Obscure scholarly writing by university professors was and is an important problem. Academics hide behind the idea that unintelligible sentences indicate a clever mind.
In everyday life, when we cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:
Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.
Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.
But in the academic world, other rules apply:
Reader: I cannot understand what you wrote.
Professor: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader.
If you were smarter, you would understand me.
University presses fill their quota every year, in dreary monographs, confusing paragraphs and long-winded sentences.
Innocent and hopeful readers are put off after reading just a few paragraphs of most scholarly articles. Have a look at this:
Analysts of global integration have been rightfully concerned with elucidating global inequalities. But increasing inter-connectivity has also created possibilities for seemingly marginal people to affect larger patterns of interrelation. By concentrating on how economic power is deployed by dominant global actors, analysts of globalizing processes have largely overlooked the ways in which quotidian acts such as consumer demand across the globe influence economic relations, however asymmetrical those relationships might be.
(J. Prestholdt, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism’, American Historical Review 109 (3) 2004 pp.755-81, p.755)
This extract is from a much-cited article published by the University of Chicago Press. Still, is there a reader courageous enough to claim to know what this paragraph means? Such desperately packed and crowded sentences are perfectly familiar to readers of academic writing, readers who have simply adapted and learned to accept such pompous writing style.
Most professors agree that university students cannot, without aid, produce today’s academic writing. But few seem willing to admit that the supervisors who criticize their students hardly fare any better.
One of my students once told me in a tutoring session: Johan, you are telling us not to write long, dull sentences. But most of our assigned reading (for other lecturers) is full of long, dull sentences. This student was beginning to recognize that, when professors evaluate and improve student writing, the blind are leading the blind. In the professors’ defense, it is difficult to convince students to write well when scholarly literature offers so few good examples.
Why do so many professors write bad prose?
Let’s consider this stereotype: professors are the ones that no one wanted to dance with in high school. True or false, this insight is something that every freshman entering university should be explained. It certainly helps to explain the problem of academic writing.
What one sees in the academic writing of professors is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sitting on a chair while everyone else danced. The professors’ reaction to this rejection by the general public? I am immersed in very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. So, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me. So think of this stereotype the next time you look at an unintelligible academic text written by a professor.
Professors seem to be saying: I would not want the attention of a wide reading audience, even if a wide audience were to ask for me. Alas, this is exactly what the pompous and pedantic tone of modern scholarly writing conveys.
Professors are often timid, asocial and even fearful people. They know they are different. And they protect that otherness.
Under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage, an armor to safeguard the fragile, sensitive thoughts of the timid academic soul.
But why do professors choose protection, camouflage and insulation over clarity and directness when writing? Under pressure to publish, to get tenure, and to safeguard their position, a professor’s logic says: Add another protective layer or two. Hide behind the passive voice verb. Put in another qualifying clause or two. Preface any argument with a phrase like “it could be argued” or “a case could be made”.
Graduate school implants in many students the belief that there are terrible consequences if they write in a clear and concise way.
Graduate supervisors themselves are so wrapped in protective camouflage that they have lost linguistic accuracy. On the other hand, those (few) students who do dare to express themselves clearly are very unlikely to suffer from any penalties – on the contrary. Ironic, isn’t it?
Once students leave graduate school, one would expect them to be free to write freely and clearly. Yet, for some seemingly inexplicable reason, they refuse to do so. If they end up teaching in a university graduate program, they will even actively instruct their own students to imitate the same dull uninspired academic writing style.
This is a very well-established pattern. It keeps scholarly articles from being accessible to the larger public. Many professors think that one of their main duties is to train their graduate students in the conventions of academic writing. I do not believe that professors enforce dull writing on students in order to be cruel. They demand dullness in writing because they think that it is in the student’s best interest to produce an MA- or PhD-dissertation with long-winded impersonal and passive sentence structures.
Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that it is what editors of academic journals want.
It is not, of course. The academic writing world is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other party is the one who demands dull, impersonal prose.
It’s hardly surprising that universities are currently embattled, distrusted by the public and government funding institutions. The latter increasingly view scholarly publications as a series of overly protected conversations between professors. Only between professors.
Does academic writing have to be a closed communication? Or can it become more open, engaging professors as well as the broader public alike with new information and new thinking? Can academic writing be an invitation to professors to find ways to share their knowledge with the larger public? Can professors find concrete ways to make their work more accessible – and meaningful – to society?
Universities are filled with knowledgeable, thoughtful people who have been effectively silenced by an awful writing style. A flawed style hidden behind a smokescreen of sophistication and professionalism.
I believe ego to be the key obstacle here. As badly as many of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant to criticism. I also believe that even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as a necessary trauma.