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Academic Prose and Its Discontents @ MLA, January 2015
full name / name of organization:
Amardeep Singh / Lehigh University
Revisiting debates over academic writing style in light of the push for the public humanities
How do academic writers navigate different modes and conventions associated with different rhetorical contexts? Is academic writing in literary studies a necessary set of conventions to be learned and mastered, or merely an intellectual impediment to be circumvented? Do academic stylistic conventions, argumentative styles, and specialized jargon help or hinder the effort to “defend the humanities” from the perception that it is under attack, from other university departments as well as a broader educational climate that values STEM fields at the expense of the traditional liberal arts?
This set of questions of course has a considerable history. The “bad writing” contest sponsored for some years by Denis Dutton’s Philosophy and Literature became so influential in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it inspired a number of theory luminaries, including Jonthan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler to respond in a collection of essays called Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford, 2003). Some contributors to the collection (Culler especially) responded to the “Bad Writing” accusation quite directly, while others focused on the value of and context of “difficulty” more generally.
The debate was renewed quite recently in response to an essay by the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (“Professors, We Need You!”; February 15, 2014) and a follow-up column by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker (“Why is Academic Writing so Academic?”; February 21, 2014), as well as many responses by practicing academics in the mainstream media, on blogs, as well as Twitter.
Notably, alongside critics of narrowly academic prose (such as Kristof and the New Yorker’s Louis Menand), one also sees academic writers such as Michael Bérubé, who in a variety of rhetorical settings frequently find ways to make difficult concepts in literary theory accessible and relevant to broader social and political debates. This might seem to be another kind of response to criticism such as Kristof’s. What cultural or political work does this sort of “translated” theory do?
This panel, sponsored by the MLA’s Division on Nonfiction Prose, invites arguments and polemics on all sides of this debate.
On the one hand, we are curious to see defenders of academic style argue for the value of academic writing as an aspect of the discipline of literary studies that remains central to the identity of the field. Isn’t it possible that the stylistic conventions and jargon of literary studies and literary theory are simply a specialized discourse such as may be found in any intellectual discipline? Can we not see “difficulty” in academic prose as requiring a readerly discipline akin to “going to the gym” (as Spivak has described it)?
We would also welcome fresh critiques of the conventions of academic writing from scholars invested in non-traditional modes of writing, including “creative nonfiction,” web publication formats such as blogs, social media, and literary memoirs. How and why do scholars dissent from academic writing conventions? Have the new technologies (i.e., the digital humanities turn) encouraged more experimentation with academic writing conventions?
Prospective panelists are encouraged to be as narrow and focused in their proposals as possible. Owing to limitations of time, papers will likely be limited to twelve minutes, meaning careful focus will be of the essence.
Panel sponsored by the MLA’s division on Nonfiction Prose. Five hundred word abstracts by Monday March 17 to Amardeep Singh: email@example.com. Email inquiries welcome.