What Makes Writing “Academic”?

This is a good question that Julia Molinari has asked over at the Doctoral Writing SIG blog. (See my previous post inspired by that one.) I have posted some comments on that post and Julia has been kind enough to respond. I thought I’d just re-post the essence of the exchange here as well, elaborating a little as I go.

I have found it useful to define academic writing simply as the presentation of what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. This, I like to stress, implies writing in such way that you open your thinking to criticism from your epistemic peers. “Form” can here be though of in terms of how it supports occasions for criticism. Mastering a form is really about learning how your reader needs your ideas to be presented if they are to be able to engage constructively with them.

Or, rather, that’s what academic form is about. We can perfectly well imagine other forms of writing where “mastery” is shown in how well you deflect criticism, or that your reader can simply enjoy the text, i.e., be entertained by it. What I want to argue is that such forms are not academic.

The essay is one way to occasion criticism. Here claims are made and supported, preferably one claim to a paragraph, each providing the basis on which the claim is made. This is a very common form in academia because it is very effective, but I don’t want to rule out alternatives. I just want to maintain some sense of the “essence” of scholarly writing. A form becomes “academic” when it frames a critical practice, when it becomes a manner of giving and taking criticism. To say of a statement (in whatever medium) that it is “academic”, we might say, is merely to say it is open to criticism from peers.

In her response, Julia raised a couple of important issues. First, she pointed out that I’m letting the intention behind a text determine whether or not it is academic, and intentions are not always as simple and pure as I seem to think. “What if you are writing with the intention of being published …  or pass an exam, for example, but have no intention to engage in discussion (as is the case with many academics)?” she asks. “Would that kind of writing still be academic?”

My answer is that, no,  “getting published” or “passing an exam” does not count as an “academic” intention. But it’s also not the proper intentionality of most texts written by either students or scholars. I would say that a text that says–i.e., means–only that it wants to get published, or that it should get a good grade, should get neither. That is, if, no other sense can be made of the text than, “I want an A in this course” then that text must receive an F. Such a text is of course hard to imagine anyone actually handing in and most writers, thankfully, have mixed motives.

Moreover, we should distinguish psychological from textual intention, or the actual from the implied author. The psychology of the actual writer doesn’t make or break the “academicity” of the text. The fact that the writer is seeking personal fame or fortune matters less than the means the writer users to that end. The question is what relationship is established between the authorial persona and its implied reader. This relationship is a construct. It’s constructed. It’s what the craft is about.

Julia also worried about the negative connotation of a “critical” occasion. She prefers, she says, “the term ‘critique’ to the term ‘criticism’: the latter connotes confrontation, hostility, and belligerence; the former, intellectual respect, thoughtful engagement, and precision.” This, I want to acknowledge, is a serious and common objection to the traditional posture of academic writing, so its worth dealing with head-on.

I begin with somewhat different connotations, however. I take “critique” in a Kantian sense, as the revelation of the conditions of the possibility of an object of knowledge. And I think of “criticism” more as in “literary criticism”, i.e., a weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of the work against exemplars of masterwork in the relevant tradition.

I very definitely want to maintain opportunities for “confrontation”. Outright hostility is obviously not desirable, but it has to be possible to offer a corrective to someone’s point of view. It has to be possible to tell a peer that they are wrong about something. My notion of criticism includes that possibility; indeed, it reserves a place of honor for it.

We might say that I think of academic writing as almost essentially defined by the possibility of being wrong. That possibility should not feel threatening to academics. On the contrary, academia is constituted by the right to be wrong, and this right comes with the obligation to listen to one’s peers. Someone who takes any suggestion that they are, or even might be, in error as an act of hostility is not taking an “academic” stance. The academic produces a text that is “open” to criticism: it is ready to be shown wrong by other knowledgeable people. That rhetorical posture is central to my definition of “academic”.

Much depends, as Julia rightly points out, on how we define our “peers”. In most cases of academic writing, however, there is no need to overthink this. The peer group can be confined for all practical purposes to a handful of people, maybe ten or twenty of them, whose names are known. Obviously, the text will have many more (or many less) readers than we imagine. But we know who to imagine, who we are thinking of when we write. And the text will be judged relative to those readers’ expectations. For first year students, it might be helpful to imagine the other people in the class. I truly believe a lot could be won by getting students to tell each other what they have learned in the course, rather than trying to tell their teachers. For more senior scholars, the literature review is supposed to identify the relevant peer group. In any case, all academic writing should be done with a pretty finite list of names in mind and awareness of what knowledge they bring with them to reading.

Start with what you know. Then imagine saying it in a way that makes sense to someone else who knows it. A way that allows them to critically engage with your ideas. If you don’t know the name of even one person who is qualified to show you that you are wrong, what you’re doing is probably not “academic”. But I’m willing to consider counter-examples, of course.

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