I recently spent a sunny Sunday afternoon shifting through uncomfortable positions on my couch for three hours, my eyes glued to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Giyatri Spivak’s seminal work on marginalization in the postcolonial context. It was among the most unpleasant experiences I have had in graduate school up to this point, and at times the article made my blood boil. “How could someone devote their life to writing something this inane?!” Once I had waded through the fifty-odd page article, I completed a worksheet on the article and promptly shoved in a drawer, hoping to never see it again. The article was a parade of buzzwords and a lengthy deconstruction of Marxist terminology in translation. Each line became an active fight for meaning in the midst of buzzwords.
Perhaps the most famous example of the importance of buzzwords in academia is the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Alan Sokal’s 1994 publishing experiment. His suspicion was that publication was based primarily on playing to editors’ notions and utilizing trending academic buzzwords. His article suggests, among other ludicrous things, that the material reality we interact with is ultimately a linguistic construct. However, between layer after layer of buzzwords and heavy handed references to numerous scientists and scholars, the meaning (or rather, lack of meaning) was lost on the editors: the article was published. Similar experiments have tried and had mixed success, but Sokal’s article stands as an indelible mark on the academic publishing racket. Why publish if not for meaning?
What’s scariest isn’t the fact that this article got published. It’s the fact that this article was published before I (now a graduate student staring academic publishing in its joyless face) was born 21 years ago. Over two decades later, the academic publishing field seems like it would welcome another Sokal article (albeit with updated, trendy buzzwords). Why has the academic publishing field eschewed well-written articles with clarity and favored complicated and often boring structure?
Joshua Rothman in “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?” suggests that, “the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.” He goes on to explain that academics, “have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark, and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.” The academic career is becoming increasingly niche focused and therefore the writing becomes more ingrained in its own terminology and community—leading it further from breaching the public sphere.
So, is there a balance to be found here? Can (and should) we reverse the trend towards niche writing? Would that decrease the importance of specialization for faculty? Is there value in the ivory tower or should academics make more of an effort to connect what they are doing to the public sphere, to speak out on public issues? These questions will likely always be an ongoing battle in academia, but unless we strive for some form of debate on them, we may see academic writing retreat further and further into arcane and inaccessible realms.
Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. February 20th, 2014. Online.