Academic Writing and Guilt.


I don’t have the luxury of unlimited free time due to the obvious lack of personal obligations, therefore weekends are not meant for academic writing or any significant reading. I know it’s probably easier to be prolific without, say, a burden of friends, significant others, non-academic interests, or unnecessary distractions, but I think it might be too high of a price to pay in the end (especially if one, like myself, lacks significant academic ambitions). For this reason today is an unusual Saturday as the house is empty and I’m left to my own reading and writing.  Needing to finish a long overdue project, I started at it in the morning and just wrote pages after pages of “stuff” that I have been thinking about for the last month or so.  A strange sensation came over me as I finished up editing and rearranging what I have written today, a sense of guilt that, despite doing an academic type of writing, I never looked at one book or consulted any of my notes. Isn’t academic writing ultimately a kind of negotiation with that which was already written on the issue? “Yes, all of this has been already discussed in one way or another, but I have this small thing to add.”  One must navigate an ocean of secondary literature, demonstrating one’s capacity to allude to relevant discussions without giving into temptation of lowly summarization. “You can’t just sit down and write, man! What are you, a writer?” I hear my inner voice tsk-tsking me. Indeed, as I reread what I wrote, I am in the throes of near-panic: Where does X say that? Where is this citation? What is someone objects to Y? How can I make my argument more precise and objection-proof? But at the same time, there’s a certain pleasure in just writing, in just “making shit up,” if you will, isn’t there?

The guilt is still there though, academic writing can’t be as easy as sitting down and writing, right? Where is the struggle? Where is the infinite quest for originality? Thou shall not enjoy writing…

18 thoughts on “Academic Writing and Guilt.

  1. i think that, as academics, we must try to re-invent academic writing itself. sure, we can participate in the mind numbing citation of other authors, very slowly coming to a point that only slightly adds to the volumes already written on the issue – or we can attempt to tear ourselves away from these volumes and attempt to look at the issue in a new and refreshing way.

    i was reading beyond good an evil today on a train, just for pleasure, and realized this point. to attempt to break away from ‘academic writing’ is risky, and it takes a certain amount of confidence. but, more importantly, one cannot take oneself too seriously, either. if you were to take yourself seriously, you would adopt a similarly serious tone, refined language, careful analysis, i.e., academic writing. one cannot let one’s rigor become rigor mortus (as simon critchley once told me).

    write away!

  2. Academic writing seems made for the internet. All of those citations are really links, and instead of sending an isolated argument into a void, an author can show how his argument builds on other work (or doesn’t) by linking to it. Maybe instead of a bibliography, authors would create a tree of references: this link stands at a certain distance from this link, and so on, either generated by the author or automatically. Of course, the databases would have to be opened up for that to happen. Like most people, I look at the bibliography and footnotes before I read. This way, all of those connections would be explicit.

    • But is internet made for academic writing? Cf. all these academic freaking out about “trolls” and “vampires” – this talk fits okay with their usual gossiping sessions at the senior room, but on the internet is just sounds rather childish and pathetic, therefore academics seems maladjusted for this new medium…

  3. “Like most people, I look at the bibliography and footnotes before I read.”

    This off-hand assertion reveals that even the nerdiest of academic writings, the doctoral dissertation, may one day come up in conversation. As part of this ponderous undertaking I investigated expert-novice differences in journal scanning in three scientific disciplines (ecology, physiology, microbiology). I had subjects scan the latest issue of a research journal in their field, while my undergrad assistant or I observed which sections of the articles they read and in which sequence they read them.

    Scientific research articles conform to a predefined structure: abstract, intro, methods, results, discussion, references. The grad students in my study tended to read forward through the articles. PhD-level faculty members tended to skip sections and to read out of sequence: first the abstract, then results, then methods, then on to the next article. In scientific articles the citations are mostly embedded in the intro and the discussion — those very sections that the more experienced scientists tended NOT to read. The implication: less experienced scientists rely on the author to set the intellectual context for the work; more experienced scientists have already built their own contexts, into which they embed others’ findings.

    Assuming that bjk is a philosopher, then I infer that (a) bjk doesn’t have a Ph.D. and/or (b) philosophical reading patterns are structurally different from scientific reading patterns.

  4. Thou shall not enjoy writing…

    Ha! I do have to admit, though, if one can somehow free oneself of the almighty citation and simply write, things progress much more easily, and elegantly, than one would ever dare imagine under the exactitudes of ‘rigorous academic form.’ I wish I could do more of that myself….

    John, about this,

    Assuming that bjk is a philosopher, then I infer that (a) bjk doesn’t have a Ph.D. and/or (b) philosophical reading patterns are structurally different from scientific reading patterns.

    I’m only a PhD Candidate in philosophy, so maybe I’m not quite up to the professional level, but I tend to skim through footnotes, intros, and conclusions before bothering with any ‘serious’ reading of arguments. my rationale, so far as I have one, is that substantial differences — the all important Auseinanderseztungen with the tradition and its prominent interpreters — are clearly visible there. I mean, you can see quite quickly from the footnotes whether a writer is repackaging old ideas, cobbling together a set of others’ insights, or trying to do something altogether ‘new’ from the footnotes. Trying to read a philosophy paper back to front, however, is usually totally unilluminating (writing conclusions seems to be the professional philosopher’s Achilles’ heal).

    Anyway, pleasant travels Mikhail. I hope you come up with something you’re pleased with.

  5. “the all important Auseinanderseztungen”

    This remark, Alexei, definitively establishes your mastery of the field in my book.

    A scientific research article is embedded in two interconnected but distinct matrices: a matrix of ideas and theories, and a matrix of empirical variables and findings. The intro and discussion and references operate inside the idea matrix; results and methods are embedded in the empirical matrix. The more established scientist is better able to pull the two matrices apart, looking for empirical findings that support or refute his/her particular theoretical trajectory without concerning him/herself very much with the theoretical context in which the empirical work was originally conducted.

    My sense as an outsider is that philosophy occupies the idea matrix exclusively, so mastering the field means knowing the thinkers associated with the ideas comprising the field. I’m sure, though, that building a more comprehensive mental map of the field gives the expert philosopher an ability to link a new piece of published work to theoretical contexts that the author might not have had in mind.

      • I love sandwich-fresh objects!

        Don’t forget to mention the calorie-free character of their mere thinkability, and the attractive profile their short-argument approach affords.

      • You can’t get to them though, that’s the trick, you see them through the plastic being all tasty and – you are correct – absolutely calorie-free, but you cannot get them.

      • Well, I am thinking working out the details, I might throw in one of those annoyingly difficult to get to red tape (a la CD case) of access, I’ll call it something cool, like “vicarious access” or “ontoknowlogical causation” – it has to sound sexy and fresh, I can’t use old words, you know?

  6. What about the bags — do the containers of objects qualify as objects in their own right? Please don’t yell at me if there’s something wrong with this question or with me for asking it. Just ignore it and I’ll understand.

    • No, John, you can’t just ask me a pointy critical question like that (completely out of the blue and without provocation, I must add) and expect me to just ignore it. Clearly, if you had a project of your own (and didn’t jealously nitpick at mine all the time) and a handful of publications to legitimize it, you would have known exactly what I am talking about. Of course containers are not objects but that what allows the objects to be conceived as such – it’s all a matter of perspective: you look this way and you see sandwich bags and you look that way and they are actually large pastries. I hope this clears out any confusion.

  7. “Where is the infinite quest for originality?”

    Without reading up beforehand is there a risk of writing something someone else has already said on the subject, something you may not have read or, more likely, have read or heard in the past and so thoroughly internalized you feel it is your own? It’s not likely if you have complete mastery of all that has ever been said or written on the topic, but if you don’t…

    It certainly happens in music and fiction.

    • Good point, but how is it possible to have a complete mastery of all that has ever been said or written on the topic? I mean the amount is growing exponentially and very soon all new knowledge will have to stop completely as the ability to learn everything there is to know about a subject X is going to less and less possible. The direct result is the complete fragmentation and specialization of knowledge – if the ultimate model of philosophy is reading, not writing, then who will be writing those things that we have to read in order to write?

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