Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bad Academic Writing

You may have noticed that Bethel Philosophy blog entries aren’t coming out as regularly as they did in the fall. Blame that on an extremely busy January term and spring semester! But we’ll still post things once in a while.

Our topic for today is academic writing. I think it’s fair to say that philosophers are very often models of clear academic writing. They frown on needless complexity and the use of jargon for its own sake. Of course, not all philosophers fulfill these ideals, and some don’t even try. But as a group, philosophers tend to deal in careful and precise argumentation, and this leads to clarity of expression that is not always found or treasured in other academic disciplines.

Still, bad academic writing can be fun to read, if only in small doses. Here’s an enjoyable article by a journalist named Robert Fulford, who laments the tendency in some quarters to think that opaque writing is a sign of intelligence rather than confusion. He calls the use of jargon in service of academic-sounding nonsense, “pomo-babble.” He gives some wonderful examples, including this one:
In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate.

(That sentence is pulled from an actual book on globalization.) As Fulford puts it, “To commit a sentence like that is to subtract from the sum of human knowledge.”

If you’d like to compose your own pomo-babble but don’t know how, you can now do so with help from the Writing Program at the University of Chicago. When you go to this website, you make a few choices and it churns out an “academic sentence” for you. Impress your friends and family! Not your philosophy professors though, because they can usually see through this sort of thing.

1 comment:

Robert Soren said...

Philosophy does help clarify writing as much as it helps us write cogently. But it does carry with it a jargon of its own – a vocabulary that only our tribe is likely to understand.

Although I'd never wish to eradicate such language from my vocab, I can never use it practically.

As a former Bethel philosophy student working in marketing, I've had to simplify (or "dumb down") my writing, but I still feel a strong obligation to be logical and truthful with every sentence I publish.