Zero Sum Thinking and Academic Writing

I recently came across social media discussion about difficult academic writing, and what struck me as I was reading the usual complaints was one particular instance of zero sum thinking about academic writing. It works like this:

Either. . . “I am too dumb to understand this writing,”

Or. . . “This writing is very bad.”

I think this zero sum thinking is the dominant on-off switch governing reading comprehension for too many of us: all writing should be written at the reader’s level, with that specific reader as the intended audience, so if a reader fails to comprehend, it’s either the author’s or the reader’s fault.

IMG_7701What amazes me is that this thinking doesn’t consider any middle ground. Maybe the work we’re reading is written above our reading comprehension, and we just need to educate ourselves to comprehend it? I constantly tell my students that no, they’re not dumb if they have a hard time understanding some of the reading the first time around. I tell them that doing the reading increases their ability to read even more difficult texts in the future as it teaches them different ways of thinking. I encourage them to do the hard work of understanding difficult texts because it increases their future reading comprehension.

That’s been my experience, anyway. I purchased Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology on November 23rd, 1996 at the Books-A-Million on International Drive in Orlando (I know because the receipt is still stuck in the book). The first time I read it through, I started writing a list of works discussed at some length in the back of the book, as you see in the image above, because I hadn’t read them yet. At one point I stopped reading Derrida, went back and read this list of works, and then revisited Derrida’s very dense text with a much higher reading comprehension. Was it still hard? Yes, but not incomprehensible. It was only incomprehensible when I hadn’t done the reading.

I think the zero sum thinking I just described proceeds from the idea that everything should be written for the same audience, and I think it plagues humanities scholarship particularly — very few people complain that scholarship in physics, chemistry, or medical science are written above their heads. I’m not sure why people think that professional discourse about the humanities has to be written at the ninth grade level to make it readable to a general audience, but I don’t think this is a fair expectation. When we limit writing this way, we limit the range of ideas we can express and the sophistication of our thought. AP style does not need to govern everything written.

I think that more humanities scholars should indeed be public intellectuals, and that they should write works accessible to a general audience (and learn AP style), but I don’t think they should be limited to doing only this kind of work. Specialized language is important and can perform a useful purpose. It allows us to advance our thinking more quickly, serving as a shorthand for a dense array of conceptual moves. It positions our approach within recognizable theoretical assumptions — people know where we’re coming from by our language. Difficulty also allows us to defamiliarize our writing to our readers. This use of difficulty originates in the early twentieth century and requires readers to do some work to understand what we’ve written. That way, they can approach our ideas on their own terms, with their own nuance and emphases, rather than allowing readers to use their pre-existing ideas only as fill-in for the author’s own, rather than as a bridge to new ideas.

So when others very commonly say, “It doesn’t have to be this hard to understand,” I think the validity of this complaint depends first upon the work the reader did to understand the text. I think there are two kinds of people who say this. First, people who have read the difficult text, worked through it, understood it, and then realized it didn’t need to be this hard. Most of us who read humanities scholarship have had the experience of doing this work to arrive at a very simple argument. The use of jargon in these cases was only a veneer of sophistication spread over conceptually thin thinking. But there are also people who say this, quote examples of overly difficult sentences, and just reveal that they’re reading on a level below the text’s. If you think the word “pastiche” is complex jargon, pick up a dictionary before you complain about the author.

This criticism is harder to address because it is sometimes true (I won’t say often — that’s lazy quantifying). I can say that I’ve worked through Derrida, understand him much better than I did when I first read him, and see why he needs to be so difficult as well as the benefit of doing this work. Part of the difficulty of his writing proceeds from his desire to get us to think differently: he writes in a way that defamiliarizes his readers with our usual reading practices so that we can think about reading differently. Robert Brandom, similarly, was very difficult for me on a first read, but doing the work to understand him was a rewarding experience.

I would say, then, that yes, they do need to be that hard. The difficulty serves a purpose, and it should be allowed to do so.


Kicking the Bucket in Academic Writing

I think that when students (at any level) are given a writing assignment, they sometimes think of the assignment as if it were a bucket. So a ten page paper is a bucket of a certain size and a twenty page paper is a bucket that’s exactly twice as big. In this way of thinking, academic writing consists of pouring words into a bucket until the bucket fills up, and writers get in trouble if they run out of words before the bucket is full — say, at page fifteen of a twenty-page paper.

I think that’s a painful way to think about writing, though. When we think this way about writing, we’re writing in order to meet a page requirement, not writing because we have something to say. I think it’s better to think of academic writing — or any kind of writing, really, even creative — as if it were a piece of architecture. We should think of our writing as if it were structured like a building. Bigger buildings have more rooms in them and are differently organized. And, bigger buildings with more rooms have more room for different functions, and these different rooms relate to one another sometimes in very specific ways.

So when we first get married, we might live in a one-room apartment. There’s a kitchen with a linoleum floor, a little metal border, and then carpet, and you’re in the living room. The bathroom connects in there somewhere. The couch folds out into a bed. But if you move into a bigger apartment, you might have a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom. A bit bigger, maybe a house, and you’ll have a living and a dining room, maybe a breakfast nook, maybe a study, and maybe a bathroom that opens up to the backyard if you have a pool.

Similarly, a two page paper might have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But a ten page paper might have an introduction, a literature review, a section of the body that reflects on the literature review, a section of the body that argues a new thesis out of the literature review, and a conclusion that develops the thesis in a more complex form and considers its significance. It might have subsections within each section that alternate evidence with reflection. It might have a section that addresses counterarguments and, as it does so, modifies its thesis. This paper would have many more rooms than a two page paper, and the paper is the length that it is because of the number of rooms that it has, not because it’s being written to meet a length requirement.

When we think this way about academic writing, we lose concern with page count and start being concerned instead with the size of our idea. How many different parts does our paper need in order to present, explain, support, and develop our main idea? My dissertation was 300 pages in a Word file when it was done. At the time, it felt like one continuous essay with section breaks. But really, when you consider the section breaks, it wasn’t 300 pages. It was six forty-five page(ish) chapters (with a 25ish page bibliography at the end plus front matter). Each of those chapters were usually broken down into three fifteen-page sections. And if you look closely, each of those sections were broken down into three to five page increments. So did I write a 300 page dissertation, or did I write 54 five-page papers — which could be further broken down into paragraphs serving different functions?

Since I had no specific page length in mind, I wrote to the size of my idea. Now of course we don’t want to write 300 pages when only twenty pages are due, but maybe we can think that part of planning and research is developing a ten, or twenty, or twenty-five page idea.

So the key to writing is not writing to fill up a bucket, but writing to develop an idea. In practice, writing to develop an idea might look like this:

  • first you have an idea,
  • then you think about its parts,
  • and you think about how its parts relate to one another,
  • and you think about what each part contains — what kind of evidence, reflection, or explanation is needed in each part.
  • Once you start writing, you rethink each part of the process as you go, as needed.
  • Once you’ve finished writing, you rethink each part of the written product in the light of its conclusion.

I think we can turn this idea around and let it guide how we think about reading too. Do authors put meaning into books the way we might put something into a bucket? In that case, authors put meaning into a book and readers take, hopefully, the same meaning out. Or did they create a structure of some kind, a patterned object, and our acts of reading involve different kinds of pattern recognition? I think the latter is a better approach. It helps us comprehend not only the parts and a central idea, but how the parts relate to one another. It also allows us to ask different questions about the same text, so that we can carry out different pattern recognition activities to draw different meanings from the text.

So I think the best thing we can do is kick the bucket in our academic reading and writing practices. The mind is more complex than an empty container.

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