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In Defense of Academic Writing

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Academic writing has taken quite a bashing since, well, forever, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Academic writing can be pedantic, jargon-y, solipsistic and self-important. There are endless think pieces, editorials and New Yorker cartoons about the impenetrability of academese. In one of those said pieces, “Why Academics Can’t Write,” Michael Billig explains:

Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.

Yes, the implication here is that academics are always trying to make things — a movie, a poem, themselves and their writing — appear more important than they actually are. These pieces also argue that academics dress simple concepts up in big words in order to exclude those who have not had access to the same educational expertise. In “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt argues:

jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack…

This is how we control the perimeters, our critics charge; this is how we guard ourselves from interlopers. But, this explanation seems odd. After all, the point of scholarship — of all those long hours of reading and studying and writing and editing — is to uncover truths, backed by research, and then to educate others. Sometimes we do that in the classroom for our students, of course, but even more significantly, we are supposed to be educating the world with our ideas. That’s especially true of academics (like me) employed by public universities, funded by tax payer dollars. That money, supporting higher education, is to (ideally) allow us to contribute to the world’s knowledge about our specific fields of study.

Cartoon by Edwin Ouellette
Cartoon by Edwin Ouellette

So if knowledge-sharing is the mission of the scholar, why would so many of us consciously want to create an environment of exclusion around our writing? As Steven Pinker asks in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

Contrary to popular belief, academics don’t *just* write for other academics (that’s what conference presentations are for!). We write believing that what we’re writing has a point and purpose, that it will educate and edify. I’ve never met an academic who has asked for help with making her essay “more difficult to understand.” Now, of course, some academics do use jargon as subterfuge. Walt continues:

But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood…Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.

Walt, Billig, Pinker and everyone else who has, at one time or another, complained that a passage of academese was needlessly difficult to understand are right to be frustrated. I’ve made the same complaints myself. However, 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.

Now I’ll be the first to agree that higher education is currently crippled by a series of interrelated and devastating problems — the adjunctification and devaluation of teachers, the overproduction of PhDs, tuition hikes, endless assessment bullshit, the inflation of middle-management (aka, the rise of the “ass deans”), MOOCs, racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, ageism, it’s ALL there people — but academese is the least egregious of these problems, don’t you think? Academese — that slow nuanced ponderous way of seeing the world —  we are told, is a symptom of academia’s pretensions. But I think it’s one of our only saving graces.

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 it’s necessary work. The fastest work I do is the writing for this blog, which as I see as a space of discovery and intellectual growth. I try not to make grand claims for this blog, mostly for that reason.

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 or a long dump (sorry for the vulagrity, Ma), 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.

Let me show you what I mean by way of example:

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Stanley has already taken quite a drubbing for this piece (and deservedly so) so I won’t add to the pile on. But I do want to point out that had this profile been written by someone with a background in race and gender studies, not to mention the history of racial and gendered representation in television, this profile would have turned out very differently. I’m not saying that Stanley needed a PhD to properly write this piece, what I’m saying is: the woman needed to do her research. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explains:

Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.

Wanna guess why Cottom’s perspective on this is so nuanced and careful? Because she studies this shit. Imagine that: knowing what you’re talking about before you hit “publish.”

Or how about this recent piece on the “rise” of black British actors in America?

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 8.44.03 AM

Carter’s profile of black British actors in Hollywood does a great job of repeating everything said by her interview subjects but is completely lacking in an analysis of the complicated and fraught history of black American actors in Hollywood. And that perspective is very, very necessary for an essay claiming to be about “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America.” So what is someone like Carter to do? Well, she could start by changing the title of her essay to “Black British Actors Discuss Working in Hollywood.” Don’t make claims that you can’t fulfill. Because you see, in academia, “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America” would actually be a book-length project. It would require months, if not years, of careful research, writing, and revision. One simply cannot write about hard-working black British actors in Hollywood without mentioning the ridiculous dearth of good Hollywood roles for people of color. As Tambay A. Obsenson rightly points out in his response to the piece:

Unless there’s a genuine collective will to get underneath the surface of it all, instead of just bulletin board-style engagement. There’s so much to unpack here, and if a conversation about the so-called “rise in black British actors in America” is to be had, a rather one-sided, short-sighted Buzzfeed piece doesn’t do much to inspire. It only further progresses previous theories that ultimately cause division within the diaspora.

But the internet has created the scholarship of the pastless present, where a subject’s history can be summed up in the last thinkpiece that was published about it, which was last week. And last week is, of course, ancient history. Quick and dirty analyses of entire decades, entire industries, entire races and genders, are generally easy and even enjoyable to read (simplicity is bliss!), and they often contain (some) good information. But many of them make claims they can’t support. They write checks their asses can’t cash. But you know who CAN cash those checks? Academics. In fact, those are some of the only checks we ever get to cash.

Academese can answer those broad questions, with actual facts and research and entire knowledge trajectories. As Obsensen adds:

But the Buzzfeed piece is so bereft of essential data, that it’s tough to take it entirely seriously. If the attempt is to have a conversation about the central matter that the article seems to want to inform its readers on, it fails. There’s a far more comprehensive discussion to be had here.

A far more comprehensive discussion is exactly what academics have been trained to do. We’re good at it! Indeed, Obsensen has yet to write a full response to the Buzzfeed piece because, wait for it, he has to do his research first: “But a black British invasion, there is not. I will take a look at this further, using actual data, after I complete my research of all roles given to black actors in American productions, over the last 5 years.” Now, look, I’m not shitting all over Carter or anyone else who has ever had to publish on a deadline in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that this is how online publishing often works. And Carter did a great job interviewing her subjects. Its a thorough piece that will certainly influence Buzzfeed readers to go see Selma (2015, Ava DuVernay). But it is not about the rise of the black British actor in America. It is an ad for Selma.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end to short, pithy, generalized articles on the internet. I love those spurts of knowledge, bite-sized bits of knowledge. I may be well-versed in film and media (and really then, only my own small corner of it) but the rest of my understanding of what’s happening in the world of war and vaccines and space travel and Kim Kardashian comes from what I can read in 5 minute intervals while waiting for the pharmacist to fill my prescription. My working mom brain, frankly, can’t handle too much more than that. And that is how it should be; none among us can be experts in everything, or even a few things.

But here’s what I’m saying: we need to recognize that there is a difference between a 100,000 word academic book and a 1500 word thinkpiece. They have different purposes and functions and audiences. We need to understand the conditions under which claims can be made and what facts are necessary before assertions can be made. That’s why articles are peer-reviewed and book monographs are carefully vetted before publication. Writers who are not experts can pick up these documents and read them and then…cite them! In academia we call this “scholarship.” 

No, academic articles rarely yield snappy titles. They’re hard to summarize. Seriously, the next time you see an academic, corner them and ask them to summarize their latest research project in 140 characters — I dare you. But trust me, people — you don’t want to call for an end to academese. Because without detailed, nuanced, reflexive, overly-cited, and yes, even hedging writing, there can be no progress in thought. There can be no true thinkpieces. Without academese, everything is what the author says it is, an opinion tethered to air, a viral simulacrum of knowledge.