Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences


Susan Peck MacDonald here tackles important and often controversial contemporary questions regarding the rhetoric of inquiry, the social construction of knowledge, and the professionalization of the academy. MacDonald argues that the academy has devoted more effort to analyzing theory and method than to analyzing its own texts. Professional texts need further attention because they not only create but are also shaped by the knowledge that is special to each discipline. Her assumption is that knowledge making is the distinctive activity of the academy at the professional level; for that reason, it is important to examine differences in the ways the professional texts of subdisciplinary communities focus on and consolidate knowledge within their fields.

MacDonald's examination concentrates on three sample subdisciplinary fields: attachment research in psychology, Colonial New England social history, and Renaissance New Historicism in literary studies. By tracing, over a period of two decades, how members of each field have discussed a problem in their professional discourse, MacDonald explores whether they have progressed toward a greater resolution of their problems. In her examination of attachment research, she traces the field's progress from its theoretical origins through its discovery of a method to a point of greater conceptual elaboration and agreement. Similarly, in Colonial New England social history, MacDonald examines debates over the values of narrative and analysis and, in Renaissance New Historicism, discusses particularist tendencies and ways in which New Historicist articles are organized by anecdotes and narratives.

MacDonald goes on to discuss sentence-level patterns, boldly proposing a method for examining how disciplinary differences in knowledge making are created and reflected at the sentence level.

Throughout her work, MacDonald stresses her conviction that academics need to do a better job of explaining their text-making axioms, clarifying their expectations of students at all levels, and monitoring their own professional practices. MacDonald's proposals for both textual and sentence-level analysis will help academic professionals better understand how they might improve communication within their professional communities and with their students.


Increased attention to the social contexts of writing provides the intellectual framework that will be obvious in what follows. But long before scholarship in rhetoric turned its attention to contextual variation, my experiences as writer, teacher, and administrator were leading me toward a growing sense of the strangeness writers feel as they move from one discourse community to another.

As a new academic trying to publish literature articles in the 1970s, cut off from any research network, I grew increasingly puzzled by the seemingly capricious and inconsistent critiques that accompanied journal submissions. As a teacher of "basic writing" students, I was frequently jolted by the ways students failed to observe conventions that were, I soon realized, not intuitively obvious except to a trained academic. In the 1980s, I entered enthusiastically into administering a program in writing in the disciplines because I wanted to integrate writing instruction with disciplinary knowledge. I discovered, however, that undergraduate writing tasks outside the freshman composition course could be oddly divorced from professional disciplinary axiomatics -- and that course readings often presented studentswith competing models of discourse to imitate. I encountered new . . .

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