Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly, Part 3

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst

Dear Senior Professor:

We grew up together. In the ‘80s, when I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press and you were a newly minted assistant professor, my boss gave you a contract for your first book. He didn’t have time to pay much attention to you (your second book was the one he wanted), and it didn’t matter. That first monograph earned you tenure.

Later, when we each had "associate" in our titles, I went over your prose line by line and asked questions, sometimes naïve ones, because I had trained in publishing, not in your discipline. When I began to acquire my own list at Oxford, and later at Duke University Press, I traveled to your campus and we talked about who, in your opinion, was doing interesting and publishable work. You were engaged, broadly knowledgeable, curious. Over the years I’ve tracked your career, heard you on NPR, read reviews of your books, and watched with unearned pride as you’ve risen to the top of your discipline and profession.

Yet things have changed in academe since we listened to Stop Making Sense,wore bangles, and ate sun-dried tomatoes on everything. You now have the same job as your graduate adviser, but the career path you followed has been blocked to your own graduate students. You know all too well about the various crises in higher education — the tight budgets, vanishing state support, adjunctification of the professoriate, corporatization of universities. It’s pretty much all bad news, all the time.

The good news is that now you are on top of the heap. You are a journal editor, officer of your academic association, chair, dean, provost, president, peer reviewer, and, most important, graduate adviser. You are now in a position to effect real change, and I’m asking you to do just that.

Sure, you can’t solve academe’s financial woes, but you can fix the part of this broken system that you do control — namely, your graduate students’ training, and in particular, how they write. (Part 1 of this series focused on our deadly dull monographs, and Part 2addressed pretenure faculty members on their writing.)

The first step: Take stock of what’s different from when you rose through the ranks. Back then, your serviceable and professional prose made it into print without much editorial help beyond someone like me fixing your typos and inserting "Oxford" commas (in all my years working at that press, I swear I never once heard it referred to as anything but a serial comma).

Unless you managed to snag a contract from a commercial publisher, it’s likely you never received the gift of having someone make your writing not just correct, but better.

The bulk of your sales were most likely to libraries, which can no longer afford to subsidize specialized monographs. With the consolidation of trade publishers (there are about three left), university presses must now look to acquire projects with the potential to reach a broader audience than in the past.

In today’s lean times, scholarly publishers are losing money, or worse, shuttering altogether. Even with print-on-demand technology, the important work that they do in evaluating manuscripts and preparing them for publication is expensive.

Likewise, you and other faculty members have outsourced important parts of the tenure-and-promotion process to presses, but sometimes you forget that scholarly publishing is a business. These days many editors have bottom-line quotas or signing goals. Their books need to find readers to make money.

Journals have long been repositories for incomprehensible, off-putting prose, and since most articles are read by no more than a handful of people, it hasn’t much mattered. Scholars often get twitchy when something is too much fun to read, so journal editors and peer reviewers skim over dense and deadly sentences without comment, without asking for rewrites that would, if undertaken, force the writer to learn to do better.

From many academic friends — including eminent scholars — I’ve heard stories of articlesrejected because the language wasn’t "academic enough." Reviewers critique the prose as too "flowy," "too easy to read," and therefore inappropriate for publication.

You have — mostly unintentionally, yet with disastrous consequences — given young scholars the impression that if they want to be taken seriously they can’t render their research in ways that humans find enjoyable to read. Day after day, you send the message that clear and direct prose is unwelcome in academe. Few graduate students are rewarded for doing more than aping the abstruse style of those who have come before; no extra credit is earned for writing well.

Of course you must continue training new academics to do serious research, to analyze results, to make bold arguments, to produce new knowledge. The dissertations you direct, tightly focused and rigorous, help students master the tools of the trade. But we need to move toward a culture in which the quality of research remains excellent and the writing is also readable.

Each of the distinguished professors I interviewed in my Scholars Talk Writing series have warned against academic jargon, and have given specific advice on how to write better. Their suggestions are strikingly, almost boringly, similar. Your students may never be brilliant writers, but writing well does not require brilliance or innate talent. Like most things, prose style improves with attention, practice, and discipline.

And yet, scholars aren’t learning to write well. Or worse, they’ve been slapped down and bruised by their graduate training — forced to write in tentative and fearful ways that are inaccessible to all but those in the guild.

In recent years, you have heard that you must prepare your thesis advisees for careers other than the cushy tenured jobs we enjoy. There’s no shame in joining the contingent labor force, though not much comfort or joy in it, either. Alt-ac has entered the lexicon.

Please mind the gap between hearing that message and adjusting the way you mentor advisees. At least make sure that when they leave academe, they do so with the ability to summarize complex ideas and arguments, to think with nuance and creativity, to analyze and interpret data, and to write good, clean sentences. Too many academics feel they must prove they’ve learned the secret handshake and arm themselves with polysyllabic Latinate prose to show they’re members of a club that is gaining numbers and losing ground. Tell them they don’t have to write like that.

What’s at stake here is more than the job prospects of your students — though that’s important enough. What’s at stake is the future of democracy.

You are allowing jargon-filled blather into the world and letting important research go unappreciated. By not insisting that your students learn to write well you are playing into the anti-intellectual hands of the car salesmen and property developers who get elected to state legislatures and even higher offices, and of the business-oriented parents who care only that their kids snag high-paying jobs right out of college.

When academic prose is more soporific than Ambien, and more headache-inducing than MSG, you give all of those skeptics further ammunition to talk about how state and federal funding of higher education is wasted.

You may say that you know all of that, that you’re already teaching your handfuls of students the importance of clear communication. That’s great, but it’s not enough. We need a cultural shift. You now have the power to make decisions about publishing, about expectations for conference presentations, about the way money is allocated. You need to step up. How?

  • Peer reviewers and journal editors: Take a stand on the quality of the prose you recommend for publication and ask for revisions until the language is clear — even "flowy."
  • Conference organizers: Require presenters to make their work available in advance of the meeting and use conference time to foster real discussion. Don’t allow scholars to stand up and read their papers aloud. We all know how to read.
  • Chairs: Create journal clubs and book groups in which faculty members and students study how good authors connect the prose with the passion. Foster the formation of writing groups.
  • Deans and provosts: Support teaching-and-learning centers that train scholars to express themselves more clearly, both in the classroom and in their writing. It can’t be only teaching assistants in composition who focus on writing instruction. Every professor in every discipline needs to make learning how to write clear prose a priority.

This is a moral issue at a time of profound change in higher education, when the very idea of expertise is under assault. We must not cede the conversation to know-nothing politicians who are putting everything we value at risk. The ecology of the academic world is no longer sustainable. We must adapt or face extinction.

I am not asking you to dumb down your students’ research or broaden the focus of esoteric and specialized topics that won’t, by their nature, ever be of interest to more than a handful of other scholars. I understand the value of doing work that is not accessible to a general audience. We still need that. But at the same time, we need a generation of scholars who can make arguments about why the production and dissemination of such knowledge is a democratic value we must fight to protect. We can do that only by using our words.

You are now, my old friends, the ones in power. Some of you have already been doing this good work through your professional organizations, arguing for changes in graduate education and working on behalf of non-tenure-track laborers. Keep that up, and include, in your reforms, a focus on writing.

It’s time to fix this mess, before it’s too late.

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