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.