Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker
A few years ago, when I was a graduate student in English, I presented a paper at my department’s American Literature Colloquium. (A colloquium is a sort of writing workshop for graduate students.)
The essay was about Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science. Kuhn had coined the term “paradigm shift,” and I described how this phrase had been used and abused, much to Kuhn’s dismay, by postmodern insurrectionists and nonsensical self-help gurus. People seemed to like the essay, but they were also uneasy about it. “I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,” someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.
Was that a compliment, a dismissal, or both? It’s hard to say. Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission.
It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.