Tuesday, November 27, 2007

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Ann Althouse, a law-professor-blogger I occasionally read, had this to say about blog writing vs. academic writing in a recent Chronicle discussion of the Juan Cole situation:
Successful blog writing is sharp and clear. Controversial opinions will look quite stark. You lay it on the line, and you mean to startle readers and make your opponents mad. Academic writing is temperate and swathed in verbiage. It creates a comfortable environment for academics and wards off casual readers. In the blogosphere, you're newly exposed, and it's a rough arena, where you have far less control over what happens to you. That's part of what makes blogging empowering and, often, great fun. But it's a big risk, and of course, it risks your career.

I want to write at this blog, to share and to speak, but I am reluctant for precisely this reason. What do I share? Frequently during my day I find myself thinking "that would be a great topic for a post," but I immediately follow up that thought with "but what would future employers think?"

Of course, by writing that, I'm already saying that I think thoughts that I sense will get me into hot water with someone. But then again, don't we all?

Anyway, this comment of Althouse's intrigues. During the course of any of my FYC courses, the students will be introduced to Richard Lanham's Paramedic Method from Revising Prose. I make a big deal about the importance of writing clearly, of being, as Althouse says of bloggers, "sharp and clear." I hate overburdened writing, even though I write a good bit of it myself. As I worked on my dissertation, I kept trying to write plainly, to "just say it" without couching my words or dressing up simple ideas in complex and unwieldy clothing. I don't like verbiage; I like sparse language.*

And I don't necessarily agree with Althouse; academic writing certainly doesn't HAVE to be cumbersome and verbose. If you have something profound to say, then it's best said simply. I have long held the opinion that our current level of academic writing is influenced by the translators of all of the 20th century French philosophers and linguists we all read in grad school, that the difficulties of clear translation of abstract ideas may have contributed to the idea that academic writing has to be hard to read and understand, that it must contain dense layers of meaning. I sometimes want to take a core sample of these texts (if one could do such a thing--image the 3-dimensional representation of ideas that would allow us to take a core chunk out of the middle of a thought...but I digress) to see the various strata, the layering of ways of understanding the world built from birth on up.

And I'm now veering out of this post-space. I wish, often, that academic writing was provocative and not quite so comfortable, not quite so scary, and a bit more inviting.

*So tell me why I'm not a big fan of Hemingway?