Why do academics write?

(via Ernesto Priego) Just finished reading a delightful post by Mary Churchill entitled “Why Do Academics Write?” Highly recommended if you are an academic or interested in academia generally. While the article tells the story of academic writing from an American tenure perspective, it still resonates this side of the Atlantic, as many of the expectations and conservative mentalities are very similar. Mary Churchill writes:

In a discussion last week with my executive coach/career mentor (who is outside of academia), we started talking about my book and whether or not I should skip the academic press route and go for a trade market. The book focuses on the process of reading comic books and could easily appeal (sell) to a larger readership. I would have to re-write it and make it more accessible but I could keep the main ideas. She believes I am crazy to pursue an elite readership via an academic press. I tried to explain the whole concept of academic legitimacy and the old guard that still believes in elite, academic monographs as proof of legitimacy – kind of like academic hazing. I went on to say that it really isn’t about reaching a broad readership but rather an elite, narrow slice of academia – the 100 or so people who also write on your topic. I could tell that I was getting nowhere with her and she was absolutely correct – outside of academia, it doesn’t make sense. Her question – why do you write?

When you think about it, academic writing is highly elitist. The more obscure your work, the better, and it is true that the target audience is often a few individuals who have the power to further your career by sitting in funding application panels, appointment committees and other cogs in the institutional machinery. The idea is not to be read, the idea of impact is to produce a book that nobody will read, journal articles that nobody will read, and give conference papers to an audience of four of five. Popularity equals dilution, selling out, simplistic thought, lack of academic rigour.

So, why do we write? Personally, I like being read, which is one of the reasons why I write this blog. I get more pleasure from these few lines than I get by seeing a paper published, which probably explains many things about career choices. I do understand why scholarly rigour is important, and why we should strive to reach those few who really understand our topics. But we should also strive to communicate our research to the public, otherwise, why do we exist at all as researchers?

Coming in contact with practitioners and other legal professionals can often be  a shock for academics. Legal scholarship is often strongly separated between academia and practice, we attend different conferences, read different books, and generally have entirely separate outlooks of the law. We are often accused of being obtuse, obscure, elitist and purposefully useless. Academia is seen as the realm of useless information, and it is left to the practitioner to sort out the mess at the real level. On the other hand, we often see practitioners as shallow paper pushers who lack any real understanding of the subjects they deal with on a daily basis.

There must be a happy medium. You can engage the public at a wider level, produce useful information, and also engage and inform those 100 or so individuals writing in your field. Is this possible? Can you have it all? Or is there a chance that those of us engaged in wider dissemination are condemned forever to suffer from low academic esteem? Giving up depth for shallow headline-grabbing seems to be one of the worst accusations an academic can suffer.

Well, I intend to continue blogging until they remove the keyboard from my cold, dead hands.

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