Academics

An academic books I read the other day had the word “Crepuscular” in the very last sentence of a chapter. After puzzling at the sentence for a minute without knowing the definition, I decided that it made no sense and looked up the definition. It means “dim” or “of or like twilight.” Suddenly, the entire sentence made sense…and it turned out that the author was trying to say that without that particular historian, we would know little of the time period because no other sources survive. That’s it. Instead he had to write a sentence about how the knowledge of the time period would be crepuscular.1 It was reminiscent of a line from The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss) wherein Kvothe, the main character, comments that a particular philosopher writes as though he is afraid someone might understand what he is saying.

A day later, another academic book went on an extended lament about how the publishing industry does not particularly like academic books because they do not sell well, and, in instructions for a textbook he was writing, the publisher had recommended a causal tone, short sentences, small words, and that he not use foreign phrases in order that the students who would have to use the book would find it approachable.3 This seemed to be a sign that the academy was losing in a larger culture war, overtaken by transient fads and (shock!) the unwashed masses.2 Moreover, he claimed that this attack on intellect has breached the bastion that are academic journals. Suffice to say that I was not sympathetic to his lament.4

Somewhere along the line developed the notion that for something to be “smart” (in all its ambiguity), it must also be all but unintelligible. After all, if just anyone could understand your point, how would we know that you are smart? Sometimes books are difficult to understand because they are presenting really difficult ideas and topics, but more often they are merely jargon-y and obtuse for no particular reason–something that the previous author seemed to regard as a virtue. I venture that it is not, particularly in a field that is designed to educate people. Have a good vocabulary is a virtue, but so too the ability to convey information clearly and concisely.

The glorification of obtuse writing is something that is bought into by both the initiated academics and the lay-person. Several months ago a smart person who is not in graduate school asked me what I study, adding a request as an afterthought that I use words that he is capable of understanding. During the conversation he asked good questions and then, after I had finished, he remarked “I understood all those words!”

This was meant partly in jest and certainly not as a slight or even really praise toward me, but it was telling that after a short conversation with an academic that phrase was at all relevant. At the same time, I often feel that academics are defensive about their position in the world and therefore worship complex writing because it “proves” that we are smarter and better than other people. The need to cater to people who are not readily versed in a battery of French phrases and Latin terms offends the sensibilities because those people are forcing us to stoop to the level of everyone else. I think, though, that this says a lot more about our insecurities than it does about our intellect. It is perfectly acceptable to have a level of assumed knowledge as a prerequisite for academic work, but the idea that the ability to explain your ideas diminishes their intelligence is false. If anything, the ability to explain a complex or new idea in such a way that is intelligible makes that idea smarter.

I think that we would be better served working on our ability to explain our ideas than on writing another essay that is only comprehensible to insiders or (worse) complaining that the real world is cramping our style.5 This does not mean that there should not be books about the musicality of Theocritus, the poetics of Homer, or other obscure topics. These books should exist, but they should also be written in such a way that the uninitiated do not get a headache trying to read the title.6 Hoarded knowledge, hidden knowledge is of no use to anyone.


1 Later in the book he used “vertebrate” as a verb, in that “x vertebrated y with z.” The meaning of this was easy to come by, but I rolled my eyes at it nonetheless.
2 Okay, fine, he doesn’t actually seem worried about the non-bathers taking over the academy, so much as the people who do bathe, but who would rather watch the movie version, read Twilight, and get drunk while they stumble toward a degree and a mid-level bureaucracy position for a career.
3 I refer everyone to Orwell’s rules for writing at the end of Politics and the English Language, with particular emphasis on numbers two and five.
4 I have actually surprised people by supporting the publishing of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey because from a business perspective, the return on those books keeps companies in business and able to publish academic books. There is not a 1:1 correlation, but there is some.
5 I do not agree with them entirely, but Hanson and Heath in Who Killed Homer? are populists in this respect, too.
6 The Violent Body: Marxist Roots of Postmodern Homoerotic Mysticism and the Feminine Form in St. Augustine’s Confessions is actually a relatively benign example of this type of book.

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