ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

On Jargon, Academic Writing and Anti-intellectualism

Recently I had an experience that left me somewhat annoyed with a writer friend of mine. I had invited her to dinner along with a visiting academic friend from Duke University. During the course of the conversation I noticed that the writer, let’s name her V, was becoming abusive, making disparaging remarks about academics in general and needlessly taunting my Duke U friend, let’s call her M, who had offered no discernible provocation. M, who is the embodiment of civility and goodwill refused to rise to the bait but I decided not to let it pass.

When asked to explain her aggressive comments V started a rant about academics who write impenetrable prose intelligible only to each other instead of talking in language ‘the masses’ can understand and sharing their knowledge with them, a familiar set of complaints that I used to be partial to myself once but which increasingly I have little time or patience for. I hope in the course of this post to explain why.

As luck would have it this was only a few weeks before Nicholas Kristof launched into a very similar rant in The New York Times, in an op-ed called Professors, We Need You! Here is a quote from that essay:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away…

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

As the editor of an obscure journal myself I agree about the often turgid prose I’m required to wade through on a daily basis. But I also agree with Joshua Rothman’s response to Kristof in his essay Why Is Academic Writing So Academic? published in The New Yorker on February 21, 2014.

Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.

…My own theory is that he [Kristof]  got the situation backward. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, “marginalising themselves.” It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.

Around the same time I found an article similar to Kristof’s in the pages of EPW no less, titled Said, Mills and Jargon (Feb 22, 2014) in which one Zaheer Baber complained about “the transformation of insightful ideas into opaque, indecipherable sentences through the compulsive deployment of tortuous jargon.” Deploying Edward Said and C. Wright Mills as exemplars of the simple writing style he believes all academics should aspire to, Baber trashed the notion that jargon has any place in the social sciences unlike the natural sciences where according to him the role of jargon is self-evident:

Quite unlike other fields, the use of “jargon” or “technical terms” in the natural sciences contributes to the reduction of ambiguity and facilitates clear communication. For better or for worse, even though these terms may indeed come across as opaque jargon to those not inhabiting the same social and cultural world of the scientists, there is a shared understanding of the precise meaning of technical terms within specific scientific communities.

Scientists deploy jargon and technical terms to avoid ambiguity. In so doing they may indeed be in denial about the complexities inherent in linguistic representation. However, jargon for natural scientists allows them to achieve closure about shared meanings around specific concepts. Technical terms in the natural sciences represent disciplinary consensus over certain issues – a consensus that that is difficult in the humanities and the social sciences. Such is the nature of the social world that all humans necessarily inhabit.

Here neatly entombed in Baber’s words lies the problem. There is this widespread but unreasonable belief that academic study of social and cultural processes should be transparent and accessible, although the exact same reasons given to justify scientific jargon apply to ALL fields of academic inquiry. It’s the nature of the beast.

This is something I remember discussing with the cultural theorist Stuart Hall 10 years ago. You can google him or check my previous post if you’re unfamiliar with his work. Or here’s a very good article about him - Wrestling with an Angel: RIP Stuart Hall. I was talking with Hall about the anti-intellectual climate in Jamaica (and apparently in many other places) that insists everything should be couched in “accessible” language and that somehow unless masses of people can appreciate what you’re saying you’re being obfuscatory (Switch to the world of sports for a minute and you’ll realise how absurd this demand is. Should Jamaica ask Usain Bolt to run slower because most people there can’t keep up with him?). What Hall had to say is very pertinent to the critique of academic language made by Baber, Kristof and others. The following is taken from my 2004 interview with Stuart Hall in Jamaica. The question was the demand for “accessible language” in academia.

SH: ...this is a particular danger in the humanities and the social sciences because their materials are either a literary work or philosophical work or music or in the social sciences its about human life. Nobody would tell you that you don’t need concepts in mathematics or in physics. Nobody would tell you that. And speaking of jargon, mathematical jargon, mathematical symbols—you need to understand  them to follow—in the sciences everybody accepts that you have to learn the language in order to understand what is being said. But in the humanities and social sciences they somehow think it’s just ordinary life, common sense will take you through it and so this leads to a kind of provincialism, everything must be accessible. It’s also a kind of populism.  Do it this way then the masses will come to us. A misplaced populism. Of course one should respect the people and one should conduct the translation of serious intellectual work into terms that ordinary people can understand. Of course, that is what teaching is about, that’s what pedagogy is about.  Gramsci says pedagogy is intrinsic to the duty of the intellectual, to make themselves understood to the widest possible audience but only when they themselves understand something.

AP: It’s also the task of informed journalists, their task is to make these ideas accessible, but its not the task of the intellectual necessarily…

SH: Of course it isn’t , of course not, it’s not the job of intellectuals and then they’re often not very good at making it widely understood so I do recognise that there is a trap of theoreticism to be avoided but I think that work cannot be seriously done without the benefit of theory and concepts. And therefore walking that line between the Scylla of  theoreticism and the Charybdis of overpopulism, anti-intellectualism and so on is a difficult road.

It is silly to think that academic concepts used to study human behaviour can or should be conducted in layman’s language. If it were that easy there would be no need for tertiary education in the social sciences because such knowledge would simply exist in pellucid, crystal clear language that everyone from the dhobi to the policy-maker could access. To deny the need for concepts and theory in social and cultural studies is unrealistic. You could use Hall himself as an example. Celebrated as a great communicator, who fluently spoke to large audiences on a regular basis during his Open University days, Stuart also wrote dense, difficult prose when he was in theoretical mode. Try reading his Encoding/Decoding. Now if it were possible to have transmitted that information in a more accessible way don’t you think Stuart Hall would have done it?

What is missing from the equation is the interpreter caste of highly literate journalists needed to break down difficult concepts and academic jargon for the public. Where are they? Let’s also admit that in the same way that runners and athletes are trained through rigorous processes of physical exertion to improve their speed, their strength and their competitiveness, thinkers also need to be subjected to the mental exertion of conquering difficult concepts, wrestling with difficult language, and occasionally learning new languages, in order to develop to the full extent possible. A denial of this is simply rank anti-intellectualism.  

About Author

<p>Annie Paul ( born in Tiruvalla, Kerala, is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Mona. &nbsp;Paul is author of the blog Active Voice ( You can follow her on Twitter <a href="">@anniepaul</a>.</p>
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