To explain academic writing style characteristics can sometimes be complicated. Students may not understand its complexity and variability within its seeming uniformity. This activity uses the “Ascot Opening Race” song (My Fair Lady) and helps students look at the academic writing style from a different perspective.
The task is divided into four steps:
First, we ask students to watch the video. While watching, they should write down any adjectives (or as many adjectives as possible) that characterise the scene, the setting, the people, their behaviour, clothes, simply anything they notice or find worth commenting.
Second, students share their adjectives with the class. The teacher can write them on the board. Students usually produce a great number of adjectives that can carry not only neutral or positive but also negative connotations.
We can often hear words such as: slow, boring, old-fashioned, posh, organised, unified, uniform, static, careful, orchestrated, synchronised, strict, detailed, rigid, orderly, pretending, imitating, driven by conventions, mundane, unvaried, old, exclusive, elegant, arranged, coordinated, … .
Third, students are asked to look at the adjectives they have generated and identify those which could also characterise academic writing style.
Finally, we compare how style can be perceived by members of a community (insiders – academic style writers, in our case) and by outsiders of a community (the video). The discussion often shows a radical shift from neutral or negative connotations (as an outsider) to more positive or understanding connotations when seen from the perspective of an insider.
This discussion can help students realise they need to communicate their work differently to different audiences.
Examples of shifts (or explanations):
slow – the pace of academic research and academic writing is slow in a positive sense, it takes time to achieve results, and rush or hasty conclusions do not help.
boring – an academic article in your field can be exciting for you if it brings information you are interested in, on some unexpected results for example, however, for a person from a completely different field it can be considered boring since the lack of knowledge prevents them from the joy of that particular discovery.
old-fashioned – the rules we follow now, were created many centuries ago, and have been changing over the years by some evolution, not revolution. To change anything in academic writing style takes time
posh – in many cultures education is a type of privilege and sometimes scientists and academics look down at the “unknowledgeable” part of the world (here, the connotation stays negative, but it can help to students communicate better their results to a non-expert audience)
organised – everything runs smoothly when everybody knows what to do (academic readers are happy when they find methods in the section of methodology and results in the section of results, for example)
unified / uniform – in the video, the people seem to be very similar, however, if there is something exactly the same, it is not appreciated (two ladies in the same hat), which resembles academic writing – we all divide articles into the same or similar sections but the ideas must be new and different, if something is the same, it is not appreciated
detailed – similar to the above, each detail of dresses, hats and accessories matter, similarly to details in our texts…
…static, careful, showing off, self-assure, reserved, flawless, out of real life, stylish, choreographed, orchestrated, strict, rigid, orderly, pretending, imitating, driven by conventions, mundane, unvaried, old, exclusive, elegant, arranged, coordinated, … .
Note: Many of the adjectives students say are synonyms and can be grouped, others are irrelevant to the comparison and can be ignored – as the aim is not to prove that the My Fair Lady song has the same characteristics as academic writing style but to show that looking at any style from an insider´s and outsider´s perspectives differs.