In Defense of Popular Writing

Full disclosure: I have a horse on every side of this race. I have both popular books as well as scholarly articles in print; I’m currently trying to publish my dissertation and annoyed with publishers taking forever to get back to me; I’m writing another popular book right now, but at the same time working on a critical edition of a manuscript that maybe 30 people on earth care about. All this doesn’t make me objective, of course, but keep it in mind as you read my complaints below. Oh, I also started this blog against my will. 

The Danger of Caring about Non-Scholars

I know I’m not the only one who was told by academic friends to “hold off” on writing popular-level books until I was “established” by some indiscriminate number of works published by high-level academic journals or publishers. This advice was given to me as stating a material fact of life in academia today: popular books are generally looked down upon by Real Academics, and one should avoid writing them until one has earned the credentials of a Real Academic. Outside the graduate school bubble, one would naively think that the earning of a Doctorate is exactly such a credential. But competition for academic jobs and book deals is fierce, and people with graduate degrees are more abundant than ever, so decision-makers in universities and publishing houses look for other ways to set apart the scholars that will get the jobs and the deals. 

Fair enough. You want scholars that are serious about their fields of expertise, who engage it with originality and creativity and say something new, something that sets them apart from other scholars. You want research and contribution. Like it or not, though, that means you get specialization. That’s just math. This many scholars writing means longer and longer essay titles describing smaller and smaller ideas. The Big Ideas have all been ideated, so the saying goes that I just made up, and so we must pursue the smaller ones, the cracks left behind by the generations before, who were privileged enough to live during a time when there was still something left to say. 

The problem is that the Average Josephus doesn’t care about the cracks. The scholars barely care, and one wonders if even that is pretense. But if you write for Joe, you don’t make a contribution to the Field of Minute Crack Analysis, and the University Administrator who has no idea what any applicant’s dissertation is about decrees that you do not get the Job. 

The Injustice of Not Caring

What we’re left with is way too many academic journals, which means an ocean of secondary literature to swim through before you can write the first sentence of the essay you need to have written to add another drop to the ocean to put it on your CV to make it two lines longer so it looks a little more impressive to the recruiter as he’s skimming through applications. 

Hyperbole aside, a more principled problem is that even though academic research of all kinds is a noble end in itself, that end is not something isolated from the good of the community at large. Scholarship is an end in itself, but scholars are not. We are citizens just like everyone else, and it seems to me that we owe it to our communities to relay the fruits of scholarship to them in whatever form we can. It is only because of the city that the university exists in the first place, and it seems a serious injustice for universities to draw nourishment from the soil of cities without bearing some fruit for them. Translated in the cheapest possible way, that means the taxpayers investing in schools deserve something for their money. 

This happens more easily with STEM subjects, since technological advancement is a kind of good that the culture at large can enjoy pretty easily. But humanities departments are meant to bear fruit as well, and I’m not talking about some generic community outreach. I wouldn’t buy a car from Nestle or chocolate from Chevy. The fruit of humanities departments, the thing they’re supposed to be good at, is ideas. When those ideas are so refined that they are invisible to the nonspecialist, we have a case of a tree whose fruit can only be eaten by the tree itself. This is an unnatural arrangement. It’s also a pretty recent one, since world-class scholars of their own time had no compunction writing for popular audiences. Mortimer Adler comes to mind, as well as Aquinas’s Compendium of Theology, Augustine’s Sermons, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. There are still scholars doing this today, but they are generally both rare and already well-established. 

My Proposal

I’m not proposing that we abolish or discourage scholarly publishing. I’m proposing that we (meaning academics and academic institutions) encourage popular writing among scholars. Writing on big ideas in a way that many people can read should not be a shameful thing. But we all know that it is. We can and should change that. And if this COVID quarantine is really as dangerous for colleges as people are saying, public displays of relevance are all the more critical. 

Here’s why you, the scholar, should write more popular works: 

Reason 1: It’s good for you.
It’s refreshing to the mind to attempt to explain a fancy idea to a non-specialist. It puts things in a different light. Using plain old English instead of academic jargon requires a kind of clarity that can be lost in academic writing. There is admittedly a difference between academic and popular writing, but the difference can be seen as complementary rather than in tension. Popular writing can be a change of scenery, rather than a drudgery, after which you return to academic work renewed. 

Reason 2: If scholars don’t do it, amateurs will.
That will mean that the “intellectual middle class” is left with mediocrity, or worse. This is bad for everyone, since research departments in universities are, despite their best efforts, located on the surface of planet earth, in the midst of a civilization populated by non-specialists. And when everyone around you gets the wrong idea because you didn’t want to explain the right idea to them, it’s your fault. In fact: 

Reason 3: You don’t get to complain about where “society is headed” when you’re doing nothing about it.
Scholarship is meant to be a guiding light, but if your only contribution is 30 pages of dense analysis in the next volume of The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, your light won’t reach many people. 

Reason 4: It will encourage people to major in your field.
Nobody starts off in a field by reading top-tier scholarly articles. They start with pop books. If these books are good, they read more. The more people like this there are, the more likely you’ll get some majors out of them, and the more likely your department will stay open. 

Reason 5: Honestly, it’s probably much more interesting than what you’re writing now.
Maybe you’re not stuck in a rut, or paralyzed with writer’s block. Maybe the stuff you’re thinking about is just really boring. If it is, which is more likely the more specialized it is, that might also mean your classes are boring, which might be why students avoid them. It might also be why humanities departments are viewed as disconnected from reality and living in an ivory tower. Humanities are the most important things in the world; we who teach them know it. It’s our job to reveal that to everyone else. 

In the interest of fairness, I present two possible obstacles to my proposal, along with my impolite and dismissive responses: 

Problem 1: Scholars aren’t good at writing in a way comprehensible to nonspecialists.
That might mean that they don’t really understand what they think they understand. Or it might mean that there’s nothing there to understand in the first place. 

Problem 2: Some ideas can’t be written in a way comprehensible to nonspecialists.
Try harder. Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and many others wrote popular level books on quantum mechanics and general relativity. These books are still in print today, and they’re great reading. They are both deeper and more readable than whatever you’re working on. Figure it out. 

Even though it’s often abused by admins and people who don’t like reading, I wonder if the “ivory tower” stigma doesn’t have some truth to it, and whether scratching each other’s backs as we quote and footnote ourselves into the stratosphere might be more suffocating than liberating. Maybe it would be healthy for an increasingly sickly academia to let its feet touch the ground again. Anyway, what else are we supposed to do during the 6 months we’re waiting to hear back from an academic publisher?

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