Academic writing is forever being accused of being impossible to understand for its heavy jargon and specialized knowledge. Critics claim that academics are hiding away knowledge in their ivory towers, far away from the needs of the rest of the world. Others say that academic writing is solipsistic, riddled with narcissisms and is, overall, self-fellatiating.

But are academics really writing for exclusive audiences that the peasants are not meant to be part of?


Academic writing, like any writing genre, has its own style and tendencies that tend to get replicated across the genre because everyone who is writing academic work is also reading it. No, the “parade of big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases” is not purely to make popular audiences feel inadequate. It is not made to remind the masses that we are the guilds and they are not.

In fact, I have never met a single academic writer who has even thought to pull out a thesaurus in the hopes of “jazzing up their vocabulary”. Most of us just write with complex vocabularies….because we have complex vocabularies. We read obsessively. And like any skilled “trade” you start to pick up the language and style of those around you. We also tend to be working with terminologies that need to be excavated from their popular meanings. Words like “religion” or “common sense” are broken down and complicated by academics, not for the sake of making things difficult for everyone, but to understand exactly what we mean by them, and to reshape that meaning as well. It just doesn’t make sense that we would then use popular terminology popularly.

Academics “complicate” because the world is infinitely more complex than most people make it out to be. We cringe and even express outrage or protest at the simplification of historical narratives for nationalist purposes. We feel sick when people appropriate terminology for one religious group to stand in representation of all of them. We spend our lives analyzing and nuancing knowledge itself, tracing genealogies of how we came to know things because socio-cultural generalizations that are taken for granted usually hide critical histories in them – things that shape and inform our current realities…including how we deal with one another. Yes, even your academic-bashing-ways has a historical precedent. In this important venture, nothing ought to be taken for granted….especially not vocabulary.

People might argue that academics are not only writing for other academics so their work should be more accessible. And that is most definitely true. Not everything an academic writes will end up in an obscure history journal somewhere that people might never read. Academics can absolutely be public intellectuals, educators and activists but that does not mean they need to forego the processes by which we challenge dominant narratives or alter our writing style to make things more palatable for everyone. Context is everything.

These ideas do need to be made accessible, but they do not need to be eliminated in their academic form. Ultimately, the Judgmental Observer said it best:

this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.

I don’t mean to be a classic academic here and bring up the neo-liberal agenda, but it’s a serious concern for those of us that dedicate our lives to research and contributing to the discussion of ideas that form understandings and ideologies. The idea that our academic ideas have to not only “lead to jobs” and “mean something” to people who have nothing to do with academia, but to further add that we have to change our vocabulary and packaging to make it digestible by the same people who don’t invest the time and excruciating energy it takes in producing an original academic thought has, at its core, an infatuation with intellectual capitalism.

Academic writers shouldn’t have to sacrifice the extraordinary amount of time and energy they put into research for the sake of marketing and instant “understanding” – see: gratification.  And I know perfectly well that I say that as a business owner of a marketing company on that very company’s blog.

The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but its necessary work.

The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute, content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.

I couldn’t care less about most science fiction, but do you see me calling for the end of the genre as a whole? Do you see me stereotyping about how science fiction writers are religious-wannabes tapping out crazy fantasy novels in their grandmothers’ basements? No, obviously I’m not doing that, not only because it’s not true (just as the stereotypes of stuffy old academics are also not true) but it also doesn’t contribute anything meaningful to the discussion.

People who criticize the very existence of academic writing are those who tell us they don’t get it. But since when does the fact that someone doesn’t understand something warrant its complete, wholesale dismissal?

Intellectual fascism isn’t fashionable; it isn’t intellectualism in itself.  When academics don’t understand something, we don’t push it away – we race towards it with eyes wide open. We research, we ask questions, we push the boundaries of our own thinking and those around us. We open up thought itself, we don’t shut it down.

If you actually want to learn about some of the critical intellectual work academics are doing, you are going to have to engage with the process and re-learn how to read academic writing, much in the same way you have to adapt to any new writing genre that is unfamiliar to you. Trust me, we would much rather have you part of the conversation than trying to shut it down.

At The Drawing Board, we are not only professional writers, researchers and bloggers, we are also historians and religious studies scholars. Over the weekend, Nakita Valerio and Liz Hill had the privilege of presenting some of their research at the University of Alberta’s Annual HCGSA Conference. Conferencing comes with its own unique atmosphere and experience. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people from around the country, many of whom are also presenting their research. For some, this is the first time they get to talk to someone other than their supervisor about their work. And being crammed into a room listening to lecture upon lecture, conversing over coffee-breaks and provided meals, there is a great deal of camaraderie that comes from conferencing.

Liz presented on her research regarding Leprosy and Madness in the late Medieval period in Europe and had the following to say about the conference experience:

Although we all come from our own little, often esoteric, areas of study, we are able to engage with each others’ work and make connections between our own knowledge and others. Sometimes it’s a stretch, but often it’s illuminating! Another benefit of presenting to a group with diverse expertise, is that it makes you re-evaluate your own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. Day to day we tend to discuss our work and interact with others who have similar backgrounds and topics, so it is easy to assume knowledge about strange things. Presenting outside of that group forces you to refine your ideas and how you present them so that they are accessible. Of course in this case we were still presenting to people who mostly shared similar disciplinary backgrounds, but the field of history is very large! I also learned that answering questions is actually the best part of presenting!

Nakita presented a paper she wrote on the de-sacralization of Auschwitz and issued a call for urgent conservation efforts to be made to the camp if there is any hope of some kind of sufficient memorial to remain there. Her thoughts on the experience of conferencing are as follows:

My favourite part was hearing what everyone is working on. Too often, academics are isolated in their work. Sure, we socialize and hang out, but we rarely get to talk about our work with our peers unless they happen to be in the same research area as us. The general theme of the “Sacred” meant that a lot of the subjects spanned completely different temporal-spatial zones of study and were only  loosely connected by the theme. I loved this aspect. I not only had the opportunity to learn a lot about areas of history that I hadn’t really touched before, but I found them all deeply interesting because they dealt with a lot of the theoretical paradigms that I use to do my own work. I would say I also learned a lot about what goes into making a successful conference. Watching two colleagues of ours in particular running around and taking care of all the details was really illuminating. Lastly, this might surprise some people given how much of my personal and social justice time is devoted to women’s advocacy and education initiatives about the status of women in Islam, but I found it to be really refreshing to be able to talk about something I have devoted a lot of time to researching…something that wasn’t about my hijab or life as a minority in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff too, but as one of the conference organizers put it, “you get to talk about what you do and think about, not just how you dress in the morning!” It was a unique chance to vocalize something I am passionate about for the sake of the subject itself, not just it’s relevance to me or what others would like to hear from me based on my particular skill set.




October has been an exceptionally busy month for The Drawing Board owner and head writer, Nakita Valerio – especially after being appointed as the Director of Marketing for the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC). Given the highly central role that Muslims are embodying in the current Canadian election campaign, Nakita opted to speak out (along with other academics and other citizens across the country) against the enticement to hate being perpetuated by the current federal administration. The first publication was an Op-ed printed in the Edmonton Journal on October 8, 2015, entitled “Veil That Divides My Canada” (Online version). Nakita was also interviewed for CBC Radio for her opinion on the niqab issue being raised by the Conservative government and, finally, published a Question and Answer article in the Edmonton Sun on October 10, 2015 to answer questions about why women wear Islamic veils and how the country can move forward from this forced division.

As a direct result of these publications, Nakita has had the honour of being asked to deliver the following lectures:

  • to Native Studies students at the University of Alberta regarding the commonalities between Muslim and Indigenous communities, particularly as it regards their treatment by different forms of political and social authority
  • to Edmontonian High School students as part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research’s Community Outreach initiative, regarding subjects on the Middle East in transition

Finally, Nakita was invited by a downtown Edmonton synagogue to start a womens’ dialogue group in their community for the purposes of starting conversations to learn and dispel Islamophobia.

Keep up to date on all of our activities here!


This article was written by Liz Hill – new staff Writer and Researcher for The Drawing Board.

This past Sunday, I put my shiny new Art Gallery of Alberta membership to use – something I hope to make a weekly occasion. I have my favourite artistic styles and movements, but I enjoy many kinds of art on different levels. Interpretation, analysis, and criticism are all good fun to me, but I purchased my student membership at the AGA in part to facilitate a less intellectual, but no less important, side of my relationship to art.


When I go to a new exhibition I will read all the informational plaques, scrutinize the works through my art history background and knowledge, and, in general, try to understand them. I enjoy this, but that intellectual part of the gallery experience is not so much different than what can be accomplished with a slide projector and a good lecturer, or a big glossy Taschen coffee table book. What makes visiting an art gallery so beneficial for me is the sensory and psychological experience: to be in a quiet environment designed to focus a primarily visual, and perhaps spatial, experience, and to engage with a form of expression that, whether it is beautiful or ugly, complex or simple, is nearly wordless.


As you stand in front of each work of art, the ebb and flow of time is dictated by your own attention and engagement with the particular piece and the moment that encapsulates it and you, not by a schedule composed of half hour comedies and hour long dramas, or chapters of approximately twenty five pages, or hour and twenty minute classes divided by ten minute intervals. In these moments of purely visual attention, there is no multitasking or overstimulating background of digital notifications. Most importantly for me, the linguistic filter of analysis and categorization that overlays all day to day experience for us overly-intellectual types falls to a quiet background hum.


Getting tangled up in the words in our heads is an occupational hazard for students, academics, introverts – anyone with a commitment, whether personal or professional, to Figuring It Out. The It that needs Figuring Out could be the meaning of an obscure Middle English text, the inner workings of the earth’s tectonic plates, or even one’s own inscrutable subconscious. The problem is the same though – for all your hard toil in the realm of abstracts, and all your moments of brilliant insight, your ideas don’t add up, your thoughts run in circles, and you’re left bound up in the tendrils of your own overworked mental processes. Whatever conclusion you were seeking is more obscured than illuminated by all your thoughts and words and logical reasoning.

I could put this frustrating situation down to the inadequacy of language to express truth, and accept that truth is either ineffable or non-existent and become some peculiar Postmodern mystic. Perhaps I will take that path in retirement, but for now I am practical. I am a student and a writer – I deal in words and truth-seeking and telling for a living. I live and work in my head, so I must make it a hospitable place. This means periodically clearing away the mental detritus, all those thoughts and words and logical tricks that have embedded themselves like weeds and grown around my mind like morning glory.

This is where the art gallery comes in, and the need to find a refuge from words, even as someone who lives in a world more made of words than atomic matter. For me, the focused visual experience of looking at art clears my mind without dulling it. My intellect is engaged and works away in the background, while my consciousness can relax and appreciate the moment. For others, physical activity might have this effect, or working with one’s hands. As we begin to approach the peak of the school term, I think it is important to remember to make time for these sorts of activities, so that when our minds need a break from all the words words words, we have some more refreshing options than another night with Netflix.