We recently published Transcultural Voices by Jaspal Naveel Singh. In this post the author discusses the importance of challenging normative academic writing conventions.
Academics have a peculiar relationship to writing. Many of us have learnt how to read and write incredibly complex and dense sentences and paragraphs that contain jargon only an esoteric in-group of disciplinary peers can understand. Many of us perpetuate such enigmatic conventions once we become teachers, reviewers and editors. The result is that our books become impenetrable and miss having an impact among non-academic readers as well as among the people who we represent in our books.
My first monograph Transcultural Voices: Narrating Hip Hop Culture in Complex Delhi is no exception to such academic conventions. I wrote in a scholarly way, in a way that I hope emulates the style of the books that have influenced me: you will find complex theorisations, detailed description and painstakingly hyper-reflexive analyses. I deployed such overly intellectualised strategies of writing to gain recognition among my academic peers and to eventually extract cultural as well as financial capital from the academic community. To an extent, my strategy has worked. I can now say that I have a book, several journal articles and chapters in volumes, and, perhaps most importantly, a well-paid academic job. It seems that my competence to write like an academic is helping me to make a name for myself in the international field of sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, linguistic ethnography, applied linguistics and global hip hop studies.
Yet the hip hop dancers, musicians and artists from Delhi, many of them young migrant men of which only a few could afford to enter higher education, whose stories feature in my book, often complained to me that they were not able to understand what I wrote about them. Before publishing this book, I reached out to my participants in Delhi and asked them to read my drafts and tell me how they felt about my writing. Did I represent them, their stories and their communities accurately and appropriately? Most participants replied saying that they had tried to read what I wrote but soon gave up. They were not able to follow my arguments because my writing was too difficult, too academic and entirely different from how we interacted verbally during our interviews and interactions in Delhi in 2013. Most were supportive and kind enough and allowed me to publish my analyses of their narratives nevertheless. But their honest feedback left me confused and even embittered about the conventions of academic writing. Why am I writing this, if the people I am writing about cannot get anything out of it?
This question accompanied me while writing Transcultural Voices over the course of almost a decade. This question helped me to ground my writing when it went flying high as a kite into the jargonistic clouds that hang over our ivory towers. As readers of my book will find out, I was not always (some might say, hardly ever) successful in making myself understandable to a general audience (some might say, not even to an expert audience), and this is fine by me. I never wanted to dumb down or simplify the complexities of the sociolinguistic processes that shape the globalisation of countercultural movements like hip hop. Yet, readers who bear with me through these pages, will find several moments in my writing in which I break with academic writing conventions, sometimes subtly and perhaps only recognisable for hip hop cultural insiders, sometimes more dramatically and hopefully recognisable for all readers.
My textual experiments in this book are inspired by the long and rich, yet largely invisible and misrecognised, tradition of writin in hip hop culture: writin graffiti, writin rap lyrics and writin history. These are all fundamental literacies that hip hop cultural practitioners engage with and develop on a daily basis. Writin about and for hip hop, or what James Spady has called hiphopography, I believe requires us to challenge normative academic writing conventions and depart from conformity to mainstream ideas of what constitutes so-called appropriate literacies. I hope readers of my book can get a sense of what it means to write hiphopographically and perhaps apply similar strategies in their own writing, whatever and whoever this writing is about.
Jaspal Naveel Singh
For more information about this book, please see our website.
If you found this interesting, you might also like Critical Inquiries in the Sociolinguistics of Globalization edited by Tyler Andrew Barrett and Sender Dovchin.