Reconsidering Academic Writing from a Culturally-Informed Perspective

A desk with sunlight, a laptop and notebook

By Kristina Aikens, PhD, Program Director, Writing Support, StAAR Center
This is part 1 of a 2 part series from the Tufts Writing Center, which works with students in the Schools of Arts and Science, Engineering, the SMFA and Fletcher.

Since Tufts declared its intention to become an anti-racist institution, departments have been analyzing their learning objectives, course content, and classroom policies to determine ways to make teaching more equitable. Yet within this effort, less attention has been paid to considering how educational systems naturalize certain ways of thinking and communicating. There is a long history of academic institutions harming Indigenous, Black, and immigrant students by disallowing (whether explicitly or implicitly) their home languages in school settings, policing their languages, and invalidating methods of speaking, writing, researching, and critical thinking that differ from academic norms based in white, upper and middle-class values.

How we assess written and spoken expression—not in terms of content but the delivery, style, and language used—is often considered to be neutral or unrelated to antiracist goals. Yet, the generally accepted style of most academic writing, often coded with words such as “appropriate” or “formal,” is a product of white, middle- and upper-class norms. Reconsidering our writing assignments and how we respond to them could have long-lasting, transformative effects.

Each semester, I meet students, both graduate and undergraduate, who feel their writing has been commandeered by their instructors, advisors, or the university system. They might find academic writing to be at odds with their own educational goals, which include making their research findings accessible to—and representative of—the communities they’re from. Some have been asked to change their writing style—even when it is intimately intertwined with the subject they’re writing about—or to change direct quotes from interview subjects to fit dominant conventions rather than reflecting the interviewees’ way of speaking. Some international students have expressed concern that they are being asked to critique their home countries in writing when they don’t feel safe doing so, while others have felt cornered by imperatives to research their own countries when they want to branch out further. Most commonly, students feel stifled by rigid, mysterious, or seemingly arbitrary requirements and demoralized by the sheer number of comments they receive on their drafts. They show me sentences that have been re-written by their instructors, and while they admire the sentences, the sentences don’t sound like them—and sometimes even miss the point of what the writer was trying to say.

What might it be like if we had a more inclusive approach to academic writing, one that allowed, even encouraged, students to bring their whole selves to the practice and process of writing? Instead of seeing writing as yet another academic task to be completed, what if more students saw writing as a process of creating a different but still authentic version of themselves—one way, of many, to express their identities and values to an audience? What if, as readers, we were willing to be surprised by different approaches to academic writing rather than insisting on conformity? Writing produced by students actively engaged in their own writing expression and process can transform the reader as well. As artificial intelligence threatens to expand the erasure of linguistic diversity already taking place, now is an opportune moment to question our habits and explore new approaches to writing and reading.

Here are a few suggested reflections aimed at reconsidering academic writing from a more culturally-informed perspective:

Examine your own experiences with and assumptions about writing

  • What is good writing—can you identify specific elements you value, and why?
  • Where did your ideas about good writing come from?
  • What is your racial, cultural, linguistic background? What about the backgrounds of people who influenced your ideas about writing? How might those backgrounds have played into general assumptions about academic writing?
  • What might these assumptions be ignoring about writing that doesn’t fit into the categories you have personally experienced?

Consider the purpose of your writing assignments

  • Do your writing assignments need to be writing assignments (rather than other modes of expression)? Is it possible to offer options for how to complete the assignment? (For example, some instructors assign both a paper and a presentation. Is it possible to make this a choice instead of requiring both?)
  • If writing is integral to the assignment, what are the specific learning objectives for the writing part of the assignment?
  • Which of the learning objectives are specifically linked to writing and thinking in the discipline or genre of writing assigned, and which are personal stylistic preferences? Is it possible to eliminate your preferences from the assessment?

Reflect on student engagement in the writing process

  • The longstanding practice of scaffolding writing assignments can encourage students to break down the tasks of writing (Note: You do not necessarily have to grade, check, or evaluate every step! However, allowing students to complete the steps as part of their overall grade would be beneficial.)
  • Sharing images or stories of your own writing process in class promotes the idea that process is a lifelong part of writing
  • Building a few minutes of fast-writing or freewriting into class (not graded or checked) can promote the exploration of ideas and the benefits of informal writing
  • Do students have the opportunity to choose their own topics and explain their investment in their topic choices?
  • Do students have the opportunity to experiment with the style, genre, or language they use in the assignment?
  • If the assignment requires adherence to a particular stye of writing, how have you described and helped students understand the reasons for those requirements and the elements of that style?
  • Have you shown the assignment to anyone else for feedback? Would you be able and willing to receive feedback from students on the assignment?

See Also

Part 2: Giving Feedback on Student Writing

Reconsidering and Revaluing Academic Writing in the Age of AI

Interrogating our assumptions about assessments