Academic Audiences

Just who should we–academics, that is–be talking to? Be writing for?

Sometimes, admittedly, our conversations assume a great deal of background. Sometimes, that’s even necessary. In too many of these cases, however, that background itself narrows consideration of possibilities and angles outside of the “wisdom” passed down in graduate school or in conferences of narrow focus or through books and journals aimed so explicitly towards “the few” that their language itself keeps others out. In other words, speaking and writing only to those who share the background we have in a specialty restricts the conversation–and in more ways than one.

That’s why I love the Ray Davis comment on a post of mine the other day:

 Whenever anyone asks me about academic publishing, I think of E. B. White’s polite demurral: “Nothing would delight me more than to write exclusively about sheep, exclusively for shepherds. But….”

I mean, what’s the point? If we all already have had the same experiences and, fundamentally, agree about the main theses of our fields, why are we talking to each other? Wouldn’t you say we need to get out more?

The other day, I asked someone who is putting together a scholarly anthology if she might possibly be interested in a particular approach to the topic I could offer. It was rather a long shot, for what I proposed proposing (I wasn’t going to write a proposal for a chapter if there were no interest–and I suspected there would not be) involved a re-examination of certain “fundamentals” relating to the Comp/Rhet field (one I am only tangentially associated with, making it an outsider re-examination, at that). I got a nice email back declining… nice, except that it included this statement: “scholars in rhetoric and composition have a pretty firm grasp on why these claims can be made.”

Oh, my. I’d somehow missed that the book was to be for specialists only. Furthermore, whenever “scholars” feel they have a “firm grasp,” it’s past time that the “why” be looked into anew. The statement the editor made reeks, to me, of a self-congratulatory and sedentary field (which, actually, Comp/Rhet is not) and one that is satisfied that the insiders really have a handle on things, thank you very much. The editor is a good person, I am sure, and a fine scholar. She comes out of an excellent program and her own dissertation director is a nationally recognized figure. But she has narrowed her focus so (for the proposed book, at least) that the only audience will be the few approaching the topic from a narrow Comp/Rhet viewpoint. This is disappointing from any scholar, but from someone with a background in rhetoric and in composition, it is a particular letdown.

What’s the use of writing for so few? In my broad field of cultural studies, certainly, there is diminished interest in speaking only to those within the specialty. In fact, most of us like to dive into other fields and to try to pull audiences from outside into our discussion. That’s part of why I like being in cultural studies, for it keeps me in touch with all sorts of things I would miss, were I working in a field where only a narrow group of “experts” are welcome.

And what’s the use of an “expert,” anyway? I would say that an expert is only valuable insofar as she or he brings that expertise outside of the ivory tower… not a new claim, by the way, but even one of the underpinnings of arguments for academic freedom as made for a century now, as the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration clearly shows.

An academic who only writes for other academics only writes for himself or for herself. Each one of us should really be looking for ways, in our writing certainly, but in many other venues as well, to expand knowledge of what we are doing within populations that might not already be parts of our conversations.