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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

2 of 2 Stories

Professorial Prose
Why do they write like that?

By Todd Sallo

A Doonesbury cartoon from 1972, when most of the characters were still in college, shows Zonker Harris working feverishly on a typewriter. "Man, have I got a lot of papers due," he laments.

Mike Doonesbury reads some of Zonker's work-in-progress: "Most problems, like answers, have finite resolutions. The basis for these resolutions contains many of the ambiguities which conditional man daily struggles with. Accordingly, most problematic solutions are fallible. Mercifully, all else fails; conversely, hope lies in a myriad of polemicse"

Mike asks, "Which paper is this?"

"Dunno," Zonker replies. "I haven't decided yet."

On the surface, this is a satire on students who grind out essays or term papers at the last minute and, having little or nothing to say about the topic, inflate their work with airy platitudes. But it also makes a more general point about the tendency of academic writing to seem overly complex, if not downright incomprehensible.

Zonker's essay is virtually indistinguishable from a good deal of published material. In fact, compared to some professorial prose, it's actually pretty good.

Why do writers in higher education insist on using a thousand words where a hundred would suffice? Why do they challenge readers with their long, turgid paragraphs instead of simply making their point? Why do they invent ponderous multi-syllabic terms, or inject words and phrases from foreign languages, instead of choosing from the ample lexicon of their native tongue? Why do they write like that?

It is difficult to escape the suspicion that such inflated language and overextended syntax are used, at least to some degree, to lend undeserved gravity to the writing, sort of like using a thesaurus to make a mediocre high school report seem more substantial. In the culture of academia, writing that is too accessible, especially to non-specialists, often is considered suspect. So these writing habits are nurtured by others in the profession, amplifying their effect.

These writers often duck behind the argument that their work is so sophisticated that it simply has gone over the heads of their intellectual inferiors. And, in an academic "Emperor's New Clothes," no one wants to be the first to admit that he doesn't get it.

Trying to make sense of such works can be the bane of college students' existence (or maybe even a rite of passage). But for those who will not be tested on the material, it can be quite entertaining.

Some have actually made a game of it. For instance, the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature sponsors an annual "Bad Writing Contest" celebrating "the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years." The journal's editors caution that "entries must be non-ironic, from serious, published academic journals or books. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread."

A recent first-prize winner in the contest was Judith Butler, a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Butler's first-prize sentence appears in "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time," an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997):

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.

Stung by the dubious honor of winning a bad writing contest, Butler wrote a blistering opinion piece for The New York Times in which, if nothing else, she proved that she is capable of writing intelligibly. Later, in a letter to the editors of the London Review of Books, she argued that if her prose is hard to read, that is because she refuses to confine herself to "writing introductory primers" dominated by the "truisms which, now fully commodified as ‘radical theory,' pass as critical thinking."

Perhaps Butler would accept this paragraph, from Roy Bhaskar's Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (Verso, 1994), as legitimate critical thinking:

Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal, of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.

That entire passage is only one sentence. And, believe it or not, a blurb on the book jacket boasts that this is "Bhaskar's most accessible book to date."

Finally, here is a paragraph excerpted from D.G. Leahy's Foundation: Matter the Body Itself (State University of New York Press, 1996) that is utterly unintelligible:

Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence of the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in "self-alienation," not "self-identity, itself in self-alienation" "released" in and by "otherness," and "actual other," "itself," not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).

M.J. Devaney, an editor at the University of Nebraska Press, described Leahy's book as "absolutely, unequivocally incomprehensible."

There are more examples, a lot more. Even the most cursory research into academic writing reveals a treasure trove of ramblings just like these. It is hard to imagine how anyone, even the most seasoned and brilliant expert in these fields of study, could make heads or tails out of some of this stuff. If these ideas are so deep and significant, don't they deserve a more accessible presentation?

Gerald Graff, an associate dean at the University of Illinois, discusses what he calls "the myth of academic difficulty," in a recent essay for Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. Graff describes this as "one of the most pervasive beliefs in our culture, one that is found among academics and nonacademics alike…They evidently assume that, like modern poetry as famously described by T.S. Eliot in 1921, serious scholarship 'must be difficult.'" Many graduate students, according to Graff, firmly believe that a certain amount of obfuscation in their writing is "a prerequisite for professional success."

Graff goes on to relate a story about a recent symposium sponsored by the University of Chicago that addressed questions about the extent to which academic writing should be accessible to the general public. When one of the speakers was asked why academics often fail to explain "the gist" of their research, he replied, "We're not in the gist business."

In the field of journalism, of course, a different approach to writing prevails. Journalism thrives on the gist of things, and is obsessed with clarity. A common bit of advice often given to young writers in the field is: First, tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; then tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em.

This approach is, of course, no panacea. It has produced racks of tabloids with ten-inch headlines, and some detractors charge that the popular media have devolved into little more than a series of empty "sound bites." Some academics feel that journalistic writing is responsible for a "dumbing down" of our culture.

But is there no middle ground? Must academic writers choose between these two artificial extremes: impenetrable complexity on the one hand, and simplistic banality on the other?

Even some of the most challenging academic discourse could be improved by the addition of encapsulations. In fact, some of the most well-known works of philosophy and science were made memorable, at least in part, by a famous attendant sound bite: "I think, therefore I am," "History is written by the winners," "E=MC2" and "God is dead," for example.

Because sound bites are associated with popular culture, however, many academics are loath to use them, or any reductive passages, in their work. "Reductive," according to Graff, "is felt to be just about the worst charge, this side of an accusation of plagiarism or sexual harassment, that can be leveled against an academic author."

In that climate, the academic predilection toward complexity is likely to continue unabated. And the suggestion that complex communication and reduction can and should coexist in the same work will likely go unheeded (if not unnoticed).

In a humorous essay published in The Academic Author, "How to Write Like a Professional Snoot; Helpful Hints from the Lesczyk Szagagojevic School of Pompous Prose," the writer (using a challenging pseudonym so that "I can pompously and with contempt state that it's pronounced just the way it's spelled") offers tongue-in-cheek advice for academic writers.

Simplification and readability, of course, go out the window in this formula. In addition to the cardinal rule of writing, "redundancy, repetition, and…redundancy", Szagagojevic counsels, "You must never lose sight of your arrogance. I cannot stress this enough. Arrogance is your friend; love it, nurture it, talk to it and it will bloom in all its bright flowery splendor."

Like all good satire, this is rooted in reality. But for many writers in higher education, maintaining the stylistic tendencies of academic writing is not the result of arrogance or grandiosity; it is simply the path of least resistance.

For those who advocate simplification in academic writing, George Orwell, who loved to challenge convention, has become a sort of patron saint. "If you simplify your [language]," Orwell wrote in 1946, "you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."

That's good advice for any writer.

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