The Critical Situation

How to Discuss Things with Knowledgeable People


  • Thomas Basbøll Copenhagen Business School Library



Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. In so far as students and scholars approach it in these terms, they often tend to focus on the role of knowledge. Students imagine that they must demonstrate what they know to their examiners (who know more than they do) and scholars imagine that they must communicate what they know to their colleagues (who don’t yet know their results). This is completely understandable since knowledge is at the core of academic work, but both scholars and students sometimes lose sight of the discussion. They think of the discourse as a performance rather than a conversation. In this paper, therefore, I will explore the formation of academic discourse and the building of academic competence in terms of the rhetorical situation (not just the epistemic resources) of academic readers and writers. 

This shift of focus has some important implications. Academic writing is not merely the communication of ideas or the transmission of facts; much more importantly, it is the exposure of ideas to criticism. The academic writer is not interested in “ideas worth spreading,” to invoke the famous slogan of TED talk, but in ideas worth testing. To sharpen the point, we might say that academic writers are always writing for people who are qualified to tell them that they are wrong. As writing consultants and information specialists, we help scholars and students face this situation squarely.