Going Public

I recently came across this 2015 piece criticizing academic writing for often being “riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax.”

It occurred to me, though, that the author could have said technical terms instead of jargon and structure instead of syntax.

Or, as in the case of the screen shot from the article, above, they could have just said outsiders. For not everyone knows what an interloper is, right?

So what’s fascinating about this genre of advising academics on how to write for wide publics — which continues today, of course — is that only other people’s technical terms are jargon, while one’s own words are, well, just the necessary language that we need, I guess.

Now, I’m all for plainly writing and hoping readers well outside the university find my stuff (welcome to this blog, by the way)– but that’s hardly the only audience for which I write. For example, the pithy sentences of these blog posts differ quite a bit from my love of semi-colons and em-dashed asides, which you can easily find in my academic writing. But this genre of advice lit for scholars too often strikes me as assuming that those in the Humanities have a special duty to make all of their writing transparent to all readers. For, as I’ve remarked in the past, I can’t imagine the same criticisms being leveled at, say, authors of chemical engineering articles or cancer researchers publishing their findings in a journal. Yet scholars in the Humanities often are presumed to have some special responsibility to write for everyone.

So behind this genre is, I think, a problematic view of the Humanities — one that assumes we’re somehow touching on big universal themes form which everyone will somehow benefit.

Instead, wouldn’t the better advice involve knowing whom you hope to reach with what you write and then writing accordingly? Coz after all, there’s likely times to write “coz” and times not.

For while there’s certainly plenty of people for whom “interloper” is just another word, there are likely many others who would see it as unnecessarily complex jargon that patrols a boundary and keeps them out.

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