Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 31, 2009

academic genres

One reason I’d like to see changes in the standards of scholarly publication is that I’d like to see changes in the genres of scholarly publication. I wrote in my previous post on this subject about the “tyranny of the monograph,” but the tyranny of the scholarly article is far stronger and more problematic. The monograph-fixation really only affects people trying to get tenure; the article-fixation affect almost every teacher and almost every student in the humanities departments.

Professors complain endlessly about how boring their students’ papers are, but we rarely stop to think that the students are just writing what we tell them to write. And what do we tell them to write? — imitations of the articles such as appear in scholarly journals. And since we find those crushingly boring, what do we expect when we assign inexperienced writers to do imitations of them?

No: as Grace Kelly says in High Noon, there has to be a better way for people to live. And as technologies of learning and the presentation of knowledge develop, we ought to be able to create more varied assignments — assignments that take advantage of these technologies. We can still teach students to do research, to think carefully, to formulate arguments, to anticipate and respond to objections to those arguments; but we need to realize that the pale imitation of dreary scholarly articles isn't the only way to accomplish these goals. It never has been, of course; but the recent proliferation of ways to find and organize information gives us a lot of incentive to explore alternatives.


  • Any thoughts on what those alternatives might look like?

  • Ari Schulman said...

    As a recent exile from academia, I quite agree with you about the dreariness of scholarly articles, but I wouldn't mind hearing a good deal more from you (preferably with a thesis statement and five supporting paragraphs) about what exactly you have in mind by that.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    All will be revealed. Well, some.

  • That's why I read all your books and subscribe to your blog. You're one of the few academics who actually has an interesting style while still having lots of important things to say.

  • Vincent Virgilio said...

    You're asking questions similar to those Wolfram Research is trying to answer in another domain (scientific computing), with their latest versions (6+) of "Mathematica".

    Here is some advocacy by one of the founders of Wolfram Research, Theodore Gray:

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