Our writing sucks. I am a first year PhD student in architecture with interests in urban studies, planning, and U.S. history. There is a problem if I am in your area and I cannot understand our overly-theoretical writing. Reading recent work decreases my desire to follow your path.
The problem is not that I do not care for our work. As much as ever, we are needed to frame the challenges our society faces with examples drawn from our knowledge. Only we can answer the important questions like: Why do American cities remain segregated decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? How did American cities become so reliant on the car and fossil fuels? How can the built environment be a tool for social equity? As much as ever, society needs us planners, designers, historians, and thinkers in the university to create a more affordable and more just city, a place where everyone can walk to public transit, public parks, and the supermarket. As academics, our job is to create a better society, not just to theorize about it. A scholar who writes about Martin Luther King or Gandhi and has never engaged in civil disobedience has not earned the right to call themselves a scholar. Writing must be a form of civil disobedience.
I do not blame you for bad writing. There are other forces at work. Here are just five of them:
1. We are supposed to say something “new,” while still remaining in our discipline
There are several hundred books about Abraham Lincoln. There are several thousand academic books about New York City history. If there is an important topic, chances are someone else has already written about it. The need to write something new pushes academics into finding smaller and smaller gaps in the knowledge. As time passes, the gaps of what has not yet been written will disappear. I am not writing about scientists or researchers in new and emerging fields. But for many other fields – like history – there is a lot less new to say today than there was a generation ago. The emerging areas of knowledge exist between disciplines, not within disciplines. In my studies, for instance, the unexplored area exists at the intersection of art history, urban history, architecture, and digital medias. And yet, there are no professional venues for this kind of work. For architects, I am too much of a historian. For historians, I am too much of an architect. It is easier to write within the niches others have defined than to produce knowledge at the new frontiers. To be at the edge is a lonely place.
2. We are supposed to follow a straitjacket of academic convention.
The standards of academic writing have been developed over centuries and shaped by tradition. But these same conventions also produce writing that is awkward and difficult to read. One expectation is that we avoid using writing in first person “I.” We are expected to write about ourselves in third person, as in the phrase “this author saw.” But this form of pretend objectivity, as if the author were some distanced and neutral observer, ignores that writing is inherently subjective. When writing about ethno-nationalism, racism, and the decisions of planners decades ago that produced the segregated landscape of today, to be only an observer is to be complicit in that injustice. Martin Luther King Jr. announced “I have a dream.” Had he said “one has a dream” or “this author has a dream” as an academic would have written, he would have done a disservice both to himself and to the civil rights movement. Academic writing must be no different. Only in having a more than intellectual investment in the world can we, as scholars, change the world.
3. We need to get tenure.
America’s population is growing slower, and people are having fewer children. That means fewer students, and therefore fewer job openings and more people competing for a shrinking pie. Combine this with shrunken government investments in education and a culture of austerity that increasingly relies on short-term contract teaching. Most of the people who already have a slice of the pie have been there for decades. They entered the system in the pre-internet age. Chances are they had an easier time getting in than aspiring scholars like me will have. Academic articles and books are the main criteria these gatekeepers will use to judge me. Publish or perish. But these are the venues of yesterday, of a pre-internet age when knowledge was locked in towers. The fact that my non-blind but peer-reviewed research online has millions of views but is published outside an academic journal means that it will not count for much. The twelve PhD programs that rejected me did not view my digital portfolio and website, but the one program that accepted me did, and that made all the difference. Our academic culture is stuck in a past that insists on academic publications with limited circulation. Who does our work serve? Who does my work serve?
4. We write for people just like us.
Our writing is also expected to avoid the short paragraphs and sharp points of newspaper writing. In academia, the phrase “you write like a journalist” is a criticism, not a compliment. But in trying to sound all objective and in trying to avoid the sharpness of journalist writing, we lose out on most audiences. Less than 7% of the world’s population has an undergraduate degree, and less than 2% has a doctorate. I will confess that more that most of my friends have (or will have) a doctorate, and this silently shapes the audience I write for. I am in a bubble, but the incentives and rewards structure of academia does not reward me for getting outside this bubble. Maybe we expect too much of our readers and should not be angry therefore when public faith in the university, in science, and in vaccines is so low. I, too, do not trust authors whose writing I cannot understand. The public has no venues to turn to, and too few public intellectuals to whom they can turn to interpret the world. And so into this world where academia has turned inward, the public turns to false prophets like Fox News. I blame rioters and racists for making Trump possible, but I also blame universities for turning inward.
5. We lock ourselves in towers.
Most academic writing is kept behind a paywall. If you are not a member of a university, or if your employer does not have a subscription, you will need to cough up money to read. A single article costs $15 to $20 to “rent” for 24 hours from the publisher. We paid with years of time and sweat to write these articles, and the publisher probably paid us no or little money to print our work. But now publishers and digital libraries profit from our labor, and most of the world cannot read us. The digital repository of academic work, JSTOR, had about 150 million attempts to read articles on their site and only half as many article readers. The average academic article has ten readers. Ten readers. A lot of what is called scholarship is inaccessible to people outside the university and irrelevant to most people inside the university. With the privilege of an elite education comes the responsibility to make the products of that education accessible to all.
There are no quick fixes.
I cannot pretend I have answers, and I am not in a position of authority to provide answers. Maybe the requirement to publish should be revised. Maybe newspaper articles and alternative venues for publication should be given the same weight as academic articles (or more weight). Maybe the whole model of a PhD program that trains scholars to produce a several-hundred-page dissertation in high academic prose should be rethought. Maybe documentary films and oral history projects should be accepted formats for publication. Maybe publications should be more metrics driven and only count toward tenure review if they have more than a minimum number of readers. Maybe tenured professors should be required to read student end-of-semester feedback as condition of getting their paychecks. Maybe university professors should be given tenure based on the same criteria as high school teachers. That is: Can you teach students? Do students learn from you and enjoy your classes? The deeper question is: Are scholars simply observers of injustice from the Ivory Tower? Or does our work fight for a better world outside the Ivory Tower?
Here is one idea: All academic writing in the humanities must be writing that people outside our field will read for pleasure.
Writing is an art. If you enjoy looking at art, then you should enjoy looking at writing. If scholarship is writing, if writing is art, and if art is supposed to be enjoyed, then scholarship is art that is supposed to be enjoyed. Just as museums will not hang unsightly art on the walls, universities should not hang up obscure articles with a handful of readers as models for other scholars and aspiring scholars like me to follow. If something is not enjoyable to read, then it should not have been written. I am not speaking of scientific writing, which serves a technical purpose to inform others’ research in the field. Just as there is a need for grocery shopping lists and product user manuals there will always be a need for technical and scientific writing. Academic writing in the sciences serves its purpose. I am speaking of a crisis in the humanities. When we cannot write for and speak to the common people, we lose out on the influence we need and society needs to fight misinformation. A good academic article must be as enjoyable and as easy to read as a good novel.
Do not write your way into irrelevance. Make sure others will have as much joy reading your work as you did writing it. And if the power structures of academia and peer review make academic writing stilted and difficult to read, then it is time to rewrite those power structures.