15 April 2012

On sources for courses, so to speak

I'm planning a book. The opportunities afforded by e-books for almost direct sales (not to mention the prospect of 70% royalties if one plays one's cards right, given that the external funding for my sites and blog dried up three years ago...) are very tempting.

I have been wondering how to "pitch" it. Not in the sense of how to sell it, but how to find the right "voice" for it. And as I took a walk this afternoon, I realised I had already written it! At least, I wrote 40,000 words of it about fifteen years ago, and then life got in the way (and the publisher didn't like it) and it came to nothing. But it is still there on a backup drive, so this afternoon I sat down to read it.

One: the publisher was right.

Two; the content is OK, although of course way out-of-date (both academically, and in terms of my views), but I no longer have any idea of why anyone would want to read it, presented as it is. I'm pleased to find some of the grunt work has been done, of course, although I suspect that everything will have to be re-written from scratch. But it's unreadable; it's clear and well-structured but utterly lifeless. And...

Three; that is in no small measure because I used the author/date referencing system (a.k.a. "Harvard"). It's not merely a technical device--it transforms writing. Not in a good way.

In my retired leisure I have been reading a lot of interesting stuff, for pleasure. Several years ago I suffered Acute Fiction Failure. For some inexplicable reason I find myself incapable of engaging with novels any more, even old friends; the last one I finished was Ishiguro's Never let me go. Perhaps that was just too haunting?

However! I've been devouring dozens of "popular" science/economics/social science/op-ed books and admiring their balance between doing justice to the content and being accessible to the reader. And clearly one of the ways in which they manage that balance is by using end-notes.

So that set me thinking about academic writing styles.

Sadly, the academic style I have become used to is primarily defensive. It assumes a hostile reader--a marker (grader) in the case of the student, or a peer reviewer in the case of a researcher. Hence the obsessional APA  referencing--never mind that the in-text citation continually interrupts and distracts from whatever "flow" the argument might have. And the adoption of the passive voice as default, as if to claim any personal involvement in the research is to give a hostage to fortune--although I am pleased to note that does seem to be in retreat, a little.

It is certainly not about communicating any enthusiasm or even interest in the subject.

Clearly the document of record, the peer-reviewed article reporting serious new findings in a serious discipline, needs to be scrupulous; but frankly looking at what passes for scholarship and even research in the dubious world of education, most of the published bumf is not in that league. It's glorified op-ed, covering itself in the fig-leaves of scholarship to conceal its nakedness.

In many cases, the imponderables and immeasurables of the topics under discussion mean that is all we can aspire to. (And it's not helped by the pressure on academics in these soft fields to produce and publish ever more papers, just for the sake of it, without ever asking whether the world will in any sense be a better place for all the futile effort they devote to papers which will eventually aspire to a citation index of zero.)

I am returning of course to topics I have touched on here and here.

But the point this time is a little different; the authors and publishers of the books I have been reading, however serious (Kahneman, for one, is a Nobel laureate) are able to wear their scholarship more lightly and to concentrate on communicating their ideas, presumably because they are on trial in the market-place rather than in the more vicious arena of their peers.
"The reason that academic politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small." (often attributed to Henry Kissinger, probably wrongly--but the fact that I checked it out is itself a sort of recursive demonstration of the idea...)

They use end-notes. That is not in itself a big deal, but it does mean that the author can write so as to give priority to the argument, but also allow the reader to get at the supporting evidence if she wants to.

Ouch! I did actually start to write; "..it betokens a rhetoric which privileges the argument, while facilitating access to the scholarly evidence..." Sorry!!

...and yet... The two versions do not actually say quite the same thing. Enough!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch... The different styles suit different contexts, of course. But having been corralled into writing academically for years, I am obsessed with buttressing the most banal assertion with scholarly scaffolding, and of course in-line author/date citation is the most in-your-face way of doing that.

It's a con, of course. How often do you check even the source of the reference, never mind the content? So the concern of critics of this dangerously slack end-note style, that without at least numbered in-line references the reader cannot be sure that a statement has a legitimating provenance, is merely academic posturing.

(And any self-respecting pedant will note that the preceding sweeping assertion is not supported by any references. That's because I can't be bothered, and it is purely unsubstantiated opinion, in any case.)

Even more to the point... I realise I don't know how to write in this accessible style.
  • Carol Dweck wrote Self-theories; their role in motivation, personality and development in 1999. It's a solid and accessibly-written, if rather repetitious, academic book (APA referenced). Someone must have persuaded her that she could do something more popular, based on it. The chimerical outcome is Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential (2006) --the bit after the colon is the giveaway. Decades of (arguable, but) properly rigorous collaborative, peer-reviewed research, gets presented as '70s self-indulgent, self-promotional, psychobabbled pabulum. Sorry, but however well it sold, she didn't bring it off.

  • Jonah Lehrer is the primus inter pares of people who can bring it off:
    Lehrer didn’t invent his area of work. He is of a kind with Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. [...] Like those authors, Lehrer is making a career of a tried and true structure: find a compelling anecdote to support counter-intuitive research from science and academia, and sum it all up with a pithy conclusion.
    Yet Lehrer and his ilk are popular for a reason. They make the hard-to-decipher work of scientists comprehensible to everyday readers and, at times, they give readers a belief that they too might be capable of extraordinary achievements.
My proposal is not as formulaic as that quote would suggest, but it does put its finger on the art which conceals art, and which I am coming to realise, may well take a long time to acquire.

Fascinating what can follow from a "simple" change in referencing conventions....

1 comment:

  1. Here's an anecdote in support of your "preceding sweeping assertion" regarding referencing: I'm not sure if I've told you this story already but when I was studying for the PGCert I was keen to track down the source of a citation made by Glynis Cousin and Francis Deepwell that attributed the advocacy for Ground-Rules to Howard Rhinegold. I bought the cited book but could find no mention of ground-rules at all so I enquired of Cousin via email. She admitted that they might have been "sloppy" so I wrote to Rhinegold instead. His response was that he had written so much that he had no recollection of it. So, if in doubt cite Rhinegold!


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