June 14, 2013
Stylish Academic Writing 3: Why So Bad?
Why are some academics so addicted to bad writing? Why do they churn out passive verbs like promises from a politician? Why do they multiply abstract nouns like mosquitoes in summer? Why can't they escape from the jungle of jargon? And maybe most important, why can't they be funny?
Certainly you can't blame lack of brain power. Can you blame misguided motives? None of the editors I have known want or enjoy turgid prose. Yet Patricia Nelson Limerick (as quoted in Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing) claims academics "demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students' best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding" (p. 7).
Sword lists other possible explanations, including the enticing possibility of conspiracy. While jargon can sometimes serve as convenient shorthand, it can also function "like a secret handshake, a signal to our peers that we belong to the same elite insiders' club" (p. 7). Or maybe scholars mistakenly think such writing sounds more objective and authoritative, not realizing that postmodernism has blown their cover.
A reason Sword doesn't give is one I read maybe thirty years ago on the back page of The Chronicle of Higher Education. While I've not been able to track the article down in my files, I vividly recall the provocative thesis: Academics write obscurely for the express purpose of not being understood. That's right, they write complex, convoluted, muddy, mind-numbing sentences so almost no one will know what they're talking about. Assuming they want to influence others with their ideas, why would they do this?
As a defensive maneuver. The fewer number of readers who know what you're saying, the fewer there are who will be able to criticize you. And that so often is the academic game: to show how someone else is wrong.
As an undergraduate student, I remember talking over a paper I'd written with my professor. "Well," he said, "it takes some verve to disagree with Hobbes, but I think you're right." I thought I had invented dynamite! Now I knew how to write all my papers!
Perhaps the thesis of the article in The Chronicle was overstated. Sword and Limerick are more gracious. But whether the reason is habit, insecurity or misguided advice, eight simple words impart the first step to freedom: "Hello, my name is _______ . I'm an academic."