Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bad Academic Writing: A Diatribe

Here's a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, "Why Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers," made available temporarily (i.e., don't need to pay to access). The subject of bad academic writing is a near and dear one to my heart, so this particularly caught my interest. Noah Berlatsky's basic point is that, no, academics don't write badly out of willful obscurantism and disdain for the masses -- they're simply bad writers, having never been taught otherwise.

While Berlatsky's right in the sense that most academics just can't -- rather than won't -- write clearly (plus they also generally lack the incentive, although the publishing industry is gradually changing that), I think he otherwise misses the point. Many academics do write badly on purpose, and they often try to justify this by an argument along the following lines: "If I use jargon and esoteric terminology, that is only because my subject matter is difficult, and everyday language either carries unwanted connotations or associations, or just otherwise fails to articulate the precise meanings that my jargon does." Spivak is a famous one for defending a view like this. It's impossible to discuss this issue rationally with the True Believer, of course, but my counter-argument would be: no.  Just no. So-called ordinary language usually works just fine for most subjects; jargon is only necessary in the sciences and related fields. Even then, the most complex ideas can be adjusted for the understanding of the lay reader. Any field of the humanities, which should appeal to humanity at large, needs to speak in that sport of language.

When Berlatsky attempts defending obscurity and difficult prose, he presents an awful-bad-bad-terrible argument. He criticizes Stephen Pinker, a very clear writer who frequently sniffs haughtily at the jargon-filled language ofthe humanities, for a factual error he commits. Apparently, Pinker's clear writing said something misleading about 8th-century Chinese demographics. Berlatsky seems to be arguing that, if only Pinker had been obscure enough, his factual error would . . . I don't know? Go unnoticed? The argument really doesn't make any sense. Maybe if the writing is difficult, maybe the reader won't understand it in the first place, thus saving that reader from possibly believing something factually untrue about 8th-century Chinese demographics?  Who knows.

I do think there's a reason for bad writing beyond the alleged desire of academics to lord themselves over the masses. (Actually, while a few academics like that doubtlessly exist, I've never encountered any.) A more important factor in bad writing is the need to impress other academics. It's like doing backflips instead of walking when all you want to actually do is cross the street. Writing is a difficult task, whether clear writing or obscure writing, and each is difficult in different ways. Obscure writing has the advantage that many academics can't do it and maintain a rigorous, logical line of thinking. For my part, I always have to mentally translate such language, if I want to understand it, into more ordinary language -- that's how I catch the nuances and such. (Plus, you have no idea how trying to explain complex theory to general readers unveils logical shortcomings.) A lot of writers simply can't write in that crypto-jargon-filled way, and the tragedy strikes when they also can't write in a clear accessible way. The jargon-writers -- and the journals that publish them -- thereby have a special niche, a way of distinguishing "us" from "them." It's a completely pointless method of gatekeeping. . . and while I personally love the notion of gatekeeping (it gets a bad rap), the proper gate should be the clarity of rigor of our ideas, not the dubious necessity of writing prose laden with $15 dollar words.

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