Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Be Brilliant

Jonathan Mayhew has recently put up two short posts on scholarly writing that are worth reading. He offers a few basic principles and some supplementary suggestions. It is important to keep in mind that Jonathan takes academic expertise seriously. He believes, without the usual irony, that academics should know more about their subject than, well, anyone else.

There are different ways of taking that. Generally, you and your peers should be the place non-experts go for knowledge about a certain set of topics. Obviously, there will be degrees of expertise within your field, and no one is saying that you have to be the absolutely most knowledgeable person in your area. There will normally be someone you can look up to. But it can be useful to ask yourself: on what specific topics should academics in your field go to you for detailed knowledge? The standards you maintain in that area will say a great deal about your work.

Then there is the question about language and writing. When defining your area of expertise, make sure you are able to write well and easily about its central topics. That's a relative idea, of course. Just make sure it's not an area that you have a great deal of trouble expressing yourself in.

Also, if much of the tradition can be traced back to French or German or Spanish or even Latin texts, spend some of your time learning that language. The main character in Don DeLillo's White Noise is an expert on Hitler who, to his shame, doesn't know any German. When his department hosts a major international conference, he decides he'd better learn and secretly finds himself a German teacher. But by then it is, of course, too late.

Tony Tost, my favourite living poet, once said that when he's writing a poem he's "basically just trying to be brilliant". I think Jonathan's advice just details this attitude towards one's work. To be brilliant you have to have the necessary skills, but you also have to know where to stand in order to shine. Where is your light needed?

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I've inserted [Be Brilliant] in my original post. So much better than what I had "Be smart."