Responses to Writing for a Non-Academic Audience is Hard

I was really pleased to see the thoughtful responses to my post yesterday, but there are a few things that I feel like I probably need to clarify. 

It seems like the prevailing attitude is that academics are obligated – either ethically or contractually – to write in a way for the general public. It would seem that there are two main arguments for this. First, this is an extension of our responsibility to teach. Second, there is a direct obligation for all scholars to make their research accessible to the public because they (at least some of them) receive public funding. 

These are both fair critiques, but I wonder whether they both labor under certain misunderstandings of how academic knowledge production works. First, teaching is only a part of my contractual obligations and it is, for better or for worse, distinct from research (and various service obligations to the university… my contract, expressed in this way suddenly sounds quite Feudal in character). This distinction between teaching and research is both artificial (in that we are generally expected to teach what we research) and real (teaching uses different muscles than research). There are absolutely brilliant researchers who advance knowledge immeasurably, but can’t teach themselves out of a paper bag. At the same time, there are committed, inspired, and effective teachers who can’t or don’t research. In my experience, I will point out that the former seems more rare than the latter and this may be because teaching at the modern university requires regular research into teaching methods. 

In any case, the distinction between teaching and research follows what I think to be the division between work that is outward facing (to the public) and work that is inward facing (to my discipline), and the university shares and encourages this split in responsibilities.

There is, of course, the larger question of whether scholars have a responsibility to make their research accessible especially at a state university. On this, I’m pretty ambivalent for a few reasons:

First, academic production has already anticipated this problem and there are plenty of folks who work in the world between the vast body of research literature and the general public. Textbooks are the most obvious manifestation of their work. The best textbooks reflect the latest research filtered through peer review, copy and style editors, and focus groups of faculty. Academics also receive help from professional writers ranging from journalists to popular non-fiction authors who synthesize, summarize, and interpret academic work. Textbook producers and non-fiction authors are professionals who spend considerably time honing their craft. The idea that an academic could devote the time and energy to articulating their work at the same level while also committed to teaching, research, and other responsibilities on campus, takes away from the professional commitment and craft of these writers. I know that I have turned a skeptical eye toward modern divisions of labor in the past on this blog, but in this case, I think it works. 

Second, I wonder why we feel comfortable committing scholars in the humanities to writing for a public audience, but we are less willing to subject say, law or medicine or engineering, to these responsibilities. In fact, Amalia Dillin, who commented on yesterday, actually gives a pass to lawyers who are expected to know “legalese” as part of their profession. Legalese is exactly the kind of poor writing that people recognize in academic work: it’s full of jargon, unnecessarily opaque, and stylistically turgid. In fact, it is so boring and dense that most of us do not read EULAs or other legal statements that are directed to ordinary folks as an audience. Academics writing to other academics get pilloried, but for some reason legalese gets a pass.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Over the past 60 years or so, academics have fought to maintain their professional status whereas lawyers have not. Law has been seen as a profession since the turn of the 20th century, whereas academic work in the humanities has often been seen as something that anyone can do given the time, access, and resources. After all, anyone can write a history book without any special training or qualifications, but to represent a client in court, one needs to pass the bar, complete law school, and have a license. I think doctors and engineers and other professions who also teach have received relatively less pressure to communicate to a general audience. We respect the need for doctors to refer to “that dangly thing in the back of my throat” as a palatine uvula even though I think most people would understand us without the “technical jargon.”

Just like doctors and lawyers, academics write in a way that is effective for communicating to other academics. As Craig pointed out in the comments, this comes from both the socializing process of graduate school where our writing is subjected to continuous critique in seminar classes and at the hands of faculty and continues into our academic careers where our advancement is tied, at least in part, to the success of our ideas among our professional colleagues. If we write in a way that is not compelling even to our colleagues in our discipline, we will not get published, we will not advance our ideas, and we will neglect our responsibility to our field. 

So pushing academics to write for a general audience both overlooks the professional commitments of accomplished, professional writers as well as the commitments of academics in the humanities. 

Finally, good writing is a good thing, but the criteria for good writing and a general audience is pretty vague. Things I find accessible and clear are opaque to my students. Disciplinary work that is effective for me, is not nearly as accessible to scholars outside my discipline. In short, context is a key aspect for understanding the success or failure of writing. A successful and effective academic article must contribute to a debate, but this debate might be obscure to a non-academic audience. 

This isn’t to suggest that writing well doesn’t exist in some kind of basic way, but the practice of writing well depends on audience and context. What is good writing for one group is not good writing for another. I think that many of the harshest critics of scholarly writing fall far outside its intended audience. Criticism of academic writers for their style must be contextual. 

In the end (after the finally), pushing academics to write for a broader audience will put the quality and quantity of research at risk. As the academy does more to make professional, research scholars (especially in the humanities) into teaching employees, I hope the public will recognize that university and college teaching without research is not higher education at all. Teaching matters, the public matters, and writing matters, but without the hard work of research, all of that is worth just a little bit less.

9 Comments

  1. The other thing to say is that many academics who don’t write for a general audience nevertheless communicate their research to a general audience through other means, like interviews and podcasts and talks.

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    1. The other thing we should keep in mind are the economics of writing for a general audience. Take textbooks, for example: most of them are terrible — no, TURRIBLE. Even the good ones have basic errors of fact in them. And they are expensive! They typically cost $80-120 in my field, and then they are assigned as required reading by professors to students. That hardly seems like an unvarnished good. I suspect that most academics write textbooks to make money. Certainly that’s why companies that print textbooks make them. (One of the projects that I really want to work on someday is an open access textbook of Greek history and archaeology, but it is a daunting, daunting task).

      But let’s leave textbooks aside and focus on (cheaper) books written for a general audience, the kind that make the NYT best-sellers list. These books are almost all published by for-profit publishing houses. These publishing houses are (obviously) out to make a profit, so whether or not a book is good history or archaeology of whatever hardly matters. Let’s take Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse.” It’s not very good. It has lots of mistakes in it and Diamond doesn’t seem to care (see, e.g., http://savageminds.org/2010/03/16/questioning-collapse/). But I’m sure it made plenty of money for Viking Press — which is owned by Penguin Random House, which is owned by Pearson, the largest book publisher in the world and a publicly traded company. So is Jared Diamond the kind of academic that the world needs? He writes for a general audience! Lots of people read his books!

      There are, of course, books written for the general public that are responsibly written by academics for university presses. Those are great. But Bill’s not only right that “pushing academics to write for a broader audience will put the quality and quantity of research at risk.” I’d go further — pushing academics to write for a broader audience will result in more BAD research aimed at a general audience flooding a system of production and consumption that is largely agnostic to the quality of the intellectual content of this writing.

      Reply

  2. My brother used to complain that his graduate students knew chemistry but couldn’t write a decent English sentence. Their inability to write clearly was not entirely one of jargon and the like but of the failure of high schools and colleges to teach all their students to write clearly. Being academic cannot justify lazy writing full of unneeded modifiers and turgid run on sentences. This is not a matter of the specialty or the intended audience. What students need is to learn to “blue pencil” (itself a bit of technical jargon from my years in news writing). They should also have driven into them that English, at least, is best and clearest when using mostly simple declarative sentences. I’d advise writing courses at the freshman level for science students as much as German was required in my day.

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    1. Editing myself. Blue pencil. (Itself …. news writing.)

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  3. Just to clarify: I wasn’t giving a pass to Lawyers, but I was suggesting that good writing and communication skills are to Academics generally AS legalese is to Lawyers — essential to a component of their job. I absolutely think that lawyers (and doctors, and engineers, and other professionals), too, NEED to be able to translate their jargon into language that is accessible, but lawyers aren’t pushed to gather knowledge through research (funded publicly or otherwise, it seems to me the gathering of this knowledge is meant to benefit more than just academia and the niche of one’s disciplinary field) then publish those findings, as far as I know, as part of their job. (Medicine does, I know, and they DESPERATELY need to be able to do this in order to allow the general public to understand their work and prevent pressure being applied by the public to lawmakers to ban their research simply because it’s misunderstood or not understood at all. Case in Point: the entire mess of the Planned Parenthood fetal tissue donation nightmare, or really, anything relating to women’s health, honestly. Also mental health issues. Etc, etc, etc. So I’d totally put the screws to the medical community and academy, too, were I engaging in dialog with them here.)

    Also to clarify: when I’m engaging in this conversation, I’m thinking about the monograph I just tried to read on Viking Society, in which the writing was so convoluted more than one subject was lost by the end of the sentence, leaving me wondering what on earth the author was trying to say AT ALL. There was nothing clear or well-written or accessible about this book — not because of technical academic jargon (which I can generally get a grip on within a few chapters, just like I can adapt to Shakespearean language once I get into the swing of things), but because the writing itself was NOT clear, jargon aside.

    But in response to Dr. Nakassis’s argument that writing accessibly will necessarily result in books that are not accurate, I respectfully disagree that this must be the case. I doubt very much that either one of you would put out a book that was littered with inaccuracies, even if you were forced to contort yourselves into writing in a manner that was accessible. And additionally, from the for-profit side of writing, I can tell you that publishers and (non-academic) authors do make GREAT efforts toward accuracy (one creative non-fiction author of middle grade fiction of my acquaintance was required to have her entire manuscript vetted by no less than THREE academics in the field — I was surprised to learn that she had a terrible time trying to find the necessary number of academics WILLING to work with her to ensure her accuracy. Maybe I shouldn’t have been.) I would suggest that Academia cannot both refuse to write accessibly for the general public and then look down its nose at non-Academics (or Academics who think it’s beneath them to bother and so don’t care whether or not the result is a meaningful contribution, but are happy to take money for the half-job done? If I’m understanding Nakassis’s example, correctly.) who make the attempt to translate their research and work into an accessible form, criticizing it for lack of accuracy.

    In this post and its responses, we have criticized textbooks and books written for the general public and published by for-profit publishers as essentially garbage, while at the same time suggesting that writers of textbooks and for-profit-published books on these topics are the translators for the general public, and what we should rely upon for information, so that academics can keep on keeping on, and not be forced to spend time working to communicate directly themselves. I find this incredibly problematic, and I hope very much, that if we can agree on nothing else, I am not alone in recognizing that. But what then, is the solution for the general public, if it is not getting the information directly and accessibly from the scholar/researcher who has discovered/recovered/investigated/researched it to begin with?

    I should say, too, that I do recognize the effort that you make, Bill, to BE accessible with your findings and research via your blog. Interviews, Podcasts, etc, are also greatly appreciated. But there are still times (even in our modern and digital world) when people still really just need a book — or else I’m sure academics wouldn’t be publishing them either.

    Reply

    1. If I wrote that “There are, of course, books written for the general public that are responsibly written by academics for university presses. Those are great.” then how can it also be true that I’m arguing that “writing accessibly will necessarily result in books that are not accurate”?

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      1. Whoops — I confused it with your Bad research concluding sentence — my mistake! But:

        “I’d go further — pushing academics to write for a broader audience will result in more BAD research aimed at a general audience flooding a system of production and consumption that is largely agnostic to the quality of the intellectual content of this writing.”

        This sounds like you’re saying bad and inaccurate books will still be the end result (because they are based on bad/flawed research). Please forgive my misunderstanding if that’s not correct?

  4. Amalia, I think we’re in broad agreement that academics need to reach a broader audience, though various means, including writing books, and that most people agree with it, including Bill (if I can speak for him here). The question is, how do we do that most effectively and without falling into other traps?

    Of course pushing academics to write more will result in bad and inaccurate books: they are the end result right now. (And I’m talking about books that have basic factual errors in them, or that essentially ignore the rules of the Academy in favor of selling copy). Bill used textbooks as an example: find me a Greek history textbook that doesn’t have howlers in it or doesn’t fundamentally mislead its readers. Hell, OUP’s Greek History textbook in its first edition had an entire section on “Minoan slavery,” a topic that we quite literally have ZERO evidence for. Quite literally every time I teach Greek history I have students writing something that’s totally wrong on tests that I can trace back to a mistake in the textbook, no matter which textbook I use.

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