Can The Ivory Tower Be Stormed?

Joshua Rothman tries to explain the “fraught and mysterious thing” known as academic writing, drawing distinctions between that field and journalism:

[J]ournalism … is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking.

Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

On a similar note, Josh Marshall describes realizing, as a grad student, that academia wasn’t for him:

Once when I was trying to figure out what I was doing I headed up to [professor and historian Gordon S.] Wood’s office to discuss it with him. Wood was generous and kind and always encouraging to me but rather distant as an advisor. At one point in our conversation, he laid it on the line. “You need to decide whether you’ll be satisfied with writing for an audience of two or maybe three hundred people.”

Clearly, the correct answer to this was “yes.” And as Wood said it, then and now I have the sense he thought posing it in this way would get me back on track with a focus on the scholarly community we were a part of. But hearing it so starkly, in my mind my response was something more like, “Holy Crap, no way! That’s definitely nowhere near enough people. And worse yet, I know some of those people. And I definitely don’t want to write for them.” …

All the incentives of academic life drive against having the time, the need and in many cases the ability to communicate with a larger public. In some cases, that’s as it should be. In others, it’s about the straitened nature of academic life, specialization driven by bad job prospects, an over-abundance of Phds, and a deep, deep conventionality driven by risk aversion rooted in all of the above.