The challenge of writing in the accelerated academy

In the nine years since I first entered a Sociology department, I’ve had a deep interest in academic writing that has only increased with time. In my past life as a philosophy student, writing had never occurred to me as a topic of intellectual interest. Despite having once aspired to be a writer before concluding that I wasn’t good enough at writing political polemics to stand much chance of joining that small class of people who write them for a living. This self-critical concern with the quality (or otherwise) of my writing has perhaps been more of an animating force than I’ve tended to admit to myself. But the other driver was the inspiration I derived from ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, the first book I read as a Sociology postgraduate. As Mills puts it on pg 217-218:

I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences … Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.

I’m fascinated by what sociological writing can reveal because of where it sits at the intersection between sociologists, sociology, higher education and the wider world. In such writing we find an (often unintended) disclosure of sociologists, the discipline they have been socialised into, its status within the wider academy and their conditions of labour within it. All while purporting to be an examination of the world ‘out there’. In fact, it’s through concern for how we can produce knowledge of this world, as well as put it to work in changing that world, that it becomes imperative to address writing in a diagnostic mode. How does actually existing sociological writing impede knowledge production? Can we strive to ameliorate these pernicious effects? As Andrew Sayer has put it, the alienated writing of social scientists reflects their own alienation. In addressing one, we unavoidably encounter the other.

One of the most striking things about contemporary scholarly writing is how obviously rushed some of it is. We can read this back from quantitative measures, looking at the increasing rate at which individuals publish, as well as the aggregate growth of publications as a whole. Though there are other factors at work (e.g. digital technology offering time savings in the writing and research process) the basic trend is clearly one of acceleration. We can recognise it qualitatively in a lack of innovation across publications and the well-recognised tendency towards ‘salami slicing’. But as Michael Billig points out in his Learn to Write Badly, we can also recognise it in the texts themselves. From pg 133:

The trouble is that the specialists do not handle their big nouns with care, but they rush to use them, knocking over verbs in their haste and barging other parts of speech out of the way. In their rush, they fail to tie the big words firmly to the grounds of human actions, leave them flapping loosely, but flamboyantly, in the wind.

Rushing does not create this tendency towards vague, grandiose and depersonalised language. As this interview with Howard Becker rather beautifully illustrates, we can find intellectual roots for these tendencies in the world views of prominent and influential theorists:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”) …

As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”

But we can find the conditions within which these ways of writing and speaking propagate in the academy itself (as as a corollary, in the work of the great theorists themselves). One thing I’d like to explore much further with the Accelerated Academy project is how we can use tempo as a way to understand the organisational influences upon scholarly writing. Billig rather persuasively diagnoses how the intensification of academic labour, particularly in relation to securing a position when facing competition on all sides, incentivises self-promotional writing. This is how do things, it’s better than how they do things, join my club. But in reality, most of us are likely to join someone’s else club… taking shelter from the cold winds of an organisation undergoing rapid deprofessionalisation by huddling together around a camp fire of shared certainties (not to mention opportunities for networking, publication and engagement). I was struck by the contrast Billig draws between how a figure like Foucault innovated and the contemporary realities of scholarship. From pg 148:

There is something very old-fashioned about Foucault’s lectures to the Collège de France. It is not just that he cites obscure writers from the early modern period and that he presents no ‘literature reviews’, in which he positions his own work in relation to the approaches of his contemporaries. His lectures were lectures: he did not seem eager to rush them into print to boost his tally of publications. Nor did he place key lectures –such as that on ‘governmentality’ –in influential sociological journals. Instead, he addressed his audience directly. And most importantly, he addressed them as individuals, who might be interested in his ideas, rather than as potential academic producers whom he wishes to recruit to a new mode of enquiry. In this regard, Foucault was not a Foucauldian, spreading the Foucauldian message and seeking to promote a Foucauldian subdiscipline.

It reminded of David Graeber’s argument about the dead zones of the imagination in higher education. Has rampant scholasticism coupled with inane managerialism destroyed the conditions under which the objects of that scholastic zeal were able to thrive?

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

In what I’ve discussed so far, there are a number of distinct (overlapping?) factors which these thinkers have diagnosed as harmful to academic writing:

  • Status insecurity of social scientists, particularly vis-a-vis natural scientists.
  • The time pressures of the accelerated academy and increasing tempos of expected publication.
  • Competition in the academic labour market and the imperative to achieve security through publication.
  • Managerialism and metricisation creating an organisational environment within which marketing and PR have engulfed even scholarship.

At the risk of stating the obvious, what each of these factors have in common is the scholar. Note that when I write ‘the scholar’, I abstract from actually existing embodied persons. This carries the same cost that Billig notes of ‘the subject’:

It sounds much grander, more official, and less personal. The definite article – the ‘the’ – adds cachet. By using ‘the subject’, the authors turn ‘people’ into another theoretical thing. (pg 158)

I’m not trying to write about a category. I’m trying to write about the people who occupy that category. The living, breath, hoping, despairing, finite beings for whom ‘academic’ is one social role amongst others occupied in their lives. Furthermore, within the confines of that role, they might aspire to ‘scholar’ and feel constrained by the realities of the organisations within which they work. Writing offers an interesting route into ‘the scholar’. A way to diagnose what troubles them so. Another way of exploring the ‘deep somatic crisis’ that critics like Roger Burrows and Ros Gill have claimed afflicts the contemporary academy. But this is a much bigger project than one blog post can contain.

8 Comments

  1. I’m fascinated by the polarized takes on whether clarity is a virtue in academic writing. There are those from the write clearly brigade who are often vocal in their condemnation of social science writing. But surely there is a backlash to be had against these types of accounts- I’m reminded of a phrase ‘fast food academia’ used by Mirowski (2011) in which academic work now seemingly has to be broken up into easily consumable bite sizes of information, which are straight and to the point. Does the thirst for clarity itself say something about accelerated reading conditions in academia and endorse a particular kind of information logic? One of the conclusions I sometimes feel like reaching is that these kinds of calls for clarity are interesting to reflect on but ultimately a bit hollow – a thing I like about academic work is reading different kinds of writing, from clear and succinct to obscure and mysterious.

    Nonetheless it would be interesting to see advocates of clear versus ambiguous writing actually debate directly with one another – rather than present their sides as polemics which is usually the case.

    1. I vacillate back and forth, which I guess could charitably be interpreted as my seeing both sides of the argument yet finding them both a bit unsatisfying. One of the fascinating points about Billig’s book is his argument that everyday language is actually harder work than technical language. So the drive to obsfucation and waffle can be read as symptoms of acceleration just as easily as the demand for clarity: perhaps they’re mutually reinforcing? I wonder also if the inability to sustain pluralism could be driven by a collapse of shared standards. We’re more likely to be intolerant of other people’s preferences as our shared worlds become more and more insular.

      1. “One of the fascinating points about Billig’s book is his argument that everyday language is actually harder work than technical language. So the drive to obsfucation and waffle can be read as symptoms of acceleration just as easily as the demand for clarity: perhaps they’re mutually reinforcing?”

        It’s an interesting counter, but we may be talking about slightly different things now: you seem to be talking about writing as equal to production – here it is pretty hard to say whether clarity is faster than ambiguity and if one is more ‘more accelerationist’ than the other. I agree it could be argued from both sides here.

        Does Billig pay attention to reading, or is consumption kept separate from production in his account?

        If we think about academic knowledge production as also including reading (assuming folks actually invest time reading the sources they cite!) then it strikes me the clear writing logic is more in tune with acceleration of academic labour type accounts. So as I think consumption of other works is part of the production process, then production will most likely take longer if the scholar engages with difficult, ambiguous texts and more complicated arguments (again it’s a general argument so there may be counter arguments I haven’t thought of!).

        1. Hi Alex, sorry totally forgot about this while I was away at the start of January. I really like what you’re saying though and think I agree: do you think there’s any way to operationalise this in a manner that could clarify the debate? I guess, upon reflection, I think ‘sometimes one, sometimes the other’ and I’m quite unsatisfied with that really.

  2. My belated apologies, and wishes for a happy New Year.

    This entry on writing actually sums up nicely, in a way I’ve had trouble articulating, my critique of my own discipline. Having done my Bachelors and Masters in the United States, and my Ph.D. in Canada, there is a distinct difference in the way Sociology is presented. My first exposure to Sociology was through C. Wright Mills. My foundations in Sociology in the U.S. were with the “titans” of Mills, DuBois, Goffman, Durkheim, et al. I never heard of Foucault until I entered my Ph.D. program in Canada.

    Once exposed to Foucault, I quickly realized that Foucault wasn’t as much of a problem in post-modernism as was the 50,000 different interpretations of Foucault. Canada spends a lot of time on French philosophers as foundations of sociology, and I believe that is problematic.

    Theoretically, I often wondered in the United States how new theory was supposed to be created when all new theory has to be rooted in old theory in order to be academically acceptable. By the time I left the United States, I came to the same conclusion: that there has been no major breakthroughs in theory for a very long time. Canada reinforced this idea when I saw the heavy reliance on 1970s French philosophy – almost at the exclusion of everything else – in its theoretical foundations. One professor described the difference to me as: “Sociology in the United States sees itself as a profession, where Sociology in Canada sees itself as a craft.” It’s an interesting distinction, though I’m not totally convinced (yet) that it’s that simple.

    During my Ph.D. exams, I included such names in my bibliography as Goffman, Mead, and DuBois. I was told to take them out of my bibliography, not because they were invalid, but because they were “too old.” Yet as Ritzer suggests, good theory “stands the test of time.” If theorists are “too old” but have stood the test of time, then that is problematic as well.

    My writing takes the tack of Mills, where I do not feel an innate need to use (what I call) “$50 verbiage.” Knowledge and understanding of social conditions should be accessible to everyone. The fact that not all knowledge is accessible to everyone in sociology may explain why political scientists, economists, and psychologists have way more books in the local bookstore than do sociologists. You point out that the WAY we write can change this, and this will be more salient in my future writing.

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