Academic Writing and Scholar-Activism

Posts have been a bit more infrequent than usual here on the blog because I’ve been writing up a storm in the world of academics and, quite frankly, I’m pooped! Last week I spent intensively working on getting a draft of the paper for my talk this year at the annual geographer’s conference (AAG). Another project I’m working on is a journal article in collaboration with another geographer (long distance), which is a new and fun experience! And I’m also in this writing class that I’ve mentioned before and we’re working on an article for submission to a geography journal. I’m hoping to submit that one in the next few weeks. The article is about the sexualized violence and gendered commodification of the animal body (both males and females) in the dairy industry. The process of writing the paper, while difficult, has been really fun. Finally, I’m putting into words some of the research I did on the dairy industry, and trying to make sense of it through figuring out an argument. It’s been a great experience so far! Okay, I know I sound like a big dork…”Academic writing is fun!!” I’m sure some of you are thinking, “What?!” But I really do love the writing process. I’ve always liked the process of forming sentences, searching for the right words, trying to get the right rhythm of words and ideas on the page (I get this from my dad). This particular process is also challenging (beyond just the act of writing) because of the complexity of the ideas I’m trying to sort out. The first week of class, the professor teaching the class (Victoria Lawson) said, “In a journal article, you should try to accomplish one thing really well.” In other words, there’s not space to develop a lot of different arguments/ideas in a journal article and so the challenge is to hone the argument to one main theme. There’s something about this process that’s like a puzzle — figuring out what adds to that singular argument and what detracts and then, at the same time, arguing for why this argument is more broadly relevant beyond just the empirical case you’re exploring.  

One of the things I’ve been trying to be mindful of through the writing process is making the prose in the article readable. Academic writing can tend to be jargon-heavy, difficult to read, and downright inaccessible. When I got to grad school and started reading a lot of academic writing, I remember thinking, “I have no idea what this is saying! What have I gotten myself into?” In time, I learned a lot of the jargon and it made reading academic writing easier, but I continue to think that academic writing should be made more readable. Really I think it is an ethical issue. Particularly for academics who are doing work related to social, environmental, and animal justice topics, I feel that we have the responsibility as scholar-activists to make the effort to avoid jargon, to explain complex ideas and terms in more accessible language and to make an effort to resist the isolation and elitism of the university structure, even as we may be embedded in it. I am in grad school doing the work I’m doing because I want to change hearts and minds about animals and I want to use this great opportunity of being involved in an academic intellectual community to do it.  Lots of academics commit to being scholar-activists and attempt to dissolve this (at times, seemingly impenetrable-yet-somewhat-imaginary) boundary between doing ‘academics’ and doing ‘activism.’ These scholar-activists believe that academia/activism are not mutually exclusive. Scholar-activists teach, they write in academic and public spaces, they give talks and get involved with activist organizations, they do lots of things that cause them to step outside of the so-called Ivory Tower and engage with the world in meaningful ways.

Writing these papers these last couple of months has reminded me of the importance of making the effort to make language accessible and the importance of constantly redefining what is meant by scholar-activism. What do you think?

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  1. I greatly appreciate this post and will be taking the advice to heart as I prepare to write the lit review for my Capstone Project!

    I agree, academic writing is very prose and jargon heavy making it very inaccessible; especially when it comes to the social sciences. I have found it ironic in many of the Cultural Studies articles and books I have been required to read that the theorists write in a style so opposite of what they are attempting to portray in their fight against discourses of power, class, race and gender. While they attempt to fight against those discursive thoughts, they tend to write in an academic manner which re-inscribes the discourses.

    As academics and writers, I feel we have a responsibility to make our work more accessible to our audience(s) and more in line with breaking down barriers versus potentially reinforcing them.

    1. Great point, Rachel, about the language we use further creating and maintaining the power dynamics we seek to undo. I think part of it is that it has to be an intentional choice not to fall into jargon-heavy language when that’s what we’re being steeped in. Plus, this kind of language and research is typically what’s rewarded in the academy, so I think we tend to get entrenched in thinking that in order to publish and be taken seriously we have to ‘talk the talk.’ I hope that this can change as more people make an effort to write more accessibly and be more involved in community projects for justice. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi Katie,

    I really like this post, as well as the similar one you posted on James McWilliams’ blog a few weeks ago. It heartens me that more academics are starting to have this conversation.

    Two comments / questions that I’d love to hear your thoughts on, here or in later posts:

    (1) In my own academic work, I’ve often felt like I should consciously steer away from being overtly political and agenda-driven. With animal rights in particular — it’s such a touchy subject for many people, that I sometimes have found myself adopting a tone of “oh gosh, think what ever you want, I’m just sharing this material, no pressure gang, there’s no agenda here.”

    Alternately, on occasion I’ve felt like I was approaching scholarship as a kind of Trojan horse: this article / presentation / proposal looks like one thing on the outside but conceals another. At times like these I recognize that I’ve internalized a kind of self-censorship when it comes to academia, and it makes me want to leave. I haven’t left, because I value the work we do in all kinds of ways, but I struggle with impatience: rather than writing things that I *hope* will resonate with readers in a certain way, I want to just come out and say what I think.

    I recognize that academics today increasingly are doing just that, in a way that’s rigorous and fair by the academy’s standards . . . but for me, the feeling that my hands are tied when it comes to activism in the academy never fully has gone away.

    Does this make sense? And have you experienced it at all?

    (2) At some point I’d like to hear how you chose geography as your field — was that choice a deliberate one, in terms of the kind of work you thought you could do on behalf of animals? Or? (If you wrote about that in a previous post, I missed it.)

    Neither of the above is explicitly related to the question of jargon, but they’re what I’m thinking about after reading your most recent post.

    Enjoying your writing, as always,


    1. Thanks, Melissa, for the really thoughtful reply! I think you’re right that there are certain ways in which our hands are tied in the academy. For instance, being seen to have an ‘animal rights’ agenda at a large research school (like the UW) where animals are used in research, is risky, to say the least. I know academics who have been accused of being ‘terrorists’ for even daring to start a conversation about these issues. While I think this is partially a problem of the academy, I think it’s also a larger societal problem as well (and maybe more so). Activists are, more and more, being labelled as ‘terrorists’ in the current Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act/Patriot Act political climate (and the Ag-gag laws as an extension of this kind of legislation).

      When I first started writing about the subject of the exploitation of animals in the U.S. slaughter industry, I think was a lot more vocal and explicit about what this should mean for readers of the work — i.e., it was wrong to kill animals and we should not do it or support the system in any way. Now, I’m not any less committed to that agenda, but I realized that that wasn’t the most effective method of getting people on board (telling people what to think and how to respond). In this article I’ve been writing on sexualized violence and gendered commodification, I made an effort to avoid that kind of prescriptive writing (i.e., “you should be vegan and care about animals and here’s why!”) and instead just focused on telling the story of bovine lives in the dairy industry and recalling the discourses used by the industry to talk about these animals. To be honest, the bare reality of the everyday, mundane aspects of dairy production and the way producers talk about the animals stands on its own and is much more powerful than any kind of overt argument I could make for veganism/animal rights. I guess what I’m saying is I think there are ways to communicate this stuff that don’t compromise the political/ethical agenda of uncovering animal exploitation, but which also allow the reader to confront the reality of these processes on their own terms.

      I definitely share your frustration at wanting to “just say it!” And I think sometimes this can work really well…For instance, in teaching, I feel like sometimes students want you to tell them which is the right path. Generally, I try to just let them find their way on their own through engaging with the readings and films and discussions (I think that’s how learning is usually best accomplished), but sometimes I’ll get frustrated or someone will be asking me in such a point-blank way, that I can’t help to respond bluntly. I really don’t know… I’m still so new to the teaching and publishing world that I don’t have a lot of experience with how best to get this stuff out there.

      Maybe it’s foolish to think that the academy can be changed, but I do think that we can prevent further academic repression by refusing to be repressed. And I think this might mean pushing to find ways of saying what needs to be said in a way that can be heard…

      As for finding my way to geography, that is a great idea for a blog post and I will happily write that post! I’m actually feeling particularly positive about the discipline right now, so I’m in a good place to think about that.

      Thank you so much for the suggestions and for sharing your thoughts/ideas, Melissa!

  3. Oh I do hope you also write about your experiences with and thoughts about the ag-gag laws. If I get so worked up about laws preventing my Katie and others from doing this important work, I can’t even let myself imagine what they mean for the animals involved!

    1. Definitely!! This is going to be an important part of the dissertation, so I’ll absolutely be writing about this here on the blog once I dig into that part of the old diss. 🙂 Infuriating and downright chilling, to say the least!

  4. Great to hear your additional thoughts, Katie! Thanks for the response. What you say about effective rhetorical strategy in academic writing (in my words, that it’s better to show than tell) makes good sense.

    I look forward to reading your post on geography, whenever that appears, and to following your career as it unfolds . . .



    1. Thanks, Melissa! I’ve been really enjoying reading your blog lately! Thank you! 🙂

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