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academic writingFor the longest time while in graduate school, I simply could not figure out academic writing or the academic culture of writing. Almost every article, review, and book I read left me perplexed. I couldn’t decide if academics were dumb or merely bad at writing. I never presumed, at least as a graduate student, that both things might be true. Though, I was willing to entertain the idea that I was simply not as smart as these writers. Sometimes, it’s brutally hard not to question oneself in the face of such overwhelming evidence.


At all three of the academic institutions I attended, praise the Good Lord, I was blessed with amazing writing instructors—from Marvin O’Connell to Anne Butler to R. David Edmunds and Bernard Sheehan. Not only did each possess and share a poetic understanding of the word, but each also possessed thick skin and a serious fire in the belly to change the world for the better through writing and through any variety of things.

Of course, having these fine writers as mentors only deepened my confusion: what was wrong with everyone else in the humanities and the social sciences?

And, at this point in the post, let me clarify. I’ve no knowledge of what’s going on in scientific journals, engineering journals, medical journals, law journals, etc. I wouldn’t, in any way, be willing or qualified to comment on such things. In my criticism and analysis in this post, I mean specifically writing in  the disciplines generally regarded as humanities and social sciences. I must also note, there are some really good journals out there. In particular, I can think of the William and Mary Quarterly, The Review of Politics, etc. But, these are certainly exceptions to the norm of academic publishing.

Neoteric Gnosticism

In the unhealthy way a Gnostic puzzle plays at the edge of our souls and taunts us, taking us away from the good to gaze at the horror, academic writing intrigued me while I was in my 20s. I was still single, and I had time to explore even absurdities, however unhealthy they might prove. Consequently, throughout my graduate school years, I researched the history of academic journals, the professionalization of traditionally liberal disciplines, and the history of academic debates over the past several decades to a century.

Several errors of both aesthetics and thought have plagued numerous academic journals for years now. Most importantly, too many academic writers (indeed, almost all) rely on bizarre jargon. Though the English language possesses a stunning and  beautiful array of words, almost always covering what needs to be described, academics tend to invent new ones whenever necessary. These neoterisms, of course, serve three diabolic purposes.

First, they hide lazy thought and poor education of the writer who should wield a greater vocabulary or, at the least and to no shame, the ability to discover what already exists.

Second, they lead to a narrowing of the audience. The vocabulary, which often becomes discipline specific, evades understanding and evaluation by all who are not part of the in-group, privileged with the nuances and contexts of such words. Those reading such works must approach them as one would the Gnostic handshake or ritual as an outsider not given the key to knowledge.

Third, and intimately related to the second, such new vocabulary serves to promote group think among the in-group. These persons become the high priesthood, the elect. Not only do they exclude others deemed unworthy, but they dehumanize themselves by falling prey to the easiest answers and inability to ask the questions that might lead to truth. Instead, they have sold their souls to the in-group.

We Should Rage

While I have strong enough feelings about academic writing to produce nothing but a massive rant here for the very generous readers of The Imaginative Conservative, I actually believe there’s argument to be made for all persons of good will to fight like mad against poor and downright offensively poor academic journals. Indeed, we should do the same against all poorly formed thought, dialogue, and writing. We should rage.

Poor writing, equally wretched thinking (these two things always connected, one to another), and the formation of academic cliques (generously called disciplines) has made much of the academy nothing if not completely and utterly esoteric and, hence, irrelevant to the needs of the modern world and the res publica of humanity.

Even more tragically, most of these Gnostics lead and teach in disciplines traditionally associated with the liberal arts. Yet, such elect live as far removed from true liberalism as is imaginable.

Real liberal education liberates us from the things of this world, tying us into a community of thinkers of good will spanning from Socrates to the Apocalypse. Real liberal education make us citizens not of a clique but of the cosmopolis. Real liberal education does not select its priesthood, it leavens the greatest within each of us. Real liberal education does not offer the secret handshake, it offers us open and often quite divisive dialogue. Real liberal education does not seek conformity, but loving diversity.

The more we allow the pretenders to play professor, the less the public will care what we profess.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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8 replies to this post
  1. One way to approach this very touchy subject is to name names. Who are the bad writers? Who are the good ones? Forrest McDonald’s prose is as beautiful as Robert Frost’s poetry. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., often held up as a good writer, was a sloppy thinker and therefore a sloppy writer. A very intelligent student of mine (this was many years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday), responding to my sharp criticism of his unnecessarily complicated sentences, said to me, “Complex thoughts require complex sentences.” I replied, “That is a beautiful sentence.”

  2. I know someone who has a masters degree in education. While in graduate school some 45 years ago, he wrote a paper for a professor who liked academic jargon. So my friend wrote – on purpose – a paper which had no meaning: it was a patchwork of “big words” and cliches current in education circles. He got an “A”.

    Why the problem you describe in the liberal arts? I suggest it is because the authors have nothing to say. Their minds are like blank sheets of paper which got stamped in graduate school. They know nothing – have no understanding – and can’t think. The jargon hides this from the uninitiated.

    In the law schools, students who can’t think independently get indoctrinated with a statist secular world view. Articles written by law professors have a clear meaning (to other lawyers, at least) – but their articles are often distinguished by profound ignorance or dishonesty (I know not which it is).

    I don’t know why the difference between the academic writings in the liberal arts and the academic writings of the lawyers. Except perhaps this: Legal writings are motivated by a desire to bring about action. Legal writers have an agenda.

    We have become a People incapable of rational analysis. Our People don’t even know the activity exists. They don’t know Logic. They don’t know that some statements are “True”; others are “False”. They believe that all is a matter of opinion – of “different views” – all valid. When they are faced with Truth – they don’t recognize it as such. They think it just another “view”. And the only standard they have for evaluating is their own subjective “agreement” or “disagreement”.

    During the last part of the 19th century, we abandoned the philosophy of our Framers and their Judeo-Christian world view, and embraced pragmatism and then existentialism. And we abandoned the concept of fixed moral standards.

  3. Jargon is bad if it a writer uses it indiscriminately, but academics need their own lexicon as a kind of shorthand for the concepts that they share with their colleagues. A professor of rhetoric might say in a paper about some speech that the speaker “uses that technique in which one presents a sentence or phrase and then inverts the syntax of that sentence or phrase to make a contrary point, as when King Henry V says to the French herald Montjoy in Shakespeare’s history play, ‘We would not seek a battle as we are,/Nor, as we are, I say we will not shun it'”; or, more succinctly, the professor might simply use the term “chiasmus.” As with anything in writing, it all depends on purpose and audience.

  4. Publius–that’s a great story. Thanks! John, thanks for the response. I’m not sure I agree, for what it’s worth. First, the subject is only touchy because of poor writers entrenched in academic positions. Second, I don’t at all believe that complex thoughts demand a complex sentence. A poorly worded sentence is every where and always a poorly developed thought.

  5. I have a B.A. in Art and Design. I remember a professor saying she didn’t think it was unreasonable that artists should have their own specialized vocabulary; she reasoned that doctors and other professionals use words that laypeople didn’t understand, so why not artists? I usually disagreed with about 90% of what this professor said, so I decided not to engage on that particular point, but it has remained with me because it has a superficial logic to it, but is so deeply flawed. You want to be incoherent to people outside of your discipline? Art should only be understood with the proper education? We’re creating art and discussing art for the sake of other artists alone? The motives and goals of doctors and artists are so similar that what applies to one should apply to the other? Elitism is desirable?

    The mind-crippling effects of the phenomenon you’re describing were obvious on a daily basis. Certain words and phrases were so common when discussing art that I wrote up a lexicon of words that I purposely avoided. Here are some specific examples that will garner you at least a B+ on any art-related essay, and get you through any horror show of a modern art museum:

    playful (but only if applied to something appalling — that’s when you’re really “deep”)
    SERIOUS questions

    And a couple of phrases:
    “This piece forces us to question x.” (When in doubt, x = consumerism. The key here is to say “forces us.” Whenever I’m reading an art review or description that includes this phrase, I typically stop reading and move on. How arrogant – you’re FORCING me to think something? I don’t think so.)
    “I think this piece is successful/not successful because…” (This is a way to avoid value judgements – art isn’t good or bad, it just either achieves what the artist intended or it doesn’t. But we aren’t to evaluate the intent.)

    I don’t mean to imply that all of these words or phrases are problematic on their own, only that their extreme overuse forces us to question their relevance and the implications for higher education in general when students are churned out all talking and thinking mostly alike. It raises questions. Serious questions.

  6. Most academic jargon has a single purpose: obfuscation. In other words, others who share in your strategy can also share in your power, et al. Unfortunately, professional obscurantists in the liberal arts have damaged the value of print journals to such a degree by their tactics that said publications will never recover.

    However, some elevated and complex analyzes come into existence because of the limitations of current vocabulary and modes of thought. A great example of this effort to actually refine thought is the work of Eric Voegelin.

  7. What I find very aggravating is that for most journals your work is not even considered unless you have a Ph.D. Plus, you have to be “up to date” on nearly everything everyone else has written about the same subject. The objective is to create the illusion of Progress In The Discipline. The notion of “cutting edge research” as, e.g., applied to philosophy — which in academia suffers from what I call Mathematical and/or Scientific Envy — is quite absurd.

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