Monday, December 06, 2004

Communication and Authority

Via Chapati Mystery, I find this contest for good academic writing. I've been hearing about the issue of scholars' writing ability since I was an undergraduate, and in recent years have only half-joked that graduate school cost me my ability to write. This is, however, an issue that academics need to take seriously, because your influence in society often depends on the ability to communicate your ideas.

I don't normally blog comments that aren't made publicly unless I have permission, but to plunge in anyway, today I had lunch with Juan Cole and some UW faculty, and someone commented on the odd fact that the face of academic expertise on Iraq should be a historian of Iranian religions rather than a political scientist dealing with Iraq. Part of the reason, of course, stems from the short supply of the latter, as Saddam was likely unwilling to allow aspiring professors to comb his country for political undercurrents. However, another reason is that of all the possibilities, Cole had the ability to communicate his ideas to a broad audience and bothered to find a forum to do so. An even better example of this in Middle East Studies is Bernard Lewis, whose influence doesn't originate in his Ottomanist academic credentials, but in the fact the guy can flat out write and has been doing so for a long time.

However, just to show the situation isn't new, I'll quote a description of the Persian historian Wassaf from page 21 of David Morgan's The Mongols:

"Rashid al-Din's dominance is so great that it has tended to obscure the major importance of another Persian historian writing at the same time and a little later, Wassaf. Part of the trouble is the almost unbelievable complexity of Wassaf's Persian style, compared with the simplicity and clarity of Rashid al-Din's, at least in his narrative sections. It is said that when Wassaf read part of his great work to the Ilkhan Oljeitu, the monarch was unable to make head or tail of it. This is an experience which has been shared, in all probability, by every subsequent would-be reader, Persians not excluded."

Incidentally, Juan Cole is not only an extremely nuanced and thoughtful scholar, but one of the nicest and humblest people floating around the field.


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