Karma Waltonen: Holding Up a Mirror to Us

What is the work of the university system? Producing knowledge? Burdening students with a lifetime of loans to default on? Building massive apartment style dorms and cafeterias with Chick-fil-A and Papa Johns to choose from? Knowledge production is theoretically our answer, though most universities have turned to for-profit business models. These models put pressure on professors to regularly publish scholarship while taking on administrative and teaching duties that crowd out time for writing and research. Following the business model of high productivity, many professors are forced away from working on the frontiers of their fields and, rather, write and train students to write unreadable “scholarship.” But these obstacles do not stop academics from adding readable material to their knowledge fields and finding new ways to do so.

We discussed the role of academic journals and academic writing with Karma Waltonen, English professor at UC Davis, writer, blogger, and editor of Margaret Atwood Studies.

-Joseph Hurtgen

With a visible expansion of academic journals in recent years, it is clear enough that journals are a popular form of discourse. Academic training, especially in graduate school, is geared toward knowledge production, lending itself to the journal form. Yet most of what is written and read in journals generally stays within academic circles. Do you find this problematic at all? What is your view of the role of the academic journal and knowledge production in the 21st century?

I think we definitely have an issue with academic knowledge tending to stay in academic circles. On the other hand, though, everything written is written for a specific audience--and specialists writing to specialists is part of how specialized knowledge can propagate. Still, I think it's important for us to better honor academics who write and educate outside of journals. Part of our problem is that we only reward one type of writing--for one type of audience. But surely those of us who reach even larger audiences by taking our work out into the world deserve recognition too.

So, would you say that your choice to write about a popular television show, The Simpsons, is due somewhat in part to bridging the gap between academic and non-academic writing? I wonder as well if cultural studies, the analysis of culture and its politics helps bring theory to places and people that otherwise wouldn't find it approachable.

Maybe. But there are lots of essays even on The Simpsons that are by and for academics. In fact, in a graduate seminar on writing, I took in several essays on The Simpsons from various journals, ranging from readable to not. We talked about the pressure students felt to make their writing unreadable, and I pushed them to resist that pressure. Sometimes people don't understand why I write on Margaret Atwood and The Simpsons and everything in between, but they're all about holding up a mirror to us--and I want to talk about that mirror with others, so I do so in academic forms but also in blogs and tweets. And of course the blogs and tweets get read more.

I'm lucky, though. I'm a lecturer at Davis--teaching faculty instead of research. The downside is less money, more classes, no vote, and excessive difficulty getting raises. But the upside--and it's a big one--is that I'm not under the same research pressure as my tenure track colleagues. Because my research doesn't "count," I get to research whatever the hell I please. And I can write/publish in whatever formats I please. So, I have very formal work--editing the Atwood journal, publishing textbooks--and very informal work--speaking on sf at Comic Cons--and I end up having more research under my belt than almost all of my colleagues because I'm passionate about what I'm doing.

At least we have Alan Sokal's 1996, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to thank for bringing attention to a whole genre of purposefully unreadable academic writing. I didn't realize that students were still pressured to write in the jargon genre? What is that pressure symptomatic of?

I think that students are still sometimes pressured by reading that kind of article in their grad school classes, being taught by professors who still subscribe to thinking that academic writing should be exclusionary, and problems within certain disciplines. Women’s Studies programs, for example, are notorious for bad writing. When I was in grad school, I had a professor from one of those programs tell me my writing was "too clear." I told her that was probably because I'm a writing teacher.

How did that style of thinking originate, people reading 19th-century German philosophers, thinking "this sounds smart, let's do this?" or what? I wonder if there's a market for a book on how to write obfuscated prose? If you can get a publisher interested, maybe we should co-write it?

I'm not sure how it started. I do know that when I try to teach Politics and the English Language, it usually falls flat. Orwell's prose is hard for the students, even though he's writing about being clear. I saw a study once where our textbooks are at lower reading levels than they were half a century ago. I think more people used to be able to read complex texts (even though fewer people could read, paradoxically).

I sometimes wonder whether teaching composition will all but vanish within a decade. As AI becomes more intelligent, won't we have machines compose messages for us? Maybe ENG 100 will be replaced by courses in computer coding or creating and sustaining a personal brand?

The lower division stuff might, but the professional writing courses my department teaches are in high demand.

As a last question. What work are you most excited about currently, either of your own or others?

I have a book in progress on The Simpsons, with my co-author, Denise Du Vernay. I have another book in progress--a textbook that teaches students to evaluate and integrate sources--with another co-author, Melissa Bender. In the coming months, I'll be at several conferences, giving papers on Margaret Atwood, better pedagogy, and changing student populations. This Fall, I'll be teaching remedial writing, Writing in Fine Arts, Writing in the Health Sciences, a Margaret Atwood seminar, and a graduate level course on writing Forensic Science Reports. In my spare time, I'll be getting the next Margaret Atwood Studies issue out, working with our Campus Book Project, mentoring in our program for former foster care students here at UCD, serving as the faculty mentor/trainer/performer for the UC Davis Stand-Up Comedy Club, and hosting my weekly book club. Finally, I bitch about online dating, pop culture, and contemporary politics on my blog: dr-karma.com. I'm excited about all of this, but someone probably needs to have a talk with me about overextending myself.