Writing for scholarly publication: Behind the scenes in language education

March 2004 — Volume 7, Number 4

Writing for scholarly publication: Behind the scenes in language education

Christine Pearson Casanave and Stephanie Vandrick (Eds.) (2003)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvii + 290
ISBN: 0-8085-4244-6 (paperback); 0-8085-4243-8 (cloth)
$29.95 (paper); $59.95 (cloth)

Writing for scholarly purposes promises a “behind the scenes” look at getting published in the field of language education. It largely fulfills its promise, providing helpful advice for beginning authors, while leaving the desire for a slightly wider perspective. The editors set out three explicit goals for themselves and their contributors: to provide a “textual mentor” for beginning scholarly writers; to provide information for graduate students and teachers who may be researching these literate practices, and to encourage experienced writers to reflect on their own practices. Whichever audience readers choose to situate themselves within, they will find the book helpful to some degree, and I have recommended this book to colleagues almost since I first opened it.

Organization and contents

After the editors’ introduction, the book is divided into four sections, each with four chapters: “Newcomers,” “Negotiating and interacting;” “Identity construction,” and “From the periphery.” The book also includes extended biographical statements for the authors, self-descriptions that go far beyond the normal institutional affiliations and research interests of most edited volumes. Finally, there are informative appendices summarizing the basic steps in journal and book publishing, providing guidelines for a book proposal (from Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, the publisher of this book), journal article guidelines (from TESOL Quarterly), contact information for journals and book publishers in language education, and a bibliography of selected further resources.

“Newcomers” begins with a dialogue between Ena Lee and Bonnie Norton. Lee, a doctoral student under the supervision of Norton, and Norton discuss many of the issues surrounding scholarly publication that would most concern a graduate student in language education. This is followed by Paul Matsuda describing his personal route to publication as a graduate student. In the third chapter of this section, Stephanie Vandrick describes some of the challenges she found as a woman who began writing as a scholar at forty, though she had been an ESL teacher for fifteen years. Ending this section, Ryuko Kubota begins what will become an on-going theme of the book, the effort to write with an “original voice,” in her case with the further complication of writing in a language that is not her mother tongue. [-1-]

The second section of the book, “Negotiating and interacting,” opens with George Braine describing in detail the progress of one of his articles, from initial research to publication more than seven years later. Using interpolated comments on her own chapter, Sandra Lee McKay reflects on her role as editor of TESOL Quarterly. Another editor, Ilona Leki, describes her negotiations among readers, authors and reviewers for the Journal of Second Language Writing. The final chapter in this section contains John Hedgecock’s reflections on collaboration with other researchers and authors.

The third section, “Identity construction,” begins with Christine Pearson Casanave’s description of her effort to integrate the at times opposing strands on her relationship with academic publishing. Linda Lonon Blanton uses a personal narrative to evoke both her own responses to academic writing and her efforts to develop a new model of academic writing. The third chapter of this section, by Dwight Atkinson, interweaves personal reflections on writing with the most theoretically dense section of the book, on the history and possibility of the “written voice.” Finally, Aneta Pavlenko describes her personal journey as an immigrant from Kiev to publishing scholar in the U.S.

The final section of the book, “From the periphery,” broadens the now-familiar construct of center and periphery scholars (Canagarajah, 1996) to include what might be called “peripheries in the mind.” A. Suresh Canagarajah good humoredly describes the tactics of authors who lack the scholarly and material resources that are assumed for full participation in the language education discourse community, while drawing attention to the exclusions that are created by these inequalities. Writing from Japan, Miyuki Sasaki finds herself on the periphery of authorship more because of her role as mother and family member than from a lack of material or scholarly resources. Brian Morgan chooses a peripheral stance, in part because of his role as a community-based ESL teacher of immigrants, but more because of his questioning of a hierarchy that favors theoreticians over practicing educators. Finally, Martha Clark Cummings describes choosing to remain on the periphery of scholarship in order to maintain a dual life as a fiction writer and publishing scholar.

The authors’ extended biographical statements are one of the pleasures of this book. These discursive descriptions frequently amplify the personal information included in chapters in which contributors were invited “to write narratives” exploring their experiences of writing for publication. Reading and writing are intimately connected and most authors offer books that inspire them. A flavor of the breadth of the choices may be suggested by some of the books chosen by at least two authors: Ways with words (Heath, 1983), the Publication manual of the APA (American Psychological Association, 1994, 2001), and A room of one’s own (Woolf, 1929).

Discussing “writing for scholarly purposes”

Both the biographical statements and the personal narratives that inform many chapters are aspects of a shared effort by the editors and contributors to find new forms of expression in academic writing. Other examples of this effort include Lee and Norton’s dialogue, McKay’s interpolated comments on her own draft chapter, and Atkinson’s “coda,” where he discusses the editors’ comments on his contribution. Beyond these efforts to renegotiate the form of the academic paper, the chapters are cast in “author-saturated” prose (Geertz, 1988, p. 97). One result is that you may find yourself responding emotionally more to one story than another—a reaction that may occur with the typical author-evaluated academic article, but which is more open, more visceral here. Another effect of foregrounding personal stories is that the contributors risk—and occasionally succumb to— “the inessential, the uncertain, the inauthentic” (Geertz, 1988, p. 90) clinging to their writing. Nevertheless, the effort to expand the range of academic writing is worth a significant risk. [-2-]

Limitations of the book that may be important for its intended readers include its thin treatment of choosing where to send an article. Lee and Norton discuss this (pp. 22-24), with Lee asking, “If your work is only being accepted and published in journals with limited distribution, is that bad?” Norton’s response is insufficient to help beginning authors, and she avoids addressing issues of professional esteem that are crucial for graduate students who will be judged on their publications. No one mentions publication in electronic journals (though TESL-EJ is listed in the journal contact information [Appendix D]) or the implications for academic writing and publishing caused by computer mediated communication that Scollon (1994) described. These topics deserved a longer look.

Another issue that could have been further developed is the possibility of harsh feedback, either from the reviewers or after publication. Lee and Norton mention the vulnerability that authors may feel, and many of the authors describe the harsh criticism that they have received from reviewers. Further, Atkinson both describes his “academic disagreement” with another contributor, Ryuko Kubota (p. 167, 173) mentioning words like “racist” and “stereotyping,” and then the editors’ request in reviewing his chapter that he omit this discussion. Criticism in the review process and academic conflict once an article is published are somewhat different issues, but both may inhibit beginning writers from publishing. Richard Badger (2003) and Deborah Tannen (2002) have discussed this issue and its impact on scholars and scholarship. Tannen describes the personal suffering that even the most respected author may feel from this “ritualized abrasiveness” (p. 1651), and further, she says that promising scholars may be dissuaded from entering their profession by “the ‘den of wolves’ culture” (p. 1662) found in graduate schools and beyond. Many readers will empathize with the pain that the contributors felt from an ill-considered response to a journal submission. However, the book would have been more helpful with an explicit discussion of academic aggression. Many of the contributors have reached the professional level of Swales’s experts who maintain the genres of the discourse community (1990, p. 58), and could either have justified the current practice or suggested reshaping this aspect of our discourse.

The contributing authors are drawn from a relatively narrow spectrum of language education, and that affects the reader’s response to the volume. More than half of the authors have contributed to the Journal of Second Language Writing, and most describe their research interests as lying in this area. It is not surprising that scholars of writing are interested in reflecting on the process of writing for scholarly publication. However, the failure to reach out to a wider spectrum of language educators limits this book for those “who are researching the social, political and personal aspects of academic writing” (pp. xi-xii), and contributes to other distorting emphases in the book. Pavlenko provides an invigorating exception coming from outside the second language writing strand of language education.

An example of misplaced emphasis is the authors’ focus on “voice.” Although most contributors note the contested nature of the construct of a “personal” or “original” voice in writing, few avoid discussing whether they have or can maintain their own voice in their writing. Atkinson, who presents the most fully developed critique of the construct, cannot bring himself to dismiss voice because it “seems to accord to so well with my subjective, personal experience of writing” (p. 170). Helms-Park and Stapleton (2003) and Stapleton (2002) have criticized the construct of voice for second language learners. Their critique may have implications for voice in scholarly publication, in particular within language education. The contributors to this volume did provide some variation in a near-universal concern with voice as a concern of scholarly publication. Supporting one of Stapleton’s points, Kubota noted that voice is comprised of content and form, and Pavlenko, simply, delightedly, moves ahead. She demonstrates that personal expression can be an outcome of scholarly activity without being its focus, and that there are worse things than lack of success in academia. Yang (1997) provides one of the most eloquent expressions of this process:

Sometime after I came to America, my anger toward the campaign [of educated youths going to the countryside] died down, and I began to feel lucky that I had been to the countryside. I don’t mean that I have much use for the skills I learned on the farm: castrating piglets, building a good kang or a fire wall, winnowing grains with a wood spade, cutting soybeans with a small sickle… I do not lose sleep over my tenure evaluation, for example, because I know that I am not just a professor. I was a peasant and a worker. Today if I cannot make a living with my brain and pen, I will support myself and my son with my muscles and bones (p. 174). [-3-]

In his discussion of voice, Atkinson asks, “What is going on here?” glossing this as “the classic social science question: What ‘deep action’ is going on beneath the surface of the social practices and scenes?” (p. 159). A tentative suggestion of what may be going on here is that the contributors work within an academic discipline that is anxious to establish its credentials. For most of the contributors, this discourse community exists alongside another community, also recent but better established, the North American rhetoric and composition community (Canagarajah, 2001). The second language writing community has appropriated the issues of the dominant discourse. (Leki admits that much of the publication on second language writing might best be described as “North American college students’ L2 writing” [p. 108].) Although many of the authors work outside of North America, the centripetal force of this discourse community draws them into its discussion. Outside of the sphere of North America writing instruction, the discourse of rhetoric and composition is much less dominant (Muchiri, Mulamba, Myers, & Ndoloi, 1995), and the issues that exercise it seem distant. In this regard at least, Writing for scholarly purposes stays very close to the North American academic context.

This brings me to my final discussion of a limitation of a volume of which I can truly say, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and recommend it highly. Some writers—Matsuda, Vandrick, Atkinson, Pavlenko among others—describe their joy in writing. Others admit to lesser, instrumental motivation for writing. Leki confesses that she “would rather not write at all publicly” (p.110). Leki (2003) thoughtfully questions the importance of writing for L2 students, but Writing for scholarly purposes has no such insightful critique of writing for academic purposes. No one would deny academic publishing to someone like Matsuda, who says, “I wanted to publish for the sake of publishing” (p. 40), and who looks down on a colleague who wants to publish merely to get “a vita line.” The question that might have been raised in this book is why large numbers of teachers should be measured by their publications or denigrated for not being publishing researchers, through a process the contributors variously describe as “political,” “publish or perish,” “alienating,” “harsh,” and “baffling and frustrating.” The current system of winnowing teachers that is in place in the “center,” but which is spreading to the “periphery,” may be dysfunctional. It may be as wrongheaded as using a knowledge of Latin or classical Chinese as a measure for civil service placement in 19th Britain or Qing dynasty China. Writing, like the study of the classics, can be its own reward, but the fact that good people can be selected through this process does not mean that it is the best or even an appropriate process. Morgan in his contribution explicitly criticizes “the authority that academic theorists have over practitioners” (p. 225), but then describes how he became a published author, rather than continuing to challenge from outside the structure that gives this power to theorists and researchers.

Becker (1986), in Writing for social scientists, points out that writing is an organizational act, done under the constraints and possibilities of the system. “Understand that the troubles you may have are not entirely your own doing, not the result of some terrible personal defect, but something built into the organizations of academic life” (p. 167). The editors and contributors might have widened the perspective of their book to include some questioning of the process that those who write and educate from the center use to sort their colleagues. This process, carried out largely in English, is—as several note—becoming the dominant system throughout the world. Including this perspective would have broadened and strengthened their enormously helpful advice on how to succeed in the system that we have. [-4-]

I would like to end by emphasizing how generous this book is. Those who are beginning careers in scholarly publication—from whatever origin, whether graduate student, late-comer to the profession, or as a writer who has not yet taken the step of writing for publication for another reason—will find Writing for scholarly publication helpful. Through its advice and encouragement, it fills an important niche, and provides an unflagging mentor for its audience.


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Erik Borg
Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

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