On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

It’s term paper time: cue panic! As one of my students in History of Performance Theory told me earlier this week: “I am stressed to my core!” Enough said.

This year, term paper time coincides for me with a host of seemingly unconnected events that have me thinking anew about the old saw of a question, “what is good academic writing, anyway?” First, the eminently sensible and always provocative Melonie Fullick, regular contributor to University Affairsweighed in on the politics of academic style and the erroneous argument (much repeated) that all uni profs write indecipherable, useless theory-speak. Then, my friend and colleague (and soon to be guest-post author!) Kat Low told me about the most recent issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, edited by Joanne Tompkins and Maria Delgado, which focuses on the labour, the value, and the challenges of academic editing – an area of our jobs that is so, so important and yet receives far too little credit and attention. Finally, my performance theory students and I read the heartfelt preface to Diana Taylor’s landmark 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, and spent half an hour “appreciating the text” (more on that later). During that class, I realised what I’d long suspected: that the most creative, most intimate, most personal academic writing is also the stuff that resonates most clearly, sticks with us, influences us, makes the most sense, and means the most to us. So why don’t we write more of it?

I have a personal history with the battle over “proper” academic writing, and the longstanding anxiety that the personal has no place in it. I was fortunate to arrive in graduate school with a superb education in reading and writing: I took my primary and secondary schooling in Alberta, in Western Canada, where I received intensive training in the rules of English and French grammar; I progressed through the International Baccalaureate program during high school, learning not just to love literature but to write creatively (in fact, my IB extended essay was a series of short stories); and I wrote constantly during my first university degree, where I both unlearned some bad, earlier habits and became comfortable with critical theory as well as secondary research in literary criticism. In all of this I am privileged in ways that many of my own students today are not. But this eclectic background has also meant that I rarely feel compelled toward the kind of formal, proper, academic prose that I have long been told I “should” produce. Instead, I prefer to write creatively, even at times performatively; as often as possible I get personal in my academic essays, spelling out what is at stake for me and why. (A recent example I’m quite proud of, about the superb Theatre Replacement show BIOBOXES, is here.)

But I’ve run into some trouble with my urge toward personal, creative, “crossover” writing. That same essay I link to above went through multiple drafts and a number of different peer reviews, some of which were furious, even vindictive; one anonymous reader was enraged I should dare to be so personal in an essay that was not “about me” but about the show, and about the ethnic minority subjects that comprised it. Another accused me of sounding racist – in a moment in the paper when I was trying to come to grips with a difficult, but honest, reaction of my own to the performance I had attended. In both cases, as in many others I could cite from my own and colleagues’ writing histories, I was being challenged, even attacked, for daring to insert my own human fallibility, vulnerability, and culpability into writing for an academic audience.

I know well this challenge: my students remind me of it every time they approach me, tentatively, and ask me if it’s ok for them to use the pronoun “I” in their essays. Of course students learning to write formal essays often need to be trained out of the habit of defaulting to their own personal, anecdotal experiences as “evidence” for their arguments – our worlds are so much bigger than the boundaries of our bodies, and it can be hard, but essential, for young scholars to develop the skill of looking outward with compassion and some objectivity. But I’m a strong proponent of nevertheless returning to ourselves, in order to understand how the things we explore in our writing impact us personally. Which means I always tells my students that yes, they absolutely may use “I” in their papers, and their personal experiences too – just as long as they also consider the perspectives and evidence of others alongside their own. And as a reader of manuscripts for academic journals and presses I take the same approach, lauding colleagues whenever I can for taking the risk of being personal and professional at the same time.

Being personal as well as professional; regarding the two as interlinked: women know this is a constant challenge, burden, and privilege, one in which feminist movements have been invested for decades. There is ample research demonstrating the difficulties women face in academic professions as they attempt to balance personal responsibilities with professional expectations (curious? Look here), and my own experience of trying to be myself – a flawed woman scholar, warts and all – in print has suggested to me that the harsh backlash that accompanies “personal” academic writing can often be gendered. It’s true that outstanding women scholars are among those who have paved the way for many of us interested in creative academic non-fiction (I’ll name my favourite two here – Jill Dolan and Peggy Phelan – though I could name many others), but on balance it’s harder for women – in the world at large, let alone at university! – to express opinions based on personal, gendered experience and be understood to be sharing sincere evidence about what it means to navigate a human life. By way of contrast, I recently peer-reviewed an article for publication by a much-admired male scholar that contained an extensive, arguably excessive, amount of personal detail, some of it quite sexist; in my review I supported the author’s desire to be personal while resisting some of the assumptions the article made, but I privately noted the tone of secure authority with which the author reproduced his experience as proof of a much broader worldview. Time and again, male scholars have regarded their “personal” and the “professional” as coeval; no wonder women who dare to tread this ground, even today, fear being rebuffed!

So what can we do, those of us who value creative academic prose, to further encourage the expansion of “good” academic writing? I’d say we need to listen more carefully to our students! When my performance theory class and I looked together at Diana Taylor’s preface to The Archive and the Repertoire, we tackled the text with an exercise in “appreciating”: I asked them if there were moments in the piece that they had found surprising, or even inspiring; I invited them to highlight those moments and then reflect on them, in writing, for two minutes. (Write about the thing you think for two minutes: this is a favourite free-writing exercise of mine in all of my classes. Conversation is much easier as a result!) Afterward, I asked them if they would describe their chosen passages as “good” academic writing, and why or why not? They reflected for a further minute on paper, and then we shared our thoughts. Their choices were eclectic: from the fanciful to the relatively theoretical, but of a piece they were moved by the combination of a personal tone and a genuinely provocative argument. And they generally agreed that their choices might not be considered “good” writing by the powers that tend to judge these things, but perhaps they really ought to be. Because they had been moved to imagine, to grapple with, even to cherish, Taylor’s points as a result, rather than to throw their books against the wall in frustration. Surely that’s a win for us all.


Write on!


4 thoughts on “On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

  1. Hi Kim,

    I like your reflections on good academic writing a lot. It is a matter of clarity, integrity, honesty about our own ideas and feelings. It is also, as you say, most definitely a matter of gender and what is conventionally accepted as good writing depending upon whether the piece is written by a woman or a man. Women’s ideas and expériences and words are too often seen to have minimal significance, not a sound basis for intellectual exploration.

    • Thanks for this, Kate! It’s a terrific read. Canadian readers take note: there are lots of crossover stories in the article between UK and Canadian academic contexts.

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