I like the questions Ken Hyland asks. I have yet to come across one of his articles that hasn’t interested me from the outset. “Authority and invisibility: authorial identity in academic writing” is no exception. I would be very interested in reading something similar on postgrads.


Despite the fervour with which people express their opinion on the use of the first person in academic writing Hyland identifies that little empirical research had been done into its function. While Hyland does not deny that academic writing requires a limitation of ‘personality’, what is of interest is to what extent a writer ‘intrudes’ on their own work.
“Academic writing, like all forms of communication, is an act of identity: it not only conveys disciplinary ‘content’ but also carries a representation of the writer” (p.1092). The discipline the writer operates within dictates the genre and social ‘norms’ inherent in being part of that community, however the ‘self’ that is represented relies on three aspects – Ivanic‘s auto-biographical self, discoursal self and the authorial self (p.1093). It is the latter possibility for selfhood that Hyland focuses on for this study.
To do this Hyland examines 64 final year project reports produced by undergraduate students across 8 disciplines at a Hong Kong university (all Cantonese L1). The texts produced by ‘novice’ writers are anaylsed against ‘expert’ writers’ output in published research articles. Hyland’s study is further informed by interviews with the undergraduate students and their supervisors (all English L1).
Before Hyland discusses the novice and expert products at length he outlines some important issues with assuming an identify that befits the academic community. For undergraduates this is challenging on many levels whether this transition is done in L1 or L2. These problems are compounded by the conflicting advice offered in textbooks and style guides.
The comparisons drawn between the expert and novice texts make very interesting reading. Where the use of self-mention assumes a role of authority, of high-risk commitment to ideas and potential loss of face the expert writers are far more likely to employ it. The contrast in views held by the students and their supervisors is also key in this research. To conclude, Hyland states that teachers “need to be aware of how academic conventions position students and be sensitive to the struggles of novice writers seeking to reconcile the discursive identities of their home and disciplinary cultures” (p.1111).

The task of first identifying and then assuming the ‘appropriate’ identity (as has been dictated) to position oneself in the academic community is a daunting one. And I would argue problematic. Hyland’s resolution is that “teachers have an important consciousness raising task here to ensure students understand the rhetorical options available to them and the effects of manipulating these options for interactional purposes” (p.1111). I wonder whether this is best done by the EAP teacher or the teacher situated within the discipline? It is evident that the supervisors were frustrated by their students’ lack of willingness to ‘own’ their work. I am unsure as to why there is not a direct dialogue between supervisor and student on this matter if it causes such consternation. All too often EAP practitioners are unnecessary intermediaries in such situations, partly because of academia’s inability to adapt and change in tune with the demographic of the modern student body.

It was evident in Hyland’s study that students were fluent in strategies of ‘author invisibility’, something I fear is indoctrinated in students on EAP courses. Students expressed their knowledge of academic conventions in their interviews and were comfortable with the linguistic masks to their identity. It seems that by adhering to the formulae of genres and ‘accepted’ discourse we are encouraging students to produce simulacra of academic writing. A replica with no soul. What worries me is that in doing so the power is retained within the echelons of western academia. If writers “gain credibility by projecting an identity invested with individual authority” (p.1091) and individual authority is consistently dissuaded then we do not afford students the credibility they deserve.

Are EAP courses guilty of encouraging what Geertz (1988) wonderfully terms ‘author evacuated’ prose? I know I have been guilty of this. Reading Hyland’s article has made me think how best to raise awareness of authorial authority on my courses. But the gulf between what students understand being part of their academic community to be and what their supervisors see it as continues to be an issue. I am not convinced that the language classroom is the best arena to address it in either (especially on a generic EAP course – see an excellent discussion on this here). Perhaps the ability to be authoritative, confident of and accountable for one’s ideas are behaviours that are best fostered within the discipline? Especially as often the only guidance students have is from the reading they do. The problem being that with a lack of ‘defined’ disciplinary conventions students do not pick up on the exemplars they are reading. Indeed, should they do so at all? What of Ivanic’s two other possibilities of selfhood? What of the autobiographical self? If we want to empower students to be expert writers (and I do) their authorial identity needs to be nurtured to a greater extent than it is now AND constraints on impositions on authorial identity need to be rethought. Actually I think students might be better served if their supervisors read articles like this, not just their language teachers.

Hyland, K. (2002) Authority and invisibility: authorial identity in academic writing. Journal of Pragmatics 34 1091-1112.


3 thoughts on “Can students be afforded authority?

  1. Ken Hyland is also right on the button. I loved this article by him. I also enjoyed reading your comments. I think that this analysis does belong in the EAP classroom as learners are dealing with discipline specific conventions based around language expectations as well as cultural placement. We are in a unique position of being aware to this. If learners leave their EAP classrooms the only other place that this might be discussed is within a linguistics’ department. It is an important part of writer identity and what our choices signify in the chosen language of study. This is where we might be ideally placed.

    • Hi Sharon. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I had replied yesterday via the app but it seems to have dissappeared! Anyway, you’re right of course we are best placed to guide students (as you said, arguably better still within a linguistics department), however I can’t help feeling that at times we do students a disservice by teaching aspects of writing that are not what disciplines expect or respect within their own ‘professional’ or (having read Hyland) the ‘novice’ community. I would be really interested in seeing how discipline lecturers within my own institution comment on such aspects of learners’ writing. Actually what I’m doing now on the in-sessional I coordinate is contacting module leaders and opening up this dialogue a bit – and therein lies the answer for me – communication with the discipline rather than with EAP materials. I think that discipline lecturers need to engage in this area a little more than is done at present, and I don’t mean that they do not engage because they are not concerned with it or by it, just that perhaps we as EAP practitioners are best placed to help them engage in this analysis too, because I think its key for all concerned that they do.

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