Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why Academics Can't Write?

In this corner, journalist June Casagrande. In the other corner, eminent intellectual and Harvard professor Steven Pinker.

The contest: who better explains for why academics can’t write.

We have all heard of Pinker. Most of us have  not heard of June Casagrande.

In the past university professors prided themselves on their ability to write cogent and coherent prose. Now, most university professors, especially in the Humanities, are incapable of doing so.

Why should this be?

The bell has rung, and Pinker throws the first explanation:

The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. In my experience, it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do ground-breaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.

Obviously, a choice need not be deliberate. It might be motivated by fear. If Pinker believes that these scholars are doing ground-breaking work and have nothing to hide, he is being far too optimistic. One appreciates the value of Pinker’s crusade to look on the bright side of things, but it’s also possible to be blinded by the sunlight.

Anyway, Casagrande’s counterpunch must sting:

I have, over the years, caught whiffs of the problem, and I had my own theory: Certain academics, I figured, need to make their writing as convoluted, intimidating and hard-to-read as possible to hide the fact that they have nothing to say.

That is, if no one can grasp or even finish reading something you wrote, no one will know that your research is useless and your university paycheck is tantamount to theft.

When people owe their jobs and their careers to considerations that have little or nothing to do with achievement they have good reason to ensure that no one finds out that they are, to speak frankly, frauds.

One must add that some supposedly serious thinkers indulge in advanced obfuscation because they are extremely thin-skinned. They fear debate; they fear discussion; they fear argument; they fear criticism.

If no one knows what you are saying, no one can reasonably disagree with you. If no one knows what you are saying, you cannot be wrong.

Here, Pinker might forward another argument: namely that academics write badly because they know their subjects so well that they assume that everyone else knows it as well as they do. In other fields this is called narcissism.

It does not necessarily bespeak knowledge. It might also be a symptom, describing a world where most of the participants do not know what they are talking about. At best, they use formulaic expressions as passwords, not because the words mean something but because they signify membership in an in-group.

In any event, we should test these competing explanations. To do so we need but examine the winning entries in what used to be called the Bad Writing Contest.

Take the winning text, written by Judth Butler, a woman who holds a prestigious chair at the University of California, Berkeley.

Butler wrote:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

And then there is a text written by University of Chicago Professor Homi Bhabha:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

Let us be clear. These writers are not obscure academics teaching as adjuncts in no-name universities. They are important professors, teaching at the nation’s most prestigious institutions.

If anyone is doing what Pinker calls “ground-breaking work” they would certainly be on the list.

Do they satisfy the Pinkerist predicate: do they reason well about complex ideas?

Or, does it make more sense to say that they are using obscure and obscurantist thinking because they have something to hide. One might also suggest that they write drivel because they think drivel.

If a professor cannot write clearly the chances are very good that he or she cannot think clearly. If an academic, someone whose job requires an extended dissertation, cannot write at all, most likely he or she cannot think.

What brought major Humanities professors to this degraded condition? I suspect that they are merely reaping what they sowed. They are paying for having discarded the canon of great writers and great thinkers of the past. Having rejected the canon, they do not know how to write or think. Most of them would not recognize good writing if it hit them in the face.

As the old saying goes, garbage in/ garbage out.

Most of these instances of bad writing are pretentious attempts to appropriate French thinking. Their authors are driven by ideology, not by a wish to do ground-breaking work in the Humanities. They want to look like sophisticated intellectuals, the better to trick the world into thinking that they are earning their salaries.

In the stand-off between June Casagrande and Steven Pinker, this referee awards the victory to Casagrande, by a TKO.


Lindsay Harold said...

Anyone who has done any decent amount of reading in peer-reviewed journals knows that many, many articles are full of sentences and paragraphs that cannot be deciphered into anything resembling a coherent thought. The poor writing is everywhere. We've given up quality for quantity and are drowning in a sea of useless papers that mean nothing and yet look very impressive.

I sometimes wonder how such poor writers manage to get through the peer-review process until I remember that the reviewers are often of the same kind. Perhaps frauds tend to overlook other frauds lest their own fa├žade come under scrutiny. They fear to say that the emperor has no clothes for fear of being labelled a dunce. Or perhaps they simply lack the skills and intelligence to properly evaluate the words in front of them.

Whatever the reason, it seems we have reached the point at which the concentration of poor writers (and poor thinkers) has overwhelmed the system and formed a perpetuating cycle. I fear for the future of our civilization.

Ares Olympus said...

The same sort of issues exist for college level teaching, that is it seems an open question whether a professor is intentionally a bad teacher, because he doesn't want to teach a class, or because he really just can't lower himself from the clouds to speak in a language that can be understood.

And my experiences is more in the hard sciences than social sciences where speculative abstractions perhaps can completely replace objective reality.

I also remember the phase "publish or perish" which I assume is still valid so if salary and tenure are assigned based on quantity rather than quality, then that's what you're going to get.

I admit I'm more worried about "poor thinkers" than "poor writers". Poor thinkers need other experts to challenge them, but if they're insecure, they don't want to be challenged, hence unreadable papers is an asset.

On the "poor writer" side, I wonder if the solution isn't pairing up "brilliant thinkers" with "brilliant writers", and colaborative papers where there writer has wide general knowledge, and can think like a general reader and challenge how things are presented so that it is both clear and precise.

I have no idea if that would work, but at least when you see text books with more than one author, you can be sure the reason is something like that.

I also remember talking to some (engineering and science grad students) who'd joke that their dissertations might never be read, which shows a pessimism that doesn't encourage good writing. At least now-a-days, papers are online, and so if someone else is doing anything slightly like what you know, or want to learn about, you can find out, and when you see how bad those papers are, you might have some more pride in your own?

JK Brown said...

Casagrande's hypothesis also explains why schools at all levels, especially universities, expend little effort in teaching students how to study. Study in the real sense, not the quiet place to cram that seems to dominate most study tips universities post online.

Real study is extracting and parsing information from lectures and written material. Textbooks being a simplified written source with main points and subpoints already defined for the reader.

These academics seem to want to prevent that from happening with their writings. Can anyone parse the examples given to determine the main point(s) and subpoints? Theoretically, the writing came from an outline but it defies reversion to any outline.

David Foster said...

"When ideas fail, words come in very handy"

--Goethe (spoken by Mephistopheles in Faust)

RonF said...

During my undergraduate days at MIT I took a course to fulfill the Humanities requirement there called "Fantasy and Science Fiction". We were to read a fantasy or sf novel, write up a 3 page essay on the themes, etc., hand them in to the professor, and then discuss them in class. We all read the first novel, wrote our papers and handed them in.

The next meeting Prof. Janet Anderson showed up after we'd all arrived. Standing in the door she held up our papers. "I have your papers here," she announced - and then heaved them into the room, scattering them all over. She then informed us they were uniformly crap. "You all go to the best school in the world. You all think that the longer a sentence you use and the bigger the words you use the better your writing is. I'm turning the next 6 weeks of this class into a writing course. You're all going to learn to write a simple declarative sentence."

She did. We did. One of the most useful courses I took at MIT. These people would flunk her class.

Sam L. said...

Their convoluted language and sentence structures are to exhibit high intellectual achievement, readability and understanding be damned!