What Makes a Good Course Text?

I’m in the process of choosing texts for my course, and I’m reminded of all that goes into those choices. Our course is a course in academic writing, which means that students are coming to terms with what it means to use writing in academic contexts. I don’t think this means that they are learning specific forms of academic discourse because these forms are so various and our experience with these variations, as instructors, is so limited. Rather, I see the course as engaging with academic work as a complex practice or habit of mind. Academic work isn’t a written genre. Rather, many written genres exist to best accomplish, enact, and extend academic work. We must choose readings (and craft assignments) that catalyze our students’ attempts to do that work.

It makes sense to show students academic writing, which, of course, is the truest demonstration of the subject. But, again, the point here is not to absorb discernible rules for writing. And, alas, much academic writing is famously indifferent to the needs of novice readers. Some first-year writing courses in academic writing include pieces written by journalists, who may draw on academic research but who do not write like academics. Malcolm Gladwell is probably the reigning example of this ‘translation’ approach, but Stephen Berlin Johnson, Kathryn Shulz, Rebecca Solnit, and Joshua Foer are other familiar examples of writers outside of academia who nevertheless pursue the kind of extended inquiries that look, especially to the lay reader, like academic arguments. It could be argued that what is lost—disciplinary specificity and the authority of peer-reviewed publication—is recouped by the greater attention to audience. These writers can also afford to be more essayistic, to leave questions unresolved and make wider connections to contexts outside of their expertise. Continue reading