Panel on the State (and culture) of Academic Writing

A fat year ago, we lost one of our best political science professors to the writing center. There’s no real story about that, there were no fights, there was no drama, he didn’t quit, he wasn’t fired. From what I understand, he just didn’t meet all of the expected requirements for the tenure track—one of which was a publishing requirement—designed to ensure that our teachers are experts, and that in addition to teaching, they bring prestige back to our school. At one point, I asked him why he had not just banged out more articles so that he could meet that particular requirement. Every one of his students could tell you that he’s no slacker, and whenever it came to writing he gave us the most helpful detailed comments and criticisms on how we could improve our papers. His answer was interesting: the kind of writing that is required for the kind of political theory that he does is not the kind of writing that can be easily done on top of a full-time teaching job without compromising the integrity of one’s teaching. The institutional incentives of contemporary academic life make it nearly impossible for professors to both write in this older way and also fulfill one’s duties as a teacher, and as a consequence, these more traditional forms of writing are dying and being replaced. And few people even realize that something great is being lost. Director of the writing center, John Holzwarth, has organized a panel on this evolving trend: “On the Walls of Our Caves: A Panel on Academic Writing.”

This is a topic that concerns all of us. Since the age of the internet, there have been a multitude of books and articles about how the way in which we read has changed. From reading the great books of the past, one can see that the way we write has changed as well. Writing tends to be more succinct today, less wordy. Academic writing tries to be narrow and scientific, spending thirty pages to make a very small point, a point that one can often glean from the abstract or introduction. The papers tend to be dry, and the attempt to say something new often supersedes the aim to say something important. Essayists have been replaced by obscurantists. People have become afraid to ask big questions.

There may be important and very good reasons for why this is the case, the contemporary academic methodology may have ample justification. But so far, it seems to have been immune from serious challenge. We are taught to write in a certain way without being told that there are alternatives, and we are told that this particular form of writing is superior without being given the reasons for and against it. The way we write informs the way we think, and the way we think determines how we act. To change the norms of writing is to change a culture. To deliberately change one’s writing style is to change an individual. I think that this will be a very important and interesting panel (with some very sharp professors on it), and hope that many students and faculty will choose to attend. Wednesday, March 6th. 7:30pm. Miller 105.


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