A few things online that caught my attention this week:
An honest college rejection letter
Hartman on the culture wars
Jonathan White on the consequences of Lincoln’s death for the South
Thomas Kidd reviews Rhys Bezzant, Jonathan Edwards and the Church
Pope Francis vs. the Devil
Jared Burkholder on Grant Wacker on Billy Graham at the Cushwa Center
George Boudreau: Let’s name the Philadelphia airport after Ben Franklin
Do you know about Hathi Trust?
How those historical plaques get made
Don’t forget to catch up on all things OAH at the History News Network
Ted Widmer on the man behind the “American Dream“
Remembering Lincoln: A digital collections of responses to his assassination
Have you listened to Ben Franklin’s World yet?
Did mourning for Lincoln become a form of idolatry?
No desks at the OAH hotel? That doesn’t bother Historiann one bit.
The historical profession and the school curriculum
An average academic journal article is read by ten people
Tom Van Dyke says
Prof, no one is reading you
An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people.
Thank God. A sort of self-ghettoization, a voluntary quarantine, if you will.
This is not to say all academic writing is worthless, of course. However
Why does this matter? Because the poor quality of academic writing is both aesthetically offensive and highly inefficient. Academics should strive to write clearly for the obvious reason that it will allow many others to learn more quickly. Think of it this way: If I spend 20 extra hours editing, re-writing, and polishing a piece of research, and if that extra effort enables 500 people to spend a half-hour less apiece figuring out what I am saying, then I have saved humankind a net 230 hours of effort.
Which leads me to the real reasons why academic writing is often bad. The first problem is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically. Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.
The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood. (Of course, sometimes critics do deliberately misrepresent a scholarly argument, but that’s another matter). Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
One J says
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