Critics of academic writing such as Steven Pinker and Nicholas Kristof often fail to understand the political aspects of how knowledge is shared. For example, graduate students might actually be mimicking “bad writing” in order to gain entry to a symbolically enclosed profession. Melonie Fullick argues that what is really being discussed is the nature of the academic profession, the role of intellectuals and scholars, and the means and manner of performing that role.
Late last year you may have seen an article circulating in which linguist Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of books such as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, expended 5,500 words on the topic of academic writing and its many flaws. Pinker’s piece, subtly titled “Why Academics Stink at Writing” (there’s a summary here), is particularly critical of the dense, complex language that he argues is characteristic of academic prose – including writing produced by star scholars.
There are some buttons that Pinker knows he is pushing here. The first point is that writing is personal, but it’s also a matter of professional identity. So when Pinker criticizes academic language in general, it hits home in a personal way. A second issue is that if you think of the conditions of discovery and knowledge as political, which I do, then writing is also political because it’s one of the ways in which we share our knowledge with the world. Academic writing presents unique challenges because it’s concerned with specialist topics, yet may contain insights relevant to broader audiences. How we communicate knowledge affects who can “access” it (and who cannot).
Considering the importance of writing in academic work, you’d think there would be a strong emphasis on developing this skill during the PhD – but you’d be wrong. In an article for Hybrid Pedagogy, Liana Silva discusses how “writing is an essential part of…scholarship, but often students receive no formal instruction in the kind of writing that they are expected to do at that level.” She also notes that “professors often assume that students know the form of academic writing while in class they focus on content”. My experience fits with this; throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, only once has a professor recommended a style guide to me; I’ve seen no explicit discussion of what constitutes “good” writing in its many different forms, nor have I had much advice about how to improve my own writing. It’s as if we’re supposed to absorb a concept of what is “good” through osmosis, then somehow reproduce it through painful trial and error and practice. While all those things play a part in the process, I still think it’s a problem that we lack explicit discussion of writing styles, strategies, forms and genres.
Image credit: Walters Art Museum (Wikimedia Public Domain)
To write well in the acceptable way is necessary to becoming an academic, and written communication is relevant to students’ success at every level. Their personal expression needs to work with the existing norms in such a way that the writing is recognizable as “academic”, while retaining some sort of distinctive voice. Lack of support in this task doesn’t mean students just learn all this without help; it may mean they’re looking elsewhere for writing help, for example to academic writing blogs, or to paid editors.
These problems are especially important when students need to understand the kinds of political issues being played upon by Pinker and numerous other critics of academic communication. We should be encouraged to ask, what are the implications of how we choose to write? What is the context in which we are communicating and how does that influence our choices?
Style is important – and should be something we develop consciously – because it’s assumed to reflect something deeper. Take for example the well-known “Bad Writing Contest” held by the journal Philosophy and Literature back in the 1990s. Judith Butler famously took the prize in 1998, for an article published in Diacritics. In her response, which was both brief and easy to read, Butler argued that scholars are “obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world”. For Butler, writing that is “difficult” for readers is also forcing us to stop and think about what is being said, or to push ourselves to think differently about something.
Pinker can’t resist returning to Butler as an example of the failure of academic writing, but more specifically, writing from the humanities. Pinker associates the latter with a kind of squashy relativism that is reflected in unclear prose; by contrast, “the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist”, whose goal is to uncover “objective truth”. As Pat Thomson argues in her post on Nicholas Kristof, this kind of rhetoric seems to take easy shots at the most obvious – at this point, hackneyed – targets, and in this case it does so by invoking disciplinary differences. It also reinforces a pair of extremes that don’t represent most academic writing. Even if I’m not modelling my writing style on Judith Butler’s, I can appreciate what she’s doing and why; even if I question “objectivity”, I can write clearly about it.
Regarding Butler’s argument, James Miller asks, “must one write clearly, as Orwell argued, or are thinkers who are truly radical and subversive compelled to write radically and subversively–or even opaquely, as if through a glass darkly?” And would this also mean that writing that isn’t “difficult” is somehow less meaningful or insightful? Miller’s question hints at the binary concepts often invoked in these debates: clear vs. obscure, simple vs. complex, easy vs. difficult, specific vs. general. The equation of writing with thought is clearly evident here, just as in the comments on Pinker’s article. If thought is reflected in language, what does our language say about how we think? What does our writing style say about our ideas?
If there’s a problem with academic writing, I think it’s one that Pinker doesn’t address. Graduate students are expected to develop a style that conforms to what’s required for academic success; they can use style to mark themselves as “insiders” who can begin to lay claim to a professional identity. This is necessary if they want to participate in activities such as publishing and presenting at conferences. How does this happen? Pinker doesn’t quite deal with the argument that students might mimic “bad writing” because they must do so in order to gain entry to the profession, though he does concede that “there are few incentives for writing well [in academe]”. That last issue is important because it points to the factors guiding how students and early-career academics make decisions, not just about how they write, but more broadly about what work is “worth” doing. Pinker underestimates the influence of these professional pressures.
In sociolinguistics classes I was taught that “a comment about language is always a comment about the speaker”. The discussion about writing is important because what we’re really discussing is the nature of the academic profession, the role of intellectuals and scholars, and the means and manner of performing that role. Pinker’s arguments are embedded in the cultural context of American anti-intellectualism, and it’s no coincidence that much of the rhetoric about “public intellectuals” reflects the same themes. These are the politics of knowledge, made visible through critiques of writing.
I think there is also a deeper conflict between the re-assertion of expertise as separateness, and the need or desire to move beyond a specialist audience. Academics are perpetually accused of rejecting the “real world” even as they’re criticized for how they (already) participate in it. Perhaps the ongoing debate about “good writing” also reminds us, in an uncomfortable way, that academe is still an enclosed territory and these are the ways in which we re-articulate, symbolically, how we want that to look and who is allowed in.
This piece originally appeared on Speculative Diction and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
2 questions generated by this provocative post: 1st, to what extent do mentors have an obligation to their students to help them learn to write? But, is it dangerous to do that in unreflexive way, such that students blindly mimic the style of their profession rather than considering whether there might be alternatives? Perhaps urging mentors to co-author at least one or 2 papers with their students would at least make this issue salient in departments. 2nd, how many PhD programs actually have full semester, syllabus-based, “real” courses in which students can learn how to write? My own department has a required full semester teaching course and several full semester elective writing courses.
I call this the socialization in a language game: is is a kind of translation from everyday language to a certain form accepted within a tribe.
The present practice of learning academic writing by osmosis makes sense because university teachers repeat and visit their experience upon their students. The absence of academic writing instruction in university classes gets transmitted with the same assumptions to the next generation.
University teachers receive a training that does not prepare them to teach academic writing, publication, poster making (info-graphics), video making or perhaps how to be an academic.
Few graduate schools devote much, if any, attention to publication and its attending politics/economics, even though academics lose ownership of their intellectual property. A doctoral education today needs to align better with the realities of the 21st century.
Further the subject of a recent December 2014 conference in Sweden was new genres of scholarly communication. These genres go well beyond writing. Harvard University Press will publish a text next month based on a dissertation in comics form from one of the presenters at the Swedish conference. Posters/videos now communicate academic ideas too.
A poplar three minute thesis contest challenges graduate students to communicate their research to a lay audience in three minutes. (I wonder if the same kind of contest could work with an academic audience.)
The wherewithal to navigate a career as an academic goes beyond disciplinary scholarship as academics find or create employment outside of universities. The demand for a graduate education far outstrips the supply of academic work in universities ergo some research training programs are remaking academic training.
New expectations of doctoral education in the humanities in Quebec call for early publication and outreach beyond the scholarly society. One of the piers underpinning the future of the PhD in the humanities is publicity (the other two are fabrication and collaboration). A new identity for those who are trained in the humanities research comes through. Here we see an identity that embraces and enlarges the scope of academic work to take it into the broader social fabric. With new genres of ‘scholarly’ communication, come identity changes as the audience for communication changes.
Academia is making room for other forms and styles of communication while expanding its reach and daring to believe that the stuff of academia can impact and interest members of the lay public.
Cogent analysis. Clearly written. Who is the target audience?