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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Sep 7, 2016

Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas of Austin for the support for this podcast. Also, thanks to Jacob in the booth who makes these podcasts sound so great.


Okay, when we say rhetorical history, we know that rhetoric is a big of a swiper discipline, right? I mean, we’ve had philosophers featured on the podcast, educational psychologists, those sorts, and today we get to talk about an applied linguistics, Ken Hyland. But before we get into the skinny on Ken, it might be worthwhile to first talk about what applied linguistics is.


Applied linguistics is a little bit like rhetoric in that it’s a rather interdisciplinary field itself. Simply put, it’s a practical and applied approach to linguistics, which means that it covers everything from computer programming theory to translation. The leading journal in applied linguistics is called, creatively enough, Applied Linguistics. Its editor in chief is Ken Hyland.


And that brings me to get to talk about Ken. By the way, I get to be on a first-name basis with him, even though I’ve never met him, because I wrote my dissertation on disciplinarity and that happens to be Ken’s area. I’ve read a lot of books and articles by Ken Hyland. There’s no wikipedia article on Ken, for some bizarre reason, but I’ve read enough “about the author” blurbs to tell you that Ken is a brainy British bloke who taught English to speakers of other languages all over the world, seeking deeper and deeper into applied linguistics along the way. Now he has a list of publications as long as my arm and teaches and works in Hong Kong where he still keeps publishing and writing  about, among other things, academic discourse, graduate students, and how non-Anglophone natives write and publish academic writing.


If I were to recommend two books from Ken Hyland, I would recommend Disciplinary Discourses and its spiritual sequel, Disciplinary Identities, but there are four pages of books on Amazon for you to puruse. Have I mentioned how prolific Ken is?


In Disciplinary Discourses he interrogates how academic writing exposes the hierarchies beneath it. Academic writing genres "represent careful negotiations with, and considerations of, their colleagues" (1). Writing "helps to create those disciplines by influencing how members relate to one another, and by determining who will be regarded as members, who will gain success and what will count as knowledge" (5). Writing, in other words, isn’t just a step that allows disciplines to share research--it is very the constitutive force of disciplines.


Hyland puts it eloquently:  "the persuasiveness of academic discourse... does not depend on the demonstration of absolute fact, empirical evidence or impeccable logic, it is the result of effective rhetorical practices, accepted by community members" (8).


But not everyone in that community is esteemed equally. That community includes people on the edges "competing groups and discourses, marginalized ideas, contested theories, peripheral contributors and occasional members" (9). A graduate student won’t--and in some ways, can’t--write the same kind of article or book that a long-established luminary in the field will. Because of this, people have to position themselves within the project they’re attending, including the hedges, qualifications and even citations that they use. Disciplinary genres are only abstract until they determine whether you put food on the table. As Hyland says, "disciplines seek to ensure that accounts of new knowledge conform to the broad generic practices they have established, while writers are often willing to employ these practices because of a desire to get published and achieve recognition" (170). You might not like writing a lit review, but if need to do it to get published and get a job, you’ll learn to comply.

Disciplinary Identity follows up the work  Discources started in ascribing genres to sociological conditions. Disciplinary Identity introduces two key terms that describe how practitioners relate to their disciplinary communities: proximity and positioning. Proximity refers to how align yourself as a member of a discipline. This proximity includes “identification /with/ and /by/ others" (29) For instance, if you’re a continental philosophy theory-head, you might show that allegiance by citing a lot of Derrida and Levinas and submitting to the right journals to support that work. But you also might have other people like reviewers, editors and colleagues describe your work as continental in bent. We aren’t the only ones who get to label us. The other key term is positioning--positioning relates to how we place our own work as part of the variation within the discipline, or, in Ken Hyland’s words, ”appropriating the discoursal categories of our communities as our own" (35). So we might be part of the continental philosophy club, but our unique contribution is to apply those philosophies to, say, invocation of international law in 20th century literature,  or some other variation that stamps our own contribution. Proximity is where we belong and positioning is where we take our place.

It’s not surprising, then, that identity should be such a key part of how academic writing proceeds. Identity, generally, is "crafted and managed across time and across situations" and "our identities are the product of our lives in different communities" (15), and so in disciplinary writing our disciplinary identities are mediated by the departments we join, the journals we aspire to publish in, the collections we edit. For Ken Hyland, our identities are neither entirely stable and inflexible nor are they entirely socially determined, but mediated through the groups we aspire to join and what those groups decided to hold dear before we even showed up to the party. This tension leads to constant change where " Differences of opinion are normal and natural, but often hidden by a veneer of agreement and a common symbolic discourse which constructs a boundary to outsiders" (12).


Think about the most recent time you tried to join a new disciplinary group. Maybe this was in a graduate course where you had to learn the conventions of a new scholarly genre or maybe you were repurposing one kind of research to a new journal that you’ve never attempted to publish in. You were probably hyper aware of the mistakes you were making, while for those who were well-established in the discipline didn’t know how to explain the mistakes that you’re making. This happens to everyone in a new field. My rock star advisor Davida-freakin-Charney, told me that when she went from writing about scientific and professional writing to writing about the psalms, she had to re-learn how to write for the religious studies field. Disciplines are weird.

They also change a lot. Hyland points out that  today’s  discipline doesn’t look yesterday’s and won’t look like tomorrow’s. So if Davida were writing about psalms when she started her career, it wouldn’t even necessarily look like the work she does now. That’s because, as Hyland puts it, “ Boundaries of scholarship shift and dissolve [...] New disciplines spring up at the intersections of existing ones and achieve international recognition [...] while other decline and disappear" (23).

Disciplines change, but "identity and discipline can be understood only by reference to each other. Each is emergent, mutable and interdependent" (43). So your identity in your discipline might shift under you.


So what are you to do if you’re in a discipline that isn’t fully formed or is extremely cross-disciplinary? What do you do if you’re in, say, applied linguistics?  I guess it follows that your academic identity is going to keep shifting around, then, as your discipline slips around. Or you might find yourself sliding from one sub discipline to another, all while building a clear research agenda. You might, like Ken Hyland, focus on academic writing, but apply that to English language learners, metadiscourse, pedagogy and assessment.


And then we end where we began, with my deep admiration of Ken Hyland and his work. If there’s someone you admire, or a scholar or work that is part of your dissertation, you really ought to tell me all about it. Drop me a line at and tell me who you feel on a first-name basis with.