Language in the academy

In the February edition of Edubytes, our guest editors Jennifer Walsh Marr and Dr. Jodie Martin explore academic literacy and language. Jennifer and Jodie are academic English lecturers (in Arts and Science respectively) at UBC Vantage College — an interdisciplinary program for first-year international students that provides additional English language instruction. They share why our approach to academic language in the classroom matters, and how to support students in developing these skills.

Academic language: When it doesn’t go without saying

Language is a challenge, for students and faculty alike. We’ve all grappled with a blank page and a looming deadline, but do we know how it is we manage to write and read and navigate the complex linguistic world that is academic discourse? We have curated a collection of resources to share why you need to know about academic language, and how you can help your students.

University students are not necessarily who we were (or who we thought we were) a generation ago. We know that students are coming to UBC from a multitude of countries, nations, backgrounds, cultures and contexts (as we see in the UBC 2019–2020 Annual Enrolment Report [PDF]). Some have parents who went to university; many haven’t. Some are returning to university after having started careers. Some are fresh out of high school. Some have just arrived to Canada, and some came with their parents midway through K–12. Some feel welcome and at home at university, and others may be staring down traumatic educational histories.

All of them are UBC students, and we need to teach them what they need to know and do to perform in academically-valued ways. Being explicit about language not only helps those for whom language is a developing language, it helps students who are new to our context — which is pretty much all of them.

Who needs to know about academic language, and why?

We all do. These articles from University Affairs step through how students are struggling and why we — as lecturers, instructors, professors and teaching assistants — have a duty to help:

What can we do to make a difference with language in our classes

Our colleague Katja Thieme, from Vantage College and the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media, explains how shifting from focussing on the ‘correctness’ of grammar to the ‘functions of grammar’ — what you can do with language — enables creativity, engagement, and fosters ability. But as she warns, “thinking of grammar in functional ways demands that we instructors attend to language in a similarly dedicated, intensive, and creative way as we often expect of students in the written assignments we ask them to produce.”

Language in the university is not only the articles and books we read and write, and the assignments we ask our students to submit; it’s also the teacher talk, the quiz questions, the assessment descriptors and more. Immersed in our disciplinary contexts, it’s often easier to slip into technical language and fail to unpack that for our students. These resources point to mistakes we can make, and how to avoid them:

What does academic writing look like? Some useful details

When it comes down to it, language in general, and academic language in particular, is tricky stuff. If you’re interested in finding out more about the language features of academic writing, here are a few general-audience resources to introduce some concepts. They all briefly describe some of the key features of academic writing, especially grammatical metaphor — expressing the same idea with different grammatical forms — and the semantic wave — the movement between abstract dense ideas and concrete examples. While many proficient academic communicators have learned these through repeated exposure and feedback, these resources help make some key features explicit and therefore accessible.

For final consideration

Language is not in and of itself a neutral entity. It is important to acknowledge the biases present in our teaching. This article recognizes our responsibility to overcome our own prejudices.

Enjoyed reading about academic literacy and language? Learn about other topics we covered in the February 2021 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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