Rousing their zeal,
their curiosity, each and every man, and soon enough
the assembly seats were filled with people thronging,
gazing in wonder at the seasoned man of war . . .
-- The Odyssey, Book VIII (ll. 16-19)
Stories, bedtime or fireside, beckon to the listener and reader alike. Be it written fairy tales or dictated folklore, they enjoy, if not perpetuate, their popularity and latent influence for ages, as storytelling and reading could be seen as "natural and universal to human beings" (Miller, 1995, p. 66). The timeless charm of stories consists in the way of telling per se: the same content usually undergoes variants under varied narratives across an ever-expanding readership. What if academic writing in the context of journal papers, often associated with rigidity and tedium by the public, is enhanced or, more properly termed, slightly tempered with this desirable storytelling quality? In fact, this is not merely a proposed scenario for future consideration; instead, the application of such story-telling technique is already a trend in bud. This study draws on textual analysis of the introductory paragraph of two journal papers, selected from the field of materials science and economics, to exploit the potential of this trend in full blossom.
First and foremost, Herbert Waite's journal paper, "Nature's underwater adhesive specialist" published in 1987, initiates this study into the domain of rhetorical inquiry. The beginning three sentences of Waite's paper deserves a full quotation for the ease of discussion:
Adhesives have become an integral part of our lives, extending from the cradle to the grave. As infants, we wear disposable diapers with tape closures, and as corpses, our orifices are sealed by undertakers with cyanoacrylates. In between, everything we use is becoming increasingly adhesively bonded.
As can be observed, the diction of this passage renders itself relatively accessible to even the reader without discipline-specific content knowledge; the arrangement, or the "disposition" in the parlance of rhetoric (Abrams, 2005), of examples displays adroitness both in terms of its vivid cradle-to-grave imagery and its diaper-orifice referents that pertain specifically to underwater circumstances; the persuasive effect, as is central to conventional rhetorical discourse, is achieved to varied degrees to justify the necessity of regarding adhesives as an essential material for present and further research.
Alternatively, Waite could certainly have done something totally different and perhaps more conventional -- that is, a presentation of research framework and questions followed by an evaluation of proposed solutions. His reason for not doing this is clarified in our e-mail correspondence (personal communication, April 15, 2016), "I trained myself to 'rephrase' my interests in an 'applied' voice. This rephrasing was never insincere or hypocritical." Simply put, the research community at that time in the U.S. underwent a profound shift from the "excellent curiosity-driven research" to the "excellent, societally and economically relevant research." To hold one's competitiveness, either for publication or sponsorship, during such a transition, rhetoric comes to the rescue of some; one major rhetorical technique, namely the craft of narrative, promises a trail to blaze.
Two students' writing samples are selected to demonstrate the integration of storytelling into the introductory paragraph of their working papers. The first writing sample, positioned as the lead-in paragraph of a research paper on automation, by a graduate student of Civil Engineering serves as a starting point for us to better understand what it means and how it feels to have the opening in a story-like manner:
Automation is the use of control system with particular processes for reducing manpower as well as increasing efficiency to achieve an identical goal. Specifically, feedback control system and its applications initiated the fundamental development of automation. In ancient times, people observed the sun and the star for estimating time. Around 250 B.C., a mathematician called Ktesibios utilized the principle of fluid mechanics and feedback control to realize the automatic measurement of time—water clock. The water with a fixed rate of velocity flows into a tank with a clock-type dial. The amount of inflow is automatically transferred to time scale, with the water tank designed for recycling. This invention also evidences the origin of the word automatic, which derives from the Greek word automatos, meaning "self-moving." (Sung, 2015)
As can be observed from the sample, automation is first analyzed, exemplified, and then defined. This process of writing is different from a more typical sequence composed of definition, exemplification and analysis. The rationale of this piece of writing is based on a rhetorical disposition of materials which arranges contents in a less-formulated fashion that aims to "persuade an audience to think and feel or act in a particular way" (Abrams, 2005, p. 277). In this case, the reader is guided to approach the issue of automation along the author's intended route of intellectual cognition, historical application, and lexical origination; in this regard, the author manages to employ words and deploy ideas with a significant degree of personal command and characteristic, which may help boost the author's readiness to write, narrate, and reason.
Another writing sample by a graduate student of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering undertakes an even more tale-telling method to approach the issue of Sustainable Development which has gradually degraded into a certain kind of overused watchword that sounds stale to many (Lélé, 1991). It is worthwhile to observe how an air of reasoning ingenuity, combined with narrative novelty, is pumped into the pond of clichés:
In many semantic attempts to capture the meaning and connotation of Sustainable Development (SD), Ouroboros, a mythological creature depicted either as a serpent or a dragon, may come to conceptualize and crystalize the unsettled discourse. Described by Plato in Timaeus as a self-sufficient, circular being, Ouroboros represents a self-consuming and self-healing system, to which the core value of SD corresponds and from which its ideological momentum and political justification derives. (Weng, 2016)
The student offers initial thoughts for approaching this long-standing issue via a relatively untrodden avenue: he recalls a brief talk with his advisor regarding the association of Sustainable Development with the methodological creature, Ouroboros, and we collaborate to put the rough idea into words to create a context for his working paper on renewable energy source to fit into. To be sure, it is not necessary to bring this mythological creature into environmental consideration, yet the heightened sense of developing with a self-healing ecology does play a crucial role in the discourse on the ramifications of SD. In addition, this century-old mythological creature, with its first appearance in the 15th century B.C., also lays bare the seemingly innovative façade of SD conception which, if put under close examination, may turn out no more than an old concept wrapped in a purposeful new package. All these additional possibilities of connotations and interpretations are opened up by an opening in a more comprehensive and comprehensible storytelling framework.
Aware of this attractive force peculiar to the opening paragraph in the Introduction section of a research paper, Scott Socolofsky (2004) has observed and collected abundant examples, mainly from the leading journal in an engineering field Journal of Fluid Mechanics, to illustrate the full potential of well managing the introductory paragraph. Indeed, quite a number of students echo to this observation in their feedback: "Rhetoric of story-telling is a fascinating way to write academic paper because it shortens the distance between abstruse articles and readers" (Tsai, undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at National Chengchi University); "Telling the story is not only catching the eyes of audiences but also stimulating the scientists to recall the joy of research" (Weng, first-year graduate student of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering at National Taiwan University); "The story-telling style, which is seen in more and more journal articles, is what I also want to adopt in my master thesis" (Chen, second-year graduate student of Economics at National Taiwan University); "If the lead-in of paper is written in [a] storytelling style, it is more appealing to attract me to read" (Wu, PhD student of Computer Science at National Tsing Hua University). Indeed, most students, more than eighty percent out of a total of 120 students, tend to approve of, or even plan to draw on, some narrative techniques to promote their research papers in terms of readership and self-fulfilled role as an autonomous, committed writer.
On the other hand, some concerns are also expressed over the usage of storytelling in research papers: "[S]ome authors try to put stories into their words in order to help readers to read the content. But to me, it is kind of distraction" (Lin, undergraduate student of Business Administration at National Chengchi University); "Choosing [a] good story is a very hard thing. Moreover, if a 'not famous' person use[s] this method, others maybe think this is not professional enough" (Zhu, first-year graduate student of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering at National Taiwan University); "Using a storytelling lead-in . . . helps readers catch the points which authors hope to discuss for connecting readers and authors' life experience. However, some stories or examples in the journal may perhaps mislead or contradict readers due to different cultures" (Wu, second-year graduate student of Economics at National Taiwan University); "As a thesis writer, I would consider it [storytelling] as a dangerous method to write thesis [b]ecause it may be not precise enough and criticized by other researchers" (Zheng, second-year graduate student of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management at National Tsing Hua University). To judge from the feedback cited above, at least three points of concern could be summarized for further discussion: precision, professionalism, and property. First of all, the risk of imprecise diction bears the brunt of criticism; that is, to render a story accessible to wider readership, the paper writer often has to settle for a plainer decorum of addressing an issue or concept. This compromised stance, true to some extent, appears to be a necessary evil. Second, as the storytelling diction may encourage a sparing use of technical jargon, those junior scholars eager to display their expertise to gain voice may not be granted with considerable latitude in addressing a topic in this fashion; in other words, the seemingly innate capacity for storytelling may regress into the preserve for senior or prestigious scholars who are, theoretically speaking, better allowed to narrate at a moderate pace. Last but not least, is this strategy of storytelling really appropriate for research papers of all kinds? Is there a universal criterion for teaching or evaluating the efficacy of a storytelling approach? Or is it more suitable for the domain of popular science writing after all? These are fundamental, pointed, and tricky questions to be addressed in a larger-scope discussion in the future.
This study offers preliminary findings about the application of rhetoric into writing instruction. Its chief target is aimed at the field of scientific writing of engineering, where the latitude allowed for writing with a distinctive style seems considerably limited. Most students in this study undergoing their baptism of rhetoric training express excitement and surprise at this relatively undeveloped area of knowledge for writing. While student writers are often all too familiar with the conventional format of academic writing, the integration of rhetoric into writing pedagogy carries its own promises. It is particularly promising for L2 research writers to boost the readability of their research announcements, as most of them seldom go further than turn to rigid writing manuals, some even outmoded, to grope for the art of academic writing. The ability to reason with the principles of rhetoric in mind and write with the strategies of rhetoric in words does not mean to undermine the long-standing foundation of academic writing for engineering; instead, it aims to bring the essence of research findings into the reach and care of more.
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