Academics Anonymous.

Author:Cohen, Paula Marantz

Why can't the Modern Language Association, the organization that represents the academic study of English, undertake the mission of encouraging good writing in the academy? The field of literary studies, before it became professionalized, was known as belles-lettres. Let's bring back the beauty, even as we maintain the professionalism. PMLA, the prestigious journal of the MLA, should refuse to publish pieces that are ugly and unclear, and the MLA should develop a program for its annual and regional meetings that makes clarity and beauty a value, and hold workshops at which the editing of scholarly work is demonstrated. The problem, alas, is that many in leadership positions within the organization write badly. Not only will they have to recognize the larger problem of bad writing as a perverse sort of standard for good scholarship, but they will also have to demand change, both for themselves and for others.

Once--bad writers who have become better ones could speak out in support of the recovery process. I consider myself one of these. When I look back at my early writing, it strikes me now as unnecessarily opaque. A colleague in another discipline read one of my books from this period and noted that it seemed to him like wading through molasses. Although it is hard to undo years of bad habits, I have worked to rid myself of academic tics and achieve some degree of clarity and grace.

A more brilliant and visible example of a scholar who has achieved what I am trying to achieve is Stephen Greenblatt. He did not write well in such early books...

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