaching and learning. This is a Wordle composed from the content of our submitted paper.

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We have been working on this paper for more than a year. There was a lot to learn. What has been extremely enjoyable about this has been the number of authors I have become familiar with who write about the rhizome. I have so enjoyed the poetic imagery that some of their writing conjures up.

For those completely unfamiliar with the concept of the rhizome, then a good start is Chapter 1 of Deleuze and Guattari’s book. A Thousand Plateaus (1987, Bloombury) – and we have already published one paper about this. Our research is ongoing, but for our initial thoughts and findings see our paper in Open Praxis – Rhizo14 – A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade.

‘Meaning’ has also featured prominently in May for me, i.e. meaning in relation to what I have been doing and the meaning of my life as it relates to those around me. I think it’s something to do with age. My husband reached the age of 70 this month and for some reason that feels like a significant milestone and has brought with it lots of associated thoughts related to meaning. I bought him an Anthology of Emily Dickinson’s poems to mark this event (he is a fan!) and each day, he selects another poem to read, share and discuss. This week, this is the poem that has resonated most strongly with me:


A Thought went up my mind today –

That I have had before –

But did not finish – some way back –

I could not fix the Year –


Nor where it went – not why it came

The second time to me –

Nor definitely, what it was –

Have I to say –


But somewhere – in my Soul – I know –

I’ve met the Thing before –

It just reminded me – ‘twas all –

And came my way no more –

(Emily Dickinson, 701. Emily didn’t give her poems titles – she simply numbered them)

Finally, motion – what is that about? Well it’s about the motion of the wheels of my bike. At the start of the month we were cycling in Holland, through the tulip fields. This far exceeded my expectations of an enjoyable holiday. Of course I know we were so lucky – no rain, only one day of high winds, a fantastic hotel, amazingly safe cycle routes and lanes with good surfaces, and the stunning tulip fields.


Needless to say I took far too many photos of tulips which I have posted on my Flickr site.

Meaning is the driver of learning

This is a quote from Etienne Wenger when he spoke to the FSLT12 MOOC in June. The recording is on YouTube and there are further details on the FSLT WordPress site .

Etienne briefly illustrated what he meant by referring to his son’s ‘meaningless’ biology homework on cells. I found this interesting as one of the more meaningful aspects of my own education was the study of biology – for me what could be more meaningful than the study of life – and within that the study of histology – related to the study of genetics, which I remember as being fascinating, since I could easily relate it to ‘me’ – why I have brown eyes, cannot roll my tongue and so on.

Next week the Academic BEtreat  starts and we have been asked to prepare by reading at least one section from Etienne’s 1998 book.  I have read the section on ‘Identity’ and commented on that in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.  Another section that we could choose to read is on ‘Meaning’ (p. 43-71). Slow reading is required for this book. Each sentence is densely packed with ideas. It took me a two hour train journey from Lancaster to Birmingham last week to read that small section; I am now on the train again and have two hours to digest the reading and make this post. Quite a luxury!

The key words in this section for me are: Practice, reification, meaning, negotiation and duality.

Some of the key ideas (or highlights for me) as I understand them are that:

  • we experience the world and our engagement within it as meaningful through practice (p.51)
  • meaning occurs through an ongoing process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language
  • fundamental to the negotiation of meaning are participation and reification
  • participation is a source of identity (p.56)
  •  ‘participation is not something we turn on and off’ …’the meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57)
  • reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. These independent forms become a focus for negotiation. Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete.
  • participation and reification are a duality, not opposites, not on a spectrum, not substitutions for each other, not translations of each other, not classificatory categories. They are complementary.
  • ‘The communicative ability of artifacts depends on how the work of negotiating meaning is distributed between reification and participation’. (p.64)

So from this can we say that cell biology for Etienne’s son was not meaningful because the requirements of practice, negotiation, reification and participation were not fulfilled, or was it just that he was badly taught, or simply that histology doesn’t capture his imagination in the same way as another discipline, such as music, might

My memory of histology is from my university days, where most of my study was solitary – working in the library for long hours – which was broken up by periods of sitting in vast lecture halls looking at the back of the lecturer writing in chalk on a blackboard so far away it was difficult to see. So I remember participation as passive. I don’t remember any overt negotiation, although I must have negotiated meaning with myself and the reification must have been the required essay, which I don’t remember discussing with anyone. According to Etienne ‘The meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57) and even drastic isolation is given meaning through social participation. He also says that reification can be a process as well as a product.

So in the BEtreat I hope we will be able to discuss further

  • the relationship between meaning and social learning and, if I can make meaning in isolation, what exactly do we mean by ‘social’ learning and participation?
  • the relationship between meaning and identity. Do I have any control over my identity and the meaning I make and if so how does this relate to participation, negotiation and reification?
  • how is meaning affected by culture and context?

Too much choice

I am still reflecting on my experience at the Networked Learning Conference and it has been heartening to receive supportive comments here on this blog, in emails and  f2f.

The conference in Birmingham yesterday was wonderful. Inspiring in many ways. It’s interesting to reflect on why it worked so much better for me than the Networked Learning Conference. It is obviously significant that I was involved in the planning of this conference – and I think relates to negotiated meaning. Etienne talked a lot about the importance of moving away from thinking about teaching, learning and education as being about ‘stuff’ (e.g. curriculum, grades etc) to being about meaningfulness. The B’Ham conference was all about ‘meaning’ for me and I think it was for some of the delegates too judging from the feedback we have been receiving. The Birmingham conference was also considerably shorter and smaller, but more importantly was more focussed in it’s content.

The good thing about the Networked Learning Conference is that it has brought into sharp focus for me, some of my learning preferences and abilities. So I realise I am more of a ‘small is beautiful’ person, although I did manage to participate in CCK08 until the end – but mostly from the confines of my blog 🙂

I have also been intrigued by Heli’s posts about the Networked Learning Conference, as although she wasn’t at the conference, she really seems to have much more of a handle on what went on there than I do! She has managed to stay focussed on her interests (connectivism) and not get distracted by the huge diversity of what was presented at the NLC, which I found bewildering.

So Heli’s blog has reminded me that I am the type of person who does not like large department stores – I can never find what I am looking for and prefer the small shops with less choice and more focus on my personal style. It also reminded me that although I love gardens and flower shows, my one and only visit to the Chelsea Flower show in London  many years ago also left me feeling disappointed. I could not see the ‘wood for the tree’s – or in that case the flowers for the gardens. It is more enjoyable for me to experience the Chelsea Flower show from a distance, via the television, radio  and newspapers – but does this mean that I abdicate choice to others and open myself to possible group think, echo chambers and lack of critical analysis?

There is so much talk nowadays about being able to traverse networks, being able to filter and select, analyse and synthesise from vast amounts of information, that I wonder if we will end up with a divide between people like me who tend to prefer a smaller number of connections and those who participate happily in vast networks. Or has it always been like this – but to a lesser degree?