academic prose and my fear of other writing

I used to do lots of different kinds of writing: personal blogs, where I shared what, at the time, I thought were mind-blowing insights but which later turned out to be vapid platitudes; I’d have a dig at fiction, too, writing short stories that were thinly-veiled autobiographical accounts of my exceptionally interesting life; at one point I even started a magazine that was going to be the more woke, more hipster version of the Reader’s Digest or National Geographic—but it turned out my mates and I didn’t have anywhere near the money or ability to pull it off.

The point is that I used to have a go at many different kinds of expression, even if my attempts were mostly unsuccessful and certainly uninteresting. I wanted to write, so I wrote.

A PhD is a strange kind of apprenticeship in writing. The process of producing a dissertation is supposed to involve the development of critical reading faculties, techniques in gathering information, and an ability to synthesise and express complex ideas through writing.

The main vehicle for scholarly expression is this beast we call academic prose.

There’s no shortage of articles from people both outside and inside academia pointing out that there’s truly something broken with the way academics express themselves. The platonic ideal of academic prose is meant to be something like a scholarly Hemingway: clear, cutting sentences, in which meaning is unambiguously conveyed through the fewest possible and most thoughtfully selected words.

The obvious irony is that, very often, the opposite is the case. Too often academic prose is totally unintelligible. In our attempts to produce new knowledge, we fall back onto obscure terminology—very often without explaining what we actually mean by these strange words—and throw them together in clunky, lazy and ultimately confusing combinations.

This is certainly a problem.

But lately I’ve been thinking about a different kind of problem with academic prose. While over the last few years of doing a PhD my writing ability has certainly improved, I’ve felt increasingly less free to write. I’ve felt less free to play around with different modes of writing and expression.

Because while a PhD is an apprenticeship in writing, I’ve made the obvious realisation that it encourages us only to write in one relatively narrow way; it provides one very important but ultimately limited set of tools to draw on.

We’re indoctrinated into what I’ve started to think of as the academic diagram. A diagram is an abstract, ideal form of power that works to shape actual behaviour. And it’s through this academic diagram that we learn to write with clarity, authority and dispassion. We mostly absorb the academic diagram through osmosis—through reading a million scholarly papers that effect it—until it becomes the one and only way we feel licensed to express ourselves.

But if there’s one thing I’ve understood from struggling through Deleuze for a couple of years, it’s that the diagrams we use to express our ideas can end up determining which ideas and thoughts we’re capable of having. And if we’re not careful, these diagrams can become much too firmly established, ultimately precluding the possibility of new thought at all.

Importantly, these abstract diagrams are enforced through a widespread but generally unacknowledged kind of fear.

In one of the many articles on the problems with academic prose, American historian Patricia Nelson Limerick tells a parable about some buzzards who refuse to fly, despite their once-bound feet now being unwired from their branch.

How does the parable apply? In any and all disciplines, you go to graduate school to have your feet wired to the branch. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: scholars should have some common ground, share some background assumptions, hold some similar habits of mind. This gives you, quite literally, your footing. And yet, in the process of getting your feet wired, you have some awkward moments, and the intellectual equivalent of pitching forward and hanging upside down. That experience, especially if you do it in a public place like a seminar, provides no pleasure. One or two rounds of that humiliation, and the world begins to seem like a treacherous place. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem to be the choice of wisdom to sit quietly on the branch, to sit without even the thought of flying, since even the thought might be enough to tilt the balance and set off another round of flapping, fainting and embarrassment.

But there don’t even have to be any actual embarrassing moments! For myself, I know even the anticipation of awkwardness gets me a-cowering back into my safe but boring academic diagram, scared to stray out and try a different and maybe more alive form of expression. I become small rather than bold; my writing becomes increasingly stuffy and lifeless. Even I feel tired reading what I’ve written, feeling not only has it failed to capture the vivid realities of the peoples and things topics I’m studying, it’s failed to do anything at all.

Of course, there are many other forces at play here, too, like the pressure to publish in Good Journals, which can render all other writing obsolete, excessive, valueless by comparison. We come to think any time spent working on other kinds of writing and expression is a directly proportional sacrifice to the only writing that seems to matter in academia. It might only take an hour to write a blog post, but that is time that could be used to write my next paper—a paper that, very often, fewer people will read than the first tweet I put out about it.

But I would argue that this is the more obvious, more conspicuous obstacle to engaging in other forms of expression. Fear is a decidedly more insidious emotion—not only does it keep us cooped up, we actually come to desire the coop that keeps us safe.

It’s obvious that something very valuable is lost when we leave no opportunity to explore other ways of working and expressing. Because while clarity and authority and all those hallmarks of academic expression are great, they certainly don’t encompass the full range of human experience. What about affection, curiosity, or hesitation? Or volatility, instability and spontaneity? But if we don’t first realise our feet aren’t bound, we’ll always stay stuck on that wire.

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