Great Expectations: Re-Visioning the Academic Paper

April 21, 2006

At last year’s April conference, the Institute began an exploration of the essay, its various forms, the importance of ‘assaying’ for the development of thinking, and the place of essay in the secondary and college curriculum. We asked about connections between reports, papers, and essays, but our attention remained on the belletristic essay—the personal, exploratory, and reflective essay.

This year's April conference will address the academic paper—why we assign it, what we expect students to learn from writing it, and how we explain to students what it means to write thoughtfully in different academic disciplines.

Much has been written about teaching writing “across the curriculum.” But we have paid less attention, this conference will suggest, to thinking in different academic disciplines; have been less interested in learning how to ask students for what we want. Teaching students to write academic papers is about more than teaching disciplinary conventions--in history, economics or literary criticism. We also need to teach students how to pay attention to audience, how to identify essential questions, read key texts closely, and support the inquiry with appropriate research. But students are (as Gerald Graff has described) outsiders to most academic fields of study. Are our disciplinary expectations beyond the grasp of most students? Or are we simply not helping students learn how to make the moves that the best kind of academic writing calls for?

The Institute invites secondary and college teachers of all academic fields to join with college faculty in history, economics, and literature, and with faculty associates of the Writing and Thinking Institute, to first identify what counts as good writing in different academic fields—what we find engaging and memorable in papers, monographs, and essays—and second, to write and talk about how to translate these values into what we ask from students.

Through panel presentations, small group writing workshops, and whole group discussion, we will ask: What can we learn from current examples of creative non-fiction and how such writing handles factual information and precision? Is the academic paper, as it is currently understood in the secondary and college classroom, the best way for students to learn how to engage a topic? to refine a question? to wonder? Should we re-define the academic paper or essay?

The panel of scholars and teachers in economics, history, and literature will talk about what makes for good writing in their fields, what they expect from student papers and how they convey those expectations to students. We will also ask panelists (and conference participants) to define classroom practices (e.g., assignments, use of drafts, methods for revising) that teach students how to write better academic papers.
Conference participants will receive a packet of readings in advance. The packet will contain excerpts from provocative as well as conventional examples of academic writing in history, anthropology, and economics. The readings will provide the occasion for talking about: the uses of narrative in the academic paper, the virtues of creative non-fiction, and the disciplinary conventions of academic writing. Samples of papers written by high school and first year college students will be the focus of another workshop session where we will address the issues of audience, revision, and methods for responding to students’ papers.

Panelists: Robert Frank, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, Mark Lytle, Professor of History, Bard College, and Nancy Leonard, Professor of English, Bard College and Institute faculty associate. Frank Cioffi, Director of the Writing Program at Scripps College will moderate the panel discussion.

Workshop leaders: Darlene Forrest, Director of Faculty Development, Expository Writing Program, New York University, Alfie Guy, Jr. R.W. B. Lewis Director of the Yale Writing Center, Susan Kirschner, Senior Lecturer in Humanities, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Irene Papoulis, Lecturer in the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing and Rhetoric at Trinity College, Hartford.

Conference schedule:

Friday, April 21:

8:15–9:00 a.m. Registration and Coffee

9:00–9:15 a.m. Welcome and Introduction

9:30–11:00 a.m. Workshop Session I

11:15 a.m. – 12:45 p.m. Panel Presentation followed by Q&A

12:30–1:45 p.m. Lunch

200–3:30 p.m. Workshop Session II

3:30–4:00 p.m. Break

4:00–5:30 p.m. Workshop Session III

5:30–6:30 p.m. Reception

The fee for this conference is $125; it does not include housing. To register, please complete the registration form below, and return it with full payment to the Program Administrator of IWT. For further information, please contact IWT at 845-758-7484 or