WriteCast Episode 4: Social Change and Scholarly Writing: Balancing Passion and Objectivity
© Walden University Writing Center 2013
[Opening music plays, fades and continues in the background.]
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. Every other week, we’ll explore a different aspect of academic writing in a way that’s informative but also approachable, and, we have to admit it, a little quirky.
NIK: This week we’ll be talking about avoiding bias and maintaining objectivity in scholarly writing.
BRITTANY: We’ll explain how to write about a topic you feel passionate about without letting that passion cloud your logic.
NIK: So folks, here at Walden University, we have a specific phrase that all students and faculty have heard about and know about and are supposed to put into practice in their teaching and research, and that phrase is called social change. And this phrase is actually embedded into our mission statement, right, Brittany?
BRITTANY: Yeah, Walden doesn’t just talk about its students as students; we actually talk about students as scholar-practitioners, and talk about that practitioner side of things as being the ability not just to understand ideas but to effect positive social change in the world. So this is pretty unique to have something like this built so explicitly into the mission of the university, and I, for one, thing that it’s--it’s pretty incredible to watch the way that Walden students interpret this and to watch the ways that they enact positive social change in the world. But, this does s sometimes create some problems in scholarly writing, right, Nik?
NIK: Yeah, I think a big question that students that I meet at residencies or that I interact with through paper reviews have is something like this: How can I show my passion in my research topic and in the study that is so important to me while also still being an objective, scholarly, professional writer? That’s a huge question and one that we’re going to look at in-depth today.
BRITTANY: Oftentimes students get so caught up in a topic that they feel really passionately about and that they may have a lot of personal experience with that they lose their objectivity as scholars. And this can have all kinds of impacts on your writing and your ability to actually impact your reader. So, what we want to talk about today is how to sort of table those emotions you might have surrounding your topic and come at your topic from an objective standpoint. A lot of times when we think about social change or when we think about social problems, we’re used to the talking heads on the television and the way that they talk about these social problems. And we’re used to, you know, reading the editorials in the newspaper about social problems or we’re used to talking to our friends about them and expressing our opinion. And what we want to talk about today is moving away from that kind of language into more objective, scholarly language that still gets at the heart of the problem and presents a viable solution to the problem.
NIK: So in today’s episode, we’re going to review four things to avoid when you’re writing your paper or capstone project, a KAM, or even a discussion post. And you want to avoid these things to gain your reader’ trust. So these things all have as a central theme the assumption that your readers will know your passion. They will sense that you care about it. But they want to hear more than that; they want more substance from you and they want that level that shows them that not only do you care personally, but you know how to write about it professionally.
BRITTANY: So the first thing is to leave your own emotional baggage at the door. What we mean by this is just to sort of not bring whatever sort of personal experience you might have with your topic into the language of your paper. A lot of times we students who are writing about a topic that’s really close to them using words like “heartbreaking” or “terrible” or “sickening” or even “immoral” to describe a certain social situation or something that’s going on in the world that they’re addressing in their writing--
NIK: Brittany, it’s heartbreaking that the nearest Chinese restaurant to my apartment is closed on Tuesdays--that’s disastrous--that’s outrageous and immoral.
BRITTANY: I agree, but I think if you were going to write a paper arguing that somebody should build a Chinese restaurant on your corner, just saying that you found it heartbreaking that there wasn’t a Chinese restaurant nearby probably wouldn’t be enough evidence to support your argument.
NIK: Well, it would be enough for me [laughs].
BRITTANY: [Laughs] Right, but for the outside reader--
NIK: I’m not sure--yeah, I’m not sure it would be enough for everyone else, and I think that’s the point here, is--ultimately, you as the writer don’t really matter. What I mean is that at the end of the day, your readers shouldn’t have to care about you. They should care about the arguments you’re making, about the evidence you’re presenting, about the language through which you’re expressing your ideas and convictions.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I think it kind of comes down to rhetoric, and this is a sort of a big word that we writer types like to use, but really what it means is the different tools you have in your toolbox to connect with your reader. And one tool that you have in your toolbox is that emotional appeal. But, because scholarly writing is really about presenting an objective viewpoint of something, using an emotional appeal to appeal to your reader is actually something that can get in the way of connecting with your reader when you’re writing in a scholarly way. And so what you really want to do is instead of aiming at your readers’ heart, you want to aim at their brain. You want to take your ideas, you want to fully flesh them out, you want to show that you are as objective as you possibly can be so that it doesn’t seem as though you’ve sort of not done thorough research because you’re sort of clouded by your emotions about the topic.
NIK: Well Brittany, let me give you an example that I think illustrates the conundrum that some students find themselves in. So for example let’s say we’re talking about something like healthcare in the United States. And let’s say we’re focusing specifically on the cost of prescription medicine. If you are of the opinion that prescription drugs should be as low cost as possible--and this is just an opinion I’m randomly coming up with--you know, that might lead you to some conclusions. Let’s say there’s a lot of evidence out there that says that says low-cost drugs will be a great help to...you know, blah blah blah. Now in this case, I feel like I have a strong case to make, and I also feel passionate about it. So, why would I want to include evidence from the opposite or from other points of view when I already know what I think and the evidence goes along with it?
BRITTANY: Yeah, it does seem a little bit counterintuitive at first to include an argument in your paper that is oppositional to what you yourself are arguing. The most important thing to remember is that you want to show your reader that you have a very broad base of knowledge on this topic and that you understand the full scope of the implications of your topic. So, it can help to present arguments to the contrary and then show how your particular argument or your particular stance based on the evidence that you’re presenting is more sound or works better or presents a more viable solution than the other options you’re presenting or that others in the field might also be presenting.
NIK: Now as we’re continuing our discussion about things to avoid in academic writing in order to maintain objectivity and engage your readers in a professional way, we’re also talking about point of view. And this is evident in the language itself. So, for example--and this is also an APA rule--you don’t want to use second person, which means words like “you” or “yours.” Those words--you know, referring to someone directly as if they’re right in front of you, like “hey, you” or “you got it,” you know, that kind of language does not allow readers to understand who or what you’re talking about.
BRITTANY: One of the main reasons that we recommend to avoid second person is it makes assumptions about the reader. And, as a writer you don’t necessarily know who your audience is going to be. I mean you do want to have a sort of genera idea of your audience--are they scholarly readers, are they lay readers, you know, what kind of familiarity do they have with the topic--and so it’s better not to address that person directly.
NIK: It’s important to avoid second person because it’s just not clear.
BRITTANY: Yeah, so, another thing that we do that can make assumptions about the reader--[laughs] I just did it, actually--is using what we call editorial “we.” And this is basically using the word “we” to group the writer and the reader together. And, Nik, do you want to give us an example of why maybe that doesn’t work so well?
NIK: Sure. We’re talking about the word “we” as in “W-E,” you know, you and me--we. And that’s a great way to engage people if you’re sitting at a coffee shop and you want to create this group mentality like if you are my neighbor and we are united in our conviction that there must be a new Chinese restaurant within 100 paces of our front door, you know then we could say, hey, you know we have to develop a plan and we know that this is not an adequate situation. You know that kind of language doesn’t work for academic writing. And the reason for that is unless you are authoring a group paper or a group study where there’s more than one author and you’re one of them, you cannot use “we” according to APA style. And that makes total sense, because your readers just won’t know who you mean by “we.” Do you mean you and a group of teachers, do you mean you and a group of nurses or a group of fellow business people. Readers are just unclear and it also just sounds informal. One way to avoid this problem--instead of saying, “we need a new Chinese restaurant”--who do you actually mean? Even if you are a part of this group that needs a Chinese restaurant, who are you actually talking about? So, I live in Boston so I can say, “Boston residents, particularly those that live in Cambridge, need more choice of locally-owned Chinese restaurants.” That is a clear statement that shows not only who needs these restaurants--residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts--but also, who would benefit from them--in this case, the same group--and also, the city as a whole.
BRITTANY: That’s a perfect example. And you’ll notice that Nik replaced the word “we” with a noun, with the name of a group of people, and that helps with the specificity and with avoiding generalizations in your writing as well. And that’s sort of the next point that we want to make about objectivity and avoiding bias in scholarly writing.
The third thing to remember is you want to avoid making generalizations about people or about situations.
NIK: Yeah and by situations we mean things that readers will probably take for granted and don’t really think is necessary to bring up. So, a lot of students here at Walden University often mention the Internet as something that has changed and revolutionized education. Of course, Walden University is an online university and that makes sense. But, the Internet has been around for awhile. And in fact, the Internet has changed so much that even educational and business models to deliver higher education services and programs--they’ve changed even in the last three years--in the last six months--there’s new research, new discussion. So let’s say you’re talking about something that is changing a lot: The Internet. Or maybe you’re referring to historic events, or even, like, the recession of 2008. These kinds of things--people know about them, and you don’t need to give statements like, “The Internet has changed education a lot.” You know, those kinds of sentences we actually do see, and they’re not helpful because they don’t offer readers any new insight. We call them sentences that are just--they fall flat. They’re not substantive.
BRITTANY: Yeah, Nik, and I think that this is kind of a difficult thing to navigate for writers. I know I struggle with this even in my own writing sometimes because often we give feedback to students that they do need to give a little bit more background information, right, so that their readers can understand what they’re talking about. Maybe they’re jumping into a really complex topic without giving much background information, and we’re not saying you should not provide context for your argument. What we are saying is that there are certain things that are considered to be common knowledge. And, you can make a comment about something that is common knowledge like the fact that the Internet has changed education, but make it a more unique insight. Tell us know it’s changed education and what specific change you’re going to be discussing. Rather than making a really general statement that nearly anyone you meet with would agree with or consider to be true.
NIK: But Brittany, what if I’m the world’s leading expert on the Internet and technology and education, and what if I know more about it that most people? Why can’t I refer back to my own experience in the field, even if I don’t quite know a source? Can’t I just say, look, you can trust me, I’ve been doing this for 20, 30 years, that’s all the evidence you need. Isn’t--why can’t I do that?
BRITTANY: That’s a great question, and actually you just said it--you said, you can trust me. But, the fact is, as a reader, I don’t know that I can trust you, Nik. I don’t know that you are necessarily a foremost expert on your field.
NIK: Hey, what are you saying, Brittany?[Brittany laughs] Are you questioning my authority as the world’s expert on...
BRITTANY: Chinese restaurants in Boston?
NIK: ...the Internet and Chinese restaurants located in Boston, Massachusetts...you really need to be careful here.
BRITTANY: [Laughs] Well, I do think that you probably are an expert on Chinese restaurants in Boston even though you’ve only lived there for a few months, but I do think that if you were going to write a scholarly paper about why somebody should build a Chinese restaurant on your block, I would need you to tell me who else had talked about Chinese restaurants in Cambridge, who else has argued for this, who else has argued against this, so that I have the full context of the scholarly conversation in front of me before I can evaluate whether or not I think your argument is sound. So, your personal experience is useful to you as the writer because it sort of launches you in the direction of a particular topic. You might know where to look for resources, you might know a little bit more about the full scope of the topic because you’ve got personal experience with it, but for scholarly writing, your personal experience doesn’t hold a lot of water in terms of you credibility. And that doesn’t mean that what you’ve experienced isn’t valid or true or that the things you’re saying that aren’t backed up by evidence aren’t true, but it does mean that your reader has less reason to trust you. So, if you have outside resources that you’re citing in your paper, that gives the reader even more reason to trust you and to be able to evaluate your argument.
NIK: So in this case, if I’m going to try to convince people that I need a Chinese restaurant here, I’m going to need to find evidence. But, aren’t we just finding evidence in search of a conclusion, Brittany? Shouldn’t I be avoiding that?
BRITTANY: Yes, you should be avoiding that.
NIK: So what do I do? So I think a Chinese restaurant needs to be here now. And I’m not wrong, I’m right--you know, let’s just say. So what do I do? Do I need to completely change my topic because this is just too personal to me?
BRITTANY: No, and this brings us to another important point on this topic. Just because you feel passionately about a topic does not mean that you should avoid writing about it. Quite the contrary, in fact. Students who feel passionately about their topics tend to be more invested in their writing, they tend to have more insights about their topic. So, remember that because you’re really passionate about this topic--you see a problem in the world, and you want to fix it--you really do want to keep yourself open to every single possible solution to the problem and find the best one, rather than being sort of attached to something at the very beginning of your process and missing a whole slew of other possibilities that might work better. And this is something that, especially for students who are writing capstone projects--
NIK: It’s kind of a decision that you’ll have to make along with your instructor or with your committee if you’re doing dissertation work.
BRITTANY: Yes, you should really be in close contact with your chair about, making sure that you are looking at all the options, at all the possibilities, rather than just sort of coming up with a solution in your head first based on your personal experience and then kind of cherry-picking your research to support that topic.
NIK: That makes perfect sense to me, Brittany, and I hope, to our listeners. So let’s bring back this Chinese restaurant example and say that you have evidence from community members, from organizations, that show that expanding Chinese restaurant choice would be great for the economy, locally as well as across the city of Boston. That’s one point of view. Another point of view might say, we have enough Chinese restaurants--what we really need is more Greek restaurants, that will still stimulate the local economy but give residents more choice. Those are two different viewpoints, not necessarily directly opposed to one another. And, not only research your own position, but research anyone else that might have a different angle, and that way, your readers will trust you.
BRITTANY: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it, Nik.
NIK: Well everyone, this ends our fourth and final WriteCast episode for the podcast pilot. Now, it’s up to you to help us determine if the podcast should continue. We have a lot of ideas for future episodes that we’re excited about, but we want to make sure that the podcast is useful to you, Walden students, before we continue.
BRITTANY: We’d be so grateful if you could take about five minutes to visit the podcast page on our blog and take our short, anonymous feedback survey.
NIK: To access the survey, visit the Writing Center blog, waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com, and click on the podcast page at the top. We’ll also link to the survey on Facebook, Twitter, and our website homepage.
BRITTANY: If you’re one of the first 100 respondents, you’ll receive a $5 Amazon e-gift card. And, of course, your feedback will help us determine if the podcast will continue.
BRITTANY: But before we wrap up, I do want to point our listeners to a couple of really great resources that we have on our website. The first one is our page on scholarly writing and scholarly voice, and the best way to find that is to go to our homepage, which is writingcenter.waldenu.edu and type “scholarly voice” into the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the page. And we actually have a specific resource on avoiding bias in your writing, as well. And the best way to find that is just to type “bias” into that same search box in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.
NIK: And we have two webinars that will be helpful to you by going to our webinars page. You can search for that by going to our homepage and typing in “webinars.” If you scroll down, you’ll see in our archive under the heading Scholarly Writing Webinars, the second link is “Appropriate Use of First Person and Avoiding Bias.” Also under that same heading, Scholarly Writing Webinars, you’ll see an offering called “Demonstrating Critical Thinking in Writing Assignments,” and that webinar also addresses objectivity and keeping your readers engaged in a professional way.
BRITTANY: Well, that brings us to the end of this episode. Thank you so much for taking the survey, and of course, for listening.
NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.