‘Academic writing.’ He paused.
‘That’s what I suppose I’m here to teach you, but I’m not sure what you have in mind on that subject,’ he said, rather dramatically – and perhaps a little self-consciously? ‘I have some idea, however, of what’s likely to be floating around in there, and I’d like to take the time to clarify things.
‘Now – I’m going to start off sounding cruel, although that is not the intention – when you think “academic writing”, what comes to mind? Possibly that you’re going to be writing about difficult topics, or perhaps about common topics but in difficult language. Perhaps, deep down, you imagine that by the end of this course you’ll be able to write in a way that makes you feel smart.’ At this point, he came across as somewhat ill-at-ease, instead of smug.
‘What I’m trying- well, what I want to say is, a good rule of thumb is to go against these impressions, in the opposite direction. Instead of difficult, academic writing should be just about as easy as you can make it. Instead of smart, simple: in the classes you’ll be pursuing in your various disciplines, I think you’ll find that the academic writing that’s had the broadest influence are going to be those readings that leave you wondering, “That’s easy enough, did they really have to write this?”‘
‘I blame the prefix, maybe: “academic” – a label. And in the university there will be no shortage of people who’ll be trying to convince anyone who’ll hear that the label is prestigious, but in reality – or at least, let’s try to fix on “academic” as a name describing your audience, your community- basically the people you’re writing for, and the people whose writing you’ll also be reading.’
At this point, he paused again, looking around the class. Most of us were paying at least some attention, which was not bad.
‘And if we’re thinking about your readers and yourselves, writers, as a community, I think there’s no disclaiming the question of values. I’m promoting a subjective judgement here, that in writing for each other we want to help our friend understand the thing we’re writing about, as easily as possible. I’m saying why we write is not about feeling intelligent in the moment, but perhaps – just possibly – becoming a little bit more intelligent, but slowly, together, over time.
‘Yes, academic discourse is an exchange of views, and (you may think) one with a natural tendency towards being a contentious business. Actually, I find this is only sometimes the case. In each field and each community, there is often a lot of unity, underlying or overlying, or at least a shared desire to advance the discussion. Where this is built up the best is where the discussion is not just an exchange of broadsides, but where there’s a good deal of serious listening going on (and this is something you also demonstrate in writing, but we’ll get to that).’ Here he looked ruminative.
‘But perhaps worse than the actually rather rare situation of shouting over each other, is the depressingly more common situation of addressing discussions to no-one, beyond the people who have to read it – people who don’t, in fact, have to read your report as seriously as you might imagine when you’re composing it. That’s why I hope you’ll be good writers, but why I hope even more that you’ll be better readers – that perhaps we’ll get to a point where, between all of us, we’ll write more carefully and listen more carefully, about things worth knowing.’
Here he looked exhausted.