Joshua Black reviews a new book by Simon Clews, The New Academic: How to Write, Present and Profile Your Amazing Research to the World. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2021.
There are three questions that can trigger a deep panic on the part of a PhD candidate. The first is “when are you going to finish?” The second is “where will it get you afterwards?” The third, and ironically the most confronting in the early stages of candidature, is “in a nutshell, what is your PhD about?” How on earth to explain what are invariably complex and multi-faceted phenomena in a simple and easily digestible way?
Written in response to that critical question, Simon Clews’ The New Academic is characterised by a dichotomised, inside/outside view of the academy, a world that the author perceives as being “a bit like being sent back to medieval times to work in the diplomatic corps of a far-flung principality on another continent on a distant planet in a parallel universe” (p. 4). His implied reader is evidently the Australian postgraduate student or early career researcher with one foot, or both, firmly planted in the university environment, and his mission is to encourage those communities to talk to “the world outside academia” (p. 5). Despite Clews’ somewhat jaundiced position on traditional academic research, his is a view of knowledge that is “abstract” and “belongs to all of us” (p. 8). This is an inclusive approach to be admired and emulated.
The take-home point in this book can be summarised in four words: “it’s the audience, stupid!” At each turn, Clews is keen to ensure that academics – especially aspiring ones – are attuned to the needs and wishes of their readers, listeners or viewers. The onus, he suggests, is firmly on the scholar to profile themselves for the benefit of their audience, but also to build a sharper profile of their audience in order to better connect with them. “Your job”, he tells us, “is to identify them, find them, and target them” (p. 27).
There is a real spirit of generosity threading through much of this book. We are situated as if we are attendees at one of Clews’ masterclasses on the art of effective communication. Parts of the discussion, particularly those concerned with the art of writing, should be largely instinctive for any postgraduate candidate, but the discussions about online presence, media engagement and book publishing far less so. Moreover, the generosity of the book is in its provision of other learning tools and samples, including templates for newspaper pitches, media releases and invoices. His descriptions of self-editing are practical and sensible, likening writing to the sculptor’s craft: “there’s always a little bit more that can be shaved off to make the surface smoother” (p. 47). In this regard, Clews strives to be constructive, clearly mindful of his expected audience and its unfamiliarity with some of these processes.
These simple but highly functional sections offer a very nice counterpoint to a style and tone that occasionally borders on condescension. In fact, if there is one criticism to be made of this otherwise outstanding volume, it is the disjuncture between its preaching and its practice. With a keen eye toward the PhD candidates whose language is technical and full of jargon he implores them to “just write better” (p. 15) and warns, “don’t repeat yourself” (p. 40). To the academic breaching the walls of the ivory tower to share their work with a “lay audience”, he warns that any audience utterly hates “being patronised or condescended to” (p. 25). At the same time, Clews reiterates and repeats his key points perhaps more than is necessary for this particular audience, and his criticisms of the introspective nature of academia, though sometimes merited, do feel ironically like instances of talking down to the reader. For instance, there is something moralising about his conclusion that “an inward-looking academy is no longer good enough”, and that academics must “turn around and face the rest of the world” (p. 11). “I hate to be the one to break this to you”, he notes shortly afterwards, “but you are working under a degree of difficulty that other writers don’t have – namely, the relatively poor reputation that academics have for being able to deliver what they promise” (p. 60). Denigrating old academics, one would think, need not be a prerequisite for building the new academic.
This is a book with plenty of practical utility for new and emerging historians, but they ought to read with a few caveats. First, Clews notes that if an astrophysicist reads only other astrophysics texts in their daily lives, they will be hindered by the disadvantage that “the rest of us don’t speak astrophysics” (p. 18). It is a sage piece of wisdom, but it ought not to cause historians any great anxiety because our discipline is necessarily outward-looking, interested in the world around us and the questions it compels us to ask. Further, the average audience shares with the historian a common belief that there was a past before the present, and that stories can be told about that past, though views may differ as to how and why those stories should be told. In short, despite the occasional necessity of jargon in our work, there should be little risk of any audience not being able to “speak history”.
On a related point, Clews notes that academic writing is “a very impersonal process” in which scholars must “let the results speak for themselves” (p. 33). Academic journals in our field may still operate on such a basis, but many of the most successful historians of the past several decades have been those who invested their own subjectivities and personalities in their work, exactly as Clews implores us to do in the present. In his George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures in 1961, E. H. Carr described the notion of objective facts speaking for themselves as “a preposterous fallacy”, for “the facts speak only when the historian calls on them”.[i] In The New Academic, Clews’ point is really that researchers need to be open and honest, self-reflective about and present in the stories they tell about their work. Indeed, he uses the analogy of Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamun and telling Lord Carnarvon that he could see “‘wonderful things’”: “It’s hard not to get excited by that, isn’t it?” (p. 34). Carr, I imagine, would have entirely agreed. Ultimately, Clews is right to tell us that the art of public communication depends on authenticity, personality, and the driving curiosity or wonder of the researcher. But his point, as far as it applies to historians, is not quite so new or novel, for thinkers such as Carr told us to be conscious of ourselves in our work, and as Marnie Hughes-Warrington recently said of our discipline’s lineage, “I see wonder as the beginning of history”.[ii]
There are many useful tips and acquired pieces of wisdom in this book, and Clews has shared them in a way that is universally accessible and engaging. It is realistic, considered, and unlike some contributions to this field, it offers a sense of optimism. Invoking Margaret Atwood, Clews concludes by bluntly but helpfully telling us, “don’t whine. Just get on with it!” (p. 207). Postgraduate candidates in history hoping to make a contribution to public understanding and perhaps public policy could do no harm and likely a bit of good by reading this book.
[i] E. H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986 ), pp. 11 – 12.
[ii] Marnie Hughes-Warrington, History as Wonder: Beginning with Historiography (London: Routledge, 2019), p. xvi.