academic writing and the connoisseur-critic

I often write, well no, I actually often rant about, the importance of reading to writing. Researchers can simply read for the content of papers, chapters and books – or they can also read for the writing.

Reading for the writing can mean different things, for instance, reading texts to see their ‘technical’ characteristics….asking

  • What kind of writing is this – narrative? argument? report? 
  • What conventions are followed – sections, headings, signposting, use of examples and visual material, mode of address, first or third person ?… and so on…

However, there are other ways to think about reading for writing. Ive just rediscovered the idea of reading as a way of becoming a connoisseur of academic writing. Yes, connoisseur. And a critic. 

Where did this rediscovery come from? Well, I’m currently involved in a project about writing – not academic writing, but creative writing in schools. We (the research team) have to come up with some ideas about assessing creative writing in the classroom. Not easy… and I went back to some literatures that I haven’t read for a bit. And to a comparatively elderly paper by the late Eliot Eisner (1976), at the time of writing a Professor of Art Education at Stanford.

As often happens, reading about one thing sparked off thinking about another. One of the benefits of reading – you never quite know where it will take you. A point not disconnected from the rest of the post…  and here we go….Eisner talks about the connoisseur and critic. 

Now, a connoisseur is usually associated with activities such as drinking wine or looking at art. The term can also carry a whiff of pretentiousness  –  the blush of the sun on the south side of the hill but that lingering aftertaste of petrol and all that. And maybe there is snobbishness in connoisseurship too, because being a connoisseur means having the money to indulge yourself and maybe lording/lauding over others who can’t afford the same.

But really, a connoisseur is simply someone who has a deep appreciation and knowledge about something. Connoisseurs are critical and discerning about their chosen topic. And their topic isn’t necessarily limited to conspicuous consumption. You could be a connoisseur of compost heaps. Or of ironing. Or a connoisseur of travel and the fine art of getting to work without getting stuck in traffic. (I know all of these connoisseurs.)

Eisner argues…

Connoisseurs of anything – and one can have connoisseurship about anything- appreciate what they encounter in the proper meaning of that word. Appreciation does not necessarily mean liking something, although one might like what one experiences. Appreciation here means an awareness and an understanding of what one has experienced. Such an awareness provides the basis for judgment. (Eisner, 1976, p 140)

So why not a connoisseur of academic writing? Someone who appreciates and is discerning about the finer points, genres, platforms, media, styles, voices of and in academic writing … 

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written in the morning in a warm home office,  strong argumentative flavour with a lingering Foucauldian after-taste…

A connoisseur of academic writing would not simply read widely and be familiar with a wide range of academic writing genres, writing across disciplines and writing for multiple audiences. They would not only read to see what structure, moves and language conventions were in use. They would develop a critical appreciation of ‘good’ academic writing. They could point to texts that are beautifully written – that are aesthetically pleasing, as well as informative, well evidenced and argued, and persuasive.

A connoisseur of academic writing would surely read non-fiction and literary texts as well as academic. They would wonder about what might be brought into academic writing from other fields. They might even encourage experimentation with hybrid genres which draw on other creative fields, ranging from poetry and illustration to theatre scripts and journalism.

And maybe the connoisseur of academic writing would not only bring these understandings to their own writing, but also happily explain them to others. They would become knowledgeable critics.

What the critic strives for is to articulate or render … ineffable qualities … in a language that makes them vivid. But this gives rise to something of a paradox. How is it that what is ineffable can be articulated? How do words express what words can never express? The task of the critic is to adumbrate, suggest, imply, connote, render, rather than to attempt to translate. In this task, metaphor and analogy, suggestion and implication are major tools. The language of criticism, indeed its success as criticism, is measured by the brightness of its illumination. The task of the critic is to help us to see. (Eisner,1976, p 141)

The connoisseur-critic talks/writes about what counts as good academic writing. Their reading and writing are inseparable – both are needed. 

Perhaps none of this really matters. I’m just going off on a flight of fancy. 

Well, there are instances where academics are expected to be knowledgeable critics… Peer review is a classic instance where academics exercise their critical judgement, and may or may not have the connoisseurship to back it up. Reviewers are expected to make sound decisions about whether a text is well written. And yet each reviewer has their own take on what that means, more or less well grounded in their own critically appreciative reading and reflection. They may not be able to articulate the criteria for ‘good writing’ they are using.

Connoisseur critics would certainly have less difficulty in passing judgment on the writing of others than Reviewer 2 has at present.  As Eisner puts it,

… connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. (Eisner, 1976, p 141)

Something to aim for perhaps. Why not reading for the writing to become a connoisseur –critic? And encourage others to do the same. Read for the writing and discuss the writing along with the content? Develop your own criteria for what counts as good, better and best academic writing?  Read what others suggest about this too? 
Sounds OK to me. Yes. Read for the writing in order to becomea connoisseur-critic of academic writing.

IMHO not unhelpful ideas in the contemporary university where very particular and narrow versions of quality often prevail.

 

Image: Peri Scope. Flickr Commons.

 

 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to academic writing and the connoisseur-critic

  1. I like your emphasis on appreciation; we could use more of that. Sarah J. Tracy recently wrote a blog about the problem of certainty I also liked (http://www.sarahjtracy.com/certainty-the-fools-drug-of-choice/). The critical exchange in academic discourse can stifle appreciation of difference, but I’ve learned more by thinking about why I don’t like something than by trying to refute it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Madonna Stinson says:

    Eisner’s article is one of my all-time favourites and I use it every year with my UG curriculum students to get them to think about the processes involved in assessment. Here you sent me back to it again. I confess that when I love the writing in a piece of work, I am much more likely to read and re-read and re-visit again. Here’s to being a connoisseur-critic of your own and other academics’ writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jane S says:

    This a fine cat to send into the academic pigeon coop. Well said, Pat. And you haven’t gone off “on a flight of fancy.” As you say, these are “… not unhelpful ideas in the contemporary university where very particular and narrow versions of quality often prevail.” (And how!)

    Writing is half a learned science, half a creative art – but, after years of midnight lucubrations, your precious thesis is going to land on an anonymous pile in front of examiner/s. Whichever dark corner of your abstruse topic field your narrative has sought to illuminate, you need to engage the reader and persuade them to turn the pages. You don’t want a bored examiner to yawn and just skim the contents, the Intro or Chapter One, the last few paras of the final pages and your impressive bibliography (almost as long as a novel). Strike the right notes to stand out (Eisner’s ‘vivid language’): think about vocabulary, or adjectival clauses, even layout. Formulaic pedestrian prose, a tedious homogeneous academic style, murders a unique voice. Minus said individuality, my usual opinion is, ‘This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it,’ (the great Dorothy Parker, ’Women Know Everything!’)

    NB: In four years of research experience, a few observations have surfaced. For example, the concentrated skill of reading whole books is less common than it used to be, and swathes of students, at all levels, peer at screens for preference.
    Writing is directly affected not only by what you read, but also by how you read it. And range across disciplines, periods, fiction and non-fiction, good journalism …
    It’s all grist to the mill.

    Like

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