Reining in the Research Narrative (my own)

This post in an attempt to keep my research narrative(s) in focus. I admit to getting very easily distracted by disparate, albeit interconnected, avenues of inquiry, so, now and then, I need to force myself back to basics and find the unifying continuities.

This recent tweet reminded me of how easily my narrative slips off my radar:


Now, I don’t know to what extent Picasso is right, but his words are relevant to me both as a teacher and as a researcher of academic writing, although they are relevant in very different ways. And it is partly because of  these multiple identities that my research narrative gets diluted by myriad  perspectives.

So, as a clarifying reminder to myself, I am NOT researching how to teach academic writing but researching what makes the writing academic (rather than ‘artistic’) in the first place. The question, therefore, is what ‘we’ mean by ‘academic’. If this meaning is shown to be varied, then its modes of expression should be, too.

So, is this Picasso quote relevant to me, the researcher?

Yes, it is, because it flags up one of my underlying narratives, namely that there is a tangible trend towards questioning what it means for writing to be ‘academic’ in the 21st century and towards a more creative (aka ‘artistic’) interpretation of what academic writing is (my evidence for this is here, here and here). How can research, rather than teaching, make sense of the dialectic messy muddle of moving between prescriptive rules and creative artistry that allows knowledge to emerge (with a view to ultimately helping students and teachers navigate it)?

In other words, to go back to Picasso, what are the rules of academic writing, who can break them, which ones can we break, how many, when and why; and once they are broken, what exactly are we left with, and how different is what we are left with to what we started with?

The range of writing that has come out of the Academy throughout history and that has cumulatively led to the formation of our concept of ‘academic’, shows that it is hard to pin down what shape and form writing has to have in order to be classified as ‘academic’. And since it is complex (as well as global) to pin down, it is accordingly complex to teach, to learn and to predict its evolving nature.

Specifically, I am thinking of the sense in which the following different texts, at least, can be classified as ‘academic’ given the extent to which they differ and the extent to which they make/break rules whilst all being products of the Academy:

1. the ancients’ use of poetry to communicate science (Doody et al, 2012: 234-235, ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Science’):

From a modern perspective, one of the puzzling aspects of ancient specialist literature is the prevalence of poetry in what we regard as scientific or technical texts

2. cf the above with the modern-day use of Bob Dylan quotes in medical titles: by using Bob Dylan, the authors got across important medical knowledge to the (academic/public) communities that mattered

3. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with its 7 propositions and articulations thereof, and no ‘proper’ referencing to speak of (other that to matey inner-circle, Gottlob and Bertrand): a far cry from the Swalsian ‘moves’ or Dunleavy‘s paragraph advice

4. Watson and Crick’s seminal 1954 DNA article in Nature which used a remarkably colloquial style, yet reached out to the academic science community that mattered

5. Alan Sokal’s postmodern academic hoax, a text that would still be in circulation were it not for the fact that he himself declared it as fraudulent: does this fradulence detract from its ‘academicness’?

6. the recent Springer journal hoaxes, all of which followed all the classic ‘rules’ of academic writing, yet created no ‘genuine’ meaning because they were produced by a computer programme designed by MIT students to produce academic texts on demand (more than 200 of these were in circulation; they also inspired the creation of Ike Antkare, one of the most cited scientists on the planet)

7. plagiarised texts, and the vast epistemological debate that plagiarism is; does it mattter if a text is plagiarised, and is it still ‘academic’ if it is?

And also, given that being academic also involves public engagement, can we draw a clear distinction between private and public / academic and creative? Plus, doesn’t the binary ‘academic’ versus ‘public’ somehow imply that ‘academic’ means ‘private’ (in which case, the early Wittgenstein would be a perfectly acceptable academic writer because only his cronies can understand him)?

Picasso says we need to ‘know the rules’ before we can break them. But what are the rules? Who sets them? Who can break them? To what vantage should they be broken? And at what point does an academic text stop being ‘academic’ and become creative?

Now you can see why I so easily lose sight of my narrative!

Anyway, these are the research beasts I need to address, but any reactions to anything I say here is most welcome!

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