On Academic Writing

I was writing to a friend this afternoon about her dissertation work, and remembered a story I’d forgotten until today.

I finished my dissertation in November 1996. I’d explicitly structured it as a series of stories, each about a particular kid in a particular place, and then pulling it together like Aesop or Rod Serling to provide the moral of the story, the intellectual lesson to be learned about teenagers’ meanings of the places in their lives. I’d cleared that approach with my dissertation committee two years earlier; in fact, I chose my committee because they were in agreement about its potential, and about my ability to pull it off. (Thanks, y’all.)

Some months later, after having graduated, I got an e-mail from the department’s director of sponsored research. I knew her to say hi to in the hallway, but I’d never really worked with her. I was too naive to understand what “sponsored research” even meant or why it mattered (it’s in the book now, though, look it up), and so hadn’t worked with her to locate any potential funding or anything.

Anyway, she sends me this e-mail, now lost to the weedpatch of the internet, but in paraphrase, she said “I had the chance to read your dissertation, and I had a lot of problems with it as the culmination of an academic process. If you wanted to write a novel, you should have made that clear in your proposal.”


Academic writing is a form of courtly ritual, in which you bow to your elders. It’s properly sequenced, properly dressed, layered in the dozens of rules of decorum that mark you as part of polite society. Citing Derrida and Foucault is good; calling something “Derridean” or “Foucauldian” is even better. And in my colleague’s eyes, I’d shown up to the cotillion in board shorts and flip flops, PBR can in hand.

Trust me, if you get on about Toyotist labor relations or “transgressivity” or “further complicating” something, no human being will ever, ever follow you down that road. You will almost literally hear the web browser go on to another page. Much of academic writing isn’t really writing at all; it’s a form of supplication. As a doctoral student, you’re in the equivalent of charm school, learning how to use a fish fork and to whom to curtsey, which direction to turn to change partners in the waltz and how to properly manage the tails of your evening coat while seated for dinner. Your dissertation demonstrates that that you know the appropriate layering of corset and petticoat and hoopskirt and overskirt, that you know how to properly wear a chatelaine, and that you have the leisure (or the servants) to keep all of that clean and pressed.

I’d make a terrible dissertation advisor, because I like to read, and I don’t like to be bored. (I’ve actually been a dissertation committee member twice, and both of those students wrote really interesting, narratively charged research. Neither has an academic position now. I feel as though I helped them as writers, and hindered them as scholars, because I myself didn’t—and still don’t—care about the details of courtly protocol.)

So, please, write your dissertation as a proof of membership. And then write the book for me.