In a piece recently published in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost discuss their experiences trying to get academics to write for broader audiences and pinpoint ten particular challenges that academics have in reaching wider audiences. They are certainly right that academics have challenges reaching a wider audience. As one who has struggled, with mixed results, to make my own scholarship more accessible, I have long believed that this is a far more significant problem than academics usually admit.
The preference that many, probably most, scholars (particularly in the humanities) have for writing for their peers rather than broader audiences has had, to my mind, two rather severe consequences. The first is that it leaves a vacuum for others with far less expert knowledge to fill. There is, for example, a wide audience for writing about religion, even from a non-confessional vantage point. When I refuse to write accessibly about religion because I am afraid of dealing with matters with which I do not have deep expert knowledge (which is necessary in almost all accessible writing) I leave the door open for others, with even less expert knowledge. Someone will write these books and when scholars do not they have only themselves to blame for the (often flawed, from a scholarly perspective) knowledge that does become popularized. From this the second consequence flows: the decline of the humanities. It is difficult to blame people for thinking that the work of academics in the humanities is irrelevant when smart people cannot fathom the books of these very scholars. And this leads down the road to, for example, arguments for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Given the many advantages of having one’s ideas accessible to a broad public, why do so many academics – smart, well-educated, people with deep expert knowledge – have a hard time writing for a broad audience? Why do academics struggle with the ten challenges identified by Schaberg and Bogost?
There must be a variety of causes but I suspect that one of the most important ones is the dissertation. Virtually all scholars in the humanities complete a dissertation as their first sustained research project. This project often takes years to complete and involves mastery not just of a narrow slice of knowledge but, more relevantly, of a particular way of writing. For this piece of writing we are rewarded, first with a degree and then, if we are lucky, with praise and a job. Most of us who presently hold secure academic positions attribute, at least to some degree, our success to our dissertations. The result? For continue to write things that resemble the form we labored so hard to master and that got us in the door; there is a powerful cycle of positive reinforcement. More than twenty years after writing my own dissertation that form of writing still comes naturally to me. Breaking free of it is a continuous challenge.
But here’s the rub: almost nobody likes reading a dissertation. Even academics don’t like reading them, even if they acknowledge the importance of the substance of their arguments. As Eric Hayot writes in The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities,
[Dissertations are] narrow, boring, self-indulgent, and overwritten; they’re competent rather than scintillating. If we told students up front that this was that they were setting out to do for the next couple years [sic], who in their right mind would ever want to write one?
No one. For this reason I recommend writing your dissertation as a book and leaving the genre of the Dissertation behind entirely. Don’t write your dissertation for audience of five; don’t do a literature review (a special genre of chapter that only exists in the humanities dissertation…); don’t produce merely technical competence. Do create an original theory and/or a genuine argument. Writing this way will save you an immense amount of time, and spare you years of mastering an intellectual form (the Dissertation) that is unpublishable and naive (and which, to book, you will only ever write one of in your entire academic career). This doesn’t mean, of course, that your dissertation-written-as-a-book will be a good book. But it seems much better to me to write a mediocre book than a great Dissertation since your goal in the long run is to write a good book, and it’s easier to get there from something that resembles it than something that doesn’t. (p. 42)
For Hayot, and increasingly for me, the dissertation is not simply a one-off exercise but it is actually pernicious. It conditions its writers to write in a particular, inaccessible style that puts us on the road to the elimination of the NEH (okay, a little hyperbole on my part for rhetorical effect).
To begin the long course to rectifying this, we – and I speak here to my fellow senior academics who hold tenured positions, train graduate students, and make judgments about the hiring and promotion of our junior colleagues – must take the lead. We should train our students to write books rather than dissertations and then make sure that those who write books, particularly accessible books, are rewarded accordingly. Our future is in our hands and we will reap what we sow.