We know that our students at Arden often come from different geographical and cultural backgrounds. Some might have studied in countries other than the UK and have had different formative educational experiences. For many, English is not their first language. For some, the conventions of academic writing are different from the ones they are familiar with, or are altogether new. We celebrate this diversity of course, but it is important to consider the issue of ‘identity construction’ within such a diverse student body.
What does it mean for our students to perform with confidence and integrity in their studies while using a second language, while effectively borrowing an-‘other’ tongue?
In our lives we all have to juggle many ‘identities.’ In turn, we are daughters and sons, parents, employees, bosses, students, teachers, drivers, passengers, and the list could go on and on. Those of us who also embrace another language/culture wear yet another ‘layer’ - the ‘identity’ granted to us by the cultural and linguistic environment of the country in which we now live, work and function socially.
‘Identity’ is a buzz-word in all cultural contexts and inevitably this is also the case in academia. We embrace different ‘identities’ every day, constantly adapting to societal roles and requirements, but in order to project an identity with confidence, we need to be able to articulate it in our own, individual way. We need to build our own, unique ‘voice’.
You can see where this is going. Identity and personal voice are closely intertwined. The need to ‘develop your own academic voice’ is drilled – hammered, even – into your minds from the first module, when you are introduced to the basics of referencing and the notion of academic misconduct. From the start you are warned about the importance of referencing (notice here yet another language to learn – the language of referencing) and of avoiding plagiarism. From the start, as you enter university – a new unfamiliar territory – ideas of institutional transgression and punishment are instilled in your mind, creating at times unnecessary anxiety.
‘Developing one’s own voice’ implies a process in which time, practice, experience – as well as ‘feeling safe’ – all play important roles. Many of you are busy building an entire new grammar in a new language, English, while also learning the specific language of a particular academic sector. An assignment on Business will be very different from an assignment on Graphic Design. Effectively, whatever your linguistic background, you are asked to master several languages simultaneously - not just English, but also the relevant ‘vocabulary’ of your programme and the more general language of academia. And while you are finding your feet ‘linguistically’, so to speak, you are also strongly encouraged to develop your personal, original, academic voice, using the conventions of academic language – these also new to you.
When learning a language, at first it’s hard – impossible, even – to show any originality. The first thing we do is to mimic the voices of others. We are fascinated by the accents and nuances of our new academic milieu, which appear exotic and alien to us. We mimic those accents in our own jarring, discordant way. We imitate the phrases, we learn by heart the most recurring formulas. Hardly original. Hardly unique. And yet you are asked to come up with individual, original voices when you are still learning to articulate the basics of academic language.
Not only that. But while being asked to develop your original voice, you are also encouraged to write in an impersonal, ‘neutral’ manner, unnaturally devoid of first personal pronouns. The ultimate paradox: erasing the ‘I’ would hardly seem the best premise in the development of an original, personal voice!
Like many of Arden’s students, as an undergraduate I had to build my language competences bit by bit, the way kids build up a Lego castle. When learning English as a teen-ager I used to model sentences over a recording for hours (those were the days when pronunciation was deemed almost as important as the communicative outcome!). In the first year of my English BA in the UK, although I was proficient in everyday English, I remember having to literally learn how to construct basic academic sentences before I even attempted sophisticated paragraphs. In class discussion, I felt paralysed when lecturers asked for comments – while I had many original ideas I didn’t have the words to articulate them! A reminder that you need to be comfortable within a language to express yourself with confidence – or originality.
Engaging with the language(s) of academia – let alone the content – requires a huge effort from you, our students. This ‘plurality’ of languages becomes even more crucial at a time in which academia is working on reframing and diversifying the curriculum. So, this piece is meant to be an apology to our students - it’s not enough to say: ‘don’t use the ‘I’!; don’t plagiarise! Develop your own academic voice!’
Rather than putting our efforts into vetoing what has been traditionally perceived as ‘inappropriate’ in academia (plagiarism; using contractions; using personal pronouns etc.), it is important that as educators we encourage you to enjoy your journey as well as its challenges, so that you might feel comfortable enough in your language(s) to articulate your ideas, shape your own voice.
It is through reading and engaging with texts, through learning to synthesise new ideas, that you will be able to understand, recognise and respect the voices of others and ultimately find your own!Academic Writing