Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly, Part 1

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As the rain pounded Houston this fall, I camped out in a conference room on the third floor of the library of an excellent liberal-arts college. I’d been brought to the campus to work with pretenure faculty members on their book proposals. Between appointments, I sneaked looks at my computer to follow the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.

I read accounts blaming Texans for not heeding warnings of the dangers of untrammeled growth, poor city planning, the price of paving over wetlands, and, of course, global warming. Because of arrogance or willful ignorance, these critics noted, Texans believed they would somehow be exempt from inevitable destruction.

For two days, I met one-on-one with young scholars. To each, I pointed out that the entire second floor of this very library had been emptied to make space for the ways in which knowledge is produced in the 21st century. I told many of them a story I’d heard recently: A distinguished historian, toward the end of his life, tried to donate his exquisite collection of books. His university’s librarians didn’t want it. No one, in fact, wanted all those volumes. The books ended up being destroyed.

That we are living in a time of catastrophic change in the publishing business (not to mention other realms) is not news. Many people have seen it coming and have warned that if academics don’t adapt, they are going to go the route of the black rhino. Between appointments, I saw on Twitter two graphs released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of the number of Ph.D.s in the humanities being awarded, and the number of jobs in those disciplines. The first spiked up like the kind of trail I find challenging to hike even when I’m super-fit, and the other looked like the sweetest way to end a marathon — sharply downhill.

But we’re not talking trails and races here. We’re talking about people’s lives, about young scholars who have invested years of soul-sucking toil, amassed hobbling amounts of debt, and delayed the gratification of job security to enter a market that is as saturated as the Houston soil. People who find these numbers surprising have had their heads buried in the sand long enough to start growing roots.

The faculty members I met with had already won the job lottery. They had beaten out hundreds of talented peers for increasingly rare tenure-track positions. They were supported by a college wealthy enough to give them reasonable teaching schedules and time off to complete the scholarship they were expected to produce. They taught earnest students, enjoyed shared governance with amicable colleagues and administrators, and got to live in a picturesque place.

And then I came to town to give them the bad news.

There was nothing wrong with their book proposals, nothing that would have raised concerns from their academic mentors or peers. They had all learned the secret handshake. They had read everything important in their fields, digested essential ideas, and could spit them back with appropriate citations. They had mastered the jargon and habits of mind of their disciplines.

And that was the problem. They had been disciplined, painfully, and trained to write in ways that had tormented them as graduate students, when they’d read and reread scholarly texts and spent hours trying to wrest the meaning from the prose and doubting their own intelligence. Now they were the ones writing dense and impenetrable sentences. They’d earned their stripes, and in doing so, had made their work unpalatable to any except the few in their own speciated niches.

Each proposal launched directly into a flat description of the project without spending a nanosecond trying to engage the reader. Too many read like undergraduate papers that assume a captive audience of one, or dissertations whose readerships you can count on a hand. I imagined that the sales figures for most of these books would number in the high two digits, even though the topics were compelling and some even timely.

Most of these fledgling scholars had made the same mistakes, which made my job easier. When you are waist-deep in a big, muddy revision of your dissertation, it can be hard to remember that not everyone is going to find your topic fascinating. None of the proposals did anything in first few paragraphs to pique my curiosity. Not one asked a question I wanted to know the answer to. The work was choked with polysyllabic prose and barren of signs of human life.

Three decades ago, when I started work as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, it had begun publishing scholarly monographs after being mostly a purveyor of Bibles and books for the general reader. Acquiring a list of important but narrow studies was as easy as trick-or-treating in an affluent neighborhood. And you could count on libraries to buy many hundreds of copies of each book, enough to keep prices affordable. Those were the days — rich and fat. It’s probably how real-estate developers in Houston once felt.

The whole enterprise has changed since then, but apparently no one bothered to explain how things work now to new assistant professors. Without a library market, university presses act more like commercial publishers, selecting books that will find readers — real people willing to plop down a chunk of change because they need to read the book to do their job, or because they hope it will bring them pleasure.

How many monographs are written with the reader’s pleasure in mind? How many are truly necessary?

Academic publishers now have signing goals, so that they must be mindful of how much coin their list will bring in. Some, especially those who publish reference books, look to build a strong backlist that will sell for many years. But those are not dissertations that have been turned into books.

Many academics wrongly think that technological advances and the ability to print on demand should lower the costs of publishing. But there’s still plenty of overhead: the human effort it takes to create a book out of a manuscript and get it into the world.

Most of the proposal writers I met with realized that — in order to find a market — their books would have to be used in the college classroom. So they included lists of courses in which their monographs could be assigned. Take a minute to think about how many entire single-author books you assign in your courses. How long are those books? How are they written? The chances are slim that a scholarly monograph is going to become required reading on a lot of syllabi.

Likewise, believing that scholarly books will cross disciplinary lines is mostly magical thinking. Sure, historians and anthropologists could, theoretically, be interested in books on literature or sociology, but not if they’re filled with discipline-specific jargon.

Many of the projects I saw could easily have been turned into two or three journal articles, or, if I’m being brutally honest, one really good one. But the expectation for tenure in the humanities is a book. Or two. So graduate students are encouraged to write dissertations that will earn them a degree, and then turn those hundreds of pages into monographs that will win them tenure. But there’s a gap between what’s being written and what readers are willing to pay for — or struggle through.

In my consultations with these assistant professors, I set aside certain problems that were too large to deal with in a brief conference — questions about the scope of their topics, about whether their arguments were worth making, about what market they would ever find. Instead, I chose to focus on the easiest thing to fix: how to write something so that it has the best shot at being published.

For years now, you could find in this publication and others warnings from those who argue that academics’ lack of attention to their prose is suicidal. Each week you can read about the dire state of scholarly writing from people like Steven Pinker, Helen Sword, Michael Munger, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., and others. We have been producing the equivalent of "flood maps," warning of the hazards of rampant growth and suggesting ways to mitigate the damage. Surely it’s better to heed these cautions early than to hear the resounding "Thanks, but it’s not right for us" rejections that will follow from editors and publishers of scholarly books.

I suspect, based on our lively interactions at the college, that most of these assistant professors are excellent teachers, capable of making difficult concepts accessible. On the page, however, they had contorted themselves into academicbots, devoid of warmth, humor, and humanity.

The storm photos from Houston hurt my heart. So did my conversations with pretenure faculty members. Next month, I’ll outline some of the specific strategies I suggested to these scholars to make their projects more appealing — and more fun and exciting for them to write.

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