Shifting writing from knowledge to commitment

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Bandung | Opinion | Sat, September 07 2013, 11:20 AM

The notorious fact that Indonesian intellectuals lack writing skills has long been known. In retrospect, try to remember how many of your college lecturers used textbooks written by themselves.

What is not yet known is the reason for this and how to fix it. In American academic culture, the adage holds, “All professors are the same until one of them writes a textbook”.

Almost all undergraduate and graduate programs across the country require students to write a skripsi, thesis, or dissertation for graduation.

However, meeting such a requirement does not necessearily make one a researcher-writer. For the majority such a requirement is like a “hit and run” duty, done once in a lifetime.

In my article on language policy published in this newspaper (The Jakarta Post June 15) I emphasized the importance of encouraging Indonesian intellectuals to write textbooks and research papers in Indonesian first and English second.

Some readers of the article downplayed the role of Indonesian. They argued that any work written in Indonesian would not be read by international scholars.

A reader argued as follows: “Saying that the Indonesian language has the potential to become a language of science is hazardous. Science is an international endeavor that needs permanent exchange between scientists.

For this, a common language is necessary, and currently that language is not Indonesian, or Mandarin, or Hindi, but English. The research of scientists who write their articles in Indonesian will not be accessed by people from other countries. It is no secret that Indonesia performs very poorly in sciences and that the very few good Indonesian scientists publish their work in English.”

The quote above represents the public voice: a struggle that puts pressure on the English as a foreign language (EFL) profession in the country. Mindful of this, we jump to the deceptive conclusion that all scientists have to write in English

EFL pedagogues and writing instructors in particular have done a lot of research into academic writing and their teaching experiences have accumulated. Some findings and generalizations are highlighted here to contextualize them in the Indonesian scene.

First, scienctific endeavor is fundamentally a personal curiosity facilitated primarily by first language. You think and formulate abstract concepts critically through it. Teaching the Indonesian language means, among other things, teaching students how to use it critically for academic purposes.

Due to its unversal truth and its social benefits, science deserves

permanent exchange and critical debate among scientists internationally. The bulk of publication depends on the magnitude of potential benefit which in turn depends on the funds invested.

Second, language mastery does not necessarily mean scientific publication. Despite the relative mastery of the Indonesian language most intellectuals do not publish. The same phenomenon applies to foreign languages: Despite mastery of English, many English instructors and lecturers do not publish.

To the surprise of many, obtaining a graduate degree from overseas does not guarantee publication either. Many bright intellectuals return well trained from overseas to drop out of research and publication and turn to more financially rewarding careers. This often happens when the campus is not conducive socially or culturally.

This suggests that proficiency in English alone is not the magic solution. Personal commitment to research, genuine curiosity about problems and conducive immediate environment concurrently play a vital role in engineering publication.

A positive attitude toward research and publication are to be nurtured through quality schooling from elementary up to graduate education.

As EFL writing instructors, we find it difficult to enable students to write in English. It is even more difficult to turn them into researchers as well as writers. Committed to sharing knowledge, true researcher-writers write from the heart of their own free will.

It is much easier to teach undergraduate students grammar and theories of composition. Even when you succeed, they will not necessarily become writers. This is the most difficult challenge faced by EFL writing instructors. Therefore, we need to shift the perspective from writing as knowing compostion rules to writing as a commitment.

It is tragic that most faculty members in English departments have a zero tolerance for using Indonesian as the foundation for English proficiency. They erroneosly assume that high school graduates already have solid foundations to develop EFL writing skills.

Commitment or dedication to writing takes place when students are empowered to develop their innate linguistic potential. To begin with, students should be encouraged to develop writing in Indonesian, with which they will feel comfortable to freely express themselves. Knowing the language and its culture, students write creatively with confidence.

In a later stage of learning, writing is a matter of transferring from Indonesian to English.

I would rather allocate the first half of the semester to creative writing in Indonesian. Once confidence is gained, students will write in English. The current practice is to forcibly develop proficieny with the focus on grammar and composition theories. This has created generations of intellectuals with minimal, if not zero, commitment to publication.

The incessant campaign by the Directorate General of Higher Education on international publications in English falls short of fundamental competence, namely adequate proficiency in Indonesian. I would urge novice writers to publish in Indonesian first and then gradually in English.

This has a double function: to promote Indonesian as a language of science and technology and at the same time to develop maximum competence and confidence prior to writing in English.

Viewed from critical perspectives, academic writing is ideological (Canagarajah: 2002), being more than grammar and composition theories, which are treated as abstract, value-free features of textual form. Academic writing is aimed at a specific audience, and it is a representation of reality, an embodiment of values shared by the academic community.

I am not saying that grammar is less important than content. I simply believe that grammar alone is not sufficient.

The writer is a professor of education at the Indonesia University of Education (UPI), Bandung