Joseph Harris

Joseph Harris’s conservative view on scholarly writing begs his assumptions clarified.  Harris doesn’t want autobiography in scholarly writing; he wants position, he wants authors to acknowledge the perspective from which they preach while avoiding confession.  The personal disguises the situation of a story: personal anecdotes do not allow readers to see beyond a story and into the scene of the story.  Autobiographical writing, with its masterly technique of obfuscation, confuses readers to the point that they cannot be self-reflective.  When we read a story about a teacher’s interaction with a “remarkable student” or “a bad class” we are unavoidably restrained from ‘rethinking’ our own work.  Too busy being subsumed in the narrative we cannot step away from personal expression and textualize the story, situate the story, or position the storyteller critically.  Autobiographical writing does not contain “disciplined subjectivity,” it is too much an attempt at objectivity, and critical readers cannot ‘see through’ this.
    The answer to this is obvious.  Scholarly writing, emphasizing its need to pertain to academics, needs clarity, grace, and mostly style (with apologies Joseph Williams).  It also needs to be complex and allusive.  Scholarly writing is a professional tool that academics use to position themselves in discourse, to ‘join the conversation.’  The conversation is only among academics and we should not forget this.  Academia is like fixing cars and cleaning teeth: if you’re not a mechanic or a dentist you don’t need, or want, to know about how to fix cars or clean teeth you just want it done.  The same for scholars, only scholars need to know about teaching and they need to be told directly with no room for interpretation.  This does not mean, “no room for argument”, because argument is the “wrench” of scholarship.  But articles cannot be imbedded in personal writing because the personal allows too much interpretation: the writer’s perspective cannot be codified in one sentence because it is convoluted with meaningless details. 
    Scholars are the smartest people alive.  We are fully capable of understanding our situation in a classroom, we know every subject position, and if we don’t we at least know our own.  Personal writing devalues our superior intelligence by suggesting scholars may not be completely aware of their role within a classroom.  When a scholar tells a story they are supposed to interpret the story for us.  We are not here to interpret and understand - we are here to argue and postulate. 
    “The impulse to legislate a certain style or register for academic prose – whether formal or personal, succinct or allusive, magisterial or intimate – is an attempt to do away with the problem of writing, with the need for a writer to find or invent for him or herself the particular form that a certain line of thought require, to forge his or her own voice and style.”  It may sound contradictory to advocate for a personal style, while criticizing personal narrative, but it is not.  Scholar writing is a style.  As such scholars must find style within structure.  “The answer to stale academic prose is not the personal essay but better academic prose.”  Stale academic prose is plodding and obtuse.  It is boring to read because there is no stylistic excitement.  It is pedantic and didactic, obvious and elite.  Stale prose is clear, but not graceful.  We scholars need to revolutionize academic writing by maintaining its academic role: subjectivity in objective statement.  No: objectivity in subjective statement. 
    When Harris says he wants ‘better academic prose,’ he wants emotionless prose with precise expressions of opinion so other scholars can argue against the personal position of the article.  Scholarship is a job, and the job would be easier if academics did not have to interpret their colleagues’ messages.  We have a job to publish ourselves.  We have a job to be commodities for a corporate institution.  Our job is not to change the world; our job is to become tenured and professional.  To do this we must eliminate the elitism suggested by personal narrative and “dense or plodding” essays.  We are smart, but we are not that smart and neither is the audience we are writing for.


Work Cited  

Harris, Joseph.  “Person, Position, Style.”  Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition.  Ed. Gary Olson and Todd Taylor.  New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.  47-56.