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Exploratory Hypotheses on Discursive Non-Transparency in Research and Critical Praxis Situated Within Hegemonic, Institutional, Socio-Ideational Processes, With Implications.
Academic writing is notorious for being turgid, tedious and obscure. Yet, clear, precise, succinct writing is a public good. If academics could be induced to produce readable prose, their day-to-day professional lives would be greatly improved and the general public would be more inclined to respect our centres of higher learning. The quality of academic prose may seem like a trivial or purely cosmetic issue. In fact, it is urgent. If academics cannot bring themselves to write in ways that are engaging and accessible, they will have no means of convincing taxpayers and voters that the work they do is important and therefore deserves support and funding.
For those in the arts and humanities, this is an especially pressing need. The value of the sciences and related fields is more immediately obvious. But scientists also need to make a strong case for the need for basic research, without immediate medical or industrial uses. And we the public also need excellent science communicators to promote the public understanding of science, without which we will not be able to generate the political will to tackle important issues like environmental degradation and anthropogenic climate change.
Universities in the UK and US charge most students astronomical fees for degrees in subjects that have no obvious commercial or practical applications. This is beginning to seem like increasingly poor value for money. Meanwhile, in the US especially, an underclass of adjuncts work for hunger wages, without job security and often without prospects. The moral incongruities of university culture are glaring. Academics are among the most fervent advocates of social justice: yet they work in one of the most hierarchical, exploitative and insular of professional environments. We are heading for a major economic depression right now and calls to downsize and defund academic departments are liable to increase. Scholars will no longer be able to rely on an aura of prestige to guarantee support. They will need to show their work and demonstrate its worth. For those in the arts and humanities, whose work largely takes the form of writing, that means that they will have to write well. If a humanities scholar cannot even communicate effectively in writing, she will not be able to persuade others that an education in her field produces any transferable skills.
The fact that most academic prose is so tortuous and excruciating to read is indicative of just how skewed the incentives are in higher education. Someone who knew nothing about the system might assume that scholarly writing would be among the clearest and most elegant. After all, most humanities academics love to read good writing themselves. A profound love of beautiful writing is one of the main things that prompted me to study English Literature—and I am not alone. In my field, academics immerse themselves in the work of some of the most skilful and most powerful users of language—and yet most of the commentary they produce in response is a confused muddle of gobbledygook and jargon. And they do this even though they have to read each other’s work: a cruel and unusual punishment that even the worst of them has surely done nothing to deserve. They could be producing beautifully expressed analyses that would be a pleasure to peruse. Instead, all too often, academic life is centred on the mutual exchange of stultifying, migraine-inducing verbiage.
Humanities academics, like all writers, want to be read. Writing something that you know very few will read and almost no one will read voluntarily is soul-destroying. If humanities and social science academics opted for a more readable style, they would be able to bring their work to larger audiences and could more easily make an impact on the world.
But, unfortunately, the incentives are stacked against good writing in academe.
In much of academe, the primary purpose of writing is not communication but signalling. An article does not exist to be read or to add to the sum total of knowledge in the world so much as to provide a line on an academic’s CV. Once it exists, other academics in the field must read it to demonstrate due diligence and it can be enumerated within the required literature survey section of other articles, thus making their authors look more erudite, by padding out the list of items they have read. This is an academic Ponzi scheme. The old joke that a scholar is a library’s way of making another library seems apt here. Academic gobbledygook is like an infectious parasitic meme, hijacking scholars’ brains to make them blindly produce more copies of itself, a kind of intellectual Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
Most of this writing is hidden away in scholarly journals, which pay editors and contributors little or nothing—or even, in some especially egregious cases, charge them for publication—but which non-academics cannot access without a hefty fee. They are therefore—understandably—addressed only to colleagues in the field. As a result, the language is not primarily influenced by considerations of readability, style or sense: it’s used to display academic bona fides to other academics. The convoluted sentence structure, the pleonasms, the opaque terminology whose real meaning is often known to no one or which has no paraphrasable meaning at all, all say, I’m a scholar; take me seriously to those who can grant tenure, promotion or funding.
The problem is not the use of specialised technical terminology, like the shorthand that allows scholars in STEM to succinctly refer to complex phenomena or processes that would otherwise require unwieldy paraphrase. Nor is it a problem that academics use long words: lengthy and unusual words can add nuance or enhance the texture and melody of the language. The problem is that these articles are bristling with words, phrases and syntactical structures that add nothing to either style or meaning, that neither clarify nor enrich. These linguistic features are deterrents, serving a similar purpose to a skull and crossbones on a bottle of bleach. They warn: only academics can read this—it’s not for the hoi polloi. You’ll need the right intellectual credentials before you can crack the child seal on this bottle. And this kind of obscurantism differs from specialist, technical writing because no one, not even fellow experts in the field, can usually read it with real understanding.
A lot of such academic obscurantism is probably the result of fear, the kind of fear that drives someone to write while a matrix of diverse factors combine to instantiate this phenomenon, the institutes of K-12 education that provide normative referentiality for the case that this paper wishes to problematise and critique are embedded in what we might consider the ontological realm of the geographically circumscribed local-level rather than we looked at local schools.
No one wants to seem less erudite than others, less au fait with the lingo, less verbally sophisticated. I know of no other profession in which more people suffer from imposter syndrome. No one wants to admit that she doesn’t see the point in all these mystifying convoluted phrases—just in case they actually express something brilliant and profound, which everyone else is clever enough to understand, except her.
To topple this house of cards will take bravery. But, unfortunately, most academics are running scared. In the arts and humanities, especially, jobs are few and money is tight. No one wants to take a risk, so everyone toes the line. This nervous conformity is probably also the reason why academe is so politically homogenous. It has created a class action problem—while writing in the same Double Dutch academese as everyone else may be prudent for any individual academic, the net result impoverishes everyone.
Universities are extremely important as knowledge factories. There are synergies and emergent effects that you can only get by bringing scholars together in one place. The quality of human life is enormously enriched by art, literature, music, history, psychology, philosophy and other disciplines with no immediate monetary or practical value. They deepen our understanding of human nature. Were we to defund the universities, we would suffer an intangible but no less incalculable loss. But, if humanities academics want to survive, they will have to convince other people of this too. A necessary first step will be to write clearly and to make their work publicly accessible.
So, how can we realign the warped incentive system that rewards terrible writing?
Instead of making a department’s funding contingent on the publication of a certain number of journal papers, make it contingent on public outreach. Give humanities and arts academics opportunities to provide regular lectures for the general public. Instead of demanding such academics publish in professional journals, whose contents are sedulously hidden from public view, reward those who are working on books for an educated general readership. Scholars themselves need to stop doing unpaid work for turgid and obscure periodicals and, instead, create open access platforms. They need to praise, reward and signal boost work that is enjoyable to read, and send incomprehensible screeds back to their authors for redrafting. And they need to find the courage to write in a clear, elegant, comprehensible style themselves and discard the crutches of tortuous syntax and meaningless jargon.
The impenetrability of most academic writing has long been regarded as a comic absurdity. I think it’s time we recognised that it is a serious problem. Because, if we want to persuade the taxpaying public that universities are worth funding, academics will need to produce work that is available for public view and enjoyable to read.