Academicese: How it’s done right, why it’s done wrong, and why it’s important to do it right

So, there’s currently an internet shitstorm over a cognitive accessibility fail going on.

I’m not going to comment on that particular fail, except to say this: I am an academic, and I had a very hard time understanding what they were getting at. Some of it, I still can’t. And I think that is due to a misuse of academic dialect.

So, now I’m going to talk about the academic dialect that some like to call academicese.

I would go so far as to argue that academic jargon is a necessary evil to help eliminate confusion caused by subtext, euphemism, and dialect. Have problems with dialectal incompatibility? Make your own standardized dialect that everyone is equally fluent in. That’s the ideal behind academicese, anyway.

Done right, academicese should pack a maximum of information in a minimum of space. And it should do so in such a way that anyone who knows that field’s form of academicese gets the same takeaway message from the passage.

Academicese done well fits a lot of information into each sentence. An example: “Titrations were performed on 50mL of a 100 g/L solution, and the equivalence point came at a pH of 2.3 after addition of 14 mL of 0.1 M NaOH.”

That’s one sentence. Admittedly, it’s a compound sentence, but it’s a single sentence with a relatively uncomplicated sentence structure. From that one sentence, I can pull out at least six important pieces of information, above and beyond what the words say:

  1. Because I know how much of what concentration of NaOH was required to kill off half of the acid and the starting volume and mass concentration of solution, I can back calculate the molar concentration of their sample.
  2. This material is an acid. They used a base to titrate it.
  3. It is a monoprotic acid (otherwise there would be >1 equivalence point).
  4. The material is a weak acid with
  5. a pKa of 2.3. I can now estimate the acidity of any concentration of solution of this material.
  6. Exactly what lab procedure they used to get those numbers so that I can replicate it.
  7. If I already know the molar mass, I can find the purity of their sample. If I don’t already know the molar mass but I have an estimate of the purity (through melting point or what have you), I can estimate molar mass because I know the mass concentration.

I can tell all of that from one sentence. Any other chemist could tell the same things from that one sentence. Furthermore, a dedicated layperson with a lot of time and access to Wikipedia could pull out that information. It would take them a lot longer, though, I admit.

So, academicese done well serves to pack as much information as possible into each sentence in a fairly straightforward way.

By contrast, academicese done poorly serves no purpose other than to act as a gatekeeper to the message. You must be able to decipher this convoluted a sentence before participating.

The easiest way for academics to tell the difference between the two is this: Are academics fluent in academicese getting annoyed with the passage in question? If yes, you might be falling prey to academicese-as-gatekeeping, as opposed to academicese-as-necessary-dialect-for-efficient-discussion. Because bad academicese is hard even for academics to parse, and good academicese should be understandable at a glance by academics.

The easiest way for laypeople to tell the difference between the two is this: Does it read like something out of a technical manual, or does it read like something out of a postmodernist essay generator? If the latter, you’re running into academicese-as-gatekeeping, and the person whose work you’re reading is acting like an elitist snob. Which annoys the fuck out of me.

Why?

As I said above: I’m an academic. I do academia for a living. It’s my job. It’s what I do. And I like it.

And I feel that people who use academicese-as-gatekeeping are forgetting one important duty of the academic. This duty is especially important in fields of academia that affect day-to-day living of non-academics, like science, tech, engineering, math, and social sciences. And that is: we have the duty to impart our knowledge and make it accessible to non-academics.

That is part of our job. We have to do that. It’s necessary to further human development and quality of life. When we fail at it, the result is a populace vulnerable to shit like the antivaxxers, evo-psych claptrap, eugenics, and climate change denialists. It is our job to make as many people as possible at least somewhat knowledgable about the basic principle of our fields. We are the ones that everyone else calibrates their bullshit detectors to.

And when we fail, it’s disastrous. The environment gets damaged. Bigotry gets justified. And sometimes, people die.

People who use academicese-as-gatekeeping aren’t just failing that duty, they’re willfully failing it. They’re taking it and chucking it out the window. Because it’s better for their egos to stake out their superior elitist camp and defend it from those seeking understanding through the clever use of convoluted sentence structure and impenetrable writing than it is to actually help others learn and keep their stuff as accessible as possible.

And that pisses me right the fuck off.

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17 thoughts on “Academicese: How it’s done right, why it’s done wrong, and why it’s important to do it right

  1. invisibleautistic/Robin says:

    THIS. For me the academicese also applies to business jargon. I’m not sure what it is about business, but it is always vague, even when any simple accounting rules and business laws (!) are involved. Business jargon is an example of academicese-as-gatekeeping. To this day, I still don’t know what “core competency,” “take initiative,” and “leverage your assets” actually mean. There are more specifics than what that jargon is telling me. I guess it’s like when someone says, “Why don’t you be yourself?” and you get confused by that, because, well, you’ve always been yourself!

    • invisibleautistic/Robin says:

      You can also identify academicese as gatekeeping in business when there’s a lot of BS, useless information (“smoke and mirrors,” so to speak), fancy words, and carefully worded messaging in what someone writes and says.

      • ischemgeek says:

        I think good formal writing in general can be measured by the content-to-word-count ratio. As the quality of formal writing goes up, so does that ratio. Gatekeeping bullshit by its nature hides the message amongst extraneous information and bullshit phrases that mean nothing, so its content-to-word-count ratio is very low.

      • invisibleautistic/Robin says:

        And gatekeeping BS is the name of the game on the GMAT (business graduate school) exam that I’m studying for! It makes me wonder how prevalent this is in business that there’s even an exam to sort all of that out! I also like to think that it’s not just good formal writing, but also good public speaking. (Though sometimes people have their own hidden agendas…)

    • ischemgeek says:

      Ahahaha. Yeah, there’s some red flag phrases in my field, too, I’ve found. In my field, red flags are “With a satisfactory yield” if no yield is given and no information on what constitutes satisfactory, “high purity” (again, without defining what constitutes high purity) and talking around results to avoid having to give characterization data.

      To my understanding, “take initiative” means “divine what your supervisor wants and do it before they realize they want it,” but I’m not sure what the others mean.

  2. autisticook says:

    It’s a pity I can’t seem to get to the Feminist Wire website anymore, because they LITERALLY said something to the effect of wanting to use their own choice of academic language as gatekeeping. Seriously. It was pretty bad.

    • autisticook says:

      Wait, found it. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/08/call-for-submissions-tfw-forum-on-disabilities-ableism-and-disability-studies/

      While TFW seeks to blur the demarcation between activism and scholarship, it is also an ”academic-ish” publication. We are committed to making our forum widely accessible, and we also want to acknowledge and politicize the location from which we ourselves are located and form critical analysis.

      I have a background in literary studies so I can pretty much parse this. The key points are: “TFW is an ”academic-ish” publication. We want to acknowledge [our] location, from which we form critical analysis.” Still a lot of non-speak, but they’re basically saying they’re using their own language to KEEP the Feminist Wire for academics only. Gatekeeping.

      • ischemgeek says:

        Yeah, agree. I parsed it the same way after a lot of reading, re-reading, and consulting with people who know social studies jargon – took me a lot of work to parse it and some of it I’m still unclear on. My response to that passage is, “If you were going to tell those with cognitive disabilities to go fuck themselves, the least you could have done was say it in plain language.”

      • invisibleautistic/Robin says:

        I read through the italicized paragraph and my brain zoned out. This explains why I had such a hard time in history and literature! Not so much that it was gatekeeping BS, but because there is so much to interpret. And you could be wrong about it, too.

      • autisticook says:

        It’s also REALLY badly written. The location from which we are located? SERIOUSLY? So it’s not you, it’s them.

      • ischemgeek says:

        Frankly, even looking at it with my most charitable eyes, I find it hard to read that paragraph as anything other than a passive-aggressive jab at those who were complaining about cognitive accessibility. How dare you demand cognitive accessibility?! We’re going to refuse using the most obtuse and convoluted writing we can think of!

        That’s the message I received. I have no idea if that’s how they intended it, but that’s the message I got.

      • autisticook says:

        Completely overlooking your point about the duty that academics have towards society. Very well put. It’s the ivory tower thing all over again.

  3. Alana says:

    Ooh! This is what I wanted to say. Because of precision and science and those things, but also the importance of letting other people know what your work is.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yes, thank you.

      I think that’s a big divide in academia in general right now. There are those who are big on education – I like to count myself among them – who think that outreach and education and making knowledge accessible is at least as important as the research itself. Then there are those who think that knowledge and education should be isolated to a small handful of people because elitism.

      Those who are in favor of accessibility, education and outreach tend to be in favor of open access journals and suchlike. Those in favor of keeping knowledge away from the general public tend to be the ones who love their paywalls and the status quo of academic publishing being horrendously expensive to everybody (seriously, the profit margin in academic publishing is completely ridiculous – look it up sometime. Academic publishers being all, “but we need it so we can stay afloat!” are talking out their asses).

  4. […] talked about a shitstorm involving an accessibility fail before, I’ve talked about the importance of self-accommodation before, and I’ve talked about […]

  5. […] supposed to detail exactly what you did, what yields you obtained, and what methods you used. In a previous post, I gave a sentence of example academicese. That sentence would have been from an experimental […]

  6. […] I don’t understand.” unless I have the mental energy to spare to decipher it. So can poorly-written academic jargon.  Likewise, I’m sure my way of speaking (and writing) might do that to others – […]

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