Sunday, in Which the College Guide Gets Very Meta about the Difficulty of Academic Writing

The unfortunate part about writing on higher education is that one often has to read passages like this:

A politics presuming the ontological indifference of all minority social identities as defining oppressed or dominated groups, a politics in which differences are sublimated in the constitution of a minority identity (the identity politics which is increasingly being questioned within feminism itself) can recover the differences between social identities only on the basis of common and therefore commensurable experiences of marginalization, which experiences in turn yield a political practice that consists largely of affirming the identities specific to those experiences.

You got that? The above sentence comes from a book called Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993) by John Guillory. Guillory, oddly enough, is apparently an English professor.

That sort of thing is not at all unusual. There’s a fascinating piece by Eastern Washington University’s Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education about graduate student writing:

The journal articles he makes us read [students said] are dense and boring. We’re getting good information, but it can be painful. And, they said, we have to learn to write like that.

I’ve heard that song from graduate students in every discipline, and from faculty members, junior and senior, at universities across the country. The message: You have to write the same way as others in your field. You must use multisyllabic words, complex phrasing, and sentences that go on for days, because that’s how you show you’re smart. If you’re too clear, if your sentences are too simple, your peers won’t take you seriously.

Of course, this actually isn’t true. Unreadable prose is unreadable whether one’s writing about subatomic particles or how to put together a desk from IKEA. Something that’s poorly written is just poorly written, period. And while opaque writing probably won’t result in punishment in academia, it won’t help to build an intellectual career either. As Toor explains:

By writing prose that is nearly unintelligible not just to the general public, but also to graduate students and fellow academics in your discipline, you are not doing the work of advancing knowledge. And, honestly, you don’t really sound smart.

In fact, you just sound vague and pompous. No one wants to read something he can’t understand. Or, as David Foster Wallace wrote in his introduction to the Best American Essays 2007: “As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious.”

No kidding. As far back as 1946 George Orwell objected to bad academic and professional writing, protesting that it was not merely irritating, it was actually destructive. In “ Politics and the English Language,” Orwell wrote that “English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

Right, just be clear. The ontological indifference of all minority social identities may very well define oppressed or dominated groups, but surely there’s a better way to get that sentiment across to readers.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer