The place of beauty in scholarly writing

[Update: Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’ve just returned from two thought-provoking days of conversations about assessment and authority in new modes of scholarly production, the second in a series of three SCI meetings on the topic. We’ll synthesize the key outcomes and insights into a report very soon. For the moment, though, I want to think a little more about a question that occurred to me after the meeting: What is the place of beauty in academic writing? While this wasn’t something the group discussed directly, it did seem to be an undertone of certain threads of conversation.

I got home from CHNM on Friday evening feeling pretty brain-dead from the hybrid (and quintessentially #altac) work of wrangling meeting logistics and absorbing stimulating and thoughtful discussion. Ready to relax, I sat down to watch Pina and was entranced within minutes; the film is stunning. The clips of Pina Bausch’s dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are mesmerizing; they are made even more compelling by Wim Wenders’ directorial work. Something about the visual beauty of the film and the dance it portrayed helped me to think about the preceding conversations about scholarly work in a new light.

One topic of discussion at SCI was the significance of the editorial process to the perceived quality and authority of scholarly work. Thinking about this while watching the film, I was struck first of all by the interviews with individual dancers that fill a substantial portion of screentime. Each dancer speaks admiringly of Pina (always referring to her by her first name), many of them noting her ability to draw out astonishing performances through her perceptiveness and laconic guidance. The task of ferreting out talent in academic spheres can happen at many different junctures, and is the touchstone of good mentors (and editors) everywhere. But I’m not sure that we give enough credit to the role, as stories of scholarly enterprise often favor a notion of individual struggle and success. Pina’s influence, by contrast, is clearly credited as a guiding force and catalyst, both for individuals and for the company as a whole.

The second thing that I thought about while watching the compelling visual display was the necessity of expertise and practice in the dance productions, no matter how unlike traditional repertoire they may have been. Pina’s company was known for innovative and risky works that departed significantly from traditional dance productions, but that doesn’t mean that the dances are sloppy or unrehearsed. On the contrary, it is clear that the dancers have a deep foundation in traditional training, that the unusual choreography is equally demanding of precision, and that the productions are meticulously rehearsed. The result is both beautiful and powerful.

As we talk about new modes of scholarly production that depart from the traditional mechanisms of academic authority, it’s worth considering what careful research and new lines of inquiry look like when separated from the formats that have long been customary. As the velocity of publication increases (and is done on an ever-thinner shoestring, even at traditional presses), the editorial process is condensed. Writers may not polish their prose to the same degree, and the work may not benefit from thorough content refinement, copyediting, or layout decisions that publishers have historically taken on.

Generally speaking, I think that making scholarly work public more quickly is a significant enough benefit that it can bear the risk of a few rough edges. At the same time, perhaps especially for literary scholars whose work revolves around the ways that words are put together into sentences and stories to create both meaning and beauty, I’m acutely aware of the power of a beautifully-written text. The care and precision with which we construct our arguments is, I think, directly related to the ideas that we express. It’s useful to think about written style in terms of code, too, in which syntax and precision are strictly necessary to create a functioning program. Someone might prefer the flexibility of Perl or the comparative strictness of Python or C, but once she has chosen a language for the program, the corresponding rules must be followed. Precision isn’t an aesthetic choice in this case, but a requirement for functionality.

All of this brings me back to my initial question: What is the place of beauty in scholarly writing? In a Twitter conversation with Kari Kraus, I floated three possibilities: It may be a core value to our scholarly enterprise; it may be a pleasant ancillary; or it may be a risky distraction.

I haven’t yet mentioned the risk factor, but it’s part of what initiated this line of thinking in the first place. Scholarly writing is, at its core, about the creation and dissemination of new knowledge; if that is the goal, then perhaps the packaging shouldn’t matter. Jason Priem, co-founder of ImpactStory and a participant at the SCI meeting, worried that too much emphasis on polished grammar or design could serve as a choke point, preventing innovative ideas and arguments from reaching an audience. Scrutinizing the surface of the work, Jason argued, means that only those who have learned the codes afforded by elite education will see their work accepted as valuable, which potentially reinforces problematic classist limitations on the creation of new knowledge and lines of inquiry.

The risk that Kari and I mentioned in our conversation considers a somewhat different angle. Rather than focusing on the rejection of good ideas that lack polish, we mused about the potential acceptance of weak arguments couched in beautiful prose. While I don’t think that this is an especially common problem in academic writing—I would love it if our problem was an excess of gorgeous prose!—it is plausible enough that it makes me pause when I think about whether beautiful writing could be considered a core value of scholarly work in the humanities.

Ultimately, I think that beautiful writing is akin to precise, well-rehearsed movements in dance. The movements themselves are not sufficient to establish an interesting, cohesive work, but they are both elements of the piece’s beauty, and signposts indicating the care and work that are its foundation. The same is true with stylistic precision or fine visual design: they not only affect the audience’s encounter with the work, but also suggest the hard work and craftsmanship that have gone into it. Admittedly, that would mean that beauty is one part substance and one part signal, and I think there’s a fear that signals are mere dissimulation. But we’re affected by signals all the time, whether they are intended or not, and so we might as well be aware of the ways those signals are created and received.

But what about the realities of contemporary scholarly production, in which editorial oversight and refinement are increasingly unavailable to scholars wishing to share their work as widely as possible? This is where a dose of cautious optimism comes in. As I’ve watched the innovative models of SCI’s partner projects—PressForward, MLACommons, and Scalar—I am hopeful that scholars will have more and more ways to participate in ongoing conversations about their work that lead to increased refinement. Post-publication review mechanisms, whether in the form of CommentPress or the multi-layered curation and editing of Digital Humanities Now and the Journal of Digital Humanities, provide (arguably) richer opportunities for a scholar to work through ideas with input from a community of peers. The resulting work has the potential to be of higher quality than an article seen by only a few sets of eyes before its publication, and it is also likely to reach a wider and more diverse audience.

In the end, to recycle my own tweet, I just want to read (and, ideally, produce) more beautifully-written work. I hope that we’re creating systems that make that possible, and cultivating values that reward it.

11 thoughts on “The place of beauty in scholarly writing

  1. Tara McPherson

    I’ve been thinking a good deal about this thread of our conversation last week and especially about our evening discussion with Jason Priem . While I am sensitive to Jason’s worries about the gate-keeping functions of writing within the scholarly community, I also find myself powerfully drawn to the beautifully crafted argument (with elegance found in both structure and prose.) And, as we move increasingly toward multimodal forms of expression, I want to hold on to the notion that design and beauty matter to the quality of ideas and argument. In working on Vectors , we’ve come to see again and again that something quite unique happens when scholars think about form and content as related and push the shape and expression of their ideas to suit an argument. (Of course, scholars have long done this in the careful structures of their books, a form of beauty that exceeds the lovely sentence.) As we write in new networked forms at the surface of the screen, meaning will be shaped by design in myriad ways: by the juxtaposition of text and image, by the structures of hyperlinked prose, by attention to the look of the screen, and by the possibility for interaction. These elements aren’t neutral — they communicate meaning in powerful ways, and I hate to think that, in the current pressure to circulate ideas quickly, we won’t pay attention and care to what they offer us. Beauty need not just be about keeping people out of the scholarly world but also about welcoming them in.

  2. Philippe

    Hi Katina,
    Very interesting post! At L&C, there will be a symposium tomorrow devoted to this very topic:
    http://college.lclark.edu/academics/support/writing_center/
    I wish I had known you were going to be writing on this topic – I wish we could have invited you!
    [here’s the description of the event]:
    “Academic writing in most disciplines has changed drastically over the last century. Some changes may be for the better, others for the worse, but either way, these changes restructure our thinking, our writing, and our teaching. Why have thesis statements and “road maps” become a standard expectation in so many fields? Why do we emphasize clarity and efficiency more than beauty or profundity? Have we become more comprehensible to non-experts or less so? How did the scholarly essay turn into the research article, and at what price? When future ages look back on our work, what will they say?

    To help answer these and related questions, the panelists have been asked to compare academic writing in their fields with that of earlier generations and explore the hidden cultural factors — social, political, and economic — that have influenced the way we work and teach.”

  3. neuromusic

    there are similar concerns w/r/t beauty in data presentation. I appreciate Edward Tufte’s approaches to data visualization, such as maximizing the data-to-ink ratio. don’t pursue beauty for the sake of beauty, but in support of clearly conveying the information you mean to convey. if you abandon aesthetics as a critical component of the information transfer, you end up with ugliness that impedes that information transfer.

  4. Abby Rumsey

    Another thread of our conversation at this meeting was about attention (as in, how to command it). Authority has a unique power to command attention in the academy, as elsewhere in the world. I interpreted part of Jason’s remarks to be a caution to us to be aware of the many ways authority is masked by standard practices (Jason called them rituals, actually) in writing. The same is true of beauty. It clearly compels our attention. Yes, Katina, even when we think we are brain-dead, our mind wants to watch Pina because it is so beautiful and beauty is necessary to us. (Why is a topic for another day, http://www.rumseywrites.com/blog/on-darwinism-and-the-usefulness-of-beauty).

    But beauty is not the same thing as authority. Many a dissident has created something beautiful in order to unmask the ugliness of authority. Unlike Pina’s dancing, scholarly writing is far too much about authority to be truly beautiful, at least when it engages with the scholarly literature on a given subject rather than the subject itself. Maybe the introduction of more beauty into scholarly writing would actually have the effect of challenging, not reinforcing, those standards. That would be nice!

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