Saturday, July 16, 2016

Academic Politics and the English Language

REFERENCE: Chronicle of Higher Education on line

Why Most Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers
No one should be surprised if much scholarly writing continues to be mediocre and confused
         By Noah Berlatsky JULY 11, 2016

I have some comments to throw into the conversational mix on this topic.

    * There's also a question of assignment of labor between writers and their audience. For many of us — almost all? — clear writing of anything beyond a couple pages requires at least one additional draft, sometimes after getting feedback from people other than us, readers who don't already know just what it is we want to communicate. Some writers are unwilling and/or unable to put in that extra time, and if editors let you get away with it, there's reason not to. The folklore, anyway, is that Robert A. Heinlein advised young writers of pulp fiction, "Never revise unless an editor makes you," and much of his writing indicates he followed his own advice — and in economic terms for pulp writers, and for busy academics, such advice made and still makes sense.

    * In the late 20th c., portions of the academic Left at least claimed to write clotted prose intentionally in order to slow down readers and to make their writing less "determinate" (?) — less liable to being pinned down to one meaning. Given the success of Donald J. Trump's going at indeterminacy from the simplistic side, the academic Left might come to value clarity, but as George Orwell noted, writing pretentious prose can be habit forming.

    * Academic legend (anyway) told of an experiment where two versions of the same essay were submitted to journals that claimed to insist upon clarity. One version was written for clarity, the other in convoluted jargon. The version light on jargon and strong on clarity did less well for acceptance. I believed that story since I once got back an essay with referee comments I couldn't understand. My younger co-author looked at the comments, said, "I'll stodgy it up," combined sentences and substituted some Latinate words for colloquial ones — and that version was published.

On the other hand

    * On the other hand, technical vocabularies are necessary, and academic writing should be directed toward specific and necessarily limited discourse communities. Still, jargon, like slang, helps establish and maintain virtual communities with their own social structures and hierarchies. Street signs in Boston have been said to be guided by the rule, "If you belonged here, you'd know," and a similar rule governs a fair amount of academic language. The social/political purpose of jargon and overly complex writing can be precisely to render the piece unintelligible to the uninitiated, keeping out the unworthy.

    * Most positively "on the other hand," if one really does have something new and original to say, it's likely to be difficult to communicate. On the other other hand here — bilateral symmetry being so banal — I'd say that that the difficulty of communicating something original is all the more reason to strive mightily to be clear and to get help with revising.

Most important, though, is the point of academic politics: A fair number of academics have been trained in intellectual humility and think if we don't understand something it's our own faults, and to some extent that's almost always the case. What is crucial, though, is that division and assignment of labor and the reinforcement of power relations in requiring readers to do extra work. It's a sign and exercise of power to force readers into re-reading; and it's a sign and exercise of status if editors won't require you to rewrite. And it was a beautiful if annoying irony back in the late 20th c. that a fair number of academic Leftists analyzed power trips in all sorts of areas but were utterly blind to the exercise of raw power in the prose of their own convoluted analyses.

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