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.