Q and A with Chris Feak, co-author of “Academic Writing for Graduate Students” and other MICHIGAN ELT titles

by Claudia Leo on January 2, 2013

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MICHIGAN ELT asked Christine B. Feak to tell us more about some of the textbooks she has written and about what she remembers about writing the first edition (published in 1994).


1. Do you remember the first graduate writing course you taught at Michigan? What kind of materials did you use? When did you begin using material that would eventually become part of the textbook Academic Writing for Graduate Students?

In my first graduate writing class at Michigan I used a course pack that was developed mostly by John before I joined the department. In the pack were typed-up exercises and hand-drawn figures created before we all began using computers. What struck me most about my first experience teaching at Michigan was that the material was so different from what I had used in my previous teaching position. In my previous teaching environment, we were using material developed in-house that was pretty good, but in retrospect did not directly address the precise writing demands of graduate students. We were having students write comparison-contrast essays, classification essays, and process descriptions. The process descriptions probably were the best fit with the writing students were doing. Students still learned a lot, but when I got to Michigan, I could see what was missing. I could see how the genre approach that John had introduced was really a much better guide for curriculum development. It was different, relevant for the students, exciting and a good fit with my own style of learning. But the genre approach made me realize that I had a lot to learn. Slowly, I started having a lot of fun developing new materials based on real writing, and by the end of my first term, I was enjoying my writing classes more than I ever had before. Until I started teaching writing at Michigan, I always thought of myself as a speaking instructor who occasionally taught writing. I still like teaching speaking classes and do so every year, but my first writing class at Michigan changed everything.

Even though I liked most of the material in the course pack we were using in our academic writing course at Michigan, I distinctly remember a text on metering pumps that John really liked, but that I thought was just about the most boring thing I had ever used in a writing class. John later wrote about metering pumps in his article entitled “When there is no Perfect Text” and argued that is was about as perfect an example of General-to-Specific movement of ideas along with a definition. I still disagree with this view of perfection. In fact, this text reflects one of the main differences between John and me when it comes to materials development. I think that texts need to be interesting and will spend hours looking for just the right text; John disagrees. Anyway, a lot of the material and topics covered in that old course pack did find their way into the first edition of Academic Writing for Graduate Students. I can name a few here: the good news-bad news letters, the summary word discussion and tasks, and the palindromes sentence ordering task. Metering pumps didn’t make it into the book, but still going strong is the test-retest data commentary whose origins rest in John’s pre-Michigan days with Tony Dudley-Evens and one of my favorite tasks in Unit Four.


2. A lot of people tell us that their favorite unit in AWG to teach from is the one on Data Commentary (Unit 4). Maybe you have heard this too from users. Do you have a favorite unit to teach from? Which one and why?

Right, Unit Four is a favorite, and I like it, too, because it covers so many relevant topics such as strength of claim, location statements, the art of interpretation. Students really like the fact that they can use what they learn right away, whether in an article for publication or a lab report. My own personal favorite, however, has always been Unit Three on writing problem-solution texts because the organization is so simple, yet so valuable for academic writing. It’s something that all students can use. I like seeing the students discover the pattern on their own in the sample texts and then reading about issues in their fields. I think it’s the first unit where students feel like they have something important to say.

The other reason that I like the unit is that when we were writing the first edition of AWG back in the early 1990s, it was the one that we wrote last—we worked from the outside in. And by the time we got to Unit Three, I really felt like I had finally figured out what you had to do to write materials for others to use. I figured out the difference between creating a handout and writing a textbook. My epiphany could not have come at a better time because we were under a really tight deadline. So, unlike the other units in the first edition that I was responsible for, I actually got this one done in two weeks and without a lot of input from John, who had been so patient and supportive all along. I think I wrote 3-4 drafts as opposed to the 10-12 for all of the other units in the first edition. Unit Three also has one of my favorite texts—the one on clouds, fog and rain collection in the Atacama Desert in Chile.


3. The small English in Today’s Research World volumes are also popular in programs that also use AWG. Many instructors and students have told us that when they began to think about writing a literature review as “telling a research story,” it was a tremendous help to them, which may be an indication as to why this volume sells so well. What other parts of a dissertation or research article do you and John Swales plan to write about in this series?

We have several more volumes planned. The next one will focus on discussions. We have been trialing a lot of material in our classes and we think we are just about ready to begin writing. We are still thinking about whether to include results with discussions or to pair results with methods (the topic of the volume after discussions). Generally, the methods section is believed to be the easiest section to write, but some of our students, especially those from the social sciences, tell us that they struggle with it.


4. You have given workshops on different aspects of academic writing and/or genre theory all over the world. Do you have a favorite story you’d like to share about one of these workshops or about a favorite place you gave a workshop?

Gosh, this is tough to answer. I’ve had the good fortune to travel so much and have so many nice memories. I think right now one of my favorite workshops was in Kumasi, Ghana, in summer 2012. I was invited to a conference on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which was being held at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and asked to do a post-conference workshop on writing for publication. I had never been to any African country before and being at the conference with scholars from Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Uganda, and Ethiopia was so interesting. Not only did I learn about STEM issues in sub-Saharan Africa, I also met some amazing people doing creative work under difficult circumstances. One of the very serious STEM problems, I learned, was “brain drain.” Many talented African students go abroad to study and then often do not return to their home countries. And so the challenge is how to encourage them to return home.

The workshop was the most lively one I have ever done. There were so many questions. The discussion about the supposed “rules” of academic writing was great. It was as if I had been working with the group of about 100 students and professors for a long time. Although I was scheduled for only two hours, the workshop lasted almost three. The time flew by so quickly. Importantly, I became aware of the research challenges facing academics in African universities: heavy teaching loads (hundreds in a single class taught by one professor), limited funding and time for research, as well as a lack of experience in writing for publication. Many of the workshop participants are fluent in English, for instance those from Ghana and Liberia, but they still struggle with writing. So, being a native speaker or near native speaker of a language does not necessarily give you an edge. Most of all, I was again reminded how privileged we are in our academic environment.


5. You are also one of the co-authors of Michigan’s advanced speaking textbook Academic Interactions. We have a lot of customers tell us how much they love the scenes on the DVD, and often they ask us about the people who appear in the video scenes. Were all the students from the University of Michigan? How did you find people to appear in the videos?

I really loved this DVD project. I can’t tell you how much fun we had bringing all these great people together. I really have to give them credit for how the scenes turned out. With little more than a few scene-setting directions from us, our cast came up with everything else. We had some great footage from Elie, our “go to film guy”, which allowed us to do some creative editing.

I wish I had something really insightful to say about how we put our cast together, but really we just got very lucky. Two members, Jake, an aspiring playwright, and Morgan, a student at Michigan, contacted us in response to a message that we sent to University of Michigan CRLT players. (This is a theatre troupe put together by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching that uses the performing arts to foster understanding among community members on various issues related to the complexities and challenges of academe).
Most of the cast members were people that we knew and thought would do a good job. We asked two of our students at the University of Michigan— Sun Park and Chuang Chung . Vera had just finished her Ph.D. in Linguistics and had worked with John and me on other projects. Other cast members were family: Robin (Sue Reinhart’s niece), Karl and Angie (my kids), and LB (Theresa Rohlck’s sister). Angie and LB had extensive acting experience, which is why the office hours scene with the two of them is so wonderful (and a personal favorite). Darnell was Angie’s friend and came to us with some theater experience, as well. Finally, my co-author, Theresa, and I did our part in a couple of the office hour scenes.

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