15 February 2015

The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot

Dr. Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don't, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.

Colvin: From who?

Dr. Parenti: From other researchers, academics.

Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonna study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?

The Wire, Season 4, Episode 13, "Final Grades"

It is only within the last few years that I have reluctantly accepted that I deserve that noxious and disreputable label: an academic. Truly, I am doomed.

But then, I've yet to meet an academic who isn't keenly aware of the doom. My sentences keep going off in various directions toward what I'm sure would be an incoherent 10,000-word rant about my love/hate relationship with academia. I delete those sentences because I'm not here to rant about academia, but rather to praise a book that serves as both a writing guide and a (sometimes sly) philosophical statement about knowledge and the communication of knowledge. It's a book aimed directly at people like me, and yet I think at least a few of its chapters deserve a wider audience than the doomed weirdos of grad school.

The book is The Elements of Academic Style by Eric Hayot, author of On Literary Worlds, a book I found marvelously provocative. Elements is also marvelously provocative, and shares On Literary Worlds' desire to shake things up a bit within the academy, but it's also highly practical. It has much to say about the purpose and rhetoric of academic writing, and it does so from a position not only of deep knowledge of such writing, but deep appreciation for it — and that may be its most revolutionary element.

At its most basic level, Elements is a writing guide for graduate students in the humanities, with information about the differences, for instance, between conference papers and journal articles, between dissertations and books, between Chicago citational style and MLA style, etc. It offers the sorts of advice you can find in lots of different writing guides: advice about developing a writing practice, putting together a writing group, living through doubt and self-doubt and self-hatred, forcing yourself to submit for publication, and so on. All good stuff, and Hayot has some interesting ideas and opinions about it all, but it's not what the book is best at.

For me, the most compelling and valuable sections are about the rhetoric of academic communication. The book is broken into four parts, and it is part two that I spent the most time thinking about and working through. Hayot titles this section "Strategy" (the others are "Writing as Practice", "Tactics", and "Becoming") and in eleven mostly very short chapters he discusses the structure, rhythm, and conventions of good academic prose.

"Good academic prose!" you cry. "Surely, it's an oxymoron!" Not to Hayot.

photo by Rick Elkin

As I was rereading this book to get ready to write about it and recommend it to the world, a friend told me about Hayot's recent Critical Inquiry essay, "Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do" [JSTOR link]. It's a kind of companion piece, or perhaps preface, to Elements. While there's some overlap in their contents, the form and purpose are different (the essay is formally playful in a way the book is not), but their stance on how we in the academy communicate, and perhaps could communicate more effectively, is the same. "Academic Writing, I Love You" is just what it says: a paean to a type of writing lots of people disparage and hate — indeed, Hayot begins the essay with four pages of quotations from various writers who have said that academic writing is the most horrible thing on Earth and probably the whole reason Hitler ever existed.

Even academics hate academic writing! Or, at least, they claim to. (Self-hatred is one of the fundamental fuels of humanities departments, it seems.) Who ever steps up and says that, Bad Writing Contest aside, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson are doing interesting things with prose and language? We say, rather, that we like them for their ideas, that their ideas are better than their sentences, that we know it's bad and jargony and impossible to read but yes actually there really is maybe something there worth thinking about or so somebody once told me and I need to say this for tenure I'm sorry I don't want to admit it I hate myself I'm an academic.

Hayot is different. In "Academic Writing, I Love You" he says:
To the producers of the immense amount of loathing and contempt governing much of the metadiscourse on academic writing, I affirm: you have not accounted for a writer or a reader like me, or indeed for the many writers and readers like me, who have a taste for writing that does not say everything that it does, and for whom Theodor W. Adorno or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jacques Lacan or Judith Butler have provided an immense amount of pleasure, not just at the level of the idea, but at the level of the sentence. When the metadiscourse isn’t ignoring such readers en- tirely—“everybody likes the other fellow’s prose plain” (except of course the people who don’t)—it is shaming them by accusing them of arrogance (“the demon of academic hubris inevitably lies in the shadows nearby”), insecurity (“they want to sound smart”), elitism (“if we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity”), or perversion (“I have begun to characterize this psyche as sado-masochistic”).

Now, there is nothing wrong, let us agree, with being a masochist. Or a carpenter. But if you want to insist that scholarly writing is somehow fundamentally broken and off course you need to account for the large number of folks with their shoulders to the wheels, pushing happily as both writers and readers in what you think is the wrong direction. Excluding those people from consideration by insisting that their desires and pleasures are essentially pathological means that you will have, inevitably, an incomplete and therefore probably bad theory of what writing is and how it works.
When I read this, I nearly burst into the tears of joy that come when a long-held secret is finally released — when somebody says what you've always been afraid of saying because saying it only opens you up to ridicule, or so you think.

Actually, as with so many things, Samuel Delany got here first. He has often championed the pleasure of the complex text — whether Walter Pater or Jacques Derrida — and it was through early exposure to Delany's nonfiction and, especially, a few key interviews that I allowed myself to admit that there was something in the sentences and prose structures of Foucault and Derrida especially that, even when I had no ability to comprehend their ideas or no knowledge of the arguments they were entering or no familiarity with the sources they were building off of ... still, I could admire. (Later, I would add Butler to the list, as well as Gilles Deleuze. Unlike Hayot, I've never fallen in love with Fredric Jameson's writing, despite reading a lot of his work.)

Hayot admits that there's a lot of bad academic writing out there. But, of course, old Theodore Sturgeon famously told us there's a lot of bad everything out there. I'd actually be willing to bet most published academic writing is not so much bad as it is mediocre, and the reason is that structurally and often even philosophically it's very formulaic — in many ways, academic writing is even more genrefied and conventional than science fiction, and academic writers, particularly ones who aren't famous or highly cited, are often judged primarily on how well they hold to and replicate the conventions.

It is here that I think Elements is most wonderful — it doesn't assume that academic writing is, as a genre, hopelessly awful, and yet it very much understands the genrefication of academic writing, and so can hold out a hope that it is not especially difficult to make a higher percentage of that writing better through some thoughtful techniques and practices. 

Here the title of the book comes into play. One way to de-genrefy a writing practice is to complicate its possibilities of style and form. Academic writing is particularly stylistically bound: not just with the jargon, but with the actual expression and structure of ideas, the patterns for which are quite limited if you (especially as an early-career scholar) want your work to be recognizable as academic writing — and if you ever want to get even the most precarious job, you'd better have plenty of writing that is recognizable as academic.

Hayot analyzes a diverse selection of passages that he considers to be stylish and effective (as well as a few he considers less than stylish or less than effective) and shows why. Here, Hayot shows that what makes this writing good can be learned by any academic, and thus academic writing as a genre can be immensely improved. It's a utopian impulse. By improving academic writing as a genre, perhaps we could even improve academia.

Perhaps, the book suggests, we are not entirely doomed.

This is why the "Strategy" section is so compelling to me. It's very nuts and bolts, and I love that. (Hayot praises Joseph Williams's book Style, which is one of my touchstones, and is the most nuts-and-bolts book about nonfiction prose that I've ever encountered. I violate its principles all the time, particularly in blog posts like this, and I don't think clarity is the be all and end all for every type of prose, but still: Williams's Style is a holy book. No single book on writing ever taught me as much.) By demonstrating close analysis of how academic prose and arguments work, and how they can work best, Hayot achieves something useful both for the writer and the reader.

For instance, I love Hayot's proposal that effective academic argumentation benefits from a structure he calls "The Uneven U". This is one of the longest chapters in the book, and one of the best. The basic idea is this: "Imagine a system or a continuum that, across five levels, divides one major function of a piece of literary critical prose: its proximity to a piece of evidence." He names Level 5 as the most abstract and Level 1 as the most concrete (the pure evidence). Looking at how they work effectively in a paragraph, he comes up with the uneven U, because the paragraph begins with Level 4, continues downward until it puts Level 1 in the middle, and then moves upward toward Level 5. Hayot then says that this structure can be expanded to multiple paragraphs, to sections, to entire papers and books — that it can work fractally, with each paragraph an uneven U that contributes to sections that are themselves uneven U's that contribute to a whole that is, in its general structure, itself an uneven U.

Hayot provides lots of details, and it's a marvelous way to think about how to write effectively when writing this stuff we call academic prose.*  It's not the only way, by any means, but it's a really effective, practical strategy, and one I'm definitely going to try whenever it seems like my academic prose is not doing what I want it to do, despite my best efforts. (Which is a lot of the time.) Further, it helps make various assumptions transparent, and by offering one very clear form, it provides ways to think about adjusting it, riffing off it, exploding it.

Beyond the Uneven U structure, Hayot does a nice job laying out the different reasons for certain conventions. His approach is common-sensical: readers of anything have at least a few predictable desires and habits, and knowing about those desires and habits is useful for the writer, even if you decide not to satisfy some of those desires and not to cater to certain habits. That's an approach I know from the nonacademic world of writing (where, indeed, I often seek to frustrate desires and write against people's reading habits. You might have noticed that I am not an especially popular writer...) A lot of it was review for me at this point, but useful review, because I have not yet internalized the conventions of academic writing, and I still feel like a stranger in its realm.

His practical, materialist sense of why we write the way we do, and why conventions are what they are, opens up space for experiment and innovation. This is perhaps clearest in his discussion of titles:
As you almost certainly have noticed, the current standard format for most work in literature, history, or cultural studies is:


Some examples: Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s [...] Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects [...] Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life [...]

If for whatever reason you're committed to avoiding this format, you will find another major cluster of titles that follow the following pattern:


This structure is more common for article titles than for books. It gives you things like "Elizabeth Bishop and the Ethics of Correspondence" [...] or "Working-Class Writing and the Use Value of the Literary"[...] At some point all of these begin to resemble the descriptive, thematic subtitles that follow the colon in the more conventional form.
Hayot then discusses the ins and outs of these patterns, the better and worse ways to use them, all with plenty of examples. But he doesn't stop there — at the end of the chapter, he writes: "If you want to distance yourself from the herd, then you'll have to break the rules," and he offers five techniques "to play with the standard format": ways of changing the balance, eliminating some parts of the pattern, looking to older patterns of titling, etc.

The command to "learn the rules, break the rules!" carries through various parts of the book, and is perhaps most clearly stated at the end of a chapter on "Structure and Subordination" in a sidebar on "Descriptions and Norms":
The somewhat violent clarifications here aim to make the process of academic writing easier to understand. You should feel free to follow these lessons and rules as they were, for now, norms of some kind. But the final rule is ... break the rules! The best writing is the best because it upends standards in some way, either by enacting them with an opalescent, devastating skill (at the limit, the truest violation) or by carving new paths through the shady woods that separate what the reader understands from what the writer means. This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it. After which someone will write us all a new primer.
The are, of course, institutional limits to this, as Hayot I'm sure knows. I suspect that if I had written "Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do", Critical Inquiry almost certainly would not have published it, or at least would have insisted that I tame its formal experiment. (Similarly, I suspect that Derrida could publish Glas and have it taken seriously by academic publishers because he was already Jacques Derrida.) And perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps we should have to demonstrate that we can color within the lines before we get to ignore the lines altogether and make our own art. I've had one professor tell a class I was in: "Make sure your first journal articles are conventional, that your dissertation is conventional, and that your first book is conventional. After that, maybe you'll have some freedom to play around. But even then it's risky."

And yet ... I really don't believe this. I certainly don't believe it for nonacademic writing, where I am very much with Carole Maso in asserting: Break Every Rule. Perhaps academic writing is different because it seeks to extend knowledge and even identify something resembling truth, and so it should be contained within recognizeable forms, but I'm with that good ol' dead white guy John Milton on this: "Truth is compar'd in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick'n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." Too often, academia is not a bastion of truth and knowledge, but is instead Milton's muddy pool.

For scholars early in their careers, there are especially powerful incentives to slime ourselves all over with the mud of that pool. If you experiment with your writing — if you, in fact, risk failure — you will become a cause of much concern, you may have a hard time getting your dissertation committee to go along with your weirdness, you will likely have a harder time getting your work accepted for conferences or journals, your CV will suffer, and if you somehow manage to miraculously defeat all the forces working against you, including the statistics of the job market, and get a tenure-track job, your tenure review and evaluations will probably encourage you to be more conventional. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, and I may be especially paranoid, but I've seen very little evidence otherwise, which is one of the reasons Hayot's book feels so fresh, even revolutionary, within this context.

Part of my own problem is that I came to academic writing and publishing from the world of nonacademic writing and publishing, which is very different in nearly every possible way. I've got plenty of experience as a teacher, so I have confidence there, and I feel somewhat prepared as a thinker at this level, but as a writer I feel at sea, and I buck against a lot of the conventions because I've been writing my own way for so long, in a system that, for all its many faults, I understand pretty well. But with academic writing (and academia in general), I keep finding myself thinking, when I encounter one convention or another that I haven't paid enough attention to, "You mean people really care about that?" Perhaps I find this book so valuable because while I often like reading good academic prose, when it comes to writing it, I often feel like there's some sort of secret conversation about what it should contain that I somehow have missed, despite reading a lot of it. Hayot helps make some of that secret conversation less secret.

Ultimately, of course, we can't just improve academic style in writing. But because humanities scholarship is so tied to writing and publishing, opening up new possibilities for writing and publishing may, in fact, open up new possibilities within the institution itself. To change attitudes toward academic style means changing practices in the training of graduate students (which Hayot addresses), changing the practices of conferences and publishers, changing the practices of hiring and tenure committees. It means experimenting. Every writer and thinker knows this, because to write and to think is to experiment — to try stuff out and risk failure. It's terrifying because in a very real sense this is about people's livelihoods. But given the state of higher education in the U.S., at least, there's little reason not to experiment, because it's only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will. 

The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable.

This is a book that wants you to surpass and destroy it.

Let's get started.

*I'm deliberately avoiding any argument about whether "academic prose" or "academic writing" are useful terms that describe actual things. This blog post is too jammed with stuff already. I will say this: I'm not entirely convinced that "academic prose" and "academic writing" are useful terms, but people generally seem to know what we mean when we use them, so I use them for now. Much like "science fiction", "academic writing" means that stuff I point to when I say, "academic writing", at least here.