Academic Writing

Academics don’t just write. In addition to their core research and teaching tasks, academics participate in a wide range of public and specialist forums, where they bring their knowledge and experience to the table. Some of these activities can have profound effects on their careers. Becoming a policy adviser to the government or holding a popular TED talk imbues a scholar with significant authority, giving a different weight to their subsequent work. Some academics, and their institutions, are devoting significant resources to producing podcasts that engage the public in their research. As a result, the identities of academics are now less tied to their “literacy” as traditionally understood, their qualification to speak on particular subjects now being established in other media. Still, writing is an important part of what they do and we must not lose sight of the essential role it plays in the competence of the scholar.

I was talking to a colleague about this yesterday after he had finished recording for a podcast. His producer had him answer questions, producing an hour or two of material. This material would then be edited down to some number of 20-minute podcasts, leaving false starts, needless digressions, and even the questions on the cutting room floor. The result would be a coherent stream of thought with a nice, “improvised” feel to it. As a writing instructor, I suddenly felt a little threatened. After all, many people consume “writing” in the form of audio books. If the “text” itself could now be produced relatively efficiently, simply by editing extemporaneous speech into a unified statement, what need would there be to actually mark up a page? Could speaking and cutting replace writing and editing as a way to express our thoughts in academic contexts?

My colleague reminded me that a written text has a number of advantages for the reader in an academic setting. Often we are reading “critically”, i.e., testing the coherence of an argument. That makes it very useful to be able to flip back and forth between pages, and to leave notes in the margin, referring back to earlier statements. It is correspondingly much easier to construct a text that can survive critical reading by writing it down, using the page as a “space” in which to “lay out” our ideas. It lets the ideas stand in a simultaneous relationship to each other, a timeless one, which is what logic requires. An academic text isn’t just a series of claims made one after another; it is a structure of claims that bear on each other. An academic text is not just a literary performance that might just as well be read aloud by an actor. It is a literal representation of our ideas. The words on the page stand for beliefs we hold to be true. Our text opens our views to critical engagement from our peers.

But what is it about writing that affords us an occasion for criticism? Why do we trust people more when they put their ideas in writing and publish them? Why don’t we just learn everything from podcasts, and audio books, and YouTube lectures? At the end of the day, I believe it is because writing is the most efficient way of presenting propositional content, specifically, to make statements of fact. In other media, our concern is to hold our reader’s attention, while in writing we are free to imagine that our reader, at least for the duration of a paragraph (about one minute) had freely given us their attention. Under these conditions, under the presumption of attention, if you will, we can choose to present the most intellectually relevant details. When writing a paragraph, we have the negative problem of not losing our reader’s attention rather than the positive problem of catching it. I am reminded that Steve Fuller sometimes ribs academics about their predilection for — even their addiction to — captive audiences (beginning with students, progressing to colleagues). But is this really something to be embarrassed about? Surely there can be a region of the discourse that is reserved for people who are ready to listen and willing to make an effort? The sort of writing that is done there will have particular qualities. It’s not all that writing can do, but this “academic purpose” is surely noble in itself?


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