A tweet by @saragoldrickrab recently started an extensive discussion on the topic of the accessibility of scholarship. She encourages us to “write a book accessible to more than 100 people”. I was surprised at how controversial her statement turned out to be. In a series of responses, for example, @GrahamScambler defends the value of an “esoteric” and even “inaccessible” academic shorthand for “specialist exchanges”. The inaccessibility of academic writing has been making the news in the past few years. Examples are easy to find and sometimes easier to make fun of. There are even websites dedicated to making fun of academic writing.
There is much excellent humanities writing out there. But it is undeniable that obscure, sometimes comically bad humanities writing is a reality in academia. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it is having real world consequences on universities and academia in general.
All papers should be readable, and not merely legible
The question of academic jargon is related to the broader issues of access to scholarship and access to academia. Language can be used to communicate, but it can also be used to build barriers, to construct identity, to obscure, and to communicate selectively, in code. Ideally, in scholarship, all use of language should be for the purpose of communicating ideas and research results as clearly and accessibly as possible. Its goal should be to make important insights and data available to all so that we can collectively build on them and benefit from them. Much academic writing, especially in the humanities, has in fact evolved in a very different direction in the past 50 years or so. Its main function is now sometimes to deliberately obscure, except to a chosen very few.
Not all academic writing can be accessible to all. Math and physics papers are often cited as examples that need to use specialist notation and knowledge. However, even in those cases, it is hard to argue that the specialist notation can’t or shouldn’t be accompanied by plain language accounts of the operations and arguments. Stigler’s History of Statistics (which I recommend to everyone), for example, demonstrates that concepts and reasonings can be explained even to those who can’t follow specialist notation and who don’t have much conceptual background. If this is true in math, it certainly can’t be false in the humanities. It is legitimate to expect that reading an academic paper will require some homework on the part of readers with less background, but at the very least, it should provide a plain language account of its claims, the process by which the claims are evaluated, and the outcome of that process.
How did humanities writing become obscure?
There are specific pressures (I was going to write selective pressures, but why use jargon?) that led to the recent obscurification of academic writing, especially in the humanities. Competition for relatively few high prestige tenure-track positions in high prestige institutions has favoured the development of languages that are specific to sub-disciplines and even to individual social networks within sub-disciplines. They act as social exclusion mechanisms and barriers to entry. Mastery of those languages marks those who belong in the group in opposition to those who belong outside of it. The ability to develop those languages further, to grow them and make them even more exclusive, grants additional prestige and access to highly ranked positions.
The secret of the secret language of the humanities, is that it is controlled by those who invent it. Those who merely seek to learn and use it gain some limited access, but are condemned to peripheral academic status. Their main role is to give legitimacy and power to those who can truly manipulate and grow it. Those who can’t learn it at all are excluded from the club. Those who can, who do, but who willfully decide not to use it, or even to critique it, are understandably seen as threatening to the established order and are special targets for exclusion. This can be seen in some of the reaction to Goldrick-Rab’s tweet, and elsewhere as well (see especially the comments at this last link).
This linguistic system for marking inclusion and exclusion works well internally, as long as there are resources to control. Unfortunately, it has also had the effect of making humanities scholarship increasingly irrelevant, suspect, and eventually, vaguely threatening to many people. In an environment in which citizens, students, and parents were mostly willing to support universities as a whole without asking too many questions, this focus on the internal uses of language for prestige competition was successful.
Things are changing. People reasonably expect some sort of return on their investment in higher education, whether individual or collective. At the student and parent level, this return is increasingly private and tied to job outcomes. It goes through the education side of the university’s mission. On the scholarship side, if we want to make the argument that the scholarship produced by universities is a public good, we need to show its value to the wider community. This is difficult to achieve if no one can understand its output, or if its very shape discourages its reading.