Express Yourself

Do you ever get excited by an idea only to be let down when it comes to the execution?  I suspect that’s a standard human experience.  For me it often happens with books.  Especially academic books.  I get excited about the ideas that are sure to be lurking between the covers only to discover that the author has unimaginatively fallen into bad academic habits, such as “scholar A says, but scholar B says.”  Just tell me what you say!  Reflecting on this I realize that building a case has become conflated with taking a test.  A doctoral dissertation is a years’ long test.  Your ideas are being compared to those who’ve gone before you—the fact that they’ve published has proven that—and you are expected to show your work.  Did you read Smith?  Have you struggled with Jones?  Is Anderson in more than just your bibliography?

This kind of extended citation leads to turgid writing that slays any interest in the subject by the end of page one.  I’m not alone in this critique.  Some famous academics, such as Steven Pinker, have noted this.  In a not nearly frequently enough cited article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Pinker lays out the bad habits that get perpetuated throughout the modern academy.  It comes down to, in my humble opinion, the fear of the exam.  Test anxiety.  Recently my draft of The Wicker Man came back from peer review.  While the comments of the reviewers were helpful, and quite complimentary, they felt there should be more academic dialogue going on.  I push back at this: if you don’t believe I’ve done the research, why approve the book for publication?  Most academic writing stinks and there’s no reason it should.

I’m a slow reader.  My average rate is about 20 pages per hour.  I know this because my morning routine sets aside about an hour for reading each day, and I note how many pages I consume.  Lately some of the academic books I’ve read have hobbled me down to 10 pages per hour.  I keep waiting for the narrative flow to kick in, something that I can follow and absorb.  Instead I’m learning what everybody else, often except the author, thinks about each minute point of his or her thesis.  Please, just tell me what you think!  I trust that you’ve done the research.  You wouldn’t have been granted a doctorate if you hadn’t.  The last thing I would want from my, admittedly few, readers is for them to close my book and say, “I’d rather be reading something else.”

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