It’s Not Academic Writing’s Fault

ProfessorBecause I am conducting research on academic writing and how it is taught across disciplines, I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, “Professors, We Need You!”, and Joshua Rothman’s response “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?”, with great interest. Kristof’s basic premise is that academic writing has gotten so arcane, so quantitative, so liberal, and so jargon-y that it’s become virtually irrelevant in the mainstream exchange of ideas. Rothman’s reply, in a nutshell, claims that this is a structural problem and it’s not the fault of academics– indeed, in a world where there are only a fraction of tenure-track positions available for graduating PhD’s, academics work as hard as they can to get a leg up by producing just the kind of esoteric texts that Kristof is lamenting. There are links to several other contributions to the debate within the Rothman piece, and I recommend most of them too.

I probably won’t be adding much to the debate as it already exists in the multiple op-eds, blog posts, and comment feeds that have already sprung up, so I’ll try to keep my own thoughts brief:

1. Kristof bemoans anti-intellectualism in his column, saying that (often politically based) accusations of snobbery have led over the years to the marginalization of academia (as one extreme example of this, several years ago I heard a clip from a Glen Beck show where he warned his listeners against the evil and corrupting nature of the university, and suggested instead that his audience check out his own “Beck University” where one can “learn history as it really happened.” The clip has haunted me ever since like a car accident you can never un-see). But Kristof exhibits an anti-intellectualism of his own when he indicates that “specialized” = “bad.” Why should academics dumb down what they write just to assuage the egos of non-academic readers? As Matt Reed writes in his thoughtful response to Kristof, the peer review process in academic publishing serves a “quality control” function. Shouldn’t things “pass muster… [before being] shared with the masses”? To categorically call academic prose “gobbledygook” is to make the very sad error of hating what you don’t understand. The bar for academic research should not be lowered simply because most people wouldn’t take the American Education Research Journal (to offer an example from my own field) on a beach vacation with them. I myself don’t read the AERJ unless I have to… but sometimes I have to.

2. As plenty of the authors (including Kristof) already showed, many scholars work hard– in some cases way harder than they should– to get the public to acknowledge verified scientific findings. Human-caused climate change is one perfect example of this. (Can this issue still possibly be a matter of debate?) Converting research into popular articles and PBS documentaries seems to make little or no difference to the people who have simply made up their minds. Another example, again from my field, is the anti-education reform movement. Scholars like Diane Ravitch are doing plenty to bring their research to the mainstream to demonstrate that Common Core State Standards have NOT been field tested, that high-stakes testing leads to corruption and student failure, that school closures and teacher firings do NOT improve learning… and yet policy makers are carrying on their merry way with these very policies. Are academics to be blamed if they are not as persuasive as reductive politicians and talking heads?

Furthermore, it seems that when scholars publish in the mainstream, they lose their identification (and perhaps credibility) as scholars. Sometimes this is on purpose. When Anne Marie Slaughter published her wave-making article “Why Women Can’t Have It All” in the Atlantic, the piece was only tangentially related to the fact that she is a political science professor at Princeton. The meat of the article was about women in the workplace and in writing it the author relied more on her experience as a mother than on her scholarly expertise. Though the piece sparked an important conversation in the public sphere, it probably would have had no bearing on whether or not she got tenure (if she hadn’t already had it). And this is fine. Lots of scholars publish in the mainstream, either on their own research or on some other topic, and when they do they aren’t scholars in that context. They become social critics, op-ed writers, or maybe just blowhards. But what’s wrong with that? Academia is academia and the mainstream is the mainstream. I’m not sure what Kristof thinks will be gained by attempting to conflate the two. The real problem lies not with the inaccessible language of academic prose, but with the public’s occasional refusal to accept the conclusions of peer reviewed research if it doesn’t align with their political leanings.

The goal of my research and my career is to improve the writing skills of college students. Employers complain constantly about how these skills are not up to snuff, and spend billions of dollars a year remediating recently graduated new hires. Dumbing down academic prose is not going to make students better communicators or critical thinkers. The sooner we can accept the fact deep reading and complex writing is just plain hard, the sooner we can start figuring out ways to help young people learn to do it.