When Nicholas Kristof, the soft-hearted liberal on the New York Times op-ed page, decided that political scientists had given up on writing for a broader public, a digital avalanche of blog posts, letters to the editor, and tweets, followed. The APSA, Corey Robin, Claire Potter, and basically the entire editorial collective of Jacobin took the man to task for, basically, channeling the laziest version of Tom Friedman. Why, Kristof seemed to be asking, casually leafing through the past few issues of the New Yorker, can’t more people write like Jill Lepore? This is a fine question, but – as Robin points out – it isn’t the right question at all, and it probably isn’t an honest question, either.
Now, just as Kristof’s more recent and weak apologia has been begrudgingly accepted, here comes Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker itself, and asking, with an eye on the recent contretemps, “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?” Where Kristoff seemed detached, Rothman is engaged, and genuinely interested in trying to understand why the professoriate writes for itself. Our gnomish academic audiences matter more, he sums, because they determine tenure and promotion. “Academic writing and research,” he concludes, “may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish–but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there.”
Yes, there is is truth to this. A tight labor market means increased specialization and less risk-taking, leading one to assume that writing a dense essay that is sure to be published in a top journal is a safer bet (for promotion and hiring) than trying to publish in N+1. (Though there are plenty, despite the assumption, who do both). And when we read each other’s work for venues that are chiefly academic, we tend to wonder more about the disciplinary stakes and less about the quality of the prose. Generally, that is.