On academic writing, my response to it

August 26, 2011

I’ve been reading a book, Carol Berkin’s First Generations: Women In Colonial America.

The title gives away the subject matter pretty well. It’s a synthesis of different approaches in research to the study of women in the American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The subject matter is endlessly fascinating to me. There are chapters that address the regional differences that had an effect on women’s lives as well as chapters about race and class. It is really striking to me just how important property and inheritance laws are in determining how a culture thinks of women.

Two chapters in particular have been phenomenal; I especially enjoyed reading the chapter about English immigrants to the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century and the chapter that focused on the experiences of Native American women throughout the Colonial period.

As I’ve been reading the book, however, I’ve noticed my critical thinking skills kicking in, and I’ve found myself analyzing the structure of the author’s writing. It’s so transparently Academic Writing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but on numerous occasions I have found myself questioning the author’s argument because I recognize the way it is constructed. I have written arguments like that myself, usually late at night, just hours before a paper is due. I have also noticed what seem to be holes in the research that the author has attempted, for whatever reason, to neatly patch over. I have done that too. Maybe I didn’t have enough time to do the research, or there weren’t enough sources to make a solid conclusion, but I wanted to keep the content. Some chapters read like stand-alone academic papers. I know that many books get their start as a great doctoral dissertation or Master’s thesis, when the writer is encouraged to flesh out the topic. If that were the case with this book, I think I might have identified which chapter was its genesis.

I’ve also been wondering if my analytic activity while reading the book interferes with my enjoyment of it. Just because I know what the author’s doing, does that make it a bad book? I’m relieved to decide that no, it doesn’t, not for me. She’s good at it, this style of writing. And maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve read a book like this, I forgot that I actually think about them when I’m reading. It’s part of engaging with the book, right? Maybe it also means that I know how to write things like this, that’s why I recognize it.

In a different telling of my life I would have gotten a PhD and been a real fancypants academic, but I didn’t figure out in time what topics I needed to explore, nor did I have the confidence to believe that my PhD would be worth something. Oh well. The real telling of my life is going its own way, and that’s just fine.

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