Book Introduction

An A to W of Academic Literacy—A Reference Guide for Graduate Students

Mary Jane Curry, Fangzhi He, Weijia Li, Ting Zhang, Yanhong Zuo, Jihan Ayesh, and Mahmoud Altalouli

University of Rochester, New York

Literacy is one of the key ways that members of academic disciplines think about, understand, and create knowledge, then communicate it to others, both inside and outside of academia. Yet when many students arrive in their graduate programs, they encounter new expectations, beginning with the reading, writing, and communicating required in their courses. Later on—and often more consequentially—they may write a master’s thesis, doctoral comprehensive examinations, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and publications. Thus many graduate students must learn new academic literacy practices—including reading, writing, and interacting with multimodal texts and audiovisual modes of communication.

If this describes your experience—or if you are new to graduate school—we hope you will use this guide as a support in your transition to engaging with academic literacy at the graduate level. Whether you grew up speaking English or learned English as an additional language (EAL), went to university in the United States or in another country, you may now need to read new kinds of texts and to do new kinds of writing than you did as an undergraduate or even a master’s student. For example, you may be reading texts produced by researchers and scholars in your field for each other as opposed to the coursebooks or textbooks synthesized for teaching undergraduate students. Some of the texts you will write may also resemble professional academic texts, in contrast to texts you may have produced as an undergraduate.

It’s also possible that your undergraduate major or university did not require you to do a lot of writing. If tests were used as the main form of assessment in your courses, you might not have been asked to engage in sophisticated and critical ways with research writing (e.g., analyzing research literature, creating arguments, drawing on specific kinds of evidence). For doctoral students who have already earned a master’s degree in a field such as education or business, the academic literacy of those programs may have been different from what is expected in a doctoral program, even in the same discipline. While some graduate programs offer writing courses, and many universities have writing centers, from the first week of your first semester you may need to jump into demanding academic reading and writing tasks. Academic literacy at this level is not necessarily something you may have just already ‘picked up’—it’s new to many students.

In this guide we start from the position that academic literacy is a set of “social practices”—or repeated patterns of activity (Street, 1984). Our aim is to help you to understand how the terminology, conventions, and types of texts (genres) that make up the literacy practices of many academic disciplines and to apply your new understandings to the specific texts circulating in graduate school. At the same time, as social practices such as academic literacy are never static or stable, another aim of this book is to identify variations, debates, and tensions related to the various aspects of academic literacy the book covers. This is not a textbook, but rather a reference book that you can dip into and out of as you come across new terms, genres, and practices. We hope you will find the support in understanding and producing key genres at different stages of your graduate program. This guide can be used as a companion to your disciplinary courses, particularly if instructors don’t explain the terms they use (for example, what they mean by a specific genre such as a “critical commentary”). Across the entries of the book, we include examples of communication practices and genres from different academic disciplines.

This guide is structured alphabetically using “keywords” about common topics in advanced academic literacy, including genres (e.g., texts such as a dissertation), other structural aspects of texts (e.g., paragraph, sentence, footnote), related broader concepts (e.g., audience, voice) and practices (e.g., feedback, drafting). Each entry includes these sections:

  1. Description of the keyword: To start your exploration of the keyword, each entry synthesizes current research on the topic that has been published by scholars in the academic disciplines that focus on academic literacy. We offer our understanding of this consensus as a starting point, but we also highlight the crucial understanding that academic literacy practices are dynamic and evolving in response to situations and contexts that change over time.
  2. Variations and Tensions: Again drawing on the research literature, this section covers variations related to the keyword in terms of genres, practices, disciplines, or other differences. It also identifies the current debates and challenges to the consensus about the entry. Tensions, as we use the term, refer to challenges to the consensus about the understanding of a keyword. For example, the common belief that it is not acceptable to use the first person “I” in writing an academic text is challenged by the variations in texts produced across academic disciplines that have been documented by researchers as well as and the broader movement toward more informality in academic writing. In fact, in many disciplines, using the first person “I” is not only considered to be acceptable also to be more authentic than avoiding it by using the third person (he/she/it/they) or the passive voice. As an academic writer, you will need to make choices in particular situations, and there is often not one right way to accomplish your purposes for communication. We highlight these tensions and debates so that you can choose whether to learn more about the issues specific to your situation and to discuss them with people such as an advisor or other faculty members or peers.
  3. Graduate Student Voice: This section offers commentary on the entry keyword that draws on the personal experiences of one of the six graduate student co-authors of this book, who are doctoral students in education, specifically in the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages. At the end of this introduction, we introduce these co-authors. The authentic voices of students in this section varies somewhat from the edited standard English of the rest of each entry. The student co-authors’ contributions in the GSV section supplement the considerable amount of work they’ve done in co-writing this book.
  4. Reflection Questions: These questions aim to help you connect the content of the entry to your current reading and writing tasks and projects, (sub)disciplines, and commitments as a writer and social actor. These questions often encourage you to reflect on a text you are reading or developing; and, for example, to seek out discipline- or text-specific information from a course professor or advisor; to find official guidelines from your university about a consequential text such as a thesis or dissertation; to locate requirements for submission to a conference; or to identify author guidelines for a publication you might wish to submit to. In addition to prompting reflection, we hope these questions might spark discussions informally or within your courses.
  5. For Further Reading: Each entry concludes with two or three resources you may wish to consult for more information. We include texts written specifically for students and some research that illuminates the topic and its tensions.

In each entry, we use boldface font to signal cross-references to other terms that are included in the book as keywords. Other terms that appear in the text of the entries but do not have their own entry are listed in the index.


Our views on language

As suggested above, this book is designed primarily for graduate students, regardless of first/native language, in contrast to many writing guides that are available for both undergraduate and graduate students. Many other books categorize students as either ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ English speakers, without acknowledging that what may be new about academic writing for graduate students has to do with genres and practices that are situated in specific (sub)disciplines. In this regard, we concur with the assertion that “academic language is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 8). And, along with other scholars, we believe that success in graduate-level literacy has much more to do with learning the practices of one’s discipline (Casanave & Li, 2008) than in mastering specific mechanical writing techniques.

Whether students are “native” English speakers or users of English as an additional language can play a role in their/your success in academic writing but it is not the determining factor (Curry, 2016). In fact, considerable research has identified variations in the conventions of academic writing based on the interplay of cultural traditions and disciplinary preferences—hence the Variations and Tensions section. For example, the broad characteristics of academic literacy can be seen as having emerged from different regions of the world. In recent decades, the influence of Anglo-American positivist writing conventions has been powerful, even affecting the styles and approaches of texts written in languages other than English (Lillis & Curry, 2010). We do not advocate a monolithic and monocultural view of academic literacy and instead encourage users of the book to consider critically what you discover as you explore new literacy practices. Rather than assuming there is one “right way” to read and write academic texts and speak about academic topics, we argue that different approaches have strengths and weaknesses, depending on the rhetorical context and the author’s purposes in writing.


How to use this book: Who are you?

Thus far we have been addressing our imagined primary audience: graduate students. We envision students dipping into this resource to learn more about a particular genre or practice of academic writing. Each entry is short, not only to be able to include 65 entries, but also to signal that we see the entries as the jumping-off point for explorations of a particular topic in relation to your own goals, writing tasks, and the genres common in graduate programs. Our characterization of a topic may not resonate fully with what you encounter in a particular sub-disciplinary context, or in one professor’s course. Our goal is neither to be comprehensive nor always accurate—but rather to provide tools for you to engage in conversations about academic literacy conventions and expectations as well as the dynamism, flexibility, creativity, and individuality possible in academic communication. Thus this book takes a descriptive rather than prescriptive stance—aiming to document, explain, and categorize aspects of academic literacy rather than to make recommendations or tell readers “how” to do something. We encourage you to discuss these issues with those in your academic research networks (Curry & Lillis, 2010) and to consult more robust and specialized references/writing guides situated in your disciplines (and we offer suggestions for these).

Graduate students often complain that the labels used to describe the practices and genres of academic literacy do not uniformly refer to the same ideas across course instructors, advisors, and dissertation committees. Thus we also envision this book as being useful for other readers, including advisors looking for encapsulated descriptions of common academic genres (proposals, dissertation, etc.), core practices of writing such as referencing/citing, and more abstract concepts such as authorial voice. In addition, the book may be useful for course instructors seeking brief descriptions of the particular genres they might assign (e.g., “critical commentary,” “reflection”) and writing consultants/tutors, who may be looking for quick descriptions of the genres that students have been assigned to execute by their course instructors. We can imagine instructors, consultants, and advisors distributing copies of particular entries in the book to students for discussion. Even if readers don’t agree with our characterizations of particular genres or literacy practices, we hope the entries in this book will provide a starting point for clarifying what the keywords can mean in particular instances.


About the authors

Mary Jane Curry: This guide was my brainchild, based on a need I identified over 25 years of teaching academic literacy, and working mostly with graduate students. Every year since joining the Warner School in 2003, I have taught a doctoral-level academic writing course that focuses on crafting a complex literature review. Over time, the usefulness of having a resource that compiles the current understandings and debates about academic literacy became apparent to me. Many conversations with University of Michigan Press editor Kelly Sippell led me to consider how and when to approach this project. But it wasn’t until I had the good fortune to be working with a group of highly accomplished and enthusiastic doctoral students that I believed the project would be feasible (more on the team below).

My research has focused on academic writing in higher education, first in my dissertation study of the experiences of immigrant students at a community college (Curry, 2003, 2007); then in a longitudinal investigation of the writing practices and experiences of multilingual scholars located outside of English-dominant contexts working in the social sciences (Europe) with Theresa Lillis (Curry & Lillis, 2004, 2013, 2018, 2019; Lillis & Curry, 2006, 2010, 2015, 2018); and, later, research on the publishing experiences of engineers in a U.S. university (Curry, 2014). In addition, in 2004 I founded and continue to direct the Writing Support Services at the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. I also serve as a consultant on academic publishing to universities around the world. Academic literacy thus preoccupies much of my thinking and many dimensions of my professional life.

As noted above, the student co-authors of this book are full-time international doctoral students with considerable experience and research interests in teaching English to speakers of other languages. All of them work or have worked as consultants in the Warner School’s Writing Support Services, where their responsibilities include giving workshops on academic literacy as well as holding individual consultations with students. All of them have taught English to EAL users; some have taught academic writing in China (He, Zhang, Zuo) or the United States (Altalouli, Ayesh, Li). Some have served as teaching assistants for other courses on language and literacy at the Warner School (Altalouli, Ayesh, Li, Zuo). Equally important, all these co-authors bring the international doctoral student perspective to the project, which we explicitly incorporate in the Graduate Student Voice section. These co-authors have been involved in this project from the development of the book proposal through a number of revisions; responding to feedback on an early draft of the proposal from writing colleagues including Beth Boquet, Michelle Cox, Deborah Rossen-Knill, and Katherine Schaefer; brainstorming and selecting keywords to include as entries in the book;developing the structure and nature of the entries; responding to robust feedback from participants in our workshops at the 2019 Consortium on Graduate Communication and the 2020 American Association of Applied Linguistics conference as well as responses from colleagues and students who have acted as field testers in workshops and online; and willingly engaging in multiple rounds of revision for each entry. Working in pairs on each entry, they have built on the ideas I have brainstormed, by searching the research literature, culling and organizing their key findings, and drafting the content. They have responded to countless rounds of feedback from all members of the team with diligence, professionalism, patience, and good humor. They reveal their own struggles and successes with academic literacy in their Graduate Student Voice contributions. They are true co-authors and I am grateful to be working with them. In the next section, they introduce themselves, using their own voices.


Graduate Student Authors

Mahmoud Altalouli. I have had a passion for language learning since elementary school. Back in Palestine, in 1990 I started taking mandatory English classes, when my passion and interest in English language learning grew. Over time, I became fascinated about how people learn and master languages, and hence decided to learn more languages. I took Mandarin Chinese courses for a year and found it just difficult to learn; later I took French courses for a year and, again, found it just difficult to pick. Afterward, I decided to learn more English and developed a passion for language teaching. I taught English courses in many English language institutes and centers in Palestine and the United States. During my master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and doctorate in Teaching and Curriculum in the United States, my interest in language learning and literacy developed further; my programs allowed me to combine the study of linguistics and second language acquisition with an understanding of broader educational issues and literacy theories. During my doctoral studies, particularly, I became interested in the academic literacy practices of students using English as an additional language—an interest that drove my dissertation, “The Academic Reading Experiences and Practices of Graduate International Students Using English as an Additional Language,” which I finished in spring 2020, and shaped my decision to co-author this book.


Jihan Ayesh. Coming from Palestine and with an Arabic-speaking background, I developed a passion for the English language and literacy at an early age, which qualified me to receive opportunities to pursue my higher education in the United States. I earned a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Teaching and Curriculum. I also have experience as a writing consultant to graduate students and as an instructor to English language learners inside and outside of the United States. I joined in co-authoring this book influenced by my passion and experience in English academic literacy. In my early experiences as a graduate student, I had to seek direct faculty guidance and resources to learn about the advanced concepts I encountered in my writing assignments and classes. On my own, I spent an ample amount of time and effort applying this knowledge in my academic writing, which involved tearing up and rewriting whole drafts. Influenced by this experience, I firmly believe that learning the foundational concepts in academic literacy and practicing writing continually are central to success in graduate school. Therefore, I accepted the invitation to write this book to share knowledge with peer graduate students and to further my learning through the process of writing the book itself.


Fangzhi He. I have taught English as a foreign language at Zhengzhou University of Light Industry in China for about 20 years and became an associate professor. However, in the early stage of my PhD at the Warner Graduate School of Education, I still had trouble with English academic literacy practices. For example, the huge amount of reading and writing was more than I had ever undertaken in my undergraduate and graduate education combined and thus I always felt overwhelmed. Worse still, I had difficulty understanding some academic terms, such as “literacy” and “discourse,” as their meanings were different from what I had learned in my previous education. I felt like I was illiterate in terms of academic literacy. I longed for a book that could serve as a dictionary on academic literacy so that whenever I was not sure about the meaning of word I could refer to it. Therefore, when Dr. Curry proposed this book, I was all for it, as I believed that it would benefit the large number of graduate students who have the same struggles as I did, by saving their time to search the literature for understanding a specific word relating to a concept or process. As one of the authors, I am contributing my experience and knowledge on academic literacy, which I have acquired from taking courses, working as writing consultant, and teaching academic writing, in order to help graduate students to familiarize themselves with academic literacy terms so that they may struggle less with their study and become emerging scholars in their disciplines.


Weijia Li. Like some of my colleagues, I received a bachelor’s degree in English in China, for which I did very little writing other than some five-paragraph essays and a thesis. Later on, I did not write papers regularly until when I was working on my second master’s degree in the United States. It focused on teaching Chinese as a foreign language, but the curriculum allowed us to take some courses in historical and contemporary Chinese literature. So I wrote papers to analyze poems and novels, and quickly got the hang of it, thanks to a professor who explicitly taught us the general structure of academic papers and had us practice making claims by writing weekly commentaries. I also did my first master’s degree in the U.S., a master’s of education in Teaching English as a Second Language. Back then, it involved a lot of reading but very little writing. I remember when I rewrote an assignment for a third time, I asked my (American) professor how long it would take for me to write like he did, to which he replied, maybe ten years. Now in my eighth year in the U.S., I feel much more confident about my writing. My initial interest in this book project came because my work experience has always been related to academic literacy: I taught academic reading and writing in both community college and university for a year and half; and I have worked as a writing consultant at Warner Writing Support Services for three years. Additionally, I just really like to think and reflect upon what I do—it always keeps me inspired! And co-authoring a book with a bunch of trusted friends and colleagues is the experience that I would never miss.

Ting Zhang. I am a PhD student in Teaching and Curriculum at the Warner Graduate School of Education. During my time at Warner, I have been working as a writing consultant for graduate students in education related fields. In my work with graduate student writers, both native-English speakers and multilinguals, I see how they strive to meet their professors’ expectations. The tricky thing is that professors’ expectations are not always clear to students, or so it seems. Once, a doctoral student who was seeking help on revising a culminating project shared with me that she wished her committee had shared a clear rubric, stipulating what she should write. As she said, the absence of such a rubric left her groping in the dark for their expectations on her writing. The good news is that over time she figured out what they were looking for – through the process of multiple revisions. As a graduate student writer, I felt a strong resonance with her. Experiences like this built up to me saying “yes” when Dr. Curry invited me to join the team to write this book. I hope graduate student readers can gain insights into the expectations and variations in writing rather than waiting until the end of their program to learn the ropes.

Yanhong Zuo. I am a teacher at Xi’an International Studies University in China and a PhD student at the Warner Graduate School of Education. I learned English writing as an English major in my undergraduate years in China and became an English teacher after I finished my master’s degree. During all those years, my students’ and my own experiences of English writing showed that we were struggling a lot, not only because English is not our native language but, more important, because we were not familiar with many genres and key concepts in English writing such as argument, transition, or warrant. Therefore, when I was told there was a chance to compile a book which puts all these key concepts together, I was excited and did not hesitate to join this project. It has proven to be a great learning experience for me because when I did research on these entries, discussed with my colleagues which terms and ideas should and should not be included, and made numerous revisions to the drafts, my understandings of these concepts became clearer and are helping me a lot with my own academic writing. As an English learner, a PhD student, and a teacher with experience of teaching English writing to students whose English is an additional language, I am confident that this book will be helpful to people who want to improve their English writing.

References (to be included at the end of the book)

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