Pay attention, because it’s really, really simple:
If in January, you sit there contemplating what you should report and write in order to win a Pulitzer Prize during the coming year — or if you harbor such thoughts at any point during the year – you are hack and a whore and part of the problem.
I’m a huge fan of The Wire and Treme so naturally I was ecstatic when David Simon started putting stuff up on his blog. In the quote above he discusses the Awards-Industrial-Complex and how it distorts journalism. However, I think there is a significant application to be made to those of us who do academic writing. To be sure, there aren’t many awards for us to win but there is favor to curry with administrators and there are pats on the back to win from colleagues.
I’ll admit it. A few years ago I was a hack and a whore. I thought up an entire book project to pitch to a specific publisher because I thought it would help me win the graces of a former employer. Thankfully, after writing the first few chapters I threw it in the bin. The problem wasn’t the writing per se but the motivation that produced it which in turn tainted the writing. I knew it was poisoned at the time I started but it took a while to sink in and when it did I’m thankful that I had the wherewithal to cut my losses and start on something new.
I might be going out on a limb here but I think this is something we all struggle with, especially those of us who are young in our careers. There is a game to academics that can be played if you know how. One of the elements is getting some publications under your belt, preferably more than your colleagues or fellow job applicants and placed in more prestigious places. It may seem hard but actually it’s quite easy. Need to generate a few quick and easy articles? No problem. Find an obscure word or phrase, gin up a new interpretation on something, or, if all else fails, troll ancillary disciplines for methodologies that have yet to be applied to your field and, presto, “An X Reading of the Book of Whatever.” You just triangulate something novel enough that it has the luster of newness but make is familiar enough so you’re not dismissed as a loon. Easy peasy. But is it really what we need?
A year or so after my aborted attempt at academic whoredom I read Alan Jacobs’s book–A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. It gave definition to my unformed, intuitive perspective of what writing was, or better, what it should be. Instead of viewing writing as something to better the writer–whether that be monetary compensation (in our fields? yeah, right), fame, or what have you–he framed writing as a gift. It’s a gift you give the world. If they embrace it, great. If they reject it, so be it. But the real key to this paradigm is that it frames writing as something you do to serve and better others instead of yourself–an externally oriented act.
We are awash in words. It’s just too much. Of the many problems associated with higher education, a major one is the impetus, either explicit or implicit, that you’ve got to constantly produce. There are too many monographs, too many journals, too much stuff to keep up with. You think I’m kidding? Harvard–the richest university in the world–can’t even afford their journal subscriptions. Even in really niche sub-sub-disciplines we can’t keep up. Something has to stop. We don’t need anyone to write anything more unless they further the conversation, reveal something new, put material into a more accessible package, or cause us to ponder something again from a different angle.
I know the pressures of trying to pad resumes and gain a following, to “build a brand” or “gain a platform” within the academic world. Resist it. Save your words for stuff that really counts and in the long run it will benefit you because people will actually listen to what you say because they will regard it as valuable. And if you happen to say things that people don’t want to hear but they desperately need? You many not see a reward but you’ve given us a gift. You served us and in return we ignored you or maybe a few angry folks threw sand in your face. But you kept your integrity; the egg is on our face.
So, if you’re a good scholar whose sold out to slinging books by selling sensationalism or if you’re playing the game of ginning up empty articles or rehashing books then David Simon has a few words for you: “you are hack and a whore and part of the problem.” In the words of Alan Jacobs: “You’re welcome.”