Friday, 10 February 2012

From BA to BS

Why Most 'Academese' Is Simply Bad Writing in Disguise

Academese-A new language

As a person who has straddled the academic world and the 'real' world of journalistic and business writing, I've gained some perspective on so-called 'academese'. Any reader with a liberal arts background like mine knows exactly what I'm talking about. We're talking essays with monstrous titles like 'Postdialectic narrative and neodialectic submaterial situationism in post-Heideggerian hermeneutic analysis' and other such tripe. We've all read this stuff, or, should I say, we've all tried to digest as much of it as possible before frisbeeing it across the room and then turning our attention to skateboarding dog videos on YouTube.

Granted, if you've been a liberal arts student - and especially if you've done graduate studies in the arts and humanities - you've almost certainly been required to write something like this at one time or another. It's sort of a rite of passage. I for one have suffered through having to write papers on various aspects of postmodern philosophy that involved using impossibly opaque language. I remember once having to write an analysis of the trial of former East German leader Egon Krenz from the standpoint of Jacques Derrida's postmodernist theory. I even got a good mark on it, which is amazing given that most of Derrida's writings might as well have, from my standpoint, been written in Lithuanian.

This is just academic bootcamp, part of basic training. However, what I do find troubling is when this type of scholar-babble become a modus operandi among academics and is used where it's not only unnecessary but also a barrier to comprehension. A big part of what drew me to the field of history was its proximity to storytelling, wherein clear, polished prose that people actually enjoyed reading seemed to be valued. And yet even here I had colleagues writing papers with titles like 'Microhistoricity: a meta-discursive treatise on hyperreality tropes in post-metahistoriographical analyses' and whatnot. Yup, can't wait to get my hands on that one!

So why do people persist in writing crap like that? To my mind, there are three main reasons for it:

1) Insularity of academic culture - They don't call it the 'Ivory Tower' for nothing. Granted, there are a great many people across all academic disciplines who are very much involved in the outside world and do write with the general public in mind. However, academic culture does tend to be insular and insular cultures have a way of breeding their own dialects that are indecipherable to outsiders. In fairness to academics, the business world is no different, a phenomenon to which the numerous online corporate bullshit generators attest.

2) Academic grandstanding - Gratuitous academese is the ivory tower equivalent of those cheesy guitar-behind-the-head-and-tongue-distended heavy metal guitar solos. It's academic penis-envy, pure and simple. A former historian colleague of mine who was also a gear-head once compared impenetrable academese to muscle car enthusiasts looking for ever-more grandiose modifications for their cars. I personally think a better metaphor is extreme body-modification, sort of a "Let's see how much I can torture the English language before it all unravels" approach to writing.

3) Lack of writing instruction in graduate schools - This, in my humble opinion, is the all-important culprit. I was lucky that when I was a grad student I had one prof in particular who really put us through Navy Seal writing training. That and I also wrote prolifically for student newspapers and whatnot, which probably did more for my craft than any class I ever took. But for a great many grad students, there simply isn't that opportunity - or that emphasis. As a result, students lacking confidence in the written word resort to academic gobbledygook not so much as a means of grandstanding but as a sort of security blanket. And then they get pats for it, which compounds the problem.

To sum up, I think there needs to be a whole lot more emphasis placed on the writing craft at all levels of school - and at the graduate school level in particular. My current scholarly abode (the part-time PR department at Grant MacEwan University) has a mandatory 'Writing Fundamentals' class followed by 'Writing for PR'. I think any scholarly field striving for comprehension beyond its own narrow confines - be it engineering or linguistics - ought to have the same requirement.

In the meantime, here's a Postmodern Essay Generator for your amusement.

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