Academics should speak plain English

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Einstein once quipped, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” As soon as I arrived at Oxford, it came to my attention that much of what academics and students write is utter gobbledygook.

Some academics seem to take pleasure in constructing sentences completely incomprehensible not just to the layman, but even to students of their own subject. All I can do is wonder why. What does it prove? Do they show that they are such geniuses that they find it impossible to communicate with lesser mortals? Or maybe the ideas they are trying to convey are so complex that they require impenetrable terminology?

I suspect that it is not an academic’s high calibre of intellect that forces them to write like this, and that it is more likely an elaborate bluff. By ensuring that you do not understand a thing they are talking about, they trick you into thinking that they know exactly what they are talking about. From my own tutorial experiences, I smell a rat. After all, it is only when I do not have a clue about what I am saying that I bullshit to the maximum. If I start using words like “discourse” or “subjectivity”, I know I am really in trouble. Conversely, it is only when I actually know my stuff that I feel comfortable using simple phrases.

Don’t just take my word for it. The late Dennis Dutton, a philosophy professor from the University of Canterbury, was so incensed by this ‘awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose’ that he set up a “Bad Writing Competition” to find the most egregious examples of it. What follows, the winner of the competition in 1999, is a perfect example of this pernicious evil. Let me present an extract from a work of Judith Butler; fasten your seat belts, folks, you are in for a ride. 

 “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

I admit I don’t have a clue what this means. Do you? Dennis Dutton doesn’t. He says, “To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” At least one intellectual has got it right.

This needless jargon goes against the purpose of academia. In the context of a world where academics are continually engaged in a desperate search for something, anything, to justify the continued funding of the study of the humanities, academia cannot subsist in its own little bubble. Academics have to make a consistent effort to make their specialised research accessible to the wider intellectual environment and even to the general public. As much as they might contest otherwise, academics are not being employed to engage in some obscurant hobby of theirs. Thus, the language with which they frame their research should be equally accessible. Whilst it doesn’t have to be Wikipedia Simple English, there is a happy medium to be had and one that is not weighted to the bullshit end.

In a similar vein, tutors should not get so wound up when students use simple, even colloquial, English, so long as it is grammatically correct. After all, when I applied to Oxford, it was beaten into me that it was the quality of the idea that counted, not the complexity of the vocabulary used to convey it. If that was not a façade to tempt innocent sixth formers in, then it should still stand on arrival at university. There is little point in having an idea unless you can convey it clearly. Mark Twain once said, “I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same.” With simple, elegant style, he gets right to the point. Tutors and students, cut the crap. It achieves nothing but making the writer look like a pretentious twit.

I end with Einstein again, who explains the problem much better than I ever could. “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

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