LaCour’s mess v. Zissner on finding his writing voice in his 50s

William Zissner’s book, On Writing Well, was important to me when I was just starting out as an academic. I still send it to my younger colleagues if they are struggling with writing. If there is a kinder, clearer book on learning to edit your own work, I’ve yet to find it.

Mr. Zissner passed recently. Here is his obit from the NYT. This bit made me smile:

In an autobiography, “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” (2004), Mr. Zinsser said he did not find his writer’s voice until he was in his 50s, when he wrote “On Writing Well.” He had hoped to be perceived as “the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist,” he said, but realized that his most basic desire was to be a helpful instructor, “to pass along what I knew.”

This particular bit struck me as very touching as I have been reflecting on the allegations surrounding Mike LaCour. It’s clear that he falsified what he did in the study. That’s it. The “hero’s journey, celebrity, man-against-the-odds” narratives of the other young guy, Broockman, who exposed the problems illustrates exactly why young scholars (and older ones) like LaCour become tempted to do what LaCour did: now Broockman is the junior celeb, coming out on top. It comes through in that article: to be at Stanford! So young! Oh my!

LaCour lied to get his dissertation into Science because he was responding to the academy’s obsession with clever young things.

Craft honed over the long haul, such as Zissner’s voice at age 50, is booooooooring. Experiments like the one LaCour described, take years, years that nobody wants to give you in graduate school (“How long, exactly, did it take you to finish?” and “Are you finished yet?”) or later. Work that has depth takes time, and nobody is supposed to need time. Hurry up, be a star! What’s taking you so long, again? This other guy here, he’s a star already! What are you doing? There are no long-term investment in young scholars even though they spend a long time investing themselves.

I’m not trying to make excuses for LaCour; I am, however, not willing to pile on the schadenfreude of gawking at his wrongdoing and pretending to be mystified— utterly mystified!—at how somebody could do what he did. I get it. The incentives in the academy are not to seek and craft knowledge, particularly for somebody like LaCour who craves status, earned or unearned. (Either fortunately or unfortunately for me, if I were interested in status, I sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten a PhD in urban planning, so falsifying findings wouldn’t help me much there, so the temptation, even if understandable, doesn’t hold much power over me. Now, ice cream and cigarettes, those are another story when it comes to temptation.)