On Being Dense and Writing Like an Academic

On Facebook, the novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen has written a really wonderful post on academic writing, prompted by a negative review of his most recent book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, on Goodreads by a disgruntled academic, who bemoans:

As someone who has spent my whole adult life trying to write in the professionalized manner that I thought the academy rewarded, to have this book issued by Harvard University Press seems like a confusing message.

The heart of Nguyen’s response (but seriously, go read the whole post) is:

I’ll take this reviewer’s incomprehension in exchange for the pleasure I felt in writing NOTHING EVER DIES. I encourage all academics who feel frustrated by the conventions of the field and the insularity and insignificance of some academic discussions to do whatever they please instead.

I’ve had an odd history with my own writing. In some ways I think that I’m a much clearer and better writer than I was when I was much younger, in a time when I seemed to take pride in how many commas I could use in a sentence, but my relationship with my own writing is also much more fraught with anxiety. Like most academics, I’ve dealt with criticisms that come from people with constructive advice and are supportive of my work and I’ve also dealt with considerably less constructive advice. I once was told that I should go read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and start completely over on my writing, advice which somehow did not exactly engender warm feelings for that particular instance of Orwell’s work or that professor, who had only happened to read my work in passing.

Academic writing is often characterized by a certain quality of denseness, although this can mean different things to different people. In its best sense, academic work should be dense in a stubborn refusal to take received narratives for granted, in its desire to question what we all take to be common sense. As Mary Beard has said, “The role of the academic is to make everything less simple.” I think it’s especially interesting as Beard’s history of Rome, SPQR, is a model of crisp, lively, and accessible language, demonstrating that complex ideas can often be captured with deceptively simple language.

Although that’s not necessarily the case, as Judith Butler pointed out in her NYTimes op-ed way back when she was “given” the prize for bad academic writing. Butler’s writing is often difficult, although I would urge anyone who finds themselves despairing while reading Gender Trouble to try tackling some of the early essays in her collection Undoing Gender. Butler points out that often, disagreements about the kind of language we should be writing in mask a deeper “intellectual disagreement about what kind of world we want to live in, and what intellectual resources we must preserve as we make our way toward the politically new.” Academics should be able to write in different genres and for different audiences, and at the very least Butler’s op-ed demonstrated that she was perfectly capable of writing non-obscurantist prose.

But this also gets at a deeper problem with what we want from academics. Rather than asking academics to complicate our understanding of history, of literature, of science, of philosophy, we ask them to dumb it down, to explain it as if our audience is five or a kindergartner. We ask to have it “in English please,” a phrase that drives me up the wall every time I hear it. One of the pleasures of academic writing is its ability to be precise in conversation with other people in the field. When I go present in a session on early medieval literature, I don’t have to begin by explaining who Aldhelm was and why he was important in the way that I do pretty much every day in my academic life as an (almost) lone medievalist at a small, rural university. At the end of an appearance of the physicist Brian Greene on Colbert, Colbert asks a question that doesn’t come up too much: “I would like you to not dumb it down, I would like you to say it to me as if I were my age, 51, but had an advanced degree in physics and high mathematics.” What follows is 30 seconds of TV that is likely impenetrable to most people watching, and yet the audience erupts in cheers and Colbert exclaims, “That’s the shit right there!” Now, there is certainly a covert ideology at play in the way that a particular kind of difficulty is valorized in the sciences and condemned in the humanities, but even so, it is still rare to see someone on a TV show with a mass audience talking that way, and there is immense value to it.

Another kind of denseness that is common in many kinds of academic writing is citational denseness. This is sometimes linked with linguistic denseness, but it’s not necessarily always the case. Jo Livingstone captures both sides of this when, as she was beginning to make a transition to more public than academic writing, she said in a conversation with an editor,

In the case of, say, someone writing about the Venerable Bede for Speculum, to a non-academic, that paper would be full of obfuscation and torturous terms and phrases and confusing things, but academic writing is for a specific, pre-existing community of scholars. You have to show that you understand everything that’s happened in the field, adding just a little bit of original modification to the discourse, otherwise there’s no reason that Speculum would publish you.

Given her academic background (full disclosure, I have presented in sessions with Jo at academic conferences and think both her academic and non-academic work is great), her choice of both journal and topic in the example aren’t really surprising, and in the first part she is talking about a linguistic density, but in the latter part of the discussion, she is talking about citational density, that a good academic article shows that you understand everything that has gone on in the field and can deploy it while making a modest contribution of your own. I suspect that she’s right, at least in the case of Speculum, which is often, though not always, a fairly conservative journal, and more than most fields, Anglo-Saxon Studies tends to prize lengthy footnotes, to the extent that it’s not at all unsurprising to see pages in flagship journals like Anglo-Saxon England that are more note than actual text, but I’m not sure that it is to the field’s benefit that this is often so rigorously the case. The pleasure that I got from reading Jo’s wonderful article in The New Republic last year, “The Problem with ‘Pussy’,” can hardly be described, and I think our field would be a better place generally if the boundaries between academic and popular weren’t quite so far apart, if “The Problem with ‘Pussy'” and the guidelines for publishing in Speculum were a bit closer on the continuum of academic writing.

One of the joys of my particular corner of early medieval Europe has been discovering so many great writers who take obvious pleasure in their insular field. Roberta Frank was key to my intellectual development, whose “Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist” was an early model of the kind of academic writing I wanted to do, and every year, my students in History of the English Language find Eric Weiskott’s article “Making Beowulf Scream: Exclamation and the Punctuation of Old English Poetry” engaging, informative, and incredibly well-written.

The dark side of dense citations is what they reveal about power relations in the field. As Sara Ahmed has noted, citational structures have a tendency to replicate the power structures of the field. Women’s contributions can go curiously uncited and unremarked upon, even when they should be central to the discussions. The same can go for people of color, to the extent that conference organizers planning a discussion of otherness and alterity in the medieval Mediterranean can end up with a panel composed entirely of white men and not realize that’s a problem until people of color in the audience point it out on twitter. The discipline functions to make these issues invisible, such that the people who are the victims of these practices are forced to either go along with the status quo or become feminist killjoys, as in Sara Ahmed’s wonderfully named blog, raining on everybody else’s parade. Medievalists have often been content to marginalize critical theory because of its political associations with gender, race, and class studies, privileging the density of disciplines like philology or manuscript studies above the dense language of Butler and Derrida, but as Butler points out, this linguistic disdain can mask a deeper division about how to do scholarship.

How do we deal with the problem of unfair citational practices as a field? In the roundtable on academic misconduct at this past Kalamazoo, a substantial part of the discussion focused on this issue. For some people, it was posed as a problem of rigor. Good work should be exhaustive in its citation practices. But this can also be exhausting, and poses other issues of access, something I’m all too aware of having gone from one of the largest academic libraries in North America at the University of Toronto to the much smaller library of a comprehensive public university in rural New Mexico. The issue can be even more complicated for people off the tenure track, commuting between adjunct gigs at multiple campuses, while maybe not having time or institutional access to a research library. In my year between finishing the PhD and getting the job in New Mexico, I had many grand plans to somehow commute to the libraries at Ann Arbor or Wayne State while tutoring high school students in Canton/Plymouth, MI, but the truth of the matter was, after tutoring high school students one-on-one for six to ten hours a day, I was lucky if I could spend just a little bit of time in the Plymouth public library a few blocks from my apartment.

As an abstract value, rigor is certainly good, and the contributions of women and POC should be given their rightful acknowledgements, but when privileged above other values, like generosity and pleasure, rigor can be stultifying. As with the Goodreads reviewer, it can be confusing to feel like you’re learning to play the game only to discover the rules are different and are being made up along the way. Here we are, trying to learn how to play chess, and Viet Nguyen is playing Calvinball. Rather than rigor, I’ve been more interested in the queer citational practices that Carolyn Dinshaw sketches in the introduction to Getting Medieval, where she posits citational practice as a form of living with and loving the writers of the past. The problem with an unthinking embrace of rigor as the prime value of scholarship in the humanities is that it omits the things that make studying the humanities worthwhile.

This is not to say that I’m opposed to rigorous scholarship, but we also need to make room for scholarship that is dense in unexpected ways, that sticks out in ways that don’t readily fit into the narrowly constructed boxes we’ve made for academic writing. At the beginning of Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects, which I’ve been reading lately, she recounts the Grimm story of “The Willful Child,” a nameless girl who resists what everyone, her mother, society, God, want her to do, continuing to resist even after death, sticking her arm out of the grave, until her mother comes and disciplines the undead arm with a rod. Good academic writing should be willful. We should take pleasure in it, and it should be able to surprise us, not only with the contributions it makes to scholarship but in its form. How curious that literary studies, an entire field devoted at least in part to exploring the complications of form, should seek to be so disciplined that it would only permit one form for commentary and criticism.

My only real quibble with Nguyen’s Facebook post is at the end: “The takeaway: write the book you want to write, not the book that academia wants you to write. At least when you have tenure.” Given how precarious the academic job market is and the inequities of a for-profit publishing industry built on unreimbursed labor, I don’t know why we shouldn’t be telling students right away, from the moment they step in the doors of our universities, to take pleasure in their writing and learn how to write the books, articles, and essays that they want to write.


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