Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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