February 5 “Tell Me More” Conversation: Professor William Gleason

On February 5, William Gleason, Hughes-Rogers Professor of English and American Studies, turned the second session of the “Tell Me More: Humanizing Our Research” dinner conversation series into an interactive workshop on “Writing Transparently.”

“Have any of you ever been told,” he asked the assembled graduate students, that “your writing is either too transparent or too opaque?” On a disarming note of self-deprecation, he shared that “I’ve been told both those things! In graduate school, I wrote a seminar paper [and] one of the comments I got back [was]: ‘You write like you’re writing for TIME magazine!’ Ouch! That’s probably an insult, right?” Amidst laughter and nods, he continued: “Fast forward a few years: I’m now a very early assistant professor, and I’m sending an article out to try to get published, which I desperately need for tenure, and . . . I submit the article to the journal, and I get a reader’s report back that [states] (and I hope you’ve never gotten a reader’s report like this, but it’s burned into my memory): ‘This is a dissertation slice served up cold.’” Cue collective graduate student gasp! “We’re told to be clear, we’re told to communicate,” he summed up, but “we’re often not given great models of clear communication.”

In true academic form, Professor Gleason had assigned a pre-workshop reading, an article entitled “The Walrus and the Bureaucrat,” and asked students to bring examples of clear and/or clunky writing from their diverse disciplines. Picking up on the pivotal issue of just what, exactly, makes for a great model of clear communication, he spent the remainder of the dinner guiding his audience through a series of questions: Was “The Walrus and the Bureaucrat” a well-written article? Why or why not? Where did it fit on the clear-clunky writing spectrum? Whom do academics write for, whom should they be writing for, and is there a discrepancy here? The point, he explained, was less to reach consensus on the answers and more to highlight the relational aspects of writing: “What thresholds do I need to help my reader get by? What do I have to present upfront so that I can get the readers [on] board right away?” That includes, he added, “your relationship with the jargon in your field, [which] is not necessarily [or] always an enemy, but [rather is] there for you to pull into your orbit.”

The workshop concluded with a lively discussion on what several students perceived as the unfortunate necessity of “bad writing” in the publication process, along with the less-unfortunate necessity of publication in academic advancement. Despite his own experiences, Professor Gleason laughingly reassured the room that “the reviewers are trying to help” — except the notorious figure of Reviewer Two, that is — “and I think the first thing you need to be able to figure out is: ‘What am I trying to say?’ [Because] you really have more agency than you think.”

The next installment in the “Tell Me More” series, entitled “Speaking with our Bodies,” will be hosted by Tamsen Wolff, Associate Professor of English, on March 4, 2020, from 6-7:30 p.m., in Julis Romo Rabinowitz 399.

Author: Elizabeth Durham

Photographer: Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy