Writing, Academic and Otherwise

Passing through the process of academic professionalization is, in part, not unlike the process of learning a new language. It is, for example, the sort of process that might lead me to write discourse in place of language to conclude that first sentence. Learning this new language can be both an infuriating and exhilarating experience. At first, the new language mystifies, baffles, and frustrates; later, if one sticks to it and if this new language is not utter nonsense (as it may sometimes be), there is a certain thrill in being able to see and name previously unseen (because unnamed) and poorly understood dimensions of experience.

I suspect the younger one happens to be when this initiating process takes place, the more zealously one may take to this new language, allowing it to become the grid through which all experience is later comprehended. This is, on the whole, an unfortunate tendency. Another unfortunate tendency is that by which, over time, academics forget that theirs is a learned and often obscure language which they acquired only after months and possibly years of training. This is easily forgotten, perhaps because it is only metaphorically a new language. It is, if you are American, still English, but a peculiarly augmented (or deformed, depending on your perspective) form of the language.

This means, usually, that when academics (or academics in training) write, they write in a way that might not be easily assimilated by non-academics. This is, of course, entirely unrelated to intellect or ability (a point that is sometimes missed). A brilliant Spaniard, for instance, is no less brilliant for having never taken the time to learn Swahili. This is also a function of the tribal quality of academic life. One gets used to operating in the language of the tribe and sometimes forgets to adjust to accordingly when operating in other contexts.

Again, I think this is very often simply a matter of habit and forgetfulness, although, it is sometimes a matter of arrogance, self-importance, and other such traits of character.

I mention all of this because, if I were asked to verbalize why I write this blog, I would say that it was in part to translate the work of academics, critics, and theorists into a more accessible form so that their insights regarding the meaning and consequences of media and technology, so far as those insights were useful, might be more widely known. After all, the technologies I usually write about affect so many of us, academics and non-academics alike. Anyone who cares to think about how to navigate these technologies as wisely as possible should be able to encounter the best thinking on such matters in a reasonably accessible form. I don’t know, maybe there is a certain naïveté in that aspiration, but it seems worth pursuing.

I’m fairly certain, though, that I don’t always achieve this goal that I half-consciously maintain for what I do here. I’m writing this post mostly to remind myself of this aspiration and renew my commitment to it.

I should be clear, I’m talking neither about dumbing down what there is to know nor am I suggesting anything like condescension ought to be involved. The challenge is to maintain the depth of insight and to resist the over-simplification of complexity while at the same time avoiding the characteristics of academic language that tend to make it inaccessible. It’s a matter of not ignoring the non-academic reader while also taking them seriously.

I’m reminded of some comments that David Foster Wallace made regarding the purposes of literature. I’ve cited this passage before, quite some time ago, and it has stuck with me. It’s a bit long, but worth reading. Wallace is discussing literature with the interviewer, David Lipsky, and they are debating the relative merits of traditional literature and less traditional, more avant-garde writing:

Huh.  Well you and I just disagree.  Maybe the world just feels differently to us.  This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear:  that avant-garde stuff is hard to read.  I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff — this is gonna get very abstract — but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.”  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely.

There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake.  That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction — sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of the photograph — that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff.  As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes.  And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change.  And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along.  And that’s what’s precious about it.

And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious.  Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

Maybe it is ill-advised to make this comparison, but I think what Wallace has to say here, or at least the spirit of what he is saying can apply to academic work as well. It can also be a way of representing what it feels like to be alive. I tend to hold literature in rather high esteem, so I don’t think that non-fiction can really replicate the experience of more literary writing, but it can be useful in its own way. It can help make sense of experience. It can generate self-understanding. It can suggest new possibilities for how to make one’s way in the world.

It’s too late for new year’s resolutions, but I’m hoping to keep this goal more clearly in focus as I continue to write on here. You can tell me, if you’re so inclined, how well I manage. Cheers.

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7 thoughts on “Writing, Academic and Otherwise

  1. Academia can certainly get its claws into you. I just had a discussion where I asked about whether the application of ‘intersectionality” could work when discussing things outside of the differentiation of marginalized groups –to learning theory and instructional design specifically. In the other writing that I do I sometimes get sent back to the desk because I have been scribing academic–and the odd teacher lets me know in my papers I am writing too informally.

    DFW brings a certain amount of irony with a quotation like that as he (his writing) is not generally considered easily consumable himself. I jokingly refer to myself as the DWF of feminism when I’ve found myself returned to the draft table. A bold claim, I am not as brilliant a mind, but my sentences do seem to run on, and on.

    Great Post!

  2. I commend you for your desire to translate academic jargon into words for the masses. If this post is any indication of your typical writing style, I would say you are well on your way.

  3. I agree that academic writing can express concepts that cannot be expressed in everyday language. It is not really to do with jargon and fancy words, which can be pared down or eliminated by good academic writers. For example, Roger Collins inveighs against the way the word “space” has become an academic concept so that a church becomes a “ritual, liturgical space”. One cannot defend this in its individual flowerings and should be torn down root and branch.

    Once you learn to live with its coldness academic language should be easy to understand. It helps us move along in our understanding of the world, as you say. Ironically, I think it is very difficult to sustain the same idea about avant garde art and literature today. It can be entertaining or not, well-made or not, but I find the whole idea that there are creative geniuses moving things along laughable in what is an international industry closer to the dry academic art of the nineteenth century.

  4. So much of this academic stuff is about learning how to speak the language well enough to sound like one should be engaged in it. That raises the question–is my academic enterprise about the profession I aspire to or the mission behind it? I think for me it’s always a balance of both. At least, I hope so. One of my favorite things about this blog is how well you do the kind of translation that you described above. This post has served as a reminder for me, as well, though I know I will never write anything that resembles the “magical stuff” Wallace talks about, even the non-fiction version of it.

  5. Another point to keep in mind is that individuals trained in academic language can often simply find it difficult to express themselves outside of it. For those of you that have been immersed in a foreign language, you’ll remember how quickly you begin to forget basic words in your mother tongue.

    I’ve noticed this myself as I shift from academic work to blogging. Sometimes getting into that familiar, first-person perspective from which so many great blogs are written can be as uncomfortable and challenging as learning academic jargon in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the first to have experienced this.

    Thanks for your post.

  6. Hi Michael,

    The most important point in this post, in my opinion, is the one David Foster Wallace makes about the reader. As a writer, if you ignore the reader you’re not doing your job.

    I spent 20 years in technology and see many of the similarities you describe about academics. Industry jargon is one of the biggest scourges of clear writing. It’s also the fastest way to make your writing exclusive. My view is writing should always be inclusive to attract, educate, inform and maybe even entertain as many people as possible.

    Unfortunately, every industry has its own jargon. When I see something loaded with obscure references or words specific to a certain industry, I always wonder if the writer is insecure. It reminds me of the packs of girls you see roaming around the shopping malls, all dressed exactly the same and sporting the same hair style. They find comfort in being the same while locking everyone else out.

    It’s a terrific post. I’m going to share it with my network.

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