Next year, I want to hold a regular colloquium at the Library about the nature of scholarly or “academic” writing. I am of course referring to the kind of writing that researchers are supposed to “publish or perish”, but also, by extension, to the sort of writing that students are required to submit for examination. I believe that the first is a model for the second, that students are being taught in their studies how to do what scholars do for a living.
But what is so special about this kind of writing? What sets it apart from other kinds of writing (writing that is no less important) in life and business? What specific difficulty does “academic writing” imply?
My answer is that academic writing is the presentation of what you know in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help you decide whether or not you really do. It opens your thinking criticism by qualified peers. While it is, in a certain sense, intended to persuade your reader of the truth of your claims, this rhetorical force is always tempered by keeping the text open to criticism. That usually means it has to be written in a clear and coherent manner, so that defects in thinking are not concealed by defects in writing.
In an important sense, the text will not be persuasive to an academic audience if it is too obviously “rhetorical”, too eagerly trying to convince the reader of the truth or justice of its message. It must demonstrate a self-consciousness about the possibility of error. It contains an implicit declaration of “correct me if I’m wrong”. This makes demands of the style of the paper, of course; but it is also why academics are so “hung up” on references. It must be possible to check a claim against its sources.
Anyway, the colloquium I want to hold will be an open discussion among CBS faculty about how we can understand the adjective “academic” as the unity of student and scholarly writing. It’s the craft that the university conserves and transmits to future generations. The art of writing down what we know.