Academic writing, the ivory fortress, and the virtues of vacillation

calvin-and-hobbes-academic-writingI wanted to start by writing about Peter Elbow’s OUP blog entry, “Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all” because I’ve thought repeatedly about what Elbow has to say about academic writing since reading it for the first time and because it touches on several topics I believe will continue to loom large as this blog develops and expands: the qualities of academic writing; what distinguishes it as a genre, distinct from other genres (say journalism, or creative nonfiction); the attitudes, perspectives, and practices implied by such a form of writing; the relationship between this type of writing and the training that produces it; and the political, which is to say, “real world” ramifications of how we write and talk about things.

Elbow writes that what he’s interested in talking about is the tangential quality of academic writing that comes from the particularly academic compulsion to qualify statements, and what initially struck me was his characterization of some strains of academic writing as defensive, written less to be understood than to be impenetrable and unassailable. In this case, “strong-minded, confident academics” carefully reinforce their arguments against anticipated counter-arguments, prioritizing this defensive maneuvering over accessible presentations of their own points. To read such prose is to encounter “a mind constantly on guard,” and Elbow emphasizes that such writing is a product of the way that nascent academics are taught to write during their educations:

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

Elbow goes on to say that this tendency towards branching qualifications in academic writing comes in a couple of distinct species: the “steel-plated prose” of the defensive variety described above, and, alternatively, the writing of academics who “feel loyalty to conflicting points of view,” and so try to present the merits of both positions simultaneously, as in Elbow’s example, “X, and yet on the other hand Y . . .”

The problem with the hyper-defensive variety of academic writing, of course, is that prose written to be unassailable is by its very function unlikely to be accessible; it’s the “intimidating and impenetrable fog” that Calvin prides himself on in Bill Watterson’s comic strip. Elbow doesn’t offer a defense of this, and I wouldn’t expect him to. But he does go on to describe a virtue of the second variety of academic hyper-qualification, namely that this type of writing, with it’s daunting network of qualifications and references, actually models something helpful: an ability to consider multiple apparently contradictory arguments simultaneously, or, as Elbow puts it “the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas,” which he describes as a “a habit of mind that can help people avoid being dogmatic or narrow-minded.” This isn’t the doublethink described by George Orwell in 1984, “he power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” at least unless I greatly misunderstand what Elbow is getting at. Doublethink involves the acceptance of logical contradictions wherein the meanings of the key terms are cancelled out (as in the Party’s slogans “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery”). What Elbow describes is instead the effort to apprehend and convey the nuances of a complex subject while considering multiple perspectives.

Elbow argues that this approach helps people “move past either/or conflicts and transcend the terms in which an issue is framed,” and I’m inclined to agree. In fact, this is a version of something I’ve repeatedly emphasized to my own students: the notion that what distinguishes good academic writing is the author’s effort not to reduce the complexity of subjects she writes about. I suspect that this often runs counter to the students’ own ideas about what their writing is supposed to do; many seem to come to college with a strong impression that their writing is supposed to simplify, reduce, and streamline the topics and texts they’re asked to write about.

There’s a great tendency in our culture towards simplification. We can see this clearly in advertisements and political rhetoric, where this tendency is exemplified by the prioritization of soundbites, the desire for short phrases that sound clever and authoritative. Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” offered a tidy and clever-sounding justification for that administration’s policies, but also reduced the vastly complex issue of government and its functions to a simple binary. This way of framing issues in terms of simple either/or binaries makes the politician something akin to Phil Hartman’s Saturday Night Live version of Frankenstein’s monster, shouting “fire bad!” (or, in this case, “government bad!”).

Academic writing and good writing instruction can be one defense against this tendency towards over-simplification and the sloppy, complacent thinking it encourages (though probably not very successfully if the academic writing is of the highly fortified, impenetrable variety); another defense is good art.