Higher Education

academic bullshit and the art of writing more and publishing less

Interesting confluence today… In IHE, Lindsay Waters calls for fewer books, more articles, and an end to the overblown writing of academic prose (see Collin’s comments on this as well).  As Waters notes "If words lose out, so do we all: We are in danger of losing our souls,
our backbones, our bearings. We are in danger of losing the
civilization that was created in the West in the Renaissance." Oh good, I was afraid we might fall prey to hyperbole.

By coincidence, in CCC, Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer have an essay on bullshit, academic bullshit in particular. Eubanks and Schaeffer explain that

Frequently academic publication aims to create an ethos that will result in tangible rewards for the academic: tenure, promotion, grants, et. The academic knows that such rewards are distributed on the basis of reputation. Such a reputation is gained by publishing books and articles that have been peer reviewed before publication and positively reviewed afterward. Hence professional rewards come from academic reputation, and academic reputation comes from publication. This system seems to make academic publication a particularly rich field for bullshit.

Well there’s some classic academic understatement to balance the classic web article hyperbole.

One of the problems, as both articles discuss, is that academics often feel compelled to bullshit in order to establish their ethos as authors. I know that over the last decade I’ve become a better academic writer. I’ve started to develop some sense of how my writing might fit into an academic community. Through the years though, I did struggle with figuring out how to say what I wanted to say, how to fit within the expectations of the genre and audience, and how to know what I could just say and what I would need to defend or argue. There are many times when I would think to myself, "Well I wouldn’t choose to write this way or include this, but I think this is what the reviewers or editors would want." And they may have been right in the sense that writing that way does make for a "better" essay. It’s just that it might come out as bullshit.

On the other hand, much of what might seem like bullshit is not necessarily so. Sometimes using dense, "theoretical" language forces us to see the world in a new way. I remember the first time I read  A Thousand Plateaus and started seeing rhizomes everywhere. It might sound like bullshit if I start talking about this and that being rhizomatic, but it would have been me genuinely seeing something new, at least for me. Of course maybe such writing wouldn’t be publishable, but then that wouldn’t be up to me would it? That’s to say, I might write something because I am moved to do so, because I’m interested in it, and because writing helps me figure it out. Then, as I’m writing I say to myself, "I can’t just be writing for fun because I need to get published so I can get hired/tenured/promoted, so I better figure out how I can turn this into an essay."

That’s when the danger of bullshit appears, I think. It really takes quite a while for me to be able to translate from the writing I do to figure something out to writing that is publishable because the two really have nothing to do with one another.

So the nice thing about being tenured and having largely abandoned the reputation rat race is that I get to write whatever I want. This doesn’t mean self-indulgence (at least not all the time), neither does it mean the end of caring about audience or genre, but hopefully it means the end of bullshit. I get to write more and publish less. And I think that’s really what is at stake in these essays.

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