Academic writing is notorious for its abstract language, at times creating and feeding a gap between the general public and the specialists. For Nicholas Kristof, “to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant” (1). Engaging with a select group in a sometimes cryptic language, academics seem to be isolating themselves from the world at large. Kristof goes on to suggest that academics “know little that is practical about the world” (3), an idea reflected by their sometimes pretentious prose; however, Kristof does not seem to hit the nail on the head. While he criticizes professors for cloistering themselves like monks, I disagree that this is really a central reason humanities departments are becoming more and more marginalized. Systemic issues may be larger than anything Kristof seems to imagine.
In his essay “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?,” Joshua Rothman argues that the “system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing” (2), and that this is the real issue. Academic writing is often written to a select group—unlike journalism—and, therefore, it does not seek to woo its audience. While Kristof easily conflates all things academic with abstract and intentionally opaque language, I would argue that such language actually tends to be more precise, in a way. Kristof’s real claim, his only valid one, is that academic writing is too “soporific”—to use his own “turgid” prose—that academic writing is rarely marketable or trendy. This is quite different than suggesting it is imprecise and deliberately vague.
Naturally, some writers may intentionally use academese in an attempt to imitate others, without having any real depth. However, certain academics may use specific language to be, well, specific. If the academic community is closely knit, as Rothman suggests, then naturally they use a certain shorthand. Nevertheless, that seems to be the nature of academia—even if this is a bad thing. Changing academia as a whole may be the only real solution to this issue.
Ian Bogost suggests that academics would benefit from leaping headfirst into the digital world, as it seems like a remedy to the insular atmosphere of the university system. The digital world, for Bogost, points to “a real world, a world of humans, things, and ideas” (2). This, too, seems to be quite a large claim that again misses other, more important issues. In many ways, language and literature already have an extreme focus on the real world, including the quotidian (take, for example, Woolf, Joyce, and Proust). It seems ironic that Bogost would suggest the virtual world of digitalization would be more “real” than what literature departments already do.
Ultimately, Bogost and Kristof do make compelling points, even if they tend to oversimplify matters. What these authors both point to, alongside Rothman, is that many humanities professors may seek to perpetuate and justify their existence by developing an exclusive language that only they can understand. While this is in some ways simply the result of specialization (is this not an issue in less-controversial areas like physics, organic chemistry, or quantum mathematics?), English and other humanities departments should strive to be inclusive, not exclusive.
Thus, digital technologies and platforms may allow for greater accessibility, without sacrificing precision and rigor. Hypertext, online archives, discussion forums, and other great resources allow us to expand our horizons without getting rid of or simplifying big ideas. While digital humanities may allow us to democratize the academic system to a degree, academic writing should always be challenging, even if we use smaller words and simpler language.
Bogost, Ian. “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web. 28 March. 2016.
Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!” The New York Times. 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 March 2016.
Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 March 2016.
Photo courtesy of Jurek Ducrzak