There’s been a lot of talk lately about how and why academics should write for “public audiences.” By this we usually mean that academics turn from the usual professional audience (fellow historians, in my case) and seek to engage non-academics who have an interest in the subject at hand.

This discussion – and all of the assumptions that lie behind it – makes a fairly strong distinction between “public writing” and “academic writing” in terms of:

  • Form
    • Public writing: op-eds, columns, blog posts, and short articles (800-1,500 words); a range of different structures depending on the purpose/subject of the piece
    • Academic writing: longer articles (7,000-8,000 words) and books (200+ pages); argument-driven structure (intro hook—statement of argument—sections proving argument—conclusion)
  • Style
    • Public writing: no jargon or high theory; few references to other historians; emphasis on story and scene; descriptive prose; quotes but no footnotes/endnotes (perhaps a list of sources or recommended reading)
    • Academic writing: theoretical frameworks; overt discussions of historiographical debates (and where the author/work fits into them); extensive quotes and footnotes/endnotes
  • Publication venue
    • Public writing: online websites, print newspapers and magazines
    • Academic writing: academic journals, university press books

 

So far, the turn to public writing has been conceived as one-directional. Academics go out into the public and therefore write differently. By why are academics so loath to turn back around and write differently for one another?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, as I’ve started to tackle a book project with an unusual (for academic writing) structure – character-based, chronological – and as I have been writing a shorter piece, a travel story for a popular magazine. Both demand that I step outside my writing comfort zone (which is definitely in the academic tradition) and experiment with storytelling as argumentation.

And then a few weeks ago, I happened upon a series of tweets from participants in the “High Stakes History” conference at Columbia University. During Jill Lepore’s keynote in the afternoon, @MLAconnect the following synopsis of one of Lepore’s points.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 10.04.46 PM

The tweet, and my retweet of it with the admonition “stories, not arguments, people” attached, prompted a vigorous Twitter debate about why we believe story and argument to be in tension in academic writing.

We didn’t get too far in this debate – it was Twitter, after all. Historian and Omohundro Institute Director Karin Wulf subsequently wrote a blog post for The Scholarly Kitchen, arguing for the importance of argument in academic writing. “The question,” she wrote, “Ought not be one versus the other. Academic writing is expository.” However, “for academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. […] pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.”

For Wulf, “academic writing” hews closely to the descriptions I have laid out above, in form, structure, and venue. It constitutes a “professional exchange” that requires argument-driven prose, historiographical engagement, and an assertion that what the scholar is writing about – the knowledge the scholar is creating – is new.

This is not unreasonable, nor unexpected. This adherence to “academic writing” style is based on the reality that academics must write for one another, engage in the “professional exchange,” in order to remain academics – to secure jobs and then get tenure. Most tenure committees do not recognize public writing as “scholarship” worthy of inclusion in the hiring or tenure file and so academics must write the articles and books that journals and university presses usually expect to publish.

As long as these are the expectations of academic writers, academic writing will do what it is supposed to do – create new knowledge – but it will continue to be predictable. And only a handful of others besides academics will read it.

risk-taking

 

So what is there to do? Is there any possibility that journals and presses – and job search and tenure committees – will accept (or even embrace) “creative academic writing”: work that is rigorously researched but that takes risks in terms of prose style, structure, or approach; pieces that make use of multiple points of view, subvert standard chronologies of story-telling and argumentation, or combine genres in new and interesting ways.

It is true that university presses have long published narrative histories, and some books that experiment with structure. Yale University Press, for example, has recently published Aaron Sachs’ Arcadian Americawhich interweaves cultural history and memoir, and Martha Hodes’ Mourning Lincoln, which separates analytical chapters with short (also analytical) “interludes.”

And some academic journals do give space to shorter pieces of creative academic writing. For example:

  • Rethinking History made writerly risk-taking the centerpiece of its project, and has devoted entire issues to pieces that move far outside academia’s comfort zone.
  • Journal of the Civil War Era has a “Professional Notes” feature that appears every so often in which a scholar (often a public scholar) takes on current events or popular culture.
  • The “Sources and Interpretations” section of the William and Mary Quarterly has been a regular feature of the journal since it shifted its focus from the study of Virginia to a consideration of “the entire field of early American history, institutions, and culture.” These pieces introduce a primary document or focus more specifically on a narrow topic.
  • J19 (Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists) publishes Pleasure Reading, “brief (3,000-4,000 word) essays about “a text—visual or artifact, literary or critical, old or new, material or virtual—that brought you pleasure and that you believe will bring pleasure to others.”
  • American Nineteenth-Century History takes a slightly different approach, publishing articles that connect current events to the events in the past, such as Scott Nelson’s “The First Occupy Chicago Protest” (2011), for example, a piece about the American Railway Union’s strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago in 1894 and its similarities to Occupy Wall Street.

These journals are providing excellent opportunities for scholars to experiment with form and style. But with the exception of ANCH‘ and RH‘s articles, these pieces appear in separate sections and sometimes at the end of the journal (although J19 places Pleasure Reading pieces up front). This effectively “silos” creative academic writing, highlighting its differences from academic writing, and reinforcing the dichotomy that the folks involved in the Twitter conversation about “story vs. argument” dream of avoiding.

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But still, these developments give me some hope. I want to believe that someday, academic journals and university presses will publish creative academic writing in all different forms, and academics will no longer make the distinction between academic writing and public writing, because the distinction will no longer exist.

This will require, however, a massive shift in the way that academics think about themselves, and the nature of their “professional exchange.” It will require that academics — writers, editors, publishers, administrators — embrace new forms of scholarship as legitimate. And they should do this. Because this kind of risk-taking is what will produce new ways of thinking about the past.

30 thoughts on “Is There a Future For Creative Academic Writing in Academia?

  1. I started a blog in 2005 and then in 2006 started researching the Galloway (south-west Scotland) Levellers Uprising of 1724 for an M.Phil thesis which I finished in 2009. As I was working, I posted updates on the research on my blog , mixed in with posts about the UK punk counterculture.

    Since then I have continued to add to the history posts on the blog. This is a recent post written to tie in with a lecture on ‘The Lowland Clearances’ given locally.

    http://greengalloway.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/levellers-and-clearances-in-glenkens.html

  2. This is a great post, Megan. After book one, I refused to write another academic monograph. Not only could I not handle the idea of no one reading it, but I also cared less about smaller historiographical quibbles than broader audiences learning some real history! I am so tired of people who are not trained historians representing the past. I got an agent, got a trade publisher, and am writing a book that is readable and has a strong argument. When you write a proposal for a trade press, they insist even more on argument, because this is what the hook is for general readers. It is not dumbed down, there are plenty of footnotes, and mention of scholarly contributions. My graduate students all have trade press topics and I encourage more people to go against the pressure of insularity. We are creative people–authors–for a reason!

  3. I enjoyed this thought piece and I am sure I will continue to think about it for a few days. Thank you!

    A couple of questions occur to me that might be worth thinking about:

    First, how do we change the form of academic journals to support a “creative revolution” in academic writing?

    Journals and writing are two-dimensional, which means scholars tend to think two-dimensionally about them. Technology could make academic writing three dimensional and more creative by allowing for the integration of music, video, detailed maps and images, and soon with augmented and virtual reality, three-dimensional images and journeys. The addition of these three-dimensional features could foster creativity through the interdisciplinary collaboration needed to to incorporate them.

    However, for most readers the experience of reading an electronic journal is not as good as the experience reading its paper counterpart–at least not until augmented reality helps us travel through the historical worlds we read about. I love tech and yet admit that the writing I engage with most is that which I can hold, underline, and make notes in its margins.

    There are innovations coming in publishing, but I am sure we will see it in trade before we see it in academia.

    Second, are other historians in non-American subfields concerned about academic vs. public writing?

    It occurs to me that only one of the creative writing-inclusive journals you cite purports to cover more than early American or 19th-century United States history. All of the historians who have engaged in this discussion–you, Karin Wulf, John Fea, Ben Carp, Joe Adelman, and the commenters on this blog– are early Americanists or Civil War historians. This conversation should be broader. Do historians of Japan, Africa, and the Medieval period, to name but a few different subfields, not consider how to make academic writing more accessible and creative? Perhaps cross-subfield collaboration would foster creativity.

    1. Liz, these are great points. The introduction of technology and media to already established publication platforms would be a fantastic development. I can tell you from experience, however, that it is incredibly hard to convince journal publishers to move from 2D print to 2d internet. Why aren’t all journals publishing book reviews online? This would save on printing and would bring reviews out much earlier than the 1 1/2-2 year waiting period. And yet, very few of them do.

      And I would love to know the answer to your second question. The journals I cite in the post are those suggested to me via Twitter (I asked my followers to tweet me the names of journals giving authors opportunities to write creatively); it is very likely that the vast majority of my Twitter followers are Americanists. And it is probably true that most people who read Historista are Americanists.

      But you are right, the conversation about this needs to expand, not only to other humanities fields but to STEM fields as well.

  4. Great post, Megan. To answer the question in your title. Yes, I think there’s a past, present, and future for creative writing in academia. Many of the scholars I admire most have taken risks and written books and articles that stretch the genre while making major arguments. I won’t name names, but, then I probably don’t have to, right? We can all think of scholarship published during the past, say, forty years that has expanded what’s possible and acceptable within the discipline by going beyond it.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post on an important and timely set of related subjects.

    A few words on behalf of turgid prose, narrow topics, and small audiences. Only just a little bit kidding, actually. Certainly I don’t know of any editors at journals or university presses who don’t work for fluid prose, expansive significance, and a larger readership.

    But I also don’t think the realities of academe are ones in which public writing is in danger–quite the reverse. The arguments you make here are ones that echo across the landscape, and resonate well with the current anxious politics of the humanities. I worry a less about junior faculty who feel constrained by the requirement to write tight little books to send into the acad-ether, than those who are about to face the march of metrics that include public engagement. UK academe is the harbinger — I highly recommend the HEFCE report on the Metric Tide: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rereports/Year/2015/metrictide/Title,104463,en.html. Metrics are so incredibly pernicious– extraordinarily biased and yet still used. How long have we been pointing to the bias in teaching evals? Well, citation metrics are just as bad in most of the same ways. And “engagement” shall surely follow– I kind of love the alt metrics that track social media etc. And yet these too will soon be used in evaluations.

    I wrote my post not because I disagree with the premise that we can and should write for varied audiences, but because I think the case for academic writing and knowledge now actually has to be made. I’m sure all of us could find examples of that turgid, narrow piece that assisted our own work in important ways. We don’t know when or how a piece of scholarship will become useful or interesting beyond its specialist audience, but it still has an important place. Okay, stopping now before starting into blog-length reply!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Karin. This move to a discussion of metrics is interesting, but I’m not sure what the connection here is between a possible (hoped for) increase in creative academic writing in academic journals and book publishing, and metric evaluation. Are you saying that one necessarily leads to the other?

      And I would never suggest (I hope this blog post does not) that all essays and books in the traditional academic writing mode are poorly written, unworthy of larger reading audiences, or useless. There are many, many beautifully written articles and books out there in the world, inspiring historians and contributing to our knowledge of the past. And (as Carole points out below) just because an essay or book is “creative” does not necessarily mean it is well-written or deserves a larger reading audience.

      What I’m saying is that there should be room for a variety of forms of writing — including rigorously researched creative essays and books — within the already-established publication venues in academia.

    2. Megan, I’m making the point that “accessible” research and writing (which is not by any means less rigorous de facto) actually has a premium now in academic politics– and at least in the UK and probably here soon, too, in evaluations.

      Anecdotally in reviews and evaluations I don’t see the problem you describe, for argument’s sake let’s amplify it, of scholars’ suffering from a strait jacketed academic publication format. Perhaps I’m more optimistic, having seen my historian colleagues’ scholarship in many forms (exhibits, compositions, performances, narrative writing, etc) successfully reviewed for tenure and promotion. But I do see the potential systemic problems of the devaluation of classic academic writing.

      But these aren’t disagreements necessarily. And where I think we would agree absolutely is that great history is great history no matter the format.

  6. I am dedicated to facing out from the academy, making arguments for academics but always writing in a way the general public will find interesting. I have led seminars helping others to do the same, and created podcasts of our sessions, currently wih Claire Potter at http://writinghistoryseminar.com and previously with Jana Remy at http://malinghistorypodcast.com.

    Some in the academy may look down on it, and lots of scholarship is valuable but hard to access for a justifiable reason. But a lot of history writing in particular doesn’t have a public audience mostly because it is poorly written. As publishing changes, even academic presses are finding it hard to publish books without clear, evocative writing–and clear arguments.

    1. Thanks for these, Adam — although the second link isn’t working.

      And yes, good writing is the key in all cases (see Carole’s comment, below).

      Have you tried to bring the kind of writing you do for public audiences back to academic venues?

  7. But then there are the cases — and we can all think of at least one — where an academic tries to be writerly and fails miserably. One reason academics are uneasy with creativity is because it can go so terribly wrong. That’s not to say one shouldn’t try, of course. But sometimes academics seriously overestimate their writing chops.

  8. Here is Garner writing about Academic English, specifically:

    “[T]he obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak (“revenue enhancement,” “downsizing,” pre-owned,” “proactive resource-allocation restructuring”) that it’s tempting to think AE’s real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.”

    – Bryan Garner

  9. In my profession (law), we have a similar problem (lawyers not writing for laypeople — when they should be doing so). One of my favorite quotes on the subject:

    “The law has not the need of special language most laymen think it has. The law has not the need, but lawyers tend to act as though it did. This is in part incompetence – it is easier to repeat a baggy formula than find words that really fit – and in part exploitation of man’s liability to magic. For centuries our lawyers, a priestly caste, used a mysterious tongue, composed of Latin, French, English, incantation and a bit of mumbling. These continue, more or less, to the present day – Latin less, English more, French absorbed, incantation down a bit, mumbling steady.”

    – from “The Law of the Land: The Evolution of Our Legal System” by Charles Rembar

  10. Great post as usual. I think there is a real need for this to be developed and discussed. Writing in a creative fashion does not require dumbing down, and still allows for interpretive analysis. While there will always be a space for the current technically-driven academic style, there does have to be a growth in the level of rigorously researched narrative writing, which maintains research integrity yet proves more accessible for the enthusiast. This is needed not only to engage wider audiences, but also to demonstrate the benefits of proper use of sources. I think in the immediate future though this is unlikely to happen, given the serious constraints under which the majority of career academics have to labour in order to secure tenure and maintain career progression. I do feel there is room for those researchers in non-academic positions though to take up the baton. Though not an academic historian I have certainly tried to maintain a level of academic rigour on my own blog, while consistently keeping the “story” the history is telling central. Making interpretive decisions as to what that story is is often comparable to forming an academic argument. My personal experience with blogging has led to me trying to engage more and more with “story” in the academically-driven writing required of me in my professional career as an archaeologist. In an effort to marry the two recently, I presented a half-and-half paper at an archaeological conference. I first put forward the evidence and my analysis of that evidence in standard academic style, before sharing an entirely fictitious story-based narrative to demonstrate what may have occurred based on my research. I believe it was the first time this was attempted in an Irish archaeological conference setting at least, and in general it was very well received. In my view the narrative construct helped to demonstrate the vital importance of academic rigour in research. I subsequently published it following the same format, and although while I appreciate it may not be everybody’s cup of tea with regards to approach, I do feel we need to see more things like it. If anyone is interested in seeing it the paper is available online here, with the research driven fiction element entitled “A Soldier’s Tale”: https://www.academia.edu/8149301/Witnesses_to_History_A_Military_Assemblage_from_the_1691_Aughrim_Battlefield
    I’m afraid though I can make no excuses for my poor narrative style :-)

    1. “While there will always be a space for the current technically-driven academic style, there does have to be a growth in the level of rigorously researched narrative writing, which maintains research integrity yet proves more accessible for the enthusiast.” YES. And proves to be useful for the academic as well.

  11. One of the giants of modern English usage, Bryan Garner, tipped me off to this observation:

    “Anyone who translates knowledge from the technical into the popular language is disregarding the rules of caste, and is thus taboo. Technical terms, long words, learned-sounding phrases, are the means by which second-rate intellectuals ‘inflate their egos’ and feed their sense of superiority to the multitude. If an idea can be expressed in two ways, one of which involves a barbarous technical jargon, while the other needs nothing but a few simple words of one syllable which everyone can understand, this kind of person definitely prefers the barbarous technical jargon. He wishes to be thought, and above all to think himself, a person who understands profound and difficult things which common folk cannot comprehend.” W.T. Stace, “The Snobbishness of the Learned,” in Atlantic Essays 94, 99 (Samuel N. Bogorad & Cary B. Graham eds., 1958).

  12. This problem of audience is one I deal with in my work. I want to maintain analytic rigor and originality in interpretation, but also create a compelling story meaningful for academics and non- academics. Dare I say that lots of academics refer to this style of writing as ‘selling out’ or ‘unscholarly,’ perhaps because it’s hard to do. I think pitting the two styles is falsely dichotomous in ways that make academics feel better about writing opaquely.

    1. You’ve pinpointed a major roadblock in this process — the dismissal of creative academic writing as less rigorous and illegitimate. I’m not sure how to go about changing this, though. Because I’m not sure it works like other movements for change, which depend on generational shifts.

  13. I think you’re spot on about the question of whether (and how) academic journals/presses allow for this creativity. I think scholars would be more likely to test those waters if there were more accepting venues. In my personal blog Pop South, I “published” a series called “Me and Jeff Davis,” in which I blended scholarly argument with my personal research experiences. The reason it wound up in my blog was because likely journals expressed no interest. It just didn’t “fit.” We might be trained as historians, but we are also writers, and many of us also have a background in American literature, etc. It makes sense that we’d want to be more creative. I often describe the book I’m writing now as one in which I’m finally able to “take off the straitjacket” that my academic training put me in as it applied to writing. It is so freeing.

    1. Agreed — there needs to be a kind of “perfect storm” of more accepting venues, more flexible peer reviewers, and more creative authors. It’s a terrible thing that many of us consider our academic training to be so restrictive. Is it the whole “learn the rules in order to break them” thing?

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