“People seemed to like (my) essay, but they were also uneasy about it. ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,’ someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.” –Joshua Rothman, “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?”, The New Yorker
Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times column on the need for more academics to engage in non-academic discourse struck a nerve with more than a few of his targets, who quickly pointed out that there were, in fact, plenty of “engaged academics”–many of whom wrote for Kristof’s own newspaper. What struck me most about the whole debate was the issue of “academic writing,” a category and a style that has always been a little difficult for me to pin down. What, in fact, qualifies as academic writing? Does it simply have to use a lot of unfamiliar words, or do they have to be certain kinds of unfamiliar words? Who is its audience? What are the main characteristics that distinguish it from “something you’d read in a magazine?” Are its authors deliberately attempting to confuse and frustrate those outside the world of academia?
Joshua Rothman addressed these questions beautifully in a piece for the New Yorker blog. It’s worth a read in its entirety, but here are a few key points:
- On the strange personal / impersonal dichotomy of academic writing: “Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is.”
- Academic writing is part of the academic world, and those who live in that world don’t see it as strange (or, as Kristof described it, “gobbledegook”). But every now and then an outsider will sample some of it and declare it unintelligible or ridiculous and will blame academics for writing in a way that is intended to confuse and frustrate the reader. Rothman argues, though (and I agree), that no academic or group of academics ever sat down and consciously decided to make academic writing unintelligible to outsiders. It developed into its own style and language over time, and it continues to develop within the very insular system that produces it.
- In the past decade journalism has been moving in a more populist direction, embracing (for good or ill) social media, listicles, short videos, gifs, and a writing style that’s designed to be understood and appreciated by as many people as possible. Academia, on the other hand, has been moving in the opposite direction, becoming more and more insular. “…since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people.”
My own views on academic writing have shifted repeatedly over the past ten years. In the beginning of my studies in literature, critical theory, and film, I was, like a lot of outsiders, suspicious of and incredibly frustrated by academic writing. It seemed to say in twenty words what could be said in five. It used endless jargon and didn’t bother to translate a host of German and French words. It assumed an intimate knowledge of a seemingly endless list of philosophers and theorists. I read what I was required to read, but I rolled my eyes a lot.
Then, a year or two in, something changed–I became an insider. Some academic writing would remain impenetrable to me, but much of it became clear. Challenging, and requiring a level of focus that a magazine article or some novels didn’t quite demand, but clear. More than that, it became a thrill. I felt like I was part of a secret society, one of a fairly small number of people who understood concepts and arguments that others wrote off as gibberish simply because they didn’t have the tools to understand them. I got a high from reading, understanding, and then debating the finer points of certain academic arguments. At some point I stopped paying any attention to “outsiders” who would dismiss this kind of writing. Clearly they just didn’t get it.
I still get this high occasionally, even though I no longer read academic writing on a regular basis. It’s still a thrill to discuss certain films and books with people that you already share a certain baseline knowledge with, skipping the small talk and the explanations and jumping right into analysis. But as Kristof points out, this club is tiny. It was tiny even when I was in graduate school–I shared a certain knowledge base with a few other grad students, but at times we all seemed like islands unto ourselves. As Joshua Rothman observes, our intended audiences were getting smaller and smaller, as was the number of people we could forge a true intellectual connection with.
I don’t mean to imply that we were all super-smart, though I certainly worked with some brilliant people. Rather, I always thought of myself as possessing a wealth of knowledge about a very, very specific subject, and it was nice to engage with other people who shared that super-specific knowledge base. We weren’t geniuses, we just knew a lot of things that other people didn’t about one particular, small corner of the intellectual world.
I also remember the dizzying feeling that I got when, after almost a solid year of reading nothing but academic writing, I had to read a “mainstream” magazine article for a grad seminar. It was disorienting, like suddenly careening down a hill on a bicycle where before I’d always been struggling upward. Why were these sentences so short? Why did this author take the time to EXPLAIN things that anyone with half a brain should already know? Where was the thrill in reading something that you could understand instantly, that didn’t require copious note-taking and conversations with your peers?
When it comes to academic writing versus mainstream writing, it’s rare to have a foot in both worlds. Insiders are fairly quick to ignore or dismiss any criticism of the seemingly impenetrable nature of academic writing. Outsiders frequently lack the tools to provide a more informed judgment–and ironically, the moment they GET those tools, they’re likely to lose their objectivity. The result is a seemingly endless stalemate between increasingly insular academics who don’t value or care about the judgments of outsiders, and outsiders who accuse them of snobbery and deliberate obfuscation.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing for specialists in your field. Biologists don’t publish articles on stem cells that are meant to be understood by the general public. In academia, though, there seems to be an undercurrent of frustration directed particularly at academics who study literature and film, because these are subjects that are seen as accessible to all. If the details of quantum theory are beyond us, so be it. But we should all be able to talk about books and movies without referencing a whole library of critical theorists, dammit.
(We can, of course, and we do. It’s just that for some people that extra knowledge of theory and history makes the conversation a lot richer.)
I’ll concede that, while I don’t think most academic writing is purposefully jargon-heavy or unintelligible, there’s plenty of it that is just plain bad. Some academics are brilliant thinkers and terrible writers. More than a few are guilty of complicating simple ideas with endless run-on sentences and using academic-sounding words where plain words would suffice. On the whole, though, when I’ve been unable to understand or appreciate a work of academic literature, I’ve attributed that more to my own lack of expertise than the author’s poor prose skills.
I’ve lived outside of the academic world for almost two years now, and my years of being surrounded by academic writing still exert a profound influence on how I think and read. The writing I value most these days tends to straddle the academic and the mainstream. If it’s a novel, it’s one that’s layered and complicated enough to keep me on my toes. If it’s non-fiction, it’s non-fiction that assumes I’m reasonably knowledgeable and doesn’t spend too much time explaining basic concepts. Bonus points for any work that really engages with complicated ideas and occasionally leaves me scratching my head.
This, ultimately, is one thing I genuinely miss about being immersed in academic writing–constantly being in over my head. Sure, it’s frustrating and at times depressing enough to make you want to cry, especially when you’re new to it all and are sure that you’ll never catch up. But it’s an amazing feeling to read something that twists language and thought to the point that you’re sure it can’t possibly make sense…and then suddenly, either through the guiding hand of a professor or a class discussion or just hours of note-taking and inner dialogue, the light shines in and all is revealed.