Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Schools & Scholars

When we talk about "academic writing", we're often talking about the sort of writing that students are expected to do. But we're really talking about something students are expected to learn how to do while at school, and which they'll presumably continue to do throughout their lives. That is, "writing for academic purposes" is not writing for the purpose of passing an examination, and it is not writing to an audience of one, i.e., the teacher. Nor are the "conventions" that govern the writing tanatamount to the demands of the "assignment". The artificiality of a school assignment is intended to simulate the conditions under which students might develop the art of scholarship.

When I went looking for standard guidelines for writing in the humanities just now, the result was, not suprisingly, the guidelines that teachers make available to their students. I really liked Celia Easton's guidelines because of her focus on the reader. "The first thought any writer should give to a paper is not 'What am I going to say?' but 'Who is my audience?'" And she then points out that the audience should consist of a like-minded readers (such as fellow students). Even when the reader is the course instructor, he or she is "not a bored or sneering reader looking for a single interpretation. The professor is interested in the same work that you are writing about, probably knows a good deal about it, and wants to be persuaded by a claim that you make about your topic." This shift of attention from the teacher or examinor to an "interested reader" is very important. Today, too many working scholars have installed a "bored and sneering" reviewer between themselves as writers and their real readers. Some have entirely lost sight of the reader (as, sadly, have some reviewers and editors).

I want to emphasize the knowledge of the reader here. "To know whom to write for," said Virginia Woolf, "is to know how to write." That's the very basic principle of all academic writing, and in the humanities it has an interesting twist:

When writing about a treatise, a satire, a novel, a document, etc., remember that your reader already knows the plot or substance of the text. Concentrate on how the author expresses what happens. You can refer to events and ideas without describing them as though they were completely new to your reader. E.g., rather than telling your reader, "Jefferson argues for the American colonies to break away from the domination of Britain," you can say, "Jefferson's argument that the American colonies break away from the domination of Britain combines inductive reasoning with an emotional rhetorical appeal." From there you would provide textual examples, and comment upon each one you select. (Easton, my emphasis)

I think this is the most important thing that social science writers need to learn if they want to make the move towards "liberal learning". Unlike the results of field work, interviews, or surveys, the materials being analyzed in the humanities should be presumed to be known to the reader. That is, in the humanities, we're talking to people who already know.

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RSL will now be taking a break. There will be some changes, but I'll explain all that when I get back to it in 2012. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Presskorn said...

When we finished graduate school, an intelligent friend of mine remarked, that we had, in an sense,”never written something”, because we had always written with a very specific reader in mind, i.e. a specific professor/examiner (and now it is perhaps a specific editor).
Question: This is reminiscent of what you say in this post and yet, at least superficially, inconsistent with Wolff’s maxim. Basically, I wan’t to affirm both Wolff’s and my friends maxim – and seemingly, so do you. How should we phrase that or, more importantly, how should think about that when we write?

Merry Christmas to you as well...

Presskorn said...

wan't = want

Thomas said...

I think the answer is that it was a mistake to write for that too-specific reader. It may be true what your friend said. But it wasn't necessary to write that way. One must simply have a larger conception of one's self. Even as a student.

Jonathan said...

I tell students to write not for me but for their peer group, advanced majors in the major, or graduate students in a course similar to the one they are taking.Then they aren't falling into the trap of the "audience of one."

Presskorn said...

@Jonathan. I think that is a good suggestion. And I basically tell my own students the same thing: My supervisor at London School of Economics always told me to write for the smartest one in my class. And that helped me to assess the level of knowlegde that I could assume of my reader.

Andrew Shields said...

One of my models of good expository writing is the style cultivated by the New York Review of Books. There, I would say the authors are writing as scholars with expertise in their field for an audience of generally intellectually interested readers. This produces an excellent, extraordinarily flexible, and exceptionally informative style.