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Academic writing - why bother?

The opening up of academic material beyond select and expensive journals should be grasped as an opportunity to re-examine the way academics communicate their ideas with the public.

Flickr/David Schumaker

Academics once wrote only for academics.  Now they must write for others too.  With the enforced rise of open access publishing, publicly funded research will become freely available thereby avoiding the exorbitant fee of a journal subscription.  Old habits die hard, of course.  Academics tend to greet this new requirement with a sense of trepidation. 

Optimists among them hope that this enforced exposure will force academics to write in more accessible, interesting and engaging ways.  Academics will become mindful of their wider public. 

Naturally, optimists always presume too much.  In this case the academic optimist is already too enchanted by the civilizing mission of the profession.  Those academics who seek primarily to ‘excite’ their public, will also happily dupe this same public into believing that the university is indispensible to it.  Those who wish to ‘inspire’ their public, seem to conjure up the vision of a uniformly smiling society, one that eagerly awaits the inspirational ideas they claim to have on offer.  This uniformly deferential, peaceable citizenry is the kind of vision that hides behind much university ‘public engagement’. 

It is unfortunate for these optimists then that the university often greets its public like a damp squib, swiftly losing sparkle amid widespread indifference.  In response, it grasps on to pockets of enthusiasm in said populace, which it misreads as a general affirmation of its kindly mission.  Surely if nothing else the university is a public good, or so they must believe; we would be destitute without it.

Despite all such efforts to ‘reach out’, academic writing, the stuff that will soon be open access, generally still perpetuates the tedious rituals of the craft.  Once described by Alasdair MacIntyre as the ‘most eccentric latecomer of all philosophical forms’, the academic paper is nevertheless here to stay.  That academic thought has willingly confined itself to 6,000 word slabs of writing, with all the structural, stylistic, topical and hence intellectual constraints this involves, is one of the most remarkable and noteworthy of all the uncontested assumptions that make up academic discourse today.

Academics are not unaware of other styles of writing, and often feel the constraints of their discipline all-too-painfully when work is rejected for publication.  Many learn to give their writing an academic disguise, deliberately conforming to the specific mores of the journal that they have in their sights so that this particular piece of writing they happen to submit may be judged acceptable.  In this climate, the most important thing is to get the damn thing published.

But is it?  Here are three reasons for writing differently: 

I.

One reading of the playwright and revolutionary theorist, Bertolt Brecht, implies that academics might develop a kind of brutal honesty about themselves, one that reminds its public of the constraints that lie behind and inform all academic production.  For Brecht, enchanted publics are passive audiences.  They are invited to disappear as an audience and reappear within the play by identifying fully with its narrative.  By contrast, Brecht sought to always remind the audience of its material presence, of the distance between the audience and the play. 

By extension, when the university reaches out it should constantly remind the public it engages with that it ordinarily excludes them.  Rather than invite the public to engage with the university and be at one with it in spirit, the public that is addressed should be encouraged to critically distance itself from the university it confronts.  Such effects can also be generated through a kind of academic writing that does not condescend to its readers by inviting its audience with gentle encouragement into the ‘deep knowledge’ of the text.  Rather, academic writing should encourage a degree of ironic detachment and suspicion.

II.

Anyone who is attracted to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche is at times also repulsed.  Nietzsche liked to make mischief with what he called ‘the habits of our senses’.  The aphoristic style he adopted – with its short pointed assertions designed to confront the reader with untimely meditations – sought quite openly to invert conventional understanding. 

Nietzsche’s aphorisms are impersonal and give the reader little comfort. Designed to wake us from our complacency, and encourage us to experiment with other forms of understanding and ways of being, this kind of writing is destined to shock.  Forced to connect the dots between maxims that sometimes appear to share no overall order, the reader must actively engage with the text in order to make sense of it.  In effect, the reader must not become familiar with the tone, conventions and style of the text, for such a reader is at risk of becoming overly comfortable with it. If academic writing were brave enough to shirk its conventions – where these conventions are underwritten by a powerful ethic of scholarly restraint – perhaps academic writing could become similarly disruptive, and seek to distress or stretch apart, rather than consolidate opinion.

III.

Michel Foucault is nowadays greeted with a yawn.  And yet, there are many aspects of his writing that have not been overused to the point of tedium.  His statement: ‘I have never written anything but fictions’ is rarely addressed, and even more rarely implemented, by his many followers.  This statement should not be misunderstood. Foucault was not claiming to have perpetuated falsehoods in his work. Rather, he subscribed to the view that writing could adopt fictive devices to generate a sense of the world around us that we will never fully grasp.  A little rhetoric can go a long way in helping us to see how we have been formed by a society that usually manages to keep its formative devices well concealed. 

Foucault’s work is predicated on a logic of engagement that links speculation to political action.  It begins with a refusal to translate speculation into the terms of conventional political debate, which, as a form of discourse, leaves so much untouched. In attempting to break away from the systems of power that have constructed us, and constrained us to think and act in certain ways, Foucault understood that it would be impossible to fully describe those systems, and once and for all lay them bare. He nevertheless believed that a certain kind of writing can disrupt power by delivering an experience that unsettles the reader and brings the reader to question the inevitability of things. Ultimately, the effectiveness of this kind of writing is to be judged by the degree to which it disrupts reality, by the level of its catastrophic effects.

The great catastrophe awaiting open access publishing is that unless academics experiment with new modes of address, their writing will not be nearly catastrophic enough.


Ansgar Allen is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield.  He is the author of Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

About the author

Ansgar Allen is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield. His research investigates connections between education, knowledge and power.

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