The case for academic writing that everyone can read
In 1980, my father asked each of us kids to write what we thought we would be doing in the year 2000, and then put it in a time capsule. When we opened it, I read my 12-year-old handwriting that said I was going to be a writer living in Switzerland with five children. Well, I had two kids and I live in Toronto, but I did get one thing right: I am a writer. And I’m getting used to actually claiming that, even though I didn’t for the first 20 years of my academic career. When I was at the dentist’s office, I didn’t have quick words to explain an academic writing project, so I would just say that I was a prof and leave it at that. But nowadays I’m trying to write in a more accessible way, so I like to talk about my ideas with the hygienist or receptionist. Sometimes, I wish more of my academic colleagues felt likewise.
Academic writing always felt like a game that I was good at: the introduction with thesis statement, the analysis and conclusion, the copious footnotes, the theoretical vocabulary and erudite references. I found this all incredibly satisfying and even fun. But lately I’ve come to think that it was only fun for me.
In recent years, I’ve begun to admit to myself that I don’t read academic books in their entirety. I usually skip the textual analysis and the literature reviews in favour of the author’s thesis and motivation. If I don’t want to read that kind of book anymore, then I can’t imagine that members of the general public would want to either. And I can’t, in good faith, write one.
So I am writing a creative non-fiction book that I want people like my sons, my neighbours, my undergraduate students – and my dental hygienist – to read. It’s about seduction and desire and giving yourself away. At the heart of it is a question about what it means to grow up as a heterosexual woman in our contemporary society. As I’ve worked through my ideas, I’ve found that I can’t write it the way a sociologist or academic scholar may approach the topic. Instead, I discuss the impact of feminism, psychoanalysis and cultural studies on my own life. And I write in the first person in a way that people who have not read gender theory can still engage with.
All professors know how to translate theory into practice because of our experience in the classroom. Our students have an urgent desire to understand the structures that shape who and what they are – and they expect to learn how to engage with and interpret texts and relate them to their own lives. Instead of imposing academic discourse on them, we try to articulate our ideas in relation to theirs, and to listen to what is important to them. Many scientists, meanwhile, learn to discuss their research with journalists for mainstream magazines and news. In the social sciences and humanities, I have spoken to many scholars who want to write differently but who feel that they don’t really know how to express their ideas for a broader public.
My colleague and friend Elspeth Brown and I convened the Toronto Writing Workshop at the Jackman Humanities Institute because we both believe that, as academics at a public institution, we can and should publish our work in a way that is accessible to everyone. At a time of rapid social and technological change with respect to how information functions and circulates, many scholars should be asking: “Who are we trying to reach, why and how?”
Our call for participants drew almost 80 applications from around the world, which made us realize we had tapped into an urgent need that academics feel to write clearly and in an accessible way. The 16 participants will spend a week with our two creative non-fiction instructors. At the end of it, they will have acquired a few skills that will help them communicate their ideas to a broader public.
Eva-Lynn Jagoe is a U of T professor of Latin American and Comparative Literature.