GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Why Do Academics Write?

In Happy Mondays on 2010/04/12 at 09:00

Mary Churchill, writing from Boston in the USA.

I met one of my fellow writers from University of Venus for coffee yesterday. She has a book release party later this month (yay!) and we started talking about writing and the differences between writing for a narrow academic group within your discipline and writing for the readership of this blog.  We talked about how writing for University of Venus has really forced us to think about accessibility to a broader audience of faculty, administration, students, and those outside of academia.

This is a common theme in my conversations lately – why do we write?

We all know that the world of publishing is changing – more rapidly than most of us can comprehend (see IPad frenzy). We also know that tenure requires that we publish one or even two books with an academic press. We also know that our books will most likely be too expensive to use in our classes. Additionally, they are often too specialized to warrant requiring our students to read the entire book. So, we xerox sections and create hacker-like course packets – basically the academic’s version of a ‘zine. If we are lucky, we have a librarian who will help us load these hacked pieces onto our Blackboard sites where our students can read and download them for free.

So, why do we write? Yesterday’s conversation links into two other conversations I have had in the past two weeks:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I shared the blog with my academic mentor – Michael Brown – who is the most brilliant man I have ever met. I have read more books with Mike than with any other person in my life (even more than with my 5-year-old and the effort required to read 1 Deleuze and Guattari must equal that of at least 100 Harry Potters). Mike looked at the blog and the numbers of readers, turned to me and said – more people have read your blog than will ever read your book – even if it goes mainstream. He is absolutely correct. So, why do we write?
  • In a discussion last week with my executive coach/career mentor (who is outside of academia), we started talking about my book and whether or not I should skip the academic press route and go for a trade market. The book focuses on the process of reading comic books and could easily appeal (sell) to a larger readership. I would have to re-write it and make it more accessible but I could keep the main ideas. She believes I am crazy to pursue an elite readership via an academic press. I tried to explain the whole concept of academic legitimacy and the old guard that still believes in elite, academic monographs as proof of legitimacy – kind of like academic hazing. I went on to say that it really isn’t about reaching a broad readership but rather an elite, narrow slice of academia – the 100 or so people who also write on your topic. I could tell that I was getting nowhere with her and she was absolutely correct – outside of academia, it doesn’t make sense. Her question – why do you write?

Why do we write? I assume that we write because we want to communicate the findings from our research, contribute to a body of knowledge, and push the boundaries of thinking. Ultimately, I have to believe that we want people to read what we have written. We write because we feel we have something to share, something that can make a difference in people’s lives.

An academic monograph does not reach a large audience. This type of writing is necessary for tenure and promotion, for legitimacy within an elite group. It takes years to publish our work in the form of a book. We are often required to eliminate the most ground-breaking parts of our work and what we do write is often outdated by the time it is published. More and more, it seems that our books are written for tenure and promotion rather than for making a difference and/or changing the way people think.

We all know that printed books (even journals, newspapers, magazines, etc) are nearing some kind of end and that the world of readers is not waiting for the world of publishers. (see rise in free digital book downloads, self-publishing, blogs, print on demand, etc.)

Do we write to be read or do we write to be published?

Do we write to make a difference or do we write to secure a job?

I would like to believe that we write because we have something to say not because we are supposed to say something.

Mary Churchill

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Relevant articles:

Hilton III, John and David Wiley. The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing. 13 (1) (link here)

Le, Macala. 2010. “How Publishers Plan to Monetize Content.” Mashable: The Social Media Guide. April 9, 2010. (link here)

Poyner, Richard. 2009. “Open Humanities Press to publish OA books.” Open and Shut? Blog. Wednesday, September 16, 2009. (link here)

Rich, Motoko. 2010. “Textbooks That Professors Can Rewrite Digitally.” New York Times (online). February 21, 2010. (link here)

Rich, Motoko and Brad Stone. 2010. “Amazon Threatens Publishers as Apple Looms.” New York Times (online). March 17, 2010. (link here)

Rowe, David and Kylie Brass. 2008. “The uses of academic knowledge: the university in the media.” Media, Culture & Society. 30 (5): 677-698. (you must pay $25 to access this article for one day (!!), link to details here).

(Update – this post was included in Hacking the Academy, a project at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University)

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  1. I write because I breathe, because the world is beautiful and ugly and mysterious. Sometimes, I write because the world doesn’t make sense: I see a news story about a woman who kills her three daughters and then herself- hangs them and I write because I wonder why the eight year old didn’t run away or what the mother said to the two year old to make her trust her while she put the rope around her neck. I write because I’m afraid of that power- the power of being a mother of being a teacher and I want to know myself as much as possible. I write because sometimes things are too beautiful to forget. I was driving home from work a few weeks ago. My windows were down, the music loud and suddenly my car was filled with small white petals- whirling around me and I smiled to think that I must look like a figure in a snowglobe. I write because I want to help people who say they don’t have the words to explain things. The overwhelming caught breath of witnessing birth or death. I write to help shake loose that vacant numbness that follows death and the chaos of pure joy and helplessness that follows birth.
    I write because it makes me laugh and lose myself in a place where anything is possible- where my son’s dry skin behind his ears can become a boy is a dragon fighting to free his parents from and evil uncle and find himself in the process. I write because I want to make the dreams of creating constellations with my breath become possible.
    I write to share the reason why sometimes my breath is caught and tears slide down my cheek when I see the way the sun shines on my daughter’s curls when she is playing in the sandbox. Why I am filled with pride when I hear her creating her own universes of ladybug guards and pink kitties during that play.
    I write because it is how I remember to inhale and exhale. I write so that I continue to breath.

    • Thank you sister – I’m so glad you write! Your words are beautiful and they are world-making – instantly transporting me to other places and other times. Beautiful!

  2. There are different kinds of writing, with all sorts of different motivations. In terms of academic writing, the primary reason that I do it (beside the obvious publish or perish mantra) is that I think of it as taking part in a very long, very slow conversation. I almost never write anything academic without referring to what other scholars have said. I have “listened” to what thy have to say about the topic, and I take my turn at grappling with it. I like the thought that down the other road someone else will respond to my contributions too. Together–and sometimes over a very long span of time–we’re trying to make sense of a topic. I think of it as a collective process, and very much a dialog.

    • that was supposed to be “listened” :)

    • Ellen – I think you hit the nail on the head. It is the very slow part that kills me. I am a pretty big extrovert and I want the conversation to happen NOW. I am impatient for change, for movement. I want to be read now, I want to make an impact now, I want to MOVE with ideas and words. I like the hard science model of working in teams in the labs and on the articles – also, the focus on the articles rather than the monographs. There is an urgency in science that I appreciate — an awareness that the work that is being done can impact lives. On the topic of collaboration – your words are very encouraging -perhaps I will attempt to create the time-spanning team, the collective.

      One of my favorites —

      Time present and time past
      Are both perhaps present in time future,
      And time future contained in time past.
      If all time is eternally present
      All time is unredeemable.
      more here

      T.S. Eliot Burnt Norton from Four Quartets

  3. Really interesting. Thanks. Nice to know I’m not the only one who scratches my head a lot about this topic. It may be the thing that keeps me out of academia eventually. I agree with Ellen’s comments about the idea of a “conversation.” This has its place, but is the value proportionate to the time and energy we expend publishing? (Isn’t it ironic that so little conversation now takes the form of having coffee with our colleagues?) I also think that “publish or perish” has created a special form of academic information glut. Everyone has to publish “something,” so we end up with quantity over quality. Anyway, I think it’s messed up. Thanks for the interesting read.

  4. I read this while listening to a talk given by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and writing a paper on the future of peer review. She raises some really interesting questions on the institutional need for change and the “gold standard” of the first academic book, but how the changes in publishing and academic budgets are creating a crises. (more at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/ )

    I’m interested in how to continue the conversations that occur on blogs and in online communities but also to legitimize such interactions as “scholarly communication”.

  5. Laura – I completely agree with the “special form of academic information glut” – which links to high prices and writing for publication rather than writing for the production of knowledge or for societal transformation or for anything beyond publication. Heather – thanks for the link – such a great book. I see blog writing (particularly the blogs written by those in higher ed/academics and written for readers in higher ed) as very similar to workshop writing. I would love to see you write a post on this topic! ;)maybe a little ‘share’ of your paper…

  6. I write because I love to explain things to people. Do fellow academics really need to learn the same concepts? The more I write the more I understand how revolutionary these concepts are in their simplest most basic form. And I release that found simplicity in writing and the revolution continues in places where I would never know it could even be appreciated. I cannot find that revolution anymore in academia. If I kept the higher language intact, maybe the design and the art of my explanations would inspire other academics… but I feel that most of academia has become cold and immune to that revolution of thought and awakening membranes. The obtuse is our righteousness and we find security and value in ourselves by keeping that density and intellectual barrier close to home, in our own court. Sadness for learning and expanding revolutionary thought, and scary that academia is burying itself alive.

  7. In a way, for me, the answer to the question “why I write” is simple and natural: because from a very early age I realized I cannot do anything else but writing. And this is my answer to the big question I asked myself long time ago: what can I do to make a difference? The discussions about how to write to be successful and how to promote my writings and which is the best tool etc. intervened later. In a way these questions are having a logical place: if you want to send your message you have to find the best way to do it. But foremost, you have clear ideas for not distorting later your messages for the sake of the medium.

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