My interests (religion, spirituality, secularism, culture and social science) take me through a wide variety of literature. From self-help and personal narratives written by leaders and teacher of various traditions, to analyses and essays written by the academics that study them, not to mention sacred texts. All of these genres have their own distinct styles. The style of academic writing is off-putting to many, which is unfortunate as, in my opinion, the vast majority of Americans desperately need intellectual stimulation and challenge.
I argue that factors in academia have made academic writing cumbersome and perhaps take away from its primary purpose: to make new connections between existing ideas and create new knowledge. My background is anthropology and it is from this field I draw from most, though I see much of the same trends occurring in other social sciences as well as in religion and philosophy.
Citing the work of others is an essential writing tool for supporting claims, providing diverse perspectives for a well-rounded discussion, connecting thoughts to the wider field of study, and confronting the antithesis of one’s argument. But is seems the emphasis has shifted from utilizing citations as a writing tool to utilizing them as the means to prove and exhibit the writer’s level of scholarship. In today’s system, academics must continually prove their scholarship to get published by academic journals and presses, which is essential to career advancement. The unintentional and unfortunate result is that the focus of academic writing becomes establishing the author’s scholarship rather than contributing to an academic discipline by creating new knowledge or new ways of understanding.
This flawed system has been discussed by those it effects: academics. An acceptable solution has not been presented yet, though there are many (often controversial) attempts underway to revamp academia. Unfortunately, I do not have the cure-all answer. But I do suggest that academic publishers give more weight to the ideas presented than the extent the author can cite other academics. Do not misunderstand, I find scholarship to be an important part of academic writing, especially in establishing the caliber of the author. I simply argue for the criteria by which works are evaluated to be reprioritized, for the weight given to these criteria to be re-delegated. I am confident that this would allow for more innovative writing and perhaps expand readership. Authors could then write pieces of interest to not only other academics but to the educated and curious public as well.