As I begin to see the light at the end of my dissertation on student entrepreneurs (which to date has no hypothesis being tested!) I found some great hope and inspiration in a long essay by William Germano, Dean of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union. Germano’s article, “Do We Dare Write for Readers” is some important questions about higher education today and publications. I appreciate many of his sentiments and most especially for us to write about things that people care about and to provide work that can be used as a tool. Germano offers a ‘machine’ model of the book. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The book-as-machine requires that the scholarly writer imagine a problem or concern that will engage the reader, making the investment of reading time worthwhile.
This is not the same as having a thesis or an argument. Those are author-centered positions. They’re about what the writer thinks. The book-as-machine turns the spotlight onto a problem to be solved, and the reader for whom the problem is genuine, and genuinely interesting.
Yet implicit in the machine model is that the writer openly acknowledges that the book enables collective action. Reader, can you apply my theory to your own field? Can you take this book’s idea and go further? Can you take what the writer provides and build what the writer could never have imagined? This is imagining one’s writing as activism—not necessarily political, but activism in the sense that it causes action in others.
So how can writing be, in a good sense, a mechanical contrivance? To consider writing as a machine for changing readers is to acknowledge that the power to persuade isn’t restricted to the political stump or the pulpit or the agora. Something more needs to be at stake than a new adjustment to a theory or a sequence of facts.
I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.