The seductive allure of academic-ese

Many in academia are interested in making information accessible to the public, but just as many use language in a way that makes their final product inaccessible to people who don’t have extensive education or who aren’t otherwise savvy to the rambling turgidity of the academic world.

Most people who come from a position of educational privilege are guilty of it to some extent: instead of paring down our message and using an entry-level friendly vocabulary, we (often without a second thought) bust out our GRE words and complex sentence structures, making things considerably more complicated than they ever needed to be. I am as guilty as anyone.

Beyond these unintentional slips into academic-ese, the argument has been made many times before that if we don’t implement the dense language we’re used to, we lose precision and thus risk misinterpretation.

This brings us to two key reasons why someone might be hesitant to release their death-grip on the thesaurus they keep lodged in their skulls: (1) they don’t know that they’re engaging in this practice or (2) they see no way around it. A third, more covert, and more malicious reason why this could be happening is an underlying fear of letting people into a space where they “don’t belong,” or giving them just enough information to be dangerous.

Let’s break this down.

“This is a blanket problem with academia, but I am not under that blanket.”

Most of us are firmly under the blanket  and don’t even realize it. That doesn’t make us bad researchers, bad communicators, bad educators, or bad people. All this means is that the labor of developing a working common tongue between experts and non-experts is far from over.

This is a long process, and it’s one that should have been given more attention much sooner. Getting out from underneath the blanket means evaluating what information might be important to the public, re-phrasing it, testing it (run it past your friends or your kids or someone else who doesn’t know much about what you do), re-working it, and trying it again. It involves figuring out what mediums work best for certain types of communication, and investing time and energy into learning how to use them.

This is a lot, especially for people who are already over-burdened, stressed out, and burnt out by the ever-mounting volume of work involved in an academic lifestyle. Where are we going to find the time for doing more?

It is crucial that we start early. Undergraduate and graduate students should be actively engaged in the process of learning about and improving communication, and professional development opportunities need to be expanded. Making this a priority at every level of the academy will be mandatory if we’re going to make progress.

“I am under the blanket, but the blanket is necessary for [insert field here].”

I am not suggesting that we re-write our specialist journals or the articles we painstakingly compile for our expert peers into layman’s language, nor am I suggesting that every piece of information generated by academicians must be translated for a general audience. That would be an ultimately fruitless task.

But there is likely something in every field that could be of general knowledge value. Why do we want to look into these research questions? What are the key findings that enriches the lives of the everyday person? What are the building blocks for understanding the most critical issues and the most exciting challenges facing our fields today? These are the questions that we should start with. We do not have to get into the weeds with the the minutiae.

We should all know how to “Explain Like I’m 5” what it is that we do, why it’s important, and what’s happening (generally) in our field.

“The blanket is for everyone’s protection, and we have earned the right to use it.” 

Academia fancies itself a meritocracy: we have worked very hard for our credentials, and the process of achieving these credentials is what endows us with understanding. It is the inalienable right of the meritocracy to gatekeep in order to maintain its integrity and its prestige. While these things are not necessarily untrue, scratching the surface just a little reveals that the vast majority of the people tending the door are of a certain race, sex, gender, and socioeconomic status. This is news to no one. What this means in terms of impacts, though, is that we are constantly halting enthusiastic people with potential, but without qualifications bequeathed upon them in childhood, at the very first door they come to, turn them around, and send them on their way.

This inequity is one of the great disgraces of higher education. Someone’s initial disenfranchisement should never be a permanent barrier to their achievement.

When we construct readable, penetrable entry points into the literature, into a subject, we promote diversity, enriching the worlds in which we operate. Different perspectives are valuable in any endeavor. Including more voices in the discussion mandates that we build accessible bridges into the messy world of academic thought.

Truly caring about our work involves being responsible for its impacts, and also its lack of impact. Taking responsibility for the direction of our various enterprises is one of the burdens placed on the shoulders of people in higher education. In order to provide education, to make change, to open more windows of opportunity, we must be willing to set our big-wordedness to the side.

We have to put our PhD voices away and return to the real world sometimes if we want the real world to hear us.

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