The Spread of Academic Literacy

“The fecundity and the importance of a literary form are often measured by the trash it contains.” (Albert Camus)

Literacy is the ability to read and write. Academic literacy is the ability to read and write at a university level. We expect academics to be not just literate but outright scholarly, which implies a particular kind of competence with language, or “facility with words” as Orwell once put it. They are not merely entertained by the things they read, nor do they provide their readers with diversions from their everyday lives. They are engaged in the communication of knowledge.

Importantly, however, they are not just communicating what they know to people who don’t know. They are sharing what they know with other knowledgeable people. Often these people know as much about the subject as they do themselves. This is what gives academic writing its “critical” edge. In an important sense, academic writers are not just telling their readers what they know, they are opening their knowledge to criticism from their peers. Likewise, academic readers are not just learning when they read, they are engaging in a critical practice. Academic discourse is an ongoing comparison of the various things different scholars know, or at least think they know. In the confrontation of what I know with what my reader knows we offer each other an opportunity to correct our errors. That opportunity for criticism is what academic writing has evolved to occasion.

So being academically “literate” requires more than merely grammatical mastery. It means understanding that a text always stands in a particular relation to its sources, and that those sources can be located and compared with the text we’re reading. That is, being “able to read” at a university means being able to use a library, which is an increasingly “advanced” technology. Meanwhile, “being able to write” also means being able to present ideas in stable prose paragraphs that commits the writer to ideas that are meaningful objects of criticism. Even errors should be instructive when they are uncovered. They should move the whole knowledge enterprise forward.

As if to repeat the history of literacy in general, i.e., the history of written communication, academic literacy is spreading. Writing academically was once a very rare skill, reserved for a small segment of the population. As more and more people seek university degrees, more and more people will likewise also require academic literacy. Of course, this will also increase the number of “bad” academic writers. The history of our progress from orality to literacy necessarily turned a great many non-writers into merely passable writers. As more and more people become academics, we’ll have to accept the conversion of people who wouldn’t previously have considered themselves academic writers at all into academic writers who just aren’t very good at it. That can’t be helped.

Hopefully, however, we can maintain a certain standard. It is important that the prose that carries the knowledge we share as a culture be well-written. Otherwise it will not be properly open to criticism, it will not afford us opportunities to learn from our mistakes. The pursuit of truth will be greatly hindered.

2 thoughts on “The Spread of Academic Literacy

  1. While the exchange between academic writer and academic reader may be an opportunity for correcting errors, it seems more often to be a joint exploration of the landscape of understanding between them. How much does the difference between what both have read and assimilated matter in perspectives and biases held? (As a certified Old Guy, my understanding of many subjects differs from that of my callow graduate students.) If both disagree on the interpretation of a Great Master’s work, what is the origin of the disagreement? As a writer of prose for academic audiences, I must engage as a reader to see how others navigate the landscape, even to the point of seeing where they will not tread.

  2. You make a good point, Randy. Sometimes the “error” is discovered not by the reader but by the writer who, having inspired a peer to share her perspective on the same situation, can now see what’s missing in his own. Many of the errors are, no doubt, errors of omission. What was left out when I looked the world in this way? What common ground, not seen before, does the disagreement actually indicate? As is the case here, where I now stand corrected, though no less firmly footed.

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