At a time when tuition and student debt are reaching crisis levels, the public is right to demand that the work it is funding (both directly, at public universities, and indirectly, at private universities, by subsidizing student loans) has some bearing on reality and some benefit to the rest of society. It’s time for academics to stop turning up their noses at reasonable critiques, and actually get their house in order.You want to find the bullshit? Head to the barnyard. No, head to the "Absence of Absences" conference, which, a few years ago, was scheduled for Tokyo. This was too much for policy academician (it's complicated) Peter Dreier. He had some fun with the conference (think Alan Sokal and Social Text) and decided that readers of The American Prospect ought to be in on the story.
Sokal’s ruse was more ambitious than mine. He wrote an entire article. I simply wrote a 368-word abstract. He submitted his for publication. I just submitted mine to a conference. Although his paper was filled with absurd statements, it actually reached a conclusion—however bogus—that gravity was still an idea open to serious debate. In doing so, Sokal actually had a serious point to make about the silliness of much “post-modern” thinking that viewed science as a version of the humanities where all views should be given equal weight.Mr Dreier decided that filling thirty pages with violations of every rule of good writing was too much, and he bailed on the conference. Other participants in the panel took the theme seriously, and their papers are in print.
My paper had no point at all. It was filled entirely with non-sequiturs. I didn’t even bother to mention anything about “the absence of absences,” because I had no idea what it meant and would have thus revealed my ignorance of the panel’s organizing theme.
In writing my abstract for the “Absence of Absences” panel, I violated every rule of good writing to which I usually try to adhere.
But the lesson he provided to Prospect readers is important. By all means go and read the full article. I'm going to excerpt at length.
Although this episode may seem like a waste of time, I did, like Sokal, have a serious point to make in submitting the abstract. I wanted to pull back the curtain on academic pomposity.But if you can't explain the essential elements to your mother-in-law, or to a room full of novices who might be resisting your required course in the first place, you're not doing your job.
American higher education is under attack by pundits, plutocrats and public officials who believe that many professors don’t work hard and that what they produce is of little value to society. Most of their attacks are off-base, but there is a grain of truth in their claims. Academics who believe in the mission of higher education—teaching, research, and public service—need to defend academic freedom, but some of our colleagues have to clean up their acts, because it is difficult to defend the indefensible.
There are many academics who write books, articles, and technical papers for colleagues in their own areas of expertise, but who also know how to translate their work into prose accessible to the general public. They share a commitment to the idea that colleges and universities—subsidized directly and indirectly by taxpayers—have an obligation to serve society. That means climbing down from the ivory tower and sharing their knowledge with people who aren’t academics. The tradition of liberal arts colleges and land-grant universities alike is the notion of “enlightenment,” which means educating, explaining, and illuminating ideas that might be practically useful or simply interesting for their own sake.
I believe that most social scientists—sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists—should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose. Although I’m not formally trained in English literature, or art history, or other humanities subjects, I can grasp the basic points, if not the nuances, of most articles published by scholars in these fields, if they are written to be understood rather than to impress and intimidate.Yes, and if the articles as written, and the talks as given, make the basic points clear, the competent listener will pick up on the nuances. Yes, that sometimes requires the presenter to defer some questions to take up later (I would caution new students to be careful about sailing outside the breakwater without a life jacket, or suggest that some topics were better tackled over a cup of coffee), but that's the way in which learning is emergent. Recondite posturing achieves none of that.
The problem of academic jargon is not confined to a single political or ideological wing, but it certainly dominates much of the writing by leftists in the social sciences and humanities. I consider myself a person of the left, and my research and writing—focusing on American politics, urban policy, social movements, and labor studies— generally explores issues of social justice and democracy. But I have little patience for much of what passes for left-wing academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, which emphasizes criticism (often called “deconstructing” or “problematizing” by academics) of conservative and liberal ideas and social institutions, but makes little or no attempt to figure out what to do to make things better.Sample cup of coffee question: is there anything Wise Experts can do to make things better?
I also have little patience for the kind of embarrassingly obtuse writing style preferred by many postmodern and allegedly leftist academics that obscures more than it enlightens and is often a clever mask for being intellectually lightweight.
But if you can't play with crazy ideas, including the crazy idea that complex adaptive systems might be doing the best they can subject to the laws of conservation, in the academy, when can you play with them?
But as long as academics write primarily for tiny niches of other academics in language that obscures more than it enlightens, the general public will justifiably continue to question the value of higher education and whether their hard-earned tax dollars should be invested in the work of scholars who seem to have little interest in making their ideas accessible to the general public or useful to society.We could add: outsourcing the transmission of ideas to cheap and contingent faculty labor, to graduate assistants, to online videos, to the division of student affairs, all in stripped down or derivative form.