Know how to perform as and for an audience

I’ve been attending concerts in the Edinburgh Festival, back onstage again this year in open-air venues with careful social distancing. Many of the performers are visibly moved to be back in front of a live audience again. One aspect of the Festival programming I’m really enjoying is the mix of classical music, folk and jazz. I’ve been struck by the different ways that audiences are expected to – or allowed to – interact with the players in these different musical genres. One really noticeable difference is when you are allowed to clap. In folk and jazz it’s OK to clap whenever the performer stops playing, even if it’s halfway through a set, but don’t dare do this in classical concerts. You’re only expected to clap once a complete piece (sonata, concerto, symphony, song cycle) has reached the final movement. So if you don’t know the particular piece you’re listening to, which is quite likely because the performers like to try out more obscure pieces, you have to guess when they’ve reached the end. Sometimes they have to help you by getting up from the piano stool or putting down their instruments as a signal that you can clap.

I don’t know how this convention arose but it wasn’t the case in Beethoven’s time, for example, when you could clap or talk over the music or boo if you didn’t like it whenever you wanted. The player could even be persuaded to repeat a section if the audience showed how much they liked it. A classical audience is much more constrained now, not by the performers themselves but by the conventions established around their performances by the music industry, including teachers, radio presenters, critics, managers of concert halls and others.

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This made me think about academic audiences and who has the power to decide what a performer, e.g. a student, an early-career researcher, can do. Audience is one aspect of genre theory. A speaker/writer has to be aware of the audience and purpose of their performance in order to choose an appropriate structure and style for their oral presentation or written submission. They have to know what their audience considers an effective performance and try to meet those expectations. They are not free to perform in any way they choose if they want to get a good grade for an assignment or get published in an academic journal. However, understanding the expectations of an academic audience is very difficult for students or early-career researchers who are only just joining their academic community of practice.

I observed an EAP class online recently, in which students were asked to think about their academic readers and what the needs of those readers would be. Although students are often obsessed with exams and assessments, they almost never respond to such questions with the obvious answer: ‘My readers are the people who assign my grades’. Some of the students I observed were able to differentiate between readers who were familiar with their topic, and would look for a deeper evaluation, and those who did not know much about the topic and would need some background. Some students said their readers would be teachers or classmates or famous people in their discipline. One suggested that professors in their discipline (architecture) would ‘pay attention to my design and materials I choose’ whereas an audience from another discipline may want to see ‘whether I express what I want to argue and what purpose I solve in my design’. While these responses were nuanced, they showed that the students did not stop to consider why a famous person in their discipline or someone from another discipline would read their student assignment. They were thinking of their audience in abstract rather than specific terms.

As a student, identifying and writing for a specific audience is important for getting good grades. It helps to imagine the particular lecturer who set the assignment reading and evaluating the submissions. What are they expecting to read? I have heard lecturers in the School of Social Sciences, where I worked, telling their students that they were writing for two audiences: the lecturer who sets the assignment and their classmates who know a little less about the topic than they do. The lecturer is a silent audience looking over their shoulder as they write for the audience of classmates. This student audience needs them to explain the background, define concepts clearly and make logical arguments to answer the assignment question. This lets the student writer display what they know about the topic to the lecturer instead of assuming that she/he already has the background and understands the concepts.

Another aspect of academic readers that is often hard for students to grasp is that they are not overly concerned about the complexity of sentences or the creativity of vocabulary choices. Students are used to the genre of English entrance exams, in which they display their ability to manipulate English sentence structures using a wide vocabulary range. The content of what they write is not particularly important and certainly not based on reading material. In contrast, academic readers want to see simple sentences with precise vocabulary choices expressing nuanced responses to readings. As one of the students in the class I observed said: academic readers ‘want to see our own voice because we have looked at lots of internet sources, we need to integrate them to get our own voice!!’

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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