In Defense of Academic Writing


Cass Sunstein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, defends serious academic writing against the pressures of popularization and accessibility. Articles in popular magazines and blogs “might be clear and beautifully written, but usually they don’t add much if anything to the stock of knowledge,” and “even when they are written by professors, they are often glib, cheap, and superficial.” Meanwhile, academic work

often adds to what humanity knows, and that should not be disparaged. Such work often has a commitment to rigor, care, discipline, and sheer quality — to avoidance of the narrowly ideological and to mischaracterizing other people’s arguments. When it comes to scholarship, fairness is a coin of the realm. When they are working well, academic journals discourage arguments that are glib, sloppy, or circular. They require conclusions to be earned. They also require both development of and sympathetic engagement with competing points of view, rather than easy or rapid dismissals. Counterarguments are encouraged, even mandatory. There is a kind of internal morality here, one that is connected with and helps account for some of its rigidity. The morality involves respect for the integrity of the process of argument, which entails respect for a wide range of arguers as well. 

Yes, when they are working well. (There’s no mention of Reviewer 2 in there, I noticed.) He adds that academics

write for a specialized audience, and that’s fine. All of them are interested in fundamental questions, and they approach those questions in ways that many general readers would find obscure. What might seem to be unintelligible gibberish, or jargon, often has precision, shorthand, and nuance that cannot be captured in ordinary language…

Sure, there’s room for different kinds of writing. But whatever else they do, academic journals often display great care and rigor, in a way that can make op-eds, blog posts, and essays in even excellent general-interest magazines look like pretty thin gruel—mere bumper stickers, a kind of wind, even when written by professors.

I would bet that there are more academic journals publishing more academic articles by more academics today than ever before, so one might wonder why Sunstein bothered writing the piece, which is on the face of it directed at fellow academics—he says:

I wish, devoutly, that some of the immensely talented academics who write for popular outlets would reallocate some of their time to their academic work, which is less like popcorn. 

However, the essay could be seen as part of a defense of academia from external threats, and much of the essay defends academic work on the basis of its influence. “Common sense can be affected by academic influences, and is sometimes a product of it,” he says, and “academic work often orients our politics, our culture, and our lives.”

So, academic work at its best: rigorous, fair, knowledge-producing, and influential.

Examples of this in ethics and social and political philosophy are not hard to find. But how about some examples from other areas of philosophy?

drop of water

guest
28 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
bigbird
bigbird
5 years ago

Surely there’s a place for popularizing serious academic work in a way that is not glib, cheap, and superficial?Report

Dih2
Dih2
5 years ago

Is it actually true that any social or moral philosophy has been influential? I find that rather hard to believe. Perhaps Singer has been, but then again perhaps the apparent influence of Singer is more a product of his ideas’ growing popularity independent of his work.

The thought though that academic writing in popular outlets is somehow more influential is also rather dubious. Who reads the New York Review of Books or the Atlantic Monthly these days? Who ever read them? From time to time an educated reader may find something insightful in the popular writing of a philosopher, but we should not mistake that for influence. Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Reply to  Dih2
5 years ago

John Rawls? I’ve seen “A Theory of Justice” referenced on “Law and Order.”
http://allthingslawandorder.blogspot.com/2009/09/law-order-memo-from-dark-side-recap.htmlReport

harry b
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
5 years ago

And in the Dr Who 50th anniversary special, obviously.Report

Fritz
Fritz
5 years ago

Ironic that the defense of academic writing is in the popular medium he decries.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Fritz
5 years ago

It is ironic, I guess. Sorta like screaming at someone that they need to scream less. But there might be times when that’s appropriate and necessary! I actually tend to agree with most of what Sunstein writes. Popular writing is important, but academic writing should take priority, despite its tendency to technical jargon, etc. etc. I wonder, though, who Sunstein has in mind when he says that some academics seem to have abandoned academic outlets for popular outlets. Steven Pinker? Peter Singer? Daniel Dennet? Anthony Appiah?Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

Bertrand Russell?Report

Jasper Heaton
Jasper Heaton
5 years ago

Frustratingly I can’t see the whole article. But from what I can glean from the quotes given, it rather seems that Sunstein has colossally missed the point of popularization.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
5 years ago

I never thought I’d ever write this but I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with bigbird.

It seems to me that there is no reason to think that being rigorous, fair, knowledge-producing, and influential does not preclude one from trying to write such that one’s work is as accessible as possible.

I will grant that it may be possible that one needs to coin terms or occasionally use jargon to avoid confusion. Yet, it seems to me that one should endeavor to use as little jargon as reasonably possible and to try to explain things in a manner that is accessible to the broadest audience that one can given considerations of length and readability.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

Sunstein seems to me to have identified a genuine tension—rigour and accessibility have a tendency to pull in opposite directions. (I also think about citation practices in this context—op-eds can’t be full of lists of citations.) As bigbird points out, it’s not always impossible to manage both, but I think it’s true in general that we will often be called upon to sacrifice one for t’other.

But as Justin says, the idea that our resources are on the whole being directed too much towards the popular is pretty laughable. We do need both—but we’re presently erring in the opposite direction as that Sunstein suggests.

And how could we not be? Academic careers are not set up to reward public engagement. Slight changes in a positive direction can be perceived, but we have a lot further to go to swing the pendulum so far that this piece would make sense.Report

Horace Beely
Horace Beely
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

I disagree. I can’t think of a single piece of self-consciously “popular” philosophy that wouldn’t have been better written as traditional academic writing if it should’ve been written at all.

This isn’t to say academic philosophy shouldn’t be written with popular readers in mind in the sense of being work non-philosophers could be expected to understand and care about. Often it totally should; I think this *is* something we as a discipline need more of. But it should be so in a way that adds to depth and rigor rather than detracts from it. Think of the papers in Nagel’s “Mortal Questions.” They were published in academic journals, but what makes them great academic philosophy is also what makes them exciting and accessible to non-philosophers.

This also isn’t to say only academic writing can be philosophically serious and illuminating. There is a lot of literature, biography, history, social criticism, etc. that I find philosophically serious and illuminating–in many cases more so than most (sometimes virtually all) academic philosophy. If philosophers want to engage a wider audience by branching out into these kinds of writing, more power to them! But they shouldn’t just do diet philosophy for magazines.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  Horace Beely
5 years ago

In response to Horace, I think the point should be made that philosophy could be understood not as only being about writing the tightest most rigorous argument that one can. It seems to me that effective philosophical work also has an impact in changing the way people think about things. Work that doesn’t get read doesn’t have this sort of impact.

That being the case it seems to me that philosophers don’t need to be just aiming to have the heftiest work possible — there are legitimate reasons to sometimes be willing to trade heft for readership. The problem is when one overemphasizes readership and fails to consider rigor at all.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Sunstein dismisses non-academic work on the grounds that academic work “often adds to what humanity knows” but non-academic work does not. But on this model, is is only the academics who actually get to know things, since they are the only ones who get written for. What is the point of philosophers knowing things if that knowledge doesn’t pass beyond professional philosophy? Why should the public pay us to sit there knowing things we never pass on?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

But non-academics almost never can read academic work. What chance does someone with even an undergraduate degree in philosophy have to understand papers in the average professional journal? And if such graduates don’t have a chance, what chance does the rest of humanity have?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

To repeat a point Justin just made, Sunstein doesn’t assert that popularization is unimportant. He himself has written for the layman. And there are ways for the public to become aware of advances made by academics other than by reading popular blogs and magazines (by receiving a good college education for example).Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

What would follow isn’t that only academics can know things—it’s that only academics can know *new* things. I think the picture is meant to be that one can teach academic discoveries to others, but this doesn’t count as adding to the stock of human knowledge, because it’s just further spreading around the knowledge that already exists.

This isn’t super plausible in generality, of course.Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I assume that Sunstein is trying to provide a wedge of resistance to the tendency, on the part of quantifiers of our worth, to disparage the technical and detailed writing we do to specialized audiences of fellow experts. I appreciate being offered such a wedge. But it does seem an overcompensation to posit that writing to non-specialist audiences in nonacademic outlets adds nothing (to anyone, anywhere, ever?). Wouldn’t it be desirable to write to both our rigorous peers about our very narrow insights into ongoing debates, so as to further our mutual understandings, and also write to anyone/everyone else about a clarifying, or illuminating, or provoking way to rethink their assumptions?

I got a tantalizing taste of writing to other audiences when I provided something to a blog on exercise and fitness, and received an email from someone saying I had helped them think differently about a concern of theirs. It was just an email, but it seemed to me to be a pleasant extension of what a lot of us do in classrooms, that is, move our students to rethink assumptions or take a different perspective, whether or not they continue in philosophy. Public writing may do something similar to what teaching does. I know an op-ed is just a one-shot opportunity, not a semester-long engagement, but we can and should try to talk to non-specialists if we think we could provoke an insight or a reframing of the issues, right? Even if it doesn’t teach, even if it just promotes some solidarity and clarity — am I being Pollyannish?Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
5 years ago

The phenomenon Susstein describes is real, but it has nothing to do with popular outlets per se, but with the level and quality of public intellectual culture at a given time and place. Our public culture is superficial and insipid, and writing that hopes to reach that culture must aim accordingly.

If you ever want to luxuriate in despair over what global capitalism and a generation of MBAs and a techno-savvy lumpenproletariat does to a culture, just pick up any newspaper at random and compare its present editorials and interest stories to those written in the 70s, and then compare those (if you can) to ones from the 30s. It is not that the older is always better. It is that a public culture systemically deformed by commodification eventually flattens to a glossy sheen of nothingness. Or maybe the glass is half-full. Yeah. Right. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I apologize if I’ve misrepresented Sunstein’s position. I do think that Sunstein undervalues public philosophy, though. It is true, as Sunstein maintains, that philosophy written for academics is very important, but I’m not aware of anyone who thinks otherwise.

@Liurio, I don’t see how it follows from the fact that popular culture is flawed that philosophy directed at the public must share those flaws. Why can’t philosophers aim to improve popular culture instead?Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Hey Nonny Mouse,

The notion that philosophers can improve popular culture is, as Marx says, an “innocent and childlike fantasy.” On the other hand, sometimes that is all we have, I suppose.

Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
5 years ago

Couldn’t get the article, what does academic writing need “defending” from, exactly? Never met someone who believed in public communication of research who didn’t also think doing actual academic research is important. Also, the importance of academic writing is obviously separable from very worthwhile critiques of its execution and structure. Not to be too obnoxious, but isn’t Sunstein’s article a blog post?Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

If the characterisation of academic publishing given here were accurate then perhaps there would not be an issue. As it is, the rosy picture it paints bears little or no relation to reality. In my experience academic articles often achieve the ideals of rigour, dispassion, fairness and so forth when they concern the professional specialism of the author, and I tend to trust such articles. When they wander into other areas, and especially if that other area is metaphysics or religion, they often turn into opinionated pub-chat or worse. I feel that this may be because one of the statements made here is not correct.

“Academics write for a specialized audience, and that’s fine. All of them are interested in fundamental questions, and they approach those questions in ways that many general readers would find obscure.”

It seems to me that very few academics are interested in fundamental questions. Even some prominent philosophers of mind exhibit no obvious interest, which is just plain weird, and in the natural sciences there is often open contempt for metaphysics. Most academics seem to belong to Russell’s school of thought, which would hold that because Russell could not get anywhere with them fundamental question are not worth bothering with. A consequence of this disdain is a lack of constraint on theories and a lot of kite-flying and rootless sophistry, and sometimes the need for an obscure approach to hide behind. It seems unfair to mention any names, but followers of consciousness studies should have no problem identifying examples. If only it were true that there was a widespread academic interest in fundamental questions.

Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Wesley Buckwalter, here’s what Cass Sunstein relays in the article, the first few paragraphs of which go as follows (excerpted thanks to LexisNexis Academic):
‘When I served in the Obama administration, some of my colleagues, who had recently been academics, wondered, with something like despair, how they could ever return to academic life. “After this,” they wondered, “what could possibly be the point of going back to write academic articles?” When I asked them to elaborate, one of them sent me this quotation from Theodore Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Wherever they are, academics are not in the arena. Their faces are rarely marred by dust, sweat, or blood. (If so, they are in the wrong profession.) They do not really know either victory or defeat. (Having an article accepted or rejected doesn’t exactly count.) Few people may read what they write, no matter how much they obsess over the title, the abstract, or the concluding paragraphs.’
Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

As the whole Sunstein article is 3000 words, I cannot excerpt all of it, but here’s the relevant defense at the end. (I should add that on grumpy days I’ve said academic writing is overly obscure, rarely read, in short every pessimistic thought that lends one to doubt the worth of academic research. In this respect, I gather that Wesley Buckwalter and I differ.)

‘Even when it avoids obscurantism, some academic work can be seen as a form of exercise – or a marathon – in which the ultimate product is like a work of art, one that might be beautiful, but that will not attract much of an audience. Many superb articles and books fall into this category. As a highly distinguished professor once told me, “We write for our friends.” Is excellent work its own reward? There is no obvious answer. Maybe so. What is clear is that academic work often adds to what humanity knows, and that should not be disparaged.
Such work often has a commitment to rigor, care, discipline, and sheer quality – to avoidance of the narrowly ideological and to mischaracterizing other people’s arguments. When it comes to scholarship, fairness is a coin of the realm. When they are working well, academic journals discourage arguments that are glib, sloppy, or circular. They require conclusions to be earned. They also require both development of and sympathetic engagement with competing points of view, rather than easy or rapid dismissals. Counterarguments are encouraged, even mandatory. There is a kind of internal morality here, one that is connected with and helps account for some of its rigidity. The morality involves respect for the integrity of the process of argument, which entails respect for a wide range of arguers as well.
The literary critic Wayne Booth has written about the “implied author” – the character or persona behind the text, who may or may not be similar to the actual author. For all their diversity, academic articles tend to have broadly similar implied authors. They are usually careful, formal, earnest, diligent, serious, and fair-minded. They are rarely playful, funny, silly, joyful, angry, tricky, or outraged. There are exceptions, but that is the general pattern. And while the usual implied authors of academic articles may not be people you’d like to go out drinking with, you can probably trust them.
…Many academics seem strongly drawn to popular outlets, producing blog posts or online columns, where signifi-cant numbers of readers might be found, and where publication is more immediate. Indeed, some academics seem to have abandoned – to some extent or altogether – academic journals and books in favor of popular outlets. Rodell might have applauded. But I do not think there is any reason for applause.
I wish, devoutly, that some of the immensely talented academics who write for popular outlets would reallocate some of their time to their academic work, which is less like popcorn. Sure, there’s room for different kinds of writing. But whatever else they do, academic journals often display great care and rigor, in a way that can make op-eds, blog posts, and essays in even excellent general-interest magazines look like pretty thin gruel – mere bumper stickers, a kind of wind, even when written by professors.
A point for Keynes: Jargon-filled or not, academic work often orients our politics, our culture, and our lives. Whether or not they are anybody’s slaves, those in the arena have good reason to celebrate it.’

Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
5 years ago

Kate Norlock, thank you for sharing that content. I too sometimes lament the unfortunate features of certain academic research articles you listed. But as a result of this, is it your view academic research is no longer important? To me it seemed pretty obvious public communication is important but also clearly not a substitute for academic research generating knowledge it presumable sometimes communicates. So I was wondering if there was some deeper point to this piece.

As others have commented, why accept there is some kind of dichotomy between “commitment to rigor, care, discipline, sheer quality” and something “clear and beautifully written”? My favorite academic research and blogs achieve both.Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Wesley, I do believe there’s a deeper point to the piece. It seems to me that the political messages in America tend toward statements that what academics do is worthless, that academics are overpaid and underworked and so on. One way academics have countered this is by doing more public writing and public speaking, and another way, especially in the Humanities, is to hasten to show that we are interdisciplinary. I take Sunstein’s point to be that, in embracing administrator’s and politicians’ injunctions to defend our worth as public writers and interdisciplinary scholars, academics may be failing to defend something worth defending: Research for its own sake, including the highly specialized work of experts who largely write only to each other in order to advance knowledge and understanding. So I take it that Sunstein felt it important to assert the worth of this publicly, so as to resist the other strategies as the only methods of worthiness.

It is my view that academic research can be very important, so you and I do not differ so much. (I thought you were saying that you’d never encountered anyone who doubted the worth of academic writing, so I was offering myself as a regular doubter of the publication-mill. But to doubt the goodness and worth of some of the features of our tenure-and-reward system is compatible with my believing that academics who write publicly ought also to care about and to do good research with other researchers.)
Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
5 years ago

Kate Norlock, I think your summary of Sunstein’s main point really helps clarify my bafflement with the piece: “in embracing administrator’s and politicians’ injunctions to defend our worth as public writers and interdisciplinary scholars, academics may be failing to defend something worth defending: Research for its own sake”. I don’t see how that follows. Why would doing the one not be to also value or defend the other. I also doubt there are serious interlocutors who truly think blogging is the sole measure of academic worthiness. Within our field at least, there seems like a very strong attitude to the contrary a lot of people have begun to question.Report