DISCOURSE as quilting

Welcome to the intersection of P. L. Thomas writing about his writing and other writers' writing to explore discourse as quilting.

Archive for the ‘writing conventions’ Category

remnant 4: “good enough for one of your blogs but…”

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Recently, I had the kind of experience with a scholarly submission that I wish I could someday identify as rare, but the truth is, this is essentially typical—even among the progressive and critical colleagues, scholars, and publications where I place a good deal of my academic and scholarly work.

I submitted a chapter and was prompted to revise and rewrite it multiple times (I, in fact, appreciate and thrive on substantial editor feedback in my work, especially since much of my public work—see below—is produced in isolation). Often, when editors ask for revisions of my academic work, the initial comments revolve around the work being too conversational—too much personal narrative.

For the record, when I submit public work, the editorial complaint is my work is too scholarly.

In both the academic/scholarly press and the public media, I have a very purposeful commitment to submitting work that simultaneously offers a message I am seeking to share while simultaneously using the mode, discourse, genre, and medium to confront the norms of both contexts; I want to challenge the academic/scholarly norms of discourse, and I want to challenge the public norms of discourse.

My work with journalists, for example publications such as AlterNet and Truthout, has been some of the best on-the-job training I have ever experienced as a writer. While I remain often frustrated about certain entrenched conventions for public work (journalism is too cavalier about citations, for example), I have learned a great deal from careful editing, questions, and suggestions when working with journalists.

As I turn back to the opening experience with a recent piece (which eventually found a home at AlterNet, by the way), I must say that I am more troubled by the entrenched expectations for discourse among academics and scholars—notably critical scholars who want radical and critical messages wrapped in reductive, stilted, traditional discourse conventions.

And what is more troubling, I think, is the not-so-subtle condescension found among academics, including the “this piece is good enough for one of your blogs but…” refrain.

Traditional academic and scholarly discourse has much to learn from the world of blogging and online discourse. My blogs, for example, allow me to pursue the quilting I have begun to examine in this blog, first inspired in me by the hybrid scholarship of Maxine Greene, whose writing in educational philosophy opened up to me a world in which literary, historical, and personal references were weaved with the so-called weightier business of philosophical rigor (an ugly word that should never be used in the positive contexts people do use it).

I have been using Joseph Williams’ Style (a work that comes in enough versions and editions to set some Guinness World Record I suspect) with students since the mid-1990s when a member of my doctoral committee, Craig Kridel, held up the book at our first doctoral meeting and told us everyone should read it and know it.

A key point made by Williams that has remained with me as a writer is the concept that we humans are interested in people doing things, even better is real people doing real things.

Vivid writing of all genres, modes, and forms is concrete, and the most engaging case any writing can make involves personal narrative (see Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing). But as Greene models, I also think that claims, evidence, and elaboration become effective and compelling with a richness that quilting can offer, pulling from literature, history, quantitative statistics, personal narrative, journalism, philosophy, and non-print media such as films, music lyrics, and graphic texts.

In a recent piece, I came to see that teaching is an invisible profession, and that idea was made more engaging for me when I began to consider Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. So I grabbed a copy (after looking through the previews at amazon and google books), eventually rereading the Prologue and Epilogue. In that re-connection with literature, I also came to see that teachers have been hibernating, like Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

The finished piece is more rich for my literary research, but also for my shaping the finished piece around those passages.

For journalism to ignore the power of citation and for academics/scholars to belittle blogging and the thriving online media are both serious failures to seek discourse that public intellectuals can engage with the wider public in ways that bring about change.

While it stings to have my own work negatively criticized and eventually dropped from a project I very much supported, I am much more concerned about the entrenched insular nature of academia and scholarship.

In academic publishing and processes such as tenure and promotion at the university levels, peer-reviewed journals and traditional forms of discourse remain not just honored but exclusively tolerated and rewarded—despite the tremendous imbalance of few (if any) people reading the peer-reviewed works while thousands are exposed to public work (I had an online piece in The Atlantic that reached 1000+ Facebook “likes” in a few days; my blog allows me to see daily visits of 100 or more).

The work of scholars as writers needs to be about what we say, of course, and there must be great care in making informed claims within and from ones field of expertise. But academics must not ignore how we communicate and especially to whom.

To put a twist on a cliched riddle, If an academic publishes an essay in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it…

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