Monday, August 24, 2015

Academic Knowing

Academic writing expresses academic knowledge. In order to write something academically, then, you need to know it first, and to know it in an "academic" way. That may seem trivially true of all knowing and all writing. ("Write what you know," as the old saw goes.) Before you can write about tables you have to know about tables. It seems obvious. But there's an important reciprocity in the case of academic writing and knowing that we do well to remember. In order to write a book about how to build tables, you need to know how to build tables, but there's no obvious sense in which the opposite also holds. We can perfectly well imagine a carpenter who can build a table but who is unable to write a good book; indeed, we can imagine an entirely illiterate and yet entirely masterful carpenter. An illiterate scholar, by contrast, is a contradiction in terms.

Academic knowledge, we might say, is expressed in writing. There are other modes of expression—speech and debate, for example—that, we might say, suggest academic knowledge, but it is only in writing that this knowledge is truly demonstrated. Some people can present themselves convincingly as scholars in conversation, but their claims to know what they are talking about are undermined if we discover that they haven't written and can't write about their subject. This is why I make the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something an essential part of my definition of knowledge "for academic purposes." As a scholar, it is sometimes tempting but ultimately not at all helpful to kid yourself that you know something if you are unable to write it down. If you are struggling to write it down, you should treat this as part of the struggle to know it.

I should admit that this theory of knowledge stands in a certain kind of tension with my more practical writing advice. In some circles, I'm famous for suggesting that you should separate your writing process entirely from your research process. But I really just mean that you should spend some of your time writing down things you're no longer struggling to know. You should not think you can solve your knowledge problem through writing. But what I said in the previous paragraph still holds: part of your knowledge problem just is a writing problem, so you have to work on that too sometimes.

The solution to the problem of how to write something lies in an understanding of who you're writing for. (I normally cite Virginia Woolf for this point, but "know your reader" is really as old a piece of advice as "write what you know".) And therein lies the clue to understanding also why writing is an essential part of academic knowing. Academic knowledge is always held by communities, often very specific ones consisting of tens or hundreds of people. Whether or not you know something academically depends on whether or not your views are plausible to these specific people. You learn about them by reading them and they learn about you by reading you.

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