Academic obscurantism for the sake of . . . what?

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Ken says:

    An ex-girlfriend explained to me, very earnestly, that feminist academia uses lots of jargon because the existing accessible language is too tainted by man-junk. Using jargon was breaking free. Well, she didn’t say it exactly like that, but that was, if you’ll pardon me, the thrust of it.

    The relationship went downhill from there.Report

  2. Avatar Will says:

    Maybe you just don’t get womyn, Ken.Report

  3. Avatar Spork says:

    I tried to read it, and I don’t mind jargon, but it was horribly written as either an entertainment, or as a serious look at rock music and criticism.
    For instance, “Of course, this term begs the question of what artistic merit is and how one separates an item’s value as a commodity from its value as art.” That is a complete misuse of the phrase “begs the question”, unless I am completely mistaken.
    While the style isn’t helpful, it’s the bad writing I find annoying.Report

  4. Avatar Spork says:

    As to your larger point, that a thesis could be written in an accessible style, I think a lot of papers are written with the intention of meeting criteria, and to avoid error, in order to obtain a degree. It’s a whole different motivation than readability. I think the fear of making a mistake in the formal rules of the presentation has more to do with the stilted style than the writers ability to write decent prose.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    My shining moment in my undergrad years was to re-write Hamlet as a musical and on the day of the final exam we told the prof that we weren’t taking the test (this was Shakespeare three or four hundred) and were performing said Hamlet musical (set to Queen music) instead.

    Perhaps it was just such a shock, but we all got out of taking the test, and spent class re-enacting Hamlet as set to Bohemian Rhapsody. They are eerily similar.

    Which is to say that I agree – academics is largely bullshit. We should break out of the “form” of it as often and as thoroughly as possible.Report

  6. Avatar joe romance says:

    You comments about academic writing style are certainly worthwhile. I think the poor writing of most academics has three sources. First, there is a desire to set ourselves apart (I am an academic) and the use of jargon serves that purpose wonderfully. Second, there is intense pressure to publish and to care about prose distracts from the effort to make and present new knowledge. (We debate separately about how much new knowledge there is.) Third, we have created in our society a huge industry called higher education and told those people they must write and publish. I doubt that there are actually that many decent writers in the general population. Hence, we encourage people to write a lot who really have no business writing.

    These three things mutually reinforce each other to create an enormous collection of dreadful writing. I am not sure what any of us can do about this.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It’s like e e cummings, man. Sure, he did it… but the next thing you know, you’ve got a thousand people doing it and each one of those thousand people suck. If you spend your time reading those thousand people before you read e e cummings and then you encounter him?

    Man, you’ll hate him with a hate that will make you warm in the coldest winter.

    Yet, if you read him without reading the thousand pretenders, you’ll be touched and inspired… you may even write poetry of your own.

    Anyway, I’m saying that most papers are written by people who were inspired by people who were inspired by people who were inspired by people analagous to e e cummings.

    One shouldn’t be surprised that essays coming out of a tradition academia suck, one should be surprised that there are essays coming out of there that don’t.Report

  8. Avatar Sam M says:

    This all seems strange coming from a place that values “tradition” so much. After all, that’s largely what an undergrad degree, particularly in the humanities, is all about. Sure, you learn about the factual materials in the courses, but isn’t the idea supposed to be to prepare people to enter the academic discourse, as flawed as it might be? Sure, maybe the best of students will, years later, transform that discourse in a productive way. But like grammar, you need to know the rules before you can break them effectively. As such, it seems natural for advisors to steer their students toward a style of writing that, however tortured, fits well within the tradition of the academy.

    I wonder about this issue all the time. I have taught four years of freshman comp at a big state university. Mostly what we do is try to get the students out of the habit of writing in the tired old “five paragraph” format, which the department sees as stodgy and stultifying and paternalistic. So we make the kids do more creative stuff. In a course that’s their introduction to college writing. To hell with the thesis statement! Screw the intro-body-conclusion format! Be free!

    Then, for the next three and a half years, their history, econ, philosophy and other professors tell them to… write five-paragraph essays. With a thesis statement and an intro-body-conclusion format. After they graduate, their bosses tell them to write the same way.

    So, I guess lots of things are really inaccesible to a lot of people. Classical music. The Latin mass. Square dancing. But making them more accessible does not necessarily improve them.

    It used to be that professors wrote papers and essays for each other. Guys like Tom Wolfe and Malcolm Gladwell would come along and make them accessible to you and me. Maybe we don’t always need those intermediaries. But the system worked pretty well.

    And seriously, would the world be a whole lot better if undergrads, instead of writing like professors, all tried to write like Chuck Klostermann? Do you think they would be any better at it? Perhaps they write like 20 year olds because they are 20.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Sam M says:

      Heh. I actually found the five-paragraph essay quite liberating. One can build off it to go in whatever direction one wants. It’s the “finding a voice” bit that is tricky, and requires a freer hand. How can that be taught though? The voice only comes with practice, practice, practice!Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Sam M says:

      Sam M –

      I think you’re right in the sense that students need to develop basic writing skills before moving onward and upward, but we’re talking about trained academics here. I see no reason why someone who is competent enough to produce a research paper can’t make an effort to publicize interesting findings in a way that doesn’t elicit a collective yawn from less specialized audiences.Report

  9. Avatar Sam M says:

    E. D.

    Agreed. The thing is, I think the assumption coming in is that the students have mastered the five-paragraph format, seeing that they have been writing that way for 12 years or so. But I doubt anyone ever “masters” it. After all, even master musicians still practice scales and simple chords. It’s just something to go back to, to lean on. A way to structure things.

    Moreover, most students haven’t mastered it AT ALL. I have found that most would benefit from a basic grammar class. Preferrably with a nun in tha back of the room, ready to crack people in the knuckles with a ruler.

    And guess what? That’s what many of them seem to want. They want RULES and parameters. I know this does not fit well with the idea of the perfectly iconoclastic undergrad. But most don’t fit that bill. Most envision college, for better or worse, as career training.

    That’s a little simplistic. And some really do want to break away. But I am not sure treating everyone like an accomplished creative writer is a good way to proceed.Report

  10. Avatar Sam M says:

    “I see no reason why someone who is competent enough to produce a research paper can’t make an effort to publicize interesting findings in a way that doesn’t elicit a collective yawn from less specialized audiences.”

    I see at least a few reasons.

    For instance, the work that Malcolm Gladwell did in “The Tipping Point” was basically a rehash of a ton of technical work done by a lot of academics. The fact that you could not simply refer folks to those research papers is not necessarily a failure on the researchers’ part. They were writing, as you say, for a technical audience. Often for very specific purposes. They were speaking to each other as specialists. Gladwell’s gift, if you like him, is reducing this kind of work to something the common man can understand. His scam, if you don’t like him, is that he reduces this kind of work to something the common man can understand. Which of course also requires a special eye for what the common man will find interesting.

    There is every reason for the specialist not to bother with this. I think it would be a ridiculous waste of time for a computer graphics expert to imbue his technical work with the latest and greatest attributes of “creative nonfiction.” On the other hand, it makes a great deal of sense for a writer from Wired to wade through the technical material and pull out what’s interesting for readers like me.

    Similarly, a proper academic work on Weezer’s career arc is going to need a lot of discussion that’s nonsense to an average reader. I don’t know anything about music theory. And I don’t want to. But I would read the Rolling Stone version.

    Look, Germs, Guns and Steel is great narrative nonfiction. But it would not make a great public health research document. It synthesized great public health research documents. From time to time, you find someone who can do both sides of that work. But it’s extremely rare. Not because researchers are lazy, but because the underlying enterprises are entirely different.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Sam M says:

      Sam M –

      I thought about a lot of the objections you raise while writing this post, which is why I tried to make my point rather narrowly:

      “I understand why certain disciplines demand specialized terminologies. Conveying complex ideas in familiar shorthand to a knowledgeable audience makes a lot of sense if you’re presenting a paper on advanced microeconomics. And hell, I don’t really want to read that stuff anyway. But a paper on Weezer? Why not make it accessible to the rest of us?”

      Now, maybe there is absolutely no room in academic culture for making research findings accessible to a non-specialist audience. This may be an accurate description of universities’ priorities, though I think it’s to the detriment of both the academy and the general public when interaction between the two is wholly dependent on Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond. But I can’t help wondering if certain disciplines – history and political science immediately come to mind – would be better served if their findings were more widely disseminated. The reason this particular paper is an interesting case study is because the author’s entire argument could be reproduced and refined for a pretty good magazine article without detracting from its analytical precision, so perhaps other academic papers would benefit from the “Rolling Stone” treatment.Report

  11. Avatar Sam M says:

    Will,

    “But I can’t help wondering if certain disciplines – history and political science immediately come to mind – would be better served if their findings were more widely disseminated.”

    I think that’s a fair question. But let’s think this through:

    “The reason this particular paper is an interesting case study is because the author’s entire argument could be reproduced and refined for a pretty good magazine article”

    The flip side of it is whether something that can be thoroughly treated in a pop magazine article could/should be something that is being addressed inside the academy.

    To be charitable, I think academia exists to wrestle with serious questions. Not always “how to cure cancer,” necessarily. But questions that require a great degree of care and rigor in their consideration. Which is exactly why the tradition of academic discourse arose–to help make sense of the chaos of information, and to make it the information standard and therefor accessible to other researchers.

    Some issues do not require this degree of rigor. For instance, nobody would write a thesis on how to bake chocolate chip cookies. I am sure there are people out there who have written theses on the gender and post colonial implications of the paternalistic models of hegemonic American desserts, or some such. But the recipe itself does not require a substantial treatment in any way. So we collect these in cookbooks instead.

    One of the things that would make a “Rolling Stone” version of this thesis unacceptable in academia, I would think, is the exhaustive requirements for academic discourse. You have to cover all your bases. Gladwell and friends do the opposite: They select what is most interesting. The Tipping Point did not tell us about how people market Rockport shoes and Nike shoes and all the rest. He told us about Hush Puppies. Because they fit his thesis. Including all the counterexamples would have been extremely boring to the average reader. But those counterexamples are exactly what the academic writer has to wrestle with. It’s where the serious work gets done. Ideally.

    That is, I am not sure Weezer is really grist enough for the academic mill. It might well be. But to cover the topic in a way that meets academic standards would almost, by definition, make it something Rolling Stone would never publish.

    Similarly, I think the Tipping Point has been hammered pretty hard on these grounds. It’s not, actually, the kind of work that would stand up to peer review in any academic discipline. But it’s not supposed to. And the idea is that a researcher should spend more time on the research than on making the words real pretty. Or wondering whether Sam M knows enough about music theory to judge River Cuomo’s chord progressions, or some such.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Sam M says:

      These are all fair criticisms, but one thing that struck me about this paper is how stilted and overly-formal it sounds to a general audience. I may have taken the analogy between magazine articles and academic papers too far, but would it really be that bad for academics to present their work in a more accessible format (albeit with footnotes/statistical analysis/counter-examples)? My larger argument (which probably wasn’t clear from the original post) isn’t that academic papers should become Rolling Stone articles. Rather, academic authors could stand to adopt a few stylistic tics from popular authors.

      Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this back-and-forth immensely. It’s nice to get feedback from an actual academic.Report

  12. Does anyone have a problem with generalizing about academic writing from 1 UNDERGRADUATE thesis?

    Also, in the comments thread, there’s a lot of talk about jargon but that’s a separate thing from writing really boring prose. Some (a lot?) of that has to simply come down to style. I mean, read Jane Austen next to Jose Saramago next to Ernest Hemingway. I’ll guarantee you that you’ll think one of them is “boring” too.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Matt Gabriele says:

      Fair point, though in my experience, Rosenfeld’s style reflects certain widely-held assumptions about how a “real” academic paper should be written.

      I’d also argue that the tendency to over-use jargon is linked to the rigid style of academic prose. It’s almost a signifier – “this is a respectable academic document; treat it accordingly.”Report

  13. Avatar NYU Student says:

    I’m an undergraduate, I write lots of papers (Double major in history and politics), and I try to write with pep and zip. I routinely get shit from TA’s and need to argue my grades up from B+’s (for skipping certain terms or whatever) to A’s (for, you know, the actual content and ideas behind the paper. All of that is to say: I totally get why undergraduates write unreadable, jargony, bad papers.Report

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