Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).
I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.
This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.
One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?
We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.
Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.