How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Being human – Part 2

Posted on | November 28, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Use theories to explain facts

In Part 1 I gave you two introductions to an essay* and asked you to decide which was more academic. The question was Why did Japan and Germany become allies in peace and war?

I wanted you to think about the focus of each introduction. Was it on the facts, or on how theories or people view the facts?

I will give you the paragraphs once more to save you the bother of going back to Part 1 again. (You’re welcome!)

Introduction 1

Japan’s foreign policy from the beginning of the 20th Century until the early 1920’s was principally based on its alliance with Great Britain. Although a partner of allied powers in the Great War, its role was not appreciated at Versailles. The Japanese were denied rights to migrate to the USA and Australia, their exports abroad were restricted and in 1921 Britain broke its alliance with Japan. These facts coupled with the decision of the Washington conference to reduce the Japanese Navy to 60% of American and British fleets developed not only bitterness in Japan but also a feeling of isolation. These were some of the underlying reasons why they chose to enter into an alliance with the Germans.

Introduction 2

Was Japan’s alliance with Germany inevitable? On this question, historians have offered very divergent interpretations. Some have argued that the ideological developments in the two countries in the 1930’s naturally brought the two countries together to form a powerful and aggressive alliance. Other accounts, however, have viewed the creation of the axis as the consequence of the failure of Western diplomacy, particularly of Britain and the US. In this essay, I will analyse the events leading to the formation of the alliance and will argue that it was principally the West’s disregard of the interests of an emergent Japan that more than anything else led to its fatal joining with Nazi Germany with all the tragic consequences this would subsequently have for the world.

And the winner is …

I am guessing here, but you probably picked the second introduction as being more academic, right? (Even if you didn’t, say yes anyway.)

But can you explain why?

There is a lot I could say about these two passages but I’ll restrict myself to only two points.

My first point

Look at what the sentences are about in each paragraph. In the first paragraph, the sentences are about such things as Japan’s foreign policy, Japan’s role in the First World War, Japan’s exports, and Britain. In other words, they are about facts. (In fact, ‘these facts’ are actually mentioned as the subject of one sentence!)

Now look at the second paragraph. What are those sentences about? They are about Japan’s alliance with Germany (a fact) but then they are about what ‘historians’, ‘other accounts’, and ‘I’ say. In other words, they are about people and viewpoints.

Look back at the first paragraph. What kinds of actions are described? They are mainly actions related to the real world, to facts; forming and breaking alliances, denying rights, restricting exports.

What kind of actions appear in the second paragraph? They are mostly actions of the mind, or mental work; interpreting, arguing, viewing, and analysing.

Your lecturer knows the facts. He or she also wants to know if you know the facts. But more than that, your lecturer wants to know if you know how different people and theories interpret the facts.

So my first point is: An academic essay is usually about how theories and people interpret facts.

My second point

Did you notice the little word ‘I’ in the second paragraph? Are you surprised? Have you been told not to use this word in your academic essay?

But have you also been told to have your own stance or point of view on an essay topic?

How can you express your opinion without using the word ‘I’?

Good question.

I will now make two preliminary points to my second point.

My first preliminary point to my second point

Students are told not to use ‘I’ because when they begin to write essays at university they tend to do it too much. It is important to learn how to express an opinion without using ‘I’.

My second preliminary point to my second point

If you look at Introduction 2 again you will (I hope) notice that the actions that ‘I’ does (analyse and argue) are similar to the actions of ‘historians’ and ‘other accounts’ (interpret, argue, view). In other words, you are simply naming yourself as doing similar things as others. If you can name others who argue, why can’t you name yourself as arguing, too? (Good point!)

Two places where you can use ‘I’ are in the introduction and conclusion of your essay where you state what kind of mental work you will do (or did).

So my second point is: You can use ‘I’ sometimes because you are just as human as other academics.

You have just as much right to express your opinion as they do. In fact, you should express your opinion. Whether other humans take notice of you, however, will depend on how well you present and support your opinion.

And how well you use theories!

* Excerpts and ideas taken with thanks from Moore, T. (2007). The ‘processes’ of learning: On the use of Halliday’s transitivity in academic skills advising. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 6 (50) p50-73.



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