Sunday, July 22, 2012

Behind-the-Scenes: Reading leads to thinking about Writing

I don't know whether I'm a perfectionist, thorough, paranoid or just plain crazy - but I have created this incredibly long list of books and articles to read in preparation for the re-write of my dissertation. Many interesting titles have appeared since I completed my PhD and I feel compelled to catch up lest I look stupid. One item on my "to read" list is Tom Devine's new book, but there are also titles on Scottish history, general migration studies, poverty, and the Highlands.

Unfortunately, reading academic writing isn't the same as reading a summer potboiler. Academic works, I'm sorry to say, often aren't structured very well, can be written in a dense and arcane manner, and are frequently more about proving a point than telling a story. Since I am a trained academic, I can speak and read academic-ese but it is hard going even for me, especially if I read outside my discipline. It can be very easy to find something else to do. 

I thought it would be useful for my work to learn more about social networks and network analysis. I found a couple of books on Amazon and then requested them through inter-library loan. I was quite excited when they finally arrived, but this excitement was not long-lived. Suffice it to say, these books were not for me: no discussion of using network analysis for historical networks, dull writing, and too much math. I think I'll stick to more popular works on networks like Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks which I've read and Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age which has been sitting, unread, on my bookshelf for almost three years, as well as the work of Everett Rogers and Lawrence Kincaid who write on communication networks. The work of Rogers and Kincaid is definitely academic, but I understood what they were talking about.

This recent immersion into readings in my own field and outside my discipline has sharpened my attitude towards historical/academic writing. Writing and reading is really about communication. I am writing this blog post to communicate my thoughts to you. Likewise with academic writing, we write to communicate our research findings and to make contributions to the field. As a lapsed academic, I don't disagree with this approach. On the other hand, what good is it if you can only communicate effectively to a hundred people and the thousands of other potential readers are scared away by the title of your work. 

I think approach-ability is even more important for historians as what we write about, the past, not only belongs to everybody but is often part of the fabric which creates group and individual identity. I don't advocate dumbing down historical research, whitewashing contentious conclusions, or avoiding the argument based nature of modern historical research; but I think that historians could go a long way to making, at least some of their work, more accessible. Most of the books I have read outside my field have been by historians who write successfully for a non-academic, but educated audience: Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Gordon S. Wood, Brian Fagan (actually, he's an archaeologist), and Alfred Crosby.

I once saw a review of one of David McCullough's books. I've actually never read any of his work, but I know he has twice won the Pultizer Prize. Anyway, this reviewer accused McCullough of being a "non-academic popularizer." It was meant as an insult, but I actually thought this was the most delicious expression I had ever heard. I thought it was something to aspire to. This probably explains why I never got an academic position. Which of course gives me plenty of time to read and to read some more.

1 comment:

Hugh said...

My favorite academic historian, Frederick Rudolph (long retired),was noted for his books on the history and curriculum of the American college and university - how academic can you get! At the same time, however, his books were interesting to read. He'd been trained at Yale where there was an emphasis on approaching the writing of history as a good story to be told. David McCullough, an undergraduate English major at Yale, also approaches history as a story-teller. There are other admired academic historians who have honed this skill: may their tribe increase!


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