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The Unbearable Modernity of Academic Writing

Today’s academic writing has to instruct and entertain at the same time. Too much focus is on content, too little on the target audience. Publish or perish has become the current rallying cry for young academics.

1994. I was a graduate student in Linguistics. I happily migrated between my lecture halls and Cape Town’s beachfront. One day, my supervisor suggested me to present a paper on language shift. At an academic conference organized by the Linguistics Society of Southern Africa. Not wishing to disappoint him, I agreed.

I ended up quite content with the outcome: the audience seemed to have enjoyed my talk. My supervisor was not satisfied yet, though. He thought my paper had not sounded ‘quite ready yet’. And with that, he meant ‘for publication‘. He wanted me to rewrite it for an academic journal of his choice.

I didn’t see a need for this, however. I was a ‘busy’ PhD student in the early nineties, after all. A time in which students were not yet supposed to publish. A time in which one had to concentrate 100% on finishing one’s dissertation. A time in which one was still allowed to stay in that lovely student ‘comfort zone’ until graduation. The good old days. Also the days I still felt more like a student than a researcher.

That was then.

Graduate students today are supposed to – and even pressured to – publish and attend conferences.

Gone are the days they could happily linger in their graduate comfort zones. “Support your supervisor and your university” has become the new rallying cry for PhD and, alas, even MA hopefuls.


In Defense of Old School Academics

Since my first presentation as as student,  I’ve had my fair share of conferences and publications. Yet, much like during my student days, being a ‘modern’ researcher and author still tends to remain somewhat of an enigma to me.

If I want to publish in the Humanities, I need to write in a style called MLA. If I write for social sciences, APA or Harvard is the norm. And then there are the numerous differing styles that ambitious research journals are coming up with themselves. All this produces texts that seem remote from ordinary writing.

Ordinary writing is usually done for fun, or to instruct readers. It intends to please its audience.

Today’s academic writing is much more ambiguous. We have to instruct and entertain at the same time, preferably in a dry and highly objective way.

We have to be clever – without becoming rigid or self-important. We have to remain faceless – and yet be persuasive. We need to be clear – but also comprehensive. Modern academic writing content is restricted to numerous rules – and yet: we need to produce highly readable content. Phew!

As an academic, you write for a very small audience of supposedly highly informed people.

This makes academic writing among the most personal writing there is. Even more so than a message on your Facebook page.

If a journalist sounds friendly, it’s because she or he writes for strangers. You, however, have to remain detached because you write for a limited inner circle.

It’s not that, once upon a time, a group of ambitious professors sat down and decided to make academic writing the way it is now. Academic writing is part of a system that academics have to accept in order to function. Much like a soccer player having to follow the game’s rules with a referee looking on. As a player you either make peace with the system or find another job.

Once in a while a critical soul from outside this system comes barking in to blame us for the writing we produce. This could be a student, journalist, author, or even another more acclaimed colleague. They blame us for being ‘exclusive’, ‘unintelligible’, ‘humorless’ and ‘nerdy’, among other things.

Even prominent linguists like Steven Pinker claim that academic language is some of the “worst” language one could come up with. Professor Pinker is old school, and I understand much of his criticism. But I don’t believe that the core problem lies in the way we write.

We are forgetting (are forced, actually) to write content without giving proper consideration to our target audience.

Critics of academic writing purposefully choose to join the inner circle – or not. So what does this circle look like? Whether I like it or not, I’m very much part of it. Yet, I spend most of my days reading and writing. Teaching takes up a minor part of my professional time. I consider myself to be a (1) reader, (2) writer, (3) researcher, and (4) teacher. Strictly in that order. And ‘old school’, I know. Take out one of these activities or change the order, and you put yourself outside the academic circle.

With modern school academics, the problem lies in the choice – or lack thereof – of a proper audience.

Probably because I have most of my academic career behind me, I can still choose my audience upon completion of a research article. Young academics, however, are increasingly marginalizing themselves outside the circle. They try hard to please a modern system driven by commercial incentives. A system in which academic evaluations and job security are pivotal.

Publish or perish is the current rallying cry. The outcome is that academic audiences are shrinking while wannabe academic authors are queuing.

Young researchers have become authors who try to fill a niche in a small academic circle with already small academic niches.

When we write an article or book, we are discouraged to contemplate the particular people or the journal we want to write for. And yet, if we miss our publication outcome target, we’ll be out of a job soon. Each school has its ways to turn professors’ writing into money. And in modern academics, young professors should also follow the money. Today’s academic writing, outstanding as some of it may still be, is fast becoming a mass product of commercialized universities.

I do miss the old academic way of doing things, sometimes.

Haven’t published your first paper yet, but intend on doing so? Recommended reading: