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A popular music academic reflects December 12, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Academic reflection.
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I recently re-edited a post I made about a year ago in an attempt to make the point I made more clearly. The post was about the Northern Soul scene in the UK and its links to African American culture. You can read the rewritten piece here, and the original here.

The post was picked up by several Northern Soul message boards and discussions groups, and has been widely attacked, often in the most vitriolic of terms. This was quite a shock for me. It was like a collision of two worlds. I’ve collected soul music and gone dancing for over thirty years and I feel a strong part of the bits of the scene I’m involved in. It’s great to still be dancing as I turn 50 to music I love, and to be in the company of many people who feel the same. But I’m also a university academic and I’ve debated long and hard with other academics, and learnt the skills of summarising what they say, and outlining the results of a detailed analysis in the highly condensed style we use, deploying all the technical terms and academic conventions that give us a shorthand to make a point in as few words as possible.

Of course there were probably many more thoughtful responses, every one of which made a number of important points; most of which I agreed with. In a great many cases people seemed to have misunderstood what I was trying to say; often thinking I was saying the opposite of what I thought I was saying. I have always found talking easier than writing, but I do regularly get work published after a thorough review by very precise academics. They seemed to understand what I was saying even though I am not a particularly elegant writer. When I write for students they seem to like the way I write, and they say I explain things well. So I concluded it was more about the style of academic writing that’s at stake, rather than my poor command of the art.

It’s taken me quite a bit of time to understand why I didn’t get my point across (we’re not always that bright, us academic types). There seems to be two interconnecting issues.

First, many people on the Northern Soul scene are affronted that the scene is written about in this academic way. Many people assumed I didn’t know anything about the scene, and gave some pretty rude, but sharply descriptive, statements of their image of an academic.

Second, I clearly didn’t get my point across to them. The very language that’s used in academic articles clearly isn’t helpful when making a point to a general readership. Many people who commented were articulate and very thoughtful; so I accept it’s my failing not theirs. Academic writing is a strange sort of form, very different from other forms of writing. All university teachers know this when we try to help our students master it. It has evolved to do some things academics think are important: get a lot of information and argument over in a very few words. After a while you get used to it, and other forms of writing can feel very slow (get to the point we shout!).

In part it’s the content that’s hard to follow. We do things that are not characteristic of other forms of writing.

Academics spend most of the time summarising what other people have said. That’s because when we write we think of ourselves as engaged in a set of debates with what has been written before. Many of the readers of my piece seemed to think that the views I was attributing to others were mine. I was setting them up to knock them down.

However, we are very polite about how we knock down the ideas others have presented. We tend not to set out relative positions with much strength. We try to be balanced. In my Northern soul piece I said that the issues were more complex than another writer had suggested. Someone else may have said they were simplistic, others that they were wrong. I know very well from the response of some non-academics to my writing that a common approach is to attack the author instead of the position.

We also do strange things like put peoples names in brackets as a way of pointing to a whole book or article of supporting evidence instead of spelling it out. And of course you have to know what the books say to understand the point. In Cultural Studies we also use lots of technical terms which signal debates and positions that if you know the terms you know what it means, but if you don’t it’s impenetrable.

Finally, we write in such a condensed form because we want to get a whole set of complex ideas into the few thousand words the journal editor will allow us.

I think it’s important to leave the original post up. I stand by my arguments. But I’ve added a slightly edited one to try and separate the points a bit, and particularly to make my parts plainer.

I could rewrite it for a more general readership (and I would if I had more time), but generally I’m just making drafts of academic articles available for anyone whose interested. I could just keep this to myself and the few hundred specialists who’ll read the finished piece in an academic journal. However, I believe strongly that ideas should be widely available. In the end you’ll have to take them for what they are.

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