At the end of his Learning To Write Badly, Michael Billig offers an evocative analogy to describe the predicament he faces in writing a call to rethink our writing practices. From pg 208:
Perhaps a better analogy would be that I am stuck by the side of a large highway, as the trucks go pounding past, hour after hour and day after day. In a voice that can only be heard by someone standing very close to me, I speak against the roar: ‘Wouldn’t it be better if there were fewer trucks on this road, if their loads were lighter and their engines were quieter?’ My words will have no effect; the trucks will keep thundering past whatever I think or say. It is the same with my criticisms of academic writing in the social sciences. I can say what I want in a book which most social scientists would not have time to read, even if they wished to. Things will carry on much as they are; too much has been invested for sudden changes. Academic social scientists are building successful careers and attracting significant research funds, while their managerial evaluators look on, demanding more and more. I just stand by the side of the road, muttering at the traffic.
The momentum with which writing in the accelerated academy proceeds is captured powerfully here. Ever more traffic, continually accelerating while we ourselves cannot make a career out of standing still. How do we ensure that our attempts to intervene don’t simply accelerate the traffic further and add more cars to the road? The very tactics necessary to win the attention of the other drivers risk compounding the problem we’re seeking to address.
I’ll resist the urge to stretch the analogy yet further, but it’s in relation to this problem that I’ve been preoccupied by the notion of the ‘assembly device’. How can we craft devices that bring together different groups, facilitating new conversations in ways that address the challenges of writing in the accelerated academy? When it works, the ‘turn’ is such an assembly device. But it’s overused and it’s mystified. The turn is rarely understood a device, as opposed to as a description of a trend (fallibly) observed in an (inevitably partial) literature. Can we tweak the ‘turn’ as a device? Can we design other kinds of devices?