I’ve recently come across a number of articles that talk about the incomprehensibility, and thus, the irrelevance, of scholarly work that trades mainly in jargon. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart – I often strive for clarity in an academic world that seems to value the obscure, and I struggle with the limited reach of academic journals. I’ve quoted this before, but I think Corey Olsen – The Tolkien Professor – is right to be:
increasingly frustrated with the separation between academics and general readers — namely, the inability for general readers and lovers of literature to enjoy the thought-provoking discoveries made in the cloistered world of academics.
When I first started graduate school, I was in way over my head. I couldn’t understand a single thing anyone was saying because the language was so sophisticated and the references were so specific. And the worst part of it was that it seemed like everyone else knew exactly what was going on. I felt like I’d never be smart enough to follow a lecture, much less engage in a full conversation myself.
I’ve crossed to the other side now, reading and writing and speaking in Academese on a regular basis. There are still many people who speak at a register far above what I can understand, but I can see why the language gets complicated and the vocabulary obscure: sometimes you need to be incredibly precise with your meaning, and everyday language is just too general; sometimes you need to get a lot of ideas into a single word or phrase to preserve causal relationships without creating major grammatical confusion; and sometimes you’re thinking quickly and the jargon is the first thing that pops into your head – and it seems totally normal because your mind is steeped in academic journals and conversations so you don’t even notice it.
But the goal of philosophy is to make something radical sound obvious, to make an idea that requires contemplative vision something that anyone can see. The goal is to communicate with not just other academics, but with everyone. Supposedly, what we argue in our conference papers and teach in our classes is important, so we want the message to get across clearly – but we don’t want to oversimplify things either.
It’s a tough balance. There are aspects of Academic jargon that we need in order to be accurate to our subject matter, but I think they need to be balanced and contextualized in a way that is more generally accessible if we ever hope to step out of a scholastic environment. I know that it is possible – I was just at a wonderful conference full of interesting and thought-provoking papers that were both detailed and accessible – but it is incredibly difficult.
It’s like Einstein said:
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Now for those articles:
- Nicholas Kristof’s Professors, We Need You!
- Joshua Rothman’s Why is Academic Writing so Academic?
- David Russell Mosley’s What is the Theologian’s Place in the Church: A Plea for Theologians-in-Residence
- Gizmodo’s Over 120 Science Journal Papers Pulled for Being Total Gibberish
- Ezra Klein’s The Real Reason Nobody Reads Academics