Writing as an Academic and Scholar

My transition to being an academic and scholar occurred in the mid-1990s after I had been a public school English teacher for more than a decade and a writer for almost two decades.

Looking back, one of the most pivotal moments of that transition was when Craig Kridel, a leading scholar of educational biography who would become the anchor on my doctoral committee, stood at the first organizing meeting of new doctoral students and announced the importance of being able to write well. He introduced me to Joseph Williams’s Style and forever changed me as a writer and a teacher.

I was in my mid- to late 30s when I completed that doctoral program, and I chose the degree primarily because I had the opportunity to write an educational biography (a non-traditional dissertation form and an under-appreciated research type, qualitative) and work with Kridel. You see, I wanted to write a real book and not a formulaic doctoral dissertation.

Of course, entering the doctoral program, I had yet to experience or fully understand just what writing a dissertation entailed—or what it would mean to be an academic and scholar.

At this writing, I am 19 years into a career in higher education and have been teaching 37 years as well as publishing for over 30 years.

Despite the recent public criticisms of academics—and specifically those of us with EdDs and not PhDs—I have witnessed some problems within the academy that often go unaddressed, notably the assumption that someone with a terminal degree can teach and write with little or no preparation in either.

Writing as an academic and scholar, I think, receives even less attention than teaching in higher education; people with doctorates have almost all completed book-length studies and then continue to write and publish as a key component of their careers as professors.

As I have noted often, there seems to be a flawed assumption, in fact, that professors can not only all write well but can teach writing.

At the end of this fall semester, I completed an editorial review of a policy brief and was immediately struck with how my comments in many ways matched much of what I emphasized for my first-year writing students.

The brief was written by a very bright scholar and the content was excellent. However, this experience pushed me to interrogate for myself that writing by academics and scholars often exhibits an intense focus on being careful and meticulous with the content and ideas of the text while falling quite short on the art and craft of writing at the sentence and paragraph levels as well as not fully keeping the audience in mind.

Academics and scholars can find themselves writing in a wide variety of contexts—to a specialized audience, often their peers in their discipline; to an informed and educated audience outside their field of specialization; or to a public audience, possibly not well informed or highly educated.

Yet, academic and scholarly writing tends to remain in the first register, to a specialized audience, and includes highly structured (and stilted) organizational features, specialized terminology and academic language, long and complex sentences and paragraphs, and somewhat traditional expectations to depersonalize the text (as if the academic and the audience do not exist).

When I am working with first-year students, I spend a great deal of time and energy helping them unlearn practices that tarnish their writing, and their credibility.

A lesson those beginning writers (and potential scholars) and seasoned academic and scholars need to learn is that how we write and how we engage our audiences are essential elements of our authority and credibility.

One of the paradoxes of writing by academics and scholars is that the focus on fidelity to the content and ideas at the exclusion of accessible and engaging expression serves to discredit and devalue that content and those ideas.

Here, then, are some entry points for academics and scholars to re-imagine themselves as writers:

  • Rethink the structures of writing, particularly the essay as a form. Traditional approaches to introduction, direct thesis sentences, and conclusions are not only weak writing but also harmful to the goal of any piece of writing—to engage and persuade or inform the reader. Openings and closings often have profound influence over whether or not the reader actual reads as well as what that audience takes from the text. Academics and scholars need to add to their goals as writers being engaging and vivid instead of simply complying with templates.
  • Reject de-personalizing writing by fore-fronting real people (including “I,” the academic/scholar) doing real things. Traditional scholarly writing still avoids first person as well as anecdotes and narrative. These expectations come out of a (simplistic) concession to objectivity and a valid concern for representing accurately research and evidence (acknowledging, for example, that anecdotes may be outliers or cherry picking). Pursuing objectivity is a trap; instead academics and scholars can improve their writing by seeking to be transparent and adding context (both of which make writing richer and more engaging). Also, simply because anecdote and narrative can be distorting doesn’t mean that they must be distorting; writing as an academic and scholar includes an ethical expectation that the anecdote is representative, not that the writing cannot be vivid and engaging.
  • Start any text with the audience, not the content or ideas. Keep in mind that the final text of writing need not look the same as the early drafts; in other words, many academics and scholars likely should start their drafting with their content and ideas, shaping them and wrestling with them in ways that allow a later draft to forefront the audience and write in ways that are engaging and vivid.
  • Begin to interrogate your writing at the word (diction), sentence, and paragraph levels. One of the greatest challenges of writing as an academic and scholar is that the content of specialized fields often includes arcane terms and sophisticated ideas that are so complex they resist simple writing. None the less, making academic and scholarly writing accessible as well as credibly accurate is part of the authority in that writing. When academic and scholarly writing is too dense, inaccessible, and overwhelming, it is likely either misunderstood or outright ignored. One writing strategy that can improve academic and scholarly writing is revising sentences and paragraphs for length (shorter is better than longer) and variety.
  • Cultivate a peer group of readers that can provide feedback during drafting that includes people who are themselves writers and people both a part of and outside the intended audience of the text being drafted. Here is a simply tip: Don’t write in isolation. Meaning derived from reading a text is a communal experience (reader, writer, and text interact to create meaning); therefore, creating meaning through text should also be communal.

In several of my classes, I have students prepare two different but related assignments—one is scholarly (an informed audience and using academic citation) and the other is a public text (general audience and using hyperlinks for citation). Students often are required to address the same topic in these pieces, and thus, must begin to investigate how to express themselves well while adapting their diction, tone, and style to different audiences and in different writing formats.

This is the domain of being a writer.

I have always thought that we ask far too little of students as writers, doing most the writer’s work for them when we provide detailed writing prompts, intricate rubrics, and essay templates.

Many if not most academics and scholars carry that baggage into their professional writing. I also think we ask far too little of academics and scholars as writers.

Writing well, being engaging and vivid, should not be some afterthought, or simply no thought at all. Writing as an academic and scholar can only serve their content and research well if they invite in and engage an audience.

If an academic/scholar writes an essay and no one reads it, does it make a sound?