faculty & experts
25 February 2021

Academic Fiction

An often underestimated but critical element of academic endeavour is communication. Yet many scholarly books and articles are written in dense, jargon-laden, and parochial forms. This is especially problematic in relation to fields explicitly connected to public policy – such as international development studies – where research that should inform and influence policy is often ignored as a result of its impenetrability and esotericism. 

For this reason, as part of my MINT course on “Cities, Conflict, and Development”, I set my students an assignment that was aimed at pushing them to think about how to best communicate a message.

Inspired by the anthropologist Margery Wolf’s book A Thrice-Told Tale, where she presents and analyses the differences between a short story, her fieldnotes, and an academic article that she wrote, drawing on the same research experience, I asked students to choose an article from the course syllabus to re-write as a 1,500-word work of fiction, along with a 500-word appendix explaining the logic underlying their efforts.

The idea of the exercise was therefore to explore how best to convey a point or experience, and to experiment with a different form of representation. As the sociologist Lewis Coser famously pointed out in his volume on Sociology through Literature, while “fiction is not a substitute for systematically accumulated, certified knowledge. …The creative imagination of the literary artist often has achieved insights into social processes which have remained unexplored in social science” (1963: 3).

And as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued in her book on Poetic Justice, certain types of “narrative literature” can moreover help promote a more vivid, “sympathetic imagination”, thereby contributing to “shaping the public sphere” (1997: xviii).

My students produced a range of wonderfully original and evocative assignments, a selection of which have been published as a thematic thread called “Academic Fictions” by the Allegra Laboratory. The contributions include poems, short stories, a literary montage, as well as two epistolary fictions.

In different ways, these seek to put forward more vividly, more revealingly, or more forcefully, some element of an academic article that contributors felt was either particularly important or, alternatively, sub-optimally represented. In all cases, however, the reader is transported, challenged, and made to think and re-think about critical social issues, examples, and representation in new ways.