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June 15, 2006


G Bremner

It’s a tough balance. As a professor who is your audience? Your peers, your students, or the public? You can’t serve them all, can you?

The public, in general, just doesn’t have the technical vocabulary to translate the hardcore scholarly work. The ideas themselves I believe are accessible to anyone of modest intelligence and curiosity. Academia doesn’t want a translated version, they know the basics. They want the hair-splitting deeper issues fleshed out to create more complexity in the field. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just is. You could write two versions of each piece geared towards either audience, a technical and translated version. You could also write the perfect piece that went right down the middle and satisfied both public and academic audiences, but even then you would fall short just in the mere accommodation of both sides.

Personally, I’d like to think great writing transcends any set notion of what is and is not acceptable, but the priests of the ivory tower may still chastise you simply because the writing became popular, and understood by the masses. Intellectual rigor and discipline are personal habits that are probably best enforced by those in your field. Although the cynic in me thinks academics have spent a lot of time getting special at what they do, and if everyone knows what they know, they aren’t so special any more.

I reserve a healthy irreverence towards any writing that gets to technical. Some technicality is required for refined ideas, but to much and I wonder why someone would spend so much time expertly hiding what they are trying to tell me.

It’s a lot like the T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”. Here you have an epic poem taught in every college across the U.S. Out of the 300 million U.S. citizens, how many could understand it on the first go? 200 maybe 300 professors? What kind of knowledge is required to comprehend all that is going on in the work even on a superficial level? Yet Robert Frost is easily read and understood by anyone. Why does the one transcend and the other not? Elliot broke many academic taboos with his work, but I’ll be damned if I understand it. Frost wasn’t radical but his poetry, though easily read and understood, is still complex as any idea Elliot tried to get across. Or so I think, I don’t really know that because I can’t remember what Elliot said in his work, only that it was totally beyond me. I do know “fences make good neighbors” and that I have “miles to go before I sleep”.

Matthew Weymar

It's been a while, but ... I just arrived.

It seems that many of the best academics do satisfy popular audiences. I am thinking of Cornel West, for example, only because my wife wants to go seem him speak tomorrow - again. She finds him very compelling.

And think MLK Jr. He had a very wide range of skills - from rhetoric to theology to politics - among others! He succeeded in reaching a very wide array of people. I'm sure even many academics appreciated him!

The point is: You're setting the bar pretty high. Maybe even "awfully high." But if that's what you want, go for it!

Remember: Universities like rock stars too!

Good luck,

Matthew Weymar

Sorry. Also:

1) What is it that you want to say exactly? That is of interest to both a legal academic audience, and a popular audience?...

Is your concern really that legal academic-types have some sort of semantic bias against non-technical language?... I would hesitate to sell them so short. (Or are you more concerned that they are not sufficiently concerned with "real world" issues?...)

2) My weakness is for Anthony Lane actually. He slays me!... He is certainly "my favorite critic ever." Hands down....


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