In this post, Joshua Rothman addresses the problem of academic writing by comparing it to what’s going on in journalistic writing. As a journalist who was once a graduate student in English, he knows both worlds well. So instead of the usual diatribe against academics for being obscure and deadly, he explores the issue structurally, showing how journalism and academia have drifted apart from each other in the last 50 years. While academia has become more inward turning and narrow, journalism has become more populist, seeking a large audience at any cost. In the process, both fields have lost something important. The piece first appeared in the New Yorker in 2014. Here’s a link to the original.
Rothman throws up his hands at the end, suggesting that writers in both fields are trapped in a situation that offers no escape for anyone who wants to remain a member in good standing in one field or the other. But I partially disagree with this assessment. Yes, the structural pressures in both domains to constrain your writing are strong, but they’re not irresistible. Journalists can find venues like the New Yorker and Atlantic that allow them to avoid having to pander to the click-happy internet browser. And academics can push against the pressures to make disinterested research uninteresting and colorless.
There are still a lot of scholars who publish articles in top academic journals and books with major university presses that incorporate lucid prose, lively style, and a clear personal voice. Doing so does not tarnish their academic reputation or employability, but it also gets them a broader academic audience, more citations, and more intellectual impact. I’ve posted some examples here by scholars such as Jim March, Mary Metz, Peter Rossi, E.P. Thompson, and Max Weber.
For lots of examples of good academic prose and stellar advice about how to become a stylish scholarly writer, you should read Helen Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing. I used this book to good effect in my class on academic writing. (Here is the syllabus for this class, which includes links to all of the readings and my class slides.) I also strongly suggest checking out her website, where, among other things, you can plug your own text into the Writer’s Diet Test, which will show how flabby or fit your prose is.
Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?
by Joshua Rothman
Feb. 21, 2014
A few years ago, when I was a graduate student in English, I presented a paper at my department’s American Literature Colloquium. (A colloquium is a sort of writing workshop for graduate students.) The essay was about Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science. Kuhn had coined the term “paradigm shift,” and I described how this phrase had been used and abused, much to Kuhn’s dismay, by postmodern insurrectionists and nonsensical self-help gurus. People seemed to like the essay, but they were also uneasy about it. “I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,” someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.
Was that a compliment, a dismissal, or both? It’s hard to say. Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.
Professors didn’t sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system. Professors live inside that system and have made peace with it. But every now and then, someone from outside the system swoops in to blame professors for the writing style that they’ve inherited. This week, it was Nicholas Kristof, who set off a rancorous debate about academic writing with a column, in the Times, called “Professors, We Need You!” The academic world, Kristof argued, is in thrall to a “culture of exclusivity” that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”; as a result, there are “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”
The response from the professoriate was swift, severe, accurate, and thoughtful. A Twitter hashtag, #engagedacademics, sprung up, as if to refute Kristof’s claim that professors don’t use enough social media. Professors pointed out that the brainiest part of the blogosphere is overflowing with contributions from academics; that, as teachers, professors already have an important audience in their students; and that the Times itself frequently benefits from professorial ingenuity, which the paper often reports as news. (A number of the stories in the Sunday Review section, in which Kristof’s article appeared, were written by professors.) To a degree, some of the responses, though convincingly argued, inadvertently bolstered Kristof’s case because of the style in which they were written: fractious, humorless, self-serious, and defensively nerdy. As writers, few of Kristof’s interlocutors had his pithy, winning ease. And yet, if they didn’t win with a knock-out blow, the professors won on points. They showed that there was something outdated, and perhaps solipsistic, in Kristof’s yearning for a new crop of sixties-style “public intellectuals.”
As a one-time academic, I spent most of the week rooting for the profs. But I have a lot of sympathy for Kristof, too. I think his heart’s in the right place. (His column ended on a wistful note: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career.”) My own theory is that he got the situation backward. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, “marginalizing themselves.” It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.
It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia. That’s because journalism, which is in the midst of its own transformation, is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.
In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.
It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there. The most important part of Kristof’s argument was, it seemed to me, buried in the blog post that he wrote to accompany his column. “When I was a kid,” he wrote, “the Kennedy administration had its ‘brain trust’ of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals.” But the sixties, when the baby boom led to a huge expansion in university enrollments, was also a time when it was easier to be a professor. If academic writing is to become expansive again, academia will probably have to expand first.