As I dove into research for my sabbatical last year, I was confronted by two conflicting responses: 1) God, this article is hard to understand. I’ve gotten rusty; and, 2) This article is syntactically tortured and needlessly obtuse.
Case in point: “The ethics and efficacy of explicitly teaching disciplinary discourse conventions to undergraduate students has been hotly debated.” (17 words from an author who shall remain nameless.)
What the author is really saying is, “In composition studies, people hotly debate whether it would be more effective and ethical to make clear to undergraduates how writing conventions vary in each discipline. (26 words)
My version takes more words, but the meaning is more quickly grasped.
While academic language sometimes covers more ground, more precisely, with fewer words, that doesn’t make it more efficient to read. In fact, it makes it much more time consuming.
It sounds elitist for very good reason: It is. It creates and maintains an academic in crowd and an academic out crowd.
This kind of language may be partly responsible for America’s anti-intellectual culture. Of course, the larger reason for American anti-intellectualism can probably be traced all the way back to Puritan distrust of any book other than the Bible, and then forward through the rampant capitalism and consumerism that sprang up in Puritanism’s stead.
But getting back to academics. To be fair, sometimes philosophers use complex terms to denote entire pages or books of thought explained elsewhere in the field, so they are not always writing in tortured sentences just to be torture us. They are actually taking short cuts – having a quick dialogue with experts.
I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should write for fourth graders. It’s okay to write for specific audiences. It’s okay to use big words and long sentences.
But if academics want a lot of people to read them, they might want to brush up on style and try to meet their readers halfway.
Meanwhile, we might want to challenge ourselves to read above our reading level once in a while. I find that if I keep at it – whether reading insurance policies, building codes or legal contracts — my brain clicks into gear about halfway through the document, and I understand even if I don’t enjoy it.