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Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system.Professors live inside that system and have made peace with it.As writers, few of Kristof’s interlocutors had his pithy, winning ease.
But every now and then, someone from outside the system swoops in to blame professors for the writing style that they’ve inherited.
This week, it was Nicholas Kristof, who set off a rancorous debate about academic writing with a column, in the , called “Professors, We Need You!
People seemed to like the essay, but they were also uneasy about it.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,” someone said. Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing.
Professors pointed out that the brainiest part of the blogosphere is overflowing with contributions from academics; that, as teachers, professors already have an important audience in their students; and that the itself frequently benefits from professorial ingenuity, which the paper often reports as news.
(A number of the stories in the Sunday Review section, in which Kristof’s article appeared, were written by professors.) To a degree, some of the responses, though convincingly argued, inadvertently bolstered Kristof’s case because of the style in which they were written: fractious, humorless, self-serious, and defensively nerdy.
They showed that there was something outdated, and perhaps solipsistic, in Kristof’s yearning for a new crop of sixties-style “public intellectuals.”As a one-time academic, I spent most of the week rooting for the profs. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, “marginalizing themselves.” It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.
It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia.
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Academic Writing Skills 1 takes students through a step-by-step process from writing a paragraph to essays.