Monday, August 21, 2006


A conversation in the comments of one of Ancrene Wiseass’s posts has me thinking about academic writing, language and jargon. I’ve gotten caught in a lot of conversations while in graduate school about the importance of accessibility in academic writing. I find it frustrating because the arguments are often constructed in such a way that it becomes intellectual snobbery to argue for anything but the most accessible texts. What kind of elitist ass is going to argue that academic writing shouldn’t be accessible to all who want to read it?

Me. I’m the elitist ass. Actually, I think making academic arguments and information accessible requires incredible skill and that those who have those skills should use them. But I also think that there’s value in participating in an academic conversation that requires knowledge of the literature, language and jargon specific to a particular field. A lot can be lost in the attempt to make the ideas available to people who don’t have background knowledge and some of the most exciting advances in my field happen on a level of great specificity. This is the point in the argument when someone inevitably says, “But what’s the use if only a handful of people will ever read it?” Well, scholarship for its own sake is valuable. I can’t imagine doing this if you didn’t believe that true. But beyond that, part of the reason I read work in my field is so that I can teach it. If I read it, understand it, and believe it important to my students, then it is my job to translate that to the classroom. The ideas take on new life and can change the way a student understands her world. I take that part of my job incredibly seriously.

Of course—and here’s where the conversation over at Ancrene Wiseass comes in—academics sometimes use jargon and bulky language to hide sloppy arguments, unreliable sources, or just out and out bad scholarship. Far too often, academics don’t have the writing skills to wield the language and jargon effectively. The problem, beyond the obvious pain to the reader, is that education is very often imitative. Students read bad arguments and then try to construct one of their own by copying the already groan-worthy writing. They don’t often understand that academic language used poorly makes a paper worse. Language is one of the tools of academic work, but using it is a bit like riding a bicycle—things get very messy if you try to jump past the training wheels. I can’t tell you how many student papers I’ve read with the same words misused over and over in an attempt to imitate an academic tone without the skill to create it effectively.

Part of my job as a teacher is to make it clear to my students that some of what they read will not be good. It’s part of my job to encourage my students to question whether they have a hard time with academic prose because they need to acquire the skills to interpret it or because it just sucks. It’s my job to put the training wheels on the bike and help them develop their abilities so that they can one day ride on their own. They’ll never be able to question their own writing and critical thinking if I don’t let them practice. I’ll offer up my own work first.


Blogger EOL said...

> part of the reason I read work in my field is so that I can teach it. If I read it, understand it, and believe it important to my students, then it is my job to translate that to the classroom.

Hmmm, trying to decide what I think of your overall position in this post, but liking this particular thought very much.

It seems to me, though, that academic jargon is fine -- provided that academics continue to give their students the tools to understand it correctly. As you point out, that's a common point of failure for a lot of educators.

Nice to see, though, that you don't intend to be one of them.

4:36 AM  

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