Academic Style

About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a meeting with a college administrator as part of a campus visit for a tenure track job. One of the people who had given me the campus tour immediately before the meeting had tipped me that he was a basketball player, so we chatted about that before turning to the more serious matters like teaching philosophies and the trajectory of the university. He wanted to talk about my research, of course, so I gave the elevator-pitch for my research project. Overall the meeting went well, though I did not get the job. At this point I would be hard pressed to recall much of it beyond broad impressions and the odd fact, but there is one exchange that I remember vividly.

At one point I responded to a question about who I saw as the audience for my research by saying that I am, in essence, writing for my younger self. I mostly remember this answer because it took my interlocutor aback and led to an exchange where we unpacked what I meant, namely that while I like having my writing contribute to scholarly debate and being read by professional historians and classicists, that is not who I see I see myself writing for when I am sitting down to write.

That is, my Platonic-ideal of audience is myself as an undergrad, a young student reading (some) academic articles simply because I liked history. Intelligent, interested, but by no means a specialist despite what a handful of my friends seemed to think. The articles I have published, as well as those that I am currently working on, are specific enough that they might lose any reader not already interested in ancient Greek history, but my goal, at minimum, is that any one who has had the equivalent of a survey course should be able to pick them up and follow along.

To my mind, the inapproachability of scholarship is more often an issue of writing than of ideas because of a perception that scholarship needs to be written in a certain way in order to be coded “academic” or “intelligent.” There is enough peacocking and posturing in higher education that this concern is not entirely unfounded, but it also realizes harmful stereotypes and gives the false impression that most academic research is inherently obscurantist. I am not here to trash nuanced, specific, and technical writing, which is simultaneously necessary at times and not what I am interested in writing.

I have found myself thinking back to this conversation a lot recently as I work on the book based on my dissertation even while sitting at a crossroads that may lead me away from academic life. At issue is how I want to write my book. I had a brief conversation in the fall 2018 with an eminent scholar about my revision plans, that I planned to revise with considerations given toward having a complete (narrative) arc, for the study, he was taken aback and asked why I would want to write something he considered “popular” history for my first book. His reaction was, I think, partly based on a misunderstanding about the nature of the changes I was proposing, but they also stemmed from genuine concern that if a first book were deemed insufficiently academic, it could hurt an academic career.

This scholar’s concern may be moot if my career in academia is indeed drawing to a close, but since I have other reasons for wanting to put this book into the world his words continue to echo. Without explicitly saying so, he implied that writing approachable history is a privilege afforded only to two groups: scholars with an unimpeachable reputation or people outside the academy. This attitude is hardly unique and I have made light of it by noting that every (male) historian of ancient Greece who reaches a certain eminence writes his biography of Alexander the Great.

And yet, when I think about the book(s) I want to write, I come back to same basic position that I expressed that afternoon in Southern California: that the audience I imagine I am writing for is myself as a student. I was not a normal undergraduate student—clearly, I defied all common sense and did a PhD in this stuff—but that figure serves as a stand-in for an intelligent audience who has not yet become completely immersed. I was an enthusiastic but not terribly sophisticated reader who loved a clearly written book that taught him something new. I have come a long way since then, but even now I can be intimidated by certain types of academic monographs if more because they present as more subtly and impressively academic than the books I want to write.

It is one thing to say in a book proposal—or blog post—that you intend your work to be accessible to any educated audience and quite another to put that into practice. I am not even sure that my writing succeeds as well as I would like, even as I find myself writing quite a lot. (While helping a friend craft a sensitive email recently, I calculated that I’ve written more than 750,000 words over the past decade.) This also isn’t the first time I’ve fretted in this space about authorial voice or the sorts of things I want to write, but in as much as I have projects I want to work on even as I prepare for a likely transition to another line of work these questions have taken on renewed significance.

Certain types of writing erects barriers audiences that ought to be invited in. What bothers me about using “popular” as a subtle dig at approachable history and hence at the work of anyone who wants to write approachable history is how it serves as a form of gatekeeping. That is, the implication that popular means a book stripped of its argument, research, and importance when that absolutely need not be the case. The critique isn’t even necessarily born out in practice except in marketing.

3 thoughts on “Academic Style

  1. What’s so wrong about ‘popular history’? The content can still be accurate, detailed, and, dare I say, innovative in its perspective. Why not write it in a way that makes it approachable to more people? Given the challenges of the discipline in attracting and retaining students and in defending itself against hatchet wielding administrators, who hamstring the discipline further by not creating work that can fuel the interests of potential undergrads. Approachable writing is not the same as inarticulate or indefensible or short of scholarly value. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of publish or perish, where publishing in scholarly journals carries extreme weight, and those journals have as their gatekeepers academics within the field. This model will inevitably lead to writing for the gatekeepers as the audience, and writing for other audiences being devalued.

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    1. I don’t disagree at all. This is absolutely a case where the entwined issues of gatekeeping and marketing of academic books prizes a certain appearance of academic writing in order to “prove” its scholarly merit. I think the erosion of academic jobs means that the attitude is not as common as it once was, but there are still pressures for younger scholars, to say nothing of minority scholars, to write a certain tenor if they want to be taken seriously.

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