February 23, 2014


"It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too."

My friend Margaret recently sent me the above quote. She then asked my thoughts on the quote (and presumably Joshua Rothman's New Yorker article from which the quote was pulled).

Having now read Rothman's article as well as Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece to which Rothman's article was responding, man, have I got thoughts. So many thoughts! (David Foster Wallace had so many thoughts on this topic too, as well as on other issues of language, almost all of which are worth reading.)

First off, I believe academic writing to be not only valuable, but necessary. Academic writing is not very accessible, but academic essays are often trying to argue something so specific wrapped in so much context that a more open writing style would fail to effectively communicate the nuance of the author's intended ideas. I won't hold the style of academic writing against those employing it any more than I'd object to the use of terse abbreviations for chemists or complex equations for mathematicians. They are tools of the trade, public accessibility be damned. Furthermore I think there's a lot to be learned from academic writing about language, precision, and complexity. 

The thing is, an academic paper shouldn't be the end of a useful idea, and it shouldn't be the final output of a useful skill set, either. Most people don't read academic essays on alternative energies, but many do see authors' ideas turn into progress in the field of alternative energies. 

But what of the humanities? What is the point of taking one's above-average intellect, one's skill for close examination, one's keen observation of the complexities of ideas, and putting them towards the ongoing assessment of the specific meaning of a few lines from a fictional text written hundreds of years ago? Or indulgently delving into structured, theory-based political discussions that have no hope of providing useful information in real-life circumstances? Seriously. I'm asking. 

To explain the necessity for the continued existence of academic writing, Rothman points out that publishing a paper is often necessary to forwarding one's own career. 

Is that it? Is the goal really so limited and underwhelming? 

What's worse, ongoing submissions of papers to academic publications embolden said publications, despite subscriber lists shorter than that of this blog, to set increasingly exacting standards for those wishing to submit entries, requiring more and more time and energy from those working to get published. 

How can we look at it any way but that we first created the ravenous monster of academia and then sacrificed other aims and goals in order to keep it fed? 

The real disagreement between Kristof and Rothman doesn't run very deep. Rather, it seems to be primarily one of optimism vs pessimism. Both writers see the limited range of academic writing. Kristof believes it can be changed; Rothman explains why it is the way it is. 

Kristof asserts that academics are too busy feeding the monster they've created to produce anything truly useful. Rothman argues that the monster must be fed in order to advance academic careers. But does either really question that it's a silly use of one's time? 

Rothman states, "Professors didn't sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it's part of a system." 

Well good god! Let's change it. Instead of writing defensive articles explaining why we must not only engage with but bow down to a broken system, let's do something different. (An easy recommendation for me to make from a cosseted, non-academic position, I know.) 

Systems only have the power that we invest in them. (If you don't believe me, examine the differences between observances of traffic law across the world.) As long as we believe the system must be the way it is, it will not improve. 

Academics are not immune to the question that should be asked of everyone from time to time: why are you really doing what you're doing? 

By engaging only in academic writing, academics have done themselves (and those who might have benefited from their insights) a disservice. 

I've read academic essays that have altered my perspective, and I've read essays that should have been no more than an argument during a late-night graduate school discussion. Explore things that actually matter, not things that will ensure easy success. Find ways to share ideas worth sharing. Repurpose work for a broader audience before it's bastardized by someone else.

Kristof is imploring academics to share their ideas more broadly. I second his request.