on non-academic writing, as well as the benefits of jargon and time
I’ve been thinking a lot about academics who do non-academic writing. One of my favorites is Molly Worthen, who writes regularly for The New York Times. I talked to her about her process, and she said part of how she swings it is by basically focusing on academic books and then articles for the popular press. She doesn’t really do that many book chapters or peer-reviewed articles. That’s a bit easier to pull off as a historian, though there are certainly sociologists (and sociology departments) that focus on books as well, so it’s by no means an impossible model for sociologists to imitate.
I recently wrote an article for Slate, and it was a lot of fun. But it had me thinking about the difference between academic writing, blogs, and writing for a place like Slate. Some of the feedback I got on the piece sort of proved my point about scientism. The comments about how science is all we will ever need made me wish I could have mentioned Charles Taylor’s concept of a subtraction story in the piece (it was in my first draft). But a lot of the rest of the feedback was quite helpful both on the substance of my argument and on its rhetorical moves. I like the piece, but it obviously could have been better in a variety of ways.
However, this isn’t a post about my piece. Rather, it’s a post about how, had I written the piece for an academic audience, I would have had the chance to present it at a few conferences or workshops, get ideas from colleagues, and then get the stern admonitions of anonymous reviewers. I also could have assumed a lot of previous knowledge that I just can’t assume when I’m writing for a popular audience, even an audience like Slate’s (or, for Molly, the New York Times), where you can assume a pretty educated readership. There’s also the question of speed. It’s pretty frustrating how long academic publishing can take, but it can also help you to work out a lot of the kinks in an argument.
But this has me thinking: how is this any different from blogs? And I think a big piece of it is that blogs are less like an article for a broader public and much more like a paper-in-progress presentation, especially for blogs like Org Theory and Scatterplot that have a very specific readership. It’s a way to float or work out an idea that might well be less formed than an article in a popular website, magazine, or newspaper would have to be, yet the blogger still gets the benefit of being able to speak in a shorthand that wouldn’t be possible in those venues.
It also had me thinking of Johann Neem’s piece on the virtue of academic writing as an end in itself, which came out a while ago but is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it:
Yet there is a risk when we mistakenly assume that public and scholarly writing are the same thing — that one is good and clear and the other is needlessly complex. Critics often blame academics for overusing verbiage that is meaningless to the general public. But jargon and complexity have their place. One need only ask whether theoretical physicists would have been able to achieve their insights if each of them had to write for lay readers like me instead of for each other. Of course not.
There is jargon, and then there is jargon. In my own field of history, shared references to specific scholars, concepts, or schools of historiography can open up worlds of meaning economically. It allows us to focus on our shared task: scholarly inquiry.
Do scholars sometimes hide behind jargon? Of course. Can jargon mask emptiness? Yes. Do scholars sometimes use jargon when more accessible language is available? No doubt. Does jargon primarily serve the needs of tenure and promotion? Sometimes. Should academics write as clearly as they can? Yes. There is good academic writing and bad, just as there is good public writing and bad. But can we do away with jargon? Not if by jargon we mean scholarship that uninitiated readers simply cannot understand. Indeed, to do so would make it impossible for philosophy to achieve its goals.