Thursday, June 10, 2010

An open letter to academia

So here's the thing: Getting a post-graduate degree is hard. When you've finished, you want people to acknowledge - perhaps even be impressed by - your efforts. One of the women I graduated law school with insisted on being called Doctor afterwards, because we had earned JDs. I can sort of sympathize with that, as, post-dissertation, I made a plea for a TARDIS of my own, or a sonic screwdriver at the very least, and I'm still sort of sad that the only person who ever introduces me as The Doctor is my friend Neil. I get the need to have that effort acknowledged.

Right. So. Grad school = hard.

Writing a book: also hard. Full marks to anyone who does it. I'm not being facetious or snarky there. For most people, writing a book takes a serious amount of time. Writing an academic book (so, nonfiction) which involves research, takes a really serious amount of time. I spent an entire year doing nothing but research before I began writing my dissertation, and I kept researching even after the writing had begun.

And I can see where, if you have taken a large amount of time out of your life to write a Serious Book on a Serious Subject, you would want to make sure people took you it seriously, and gave you it the respect you it deserved.

But here's the thing, and I want you to listen closely, because this is important: Taking all of the fun out of a subject is not the way to make it seem more important, or to make yourself seem smarter. It is just a way to write a really boring book.

I recently read a book on the Affair of the Poisons. This is a juicy, scandalous event, full of Sex! and Murder! and Sorcery! and Amatory Masses! and Sex! and Naughty Priests! and Politics! and Sex! A book on this topic should be fascinating, just by virtue of being on the topic. Except for a brief but pithy description of how to make secret du crapaud, a particularly vile poison made from a toad, that was taken almost entirely from primary sources, this was one of the dullest and most pedantic books I have ever read. I wondered if perhaps someone had administered arsenic to the text, making it pale and wan.

I wondered if the author had cared about, or even been interested in the topic, and came to the conclusion that the answer was no, because how could she have written such a lifeless text if she did?

Except that I knew exactly: She wanted to show that she was smart, and this was a Serious Topic. I know this, because this is the explanation I can think of for the sad state of rather too much academic prose.

Because it can't be that people spend all that time and effort to write about subjects that they don't actually care about. That really makes no sense. I mean sure, I know you have to write a book to get a PhD, and publish to get tenure, but if you don't care about anything in your field, why start down that career path in the first place? Academia, especially in the humanities, is not the place to be if you are looking for fame or fortune.

Academic writing needs to take its cues from popular nonfiction writing. It should be interesting, and accessible. The best part about being in academia is the luxury of time to think about things, and the luxury of a platform from which to tell other people why we think those things are fascinating, and worth thinking about. Because the work is too hard to do it for any reason other than love, and no one will understand why we do it if our writing is so dull they put down our books.

Colorless prose does not equal dispassionate analysis, and overly dense prose does not equal erudition. Those things just make for boring and inaccessible texts. We owe our subjects of study, and ourselves, better.




  1. The first name that popped into my mind after reading this was "Stephen Hawking". So it's NOT entirely about the "recognition for one's education" part... it has something to do with ego, too.

  2. I've never read Hawking's work, so I can't comment on his style.

    Personally (and again, this is not a comment on Hawking), I feel that I would rather write a book that makes someone think, "this is a cool subject and I want to learn more about it" rather than, "she must be really smart."

  3. Then perhaps I should clarify my comment: I thought of Mr Hawking because he appears to agree with you. ;)

  4. Right. Well, in that case, from what I know of him, I'll just be flattered and say thanks.

  5. While I was still in school, I got back a paper with one main comment: "Humor has no place in an academic paper." Pooh. I ignored it then, I ignore it now.

  6. I wish I could say that I can't believe someone said that. We don't do ourselves any favors by taking things (including ourselves) too seriously.