Friday, February 03, 2012

Standard Issue

"The world exists to end up in a book," said Stéphane Mallarmé. For today's scholars, it might seem as though it exists to end up in a journal article. But it would be more accurate to say that their objects of inquiry are constructed precisely in order to end up in such an article. It is the standard unit of knowledge-production. Yesterday, one of my readers reminded me that I had promised to say something about the individual parts a journal article in upcoming posts. I'll get to that next week (I promise). This morning I want to say something more generally about the importance of the journal article for the life of inquiry.

Poets produce poems. Scholars produce articles. They convert experience into a particular kind of expression with a particular kind of form, one that is recognizable to their readers. A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case. And it will provide an argument not just for the truth of that claim but for its relevance for a particular line of inquiry. It will also situate both the claim and the line of inquiry in a world of shared concern that goes beyond the narrow, scholarly interests of both the writer and the reader. Within those narrow limits, however, it will respect the field's theoretical and methodological commitments. Before it is over, it will offer a simple one-paragraph statement of the argument for the central claim (thesis) of the paper that assumes that the very knowledgeable and highly intelligent reader has understood the rest of the paper.

The article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but "knowing" something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions.

The scholarly conversation depends on respecting these proportions. That is: scholars expect to be talked to in a particular way, they do not expect a unique, transformative literary experience. Jonathan Mayhew has rightly described literature as the kind of writing that "kicks your ass with its transformative power". Academic writing serenely disdains to kick your ass like this. Rather, as I'm fond of saying, it is the purpose of a journal article to artfully disappoint our expectations of a particular object of inquiry. If you want to be a scholar, it is a good idea to learn that art.

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