Whom are we addressing when we write and speak from the academy? Each other, of course: our colleagues and students; those we want to impress and persuade; and especially those we want to persuade to give us jobs, scholarships and grants. More specifically, there is a range of programs currently sponsored in Australia and, I'm sure, elsewhere, teaching and exhorting humanities academics to write in a more accessible way. And heaven knows, we have all read enough execrable academic prose to acknowledge that many of our colleagues could afford to lighten up substantially.
But it has become a new imperative on both the humanities and the sciences: a new kind of professional development; and another skill set to master. A common feature of such seminars is to encourage participants to ‘pitch’ their work to a prospective publisher, or newspaper features editor. Today’s Australian newspaper reports on the 'Bright Spark' Challenge of the ‘Fresh Science’programme. The candidate who can best explain their work in — can this be true? — 40 seconds can go on to win a two-week cadetship at the Australian’s newsroom, helping to put together the national newspaper.
So it isn’t just humanities researchers who feel this pressure to redress the stereotype of academic work as incomprehensible, and by implication, irrelevant, and to communicate their ideas more broadly than to the ‘peers’ who might referee their work.
As it happens, the auditions for the latest series of ‘Australian Idol’ are currently being broadcast. Isn’t there a kind of ghastly parallel between these hopeful attempts to win the attention of the judges and the idea that you might have 40 seconds (singing solo, without the accompaniment of footnotes and qualifying remarks) to explain the difference between medieval studies and medievalism, or the nature of subaltern discourse? I wonder what effect these imperatives will have on our work?
My own feelings on this are all at sixes and sevens. On the one hand, I’m genuinely pleased if anyone comments that they found my academic writing pleasant or easy to read. And I am currently struggling hard to finish reading a book directly related to my current research that is so poorly written I can barely understand the gist of some sentences, so that I find myself compulsively scanning for the worst examples, and reading them aloud to whoever’s around. And yet I have sufficiently internalised convention academic decorum to be a little shocked if an editor suggests, as one did recently, that I might try to re-write the chapter drafts I had shown him so that they might appeal to a broader audience. I’m supposed to be pleased, I know, to think that my work might reach more than a handful of specialists (and I can see that a cultural history of Order of the Garter is exactly the kind of topic that might lend itself to such presentation), but it’s quite hard to let go of the sense that the best work is work that doesn't make any kind of compromise; or work that fits neatly next to other work in the field that we admire. This is presumably Chaucer’s impulse at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, to see his little book in the company of his classical masters.
On the third hand, as it were, academic blogging does have the potential to open up different kinds of spaces and voices for reading and writing. It’s certainly a very pleasant space in which to read and write. I think perhaps its immediacy might give literal expression to the conventional readerly desire to hear the voice of the author, unmediated by print and mass circulation; and the conventional writerly desire to communicate with readers. This is something I have written about in the history of Chaucer studies; the desire to come into the presence of the poet in the margin of a manuscript or book, or on a horseback pilgrimage. Much of the excitement over Linne Mooney’s recent identification and naming of Adam Pinkhurst as Chaucer’s scribe derives from the license it seems to offer to get close to Chaucer all over again.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the first blog I started reading regularly was Chaucer's. Chaucer not only keeps up his blog, but also addresses his readers individually in the comments box; more than one reader then comments on the sheer pleasure of getting a letter from Chaucer. It reminds me of Leigh Hunt’s comments in the margins of his copy of Troilus and Criseyde, at V. 270, where Chaucer says, ‘Thow, redere, maist thiself ful wel devyne’. Hunt comments, ‘There is something singularly pleasing, flattering, and personally attaching in finding one’s self thus personally addressed by such a man as Chaucer, even under an individual designation so generalizing’. And, yes, I’m thrilled that Chaucer has now included a link to this blog, as ‘Humanitees Resercher’; ok, these words don’t go so well into Middle English as others!
Perhaps I’m using this blog, then, to rehearse some of these undeniable pleasures. But I will still have to think hard about how to write this book.