Tale’s gift of academic writing

In this post Jennie Mills shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

The activity

This workshop activity harnessed the shared culture of fairy tales, and the inherent pleasure of stories, not as a prompt to reflection, but as a stimulus to action in order to transform academic writing.

In order to engage participants with Helen Sword’s elements of stylish academic writing, I translated some of her main tenets into the familiar apparatus of fairy tales:

  • frogs that change into princes represented how worthy academic titles can be transformed into engaging, illustrative and playful proclamations;
  • a lost glass slipper represented concrete nouns – actual people doing things to actual objects;
  • sleeping princesses represented characters – heroes, villains, agents of transformation;
  • tall towers represented settings – locations in time and space which ground the abstract in the concrete;
  • talking mirror represented what Sword calls ‘voice and echo’ – identifying the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in the text, eschewing the passive voice, and abandoning assumed authority;
  • and finally, an illustration of a fairy reading a book represented narrative sequence, the structure which puts all these elements into play with each other, and which asks the author what story do they want to tell?

Each of these was one face on a cube, and each cube was accompanied by a ‘key’ which offered more detail and questions and instructions.  Each group was given one cube, one key and an abstract taken from a randomly selected academic journal (all the abstracts were listed as ‘most cited’ or ‘most read’). The task was to roll the ‘story cube’ and re-write the abstract following which ever principle landed face-up in just 5 minutes. Using the abstract was a convenient way to provide an example of academic writing in order to model this approach, in order to encourage participants to use these principles in their own writing and as a tool to explore academic writing with their students. It may be more effective to use the technique on examples of their own writing.

Each group chose one of their re-written sentences to read out, starting with the original version and then offered their new story cubed version. The transformations were striking – and effectively made the point that writing in a direct way communicated complex ideas in a more engaging way than writing in academese.

Discussion

This activity used elements of fairy tales as metaphor, but didn’t really engage with fairy tales as narrative. Is there an engagement with fairy tale which is more authentic?

Please use the comment facility below to contribute to the discussion.

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