Academics should try once in a while to write for ordinary people
By Taylor Brorby
Taylor Brorby is a graduate student in liberal studies.
In securing the first fellowship of my graduate career, I never thought I would come to disdain my time spent with other well-educated people. This past summer I was awarded a summer scholar fellowship to picturesque St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., to study the difficult Dane of the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard. (Kierkegaard is often labeled the father of Existentialism.) Being a scholar of literature and a practitioner of creative writing, I was in new territory, but I thought I would take a cue from Uncle Soren — "Jump in, the water is fine" — and venture into a new area of study.
I found the water cold. My proposed course of study was to conduct a comparison between Kierkegaard and the 19th century American, Ralph Waldo Emerson. What I ended up pondering most of my summer were existential questions such as, Does sitting in this seminar arguing over semiotics really matter? Do professors apply for fellowships to get away from their spouses, children and students just to drink? Do graduate students really hope to be as boring as the people they are studying under?
It turns out the answer to all the above is yes. Semiotics and the ability to discern symbolism does matter; professors do party-hearty while conducting research, and many graduate students know little outside their specialty. My hope for my fellowship was to find people who were passionate about ideas and applying those ideas to current cultural patterns; to find people who would debate existential questions about love, war and anxiety — not about correctly conjugated Danish verbs.
My fellowship did confirm my suspicion: Academics are content to write for each other. While walking home one day after hours spent reading in the library, I told my roommate about my plans to apply to Ph.D. programs with the hope of writing for larger audiences and making my knowledge available to a wider public. My friend drew himself higher and smirked. "You probably shouldn't apply for graduate school then," he said.
Throughout my fellowship, I kept wondering why academics disdain writing for popular readership. "Bad writing, it is easily verified, has never kept scholarship from being published," wrote Jacques Barzun in his book, "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present."
The hope I had for my summer was to discover people who had a fire for education, people who wanted to take Kierkegaard to the masses, and to apply themes from his work to daily life. What I found instead were stressed professors trying to publish and not perish, and graduate students whose hair seemed to be turning gray before my eyes.
I do believe these people want to produce good writing, not the jargon-filled academic writing that sits on a shelf and whose purpose is to boost the curriculum vitae. But much of the model of the American college and university is outdated. Essays are still being written about Chaucer and Melville, and I'm not sure we need any more academic essays on Chaucer or Melville. What we do need, though, is to encourage academics who bring the ideas of great thinkers and writers into the public sphere to help effect change — in societal structure, systematic thinking and personal reflection. The academy's corporatization threatens the very idea that liberal and rigorous thinking were founded upon, making it easier and easier to go through the motions of unoriginal thought.
Scholars from around the globe, from countries including Denmark, Brazil, and Slovenia, came to study Kierkegaard. Many viewed the world through a Kierkegaardian lens but were unable to express to a lay philosopher like me why Kierkegaard mattered. This is troubling. In pursuing deep knowledge, these scholars fell short in expressing what they knew.
The fellowship did give me greater insight into academe and how the academic essay needs to be re-envisioned. Much of the esoteric writing that fills volumes never gets read, applied to or appreciated by larger audiences. With the academy hiring more and more adjunct instructors, many scholars feel pressured to "fit the mold" of what they hope a college or university envisions a professor to be, and eventually land a tenure-track job. The idea that tenure has made it possible for more scholars to go deeper into their sequestered corners by applying for such fellowships has given society an excuse to view higher education with suspicion.
If fellowships were partly spent pressuring recipients to publish in wider-reaching ways, engage with the public, and challenge unoriginal and applicable thinking, perhaps we would truly know that the water is fine, and jump right in.