I’d like to thank… the important work of acknowledgements

I’m co-editing a book series at present. I’m not sure why, since I swore after the last one I would never do it again, but there you go. Just a slow learner or weak-willed, I guess.

Last week one of my co-editors and I were discussing acknowledgements. Should we thank our publisher in our series introduction, or just leave it up to each author? They would obviously have their own people to thank, us for starters we joked, and what would we do if they didn’t thank us? But more importantly, what would we do if they didn’t thank the publisher? And did it look stupid for a series introduction to have acknowledgements? What was the unwritten rule we should be following?

Because I have a bit of time on my one hand at present – a shoulder injury makes me temporarily left handed and stuck at home – I decided to have a bit of a look to see if someone had researched acknowledgements.

Well, of course they had. That’s the wonderful thing about academia. If it’s out there, someone’s researched it. And in the case of acknowledgements, not just one person had looked at them but a whole host of people. I was gob-smacked by the sheer number and range of foci. I clearly hadn’t even begun to think about all the possible ways acknowledgements might be researched.

I had the same openmouthed reaction when I saw Grafton’s book on the footnote. It wasn’t the same jaw-drop as the one I had when I encountered someone who seemed to have made an entire career out of studying APA violations. But that’s another story. With Grafton it was more – Wow – you can write an entire book about the footnote? And actually, I bought the book, and it’s not only a good read but also an interesting lens on the history of academic practice. But I digress.

You probably wont be surprised, if you think about it for a moment more than I had, that people have looked at when acknowledgements were first used, their length and changes and variations in length, and their disciplinary inflections. Acknowledgements have been critiqued for their Uriah Heap ingratiating qualities, and there’s been public clashes and private hurts about who gets thanked and who doesn’t.

And, of course acknowledgments can be analysed as networks, and circles of influence – for better or worse. I realized, as I was scanning what was out there, that I always read acknowledgements in a book in just this way. No I’m not looking for my name, but for names I recognize, so I can place the author/s in a scholarly context. I want to see which scholarly community/ies they are closest to, where they have their intellectual home.

I finally remembered a pioneering piece of research about acknowledgements in dissertations by the linguist Ken Hyland [2004]. He argues that acknowledgments are more than just expressions of gratitude. He says

Acknowledgements are almost universal in dissertation writing where they provide
writers with a unique rhetorical opportunity not only to convey their genuine gratitude for the intellectual and personal assistance they have received in completing their research, but also to promote a competent scholarly identity by displaying their immersion in scholarly networks, their active disciplinary membership, and their observance of the valued academic ideals of modesty, gratitude and appropriate self-effacement.
p 303, my emphasis.

A gift economy always works both ways. I thank you, but the thanking does something for me too.

The combination of actions that Hyland describes – this text work/identity work as Barbara and I would say – also of course applies to our possible series introduction acknowledgement – we want to thank our publisher for taking a punt on a series that may well get more critical acclaim than profits, but we will also signal that we are appropriately cognisant of academic dependence on publishers in general and, if we perhaps add an adjective or phrase or two, that we know our publisher in person, and maybe well enough to make an in-joke.

But back to Hyland. He analysed a corpus of dissertation acknowledgements, written by English L2 doctoral researchers and Masters students, across several disciplines. He suggests that they typically consisted of three moves.

Move 1. Reflective comment on the writer’s research experience. eg doing this piece of research has been stimulating, hard work and a great experience…

Move 2. Thanking – in which individuals, institutions are introduced and mapped, their contributions – academic assistance, resources and moral support – are named

Move 3. Announcing – public statement of responsibility for thesis contents, including flaws, and possibly a personal dedication.

Moves 1 and 3 are where the scholarly attributes of modesty, gratitude and self-effacement are performed, through the text. Move 2 is where the doctoral researcher connects themselves to networks and shows they have been worthy of the assistance of significant others and sources. If Move 2 mentions scholarships or prizes for example, it indicates a degree of ‘quality’ in the candidate as well as their thanks. Move 3 is where the authorial identity/ies of researcher, not student, is realized.

Hyland argues that understanding acknowledgements as a genre, a text-type which does specific work, could help doctoral researchers to understand what to do, and what not to do, when they come to the task.

Food for thought. Not a straight answer to my question of whether to have a series acknowledgement, whether to thank our publisher or not, but certainly a few clues about what we would be doing if we did.

Hyland, Ken 2004 Graduate’s gratitude. The generic structure of dissertation acknowledgements. English for Specific Purposes. 23, pp 303-324.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, acknowledgements, books, dissertation, gift economy, Ken Hyland, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I’d like to thank… the important work of acknowledgements

  1. bakercatherine says:

    There’s also the personal side of acknowledgements, I guess – there are so many conventions about what one can put in them, and they make those people’s connection to you permanent for anyone who might see the acknowledgements in the future. In my case I knew what I wanted to say in the acknowledgements to my first book, which was to thank my immediate family for the various kinds of support they’d shown me when I was writing up my PhD. but when it came to my second book (where my acknowledgements were shared with a co-author, who naturally did the usual personal thanks as they expected to) it was a lot more difficult – you don’t just reveal something about yourself in the personal thanks, you reveal something about other people, and it just wasn’t possible to say anything at the time I was writing them. My acknowledgements ended up being the most difficult paragraph of the entire book…

  2. Thanks for this post Pat and for the link to Hyland’s paper. In October 2010 I started crowdsourcing acknowledgements pages on the blog http://acknowledgers.wordpress.com/ mostly to share the love! I, like you, always read acknowledgements to see the network effect, but also for inspiration and an insightful window into the human/personal soul of the writer. That sounds a little flowery but I think acknowledgments allow for a level of connection with a reader, and for many students it is the only bit where they are truly allowed free reign to offer something of themselves.

    As for your conundrum, I’d say the more acknowledgements the better, and why not have them for the series intro? If you do, and you wish to share them (or any previous) with the blog please just shout. Thanks again, George

  3. Sara Bragg says:

    I always read acknowledgements to see who’s going out with whom. How else does one get the academic gossip?! Plus occasionally the ‘window’ effect is more than you want to know: the author who thanked her ‘hubby for the choccy biccies’ at least saved me the bother of reading any further.

    There’s also always revenge. The first PhD I ever read was Mark Kermode’s, whose acknowledgements included a detailed account of the tribulations of writing a thesis on an exploding, chapter-deleting amstrad and finished with the succinct advice for anyone wanting to do a PhD: get a mac.

    thanks though, Pat: illuminating as ever.

    Sara

  4. Pratik Patel says:

    Main Objectives of the Gift Economy:
    1) Everything we have or use will be gifted to us and we are free to do what our heart tells us to do. Everyone supports us for what we want to do so we work only in the direction that we are most interested in.
    2)Working in that direction we produce a certain outcome and we have used the best effort and the best materials. We keep part of what we produce for ourselves if we need it, and the bulk of the extra product we gift to those who need it the most.
    3)There is no ownership of any object. Everything we have we use and own for as long as we have a use for it and then when we no longer need it we pass it on to others.
    4) We neither take nor snatch. We ask and then we receive and in most cases we simply receive it as a gift without having asked for it first. And of course when we have more than we need we give the rest back to those who need it: Give and receive.
    5)We accept every person with our full heart as having his/her own unique characteristics. We accept all his/her thinking patterns, habits, religious beliefs etc and with that we have no barrier of “mine” or “yours” and “big” or “small”. Every person here is one of my own and my equal. When we give we see the requirement most of someone and not the individual person. We are all equal in our eyes and in our hearts. We respect and support all his/her personal activities and interests and support their well being as a family member of this world.
    6) All big projects are run by cooperation of all those who are most interested in doing that work. Here responsibility is shared with convenience and interest. Everybody with a mutual understanding works together and produces a certain useful output for this society.

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