Post Academic


Who’s the best writer? An academic’s point of view (with poll)

Posted in Absurdities by Arnold Pan on April 29, 2010
Tags: , , , ,

I was reading this opinion piece from the Chronicle by Rachel Toor about bad academic writing and it got me wondering about who was the best writer–the academic, the creative writer, or the journalist.  Now there’s no decisive way to judge this and the question seems to be a futile one to ask, at best, or a stupid one, at worst, since it obviously boils down to a matter of opinion and probably subject position.  But seeing as I’m kinda two of the three types of writer I’ve listed, I was thinking about the skills that the different kinds of writing entail.

To try to compare apples to oranges to bananas, I came up with three criteria to consider each kind of writer/each style of writing: the writer’s strengths, the self-identified weaknesses, and how one might make a case for itself/against the others.  I’m only focusing on an academic’s point of view here, since Toor’s essay got me to think about this.  And if someone wants to make a case for the creative writer down the line, please do, because I’m definitely not one!

Strengths: As an academic, I’ve always been invested in the idea that scholarly writing was the superior or at least the most intellectually engaged (read: superior) form, because it allowed for the most complexity and the ability to make connections that neither journalism and creative writing could.  So what if academic writing is dense and opaque more than some of the time?: It just reflected the complexity of the thought it was trying to convey and there really is an art to slowly building an argument that makes academic writing appealing.  Plus, academic writing and research require a command of materials like no other, since the scholar needs not only to have a strong grasp of the creative works it is analyzing, but also other critical work in the field, historical background, and theoretical methodologies.  So I guess that’s why academic essays and manuscripts have to be so long, if they have to incorporate all of those elements.

More below the fold…

Weaknesses: Of course, my hubris as an academic writer has often me astray, as I wrote ridiculously long sentences that were supposed to be detailed, but ended up being confusing and/or ambiguous.  And don’t talk to me about how cringingly embarrassing some of the parroting stuff I wrote in the past seems now, even from my dissertation.  Part of it is my own fault, but part of it also has to do with the nature of academic writing, since, once I figured out the forms and conventions to follow, I made like a chameleon to blend in.  Here’s where Toor’s column from the Chronicle comes in, since it pretty much decimates the genre of academic writing along these lines:

By writing prose that is nearly unintelligible not just to the general public, but also to graduate students and fellow academics in your discipline, you are not doing the work of advancing knowledge. And, honestly, you don’t really sound smart. I understand that there are ideas that are so difficult that their expression must be complex and dense. But I can tell you, after years of rejecting manuscripts submitted to university presses, most people’s ideas aren’t that brilliant.

Call me simple-minded, call me anti-intellectual, but I believe that most poor scholarly writing is a result of bad habits, of learning tricks of the academic trade as a way to try to fit in. And it’s a result of lazy thinking. Most of us know that we may not be writing as well as we could, or should.

OK, this assessment is a little harsh.  For starters, I’m not sure why academia and, more specifically, the humanities cannot develop their own vernacular and conventions, when it’s fully acceptable for “practical” disciplines like, say, law and medicine to be specialized and equally unintelligible to the so-called “general public”–for instance, law and medicine affect my life every day and in many ways, but it’s not like I can easily comprehend a legal publications or hardly get anything in a medical journal, nor am I expected to.  But the overall point is well-taken, especially when academics can’t understand their own colleagues in their own fields and end up spiraling in vicious circle of faking it and hedging it.

The academic’s case: Surprise, surprise–the academic writer is full of judgments!  Or at least, this one is, especially having been around the artistically gifted creative writer and the morally superior journalist.  So what if the work of the literary critic depends on creative writers?  No one would understand what they’re doing without us.  And while the creative writer’s belief in artistic inspiration is quaint, the journalist is naive in her/his pursuit of truth and objectivity–ever heard of poststructuralism, suckers?  Besides, why would you want to write under strict deadlines and word counts when you can obsessively tweak and finetune an essay or manuscript ad infinitum, both in terms of length and time?

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