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For Harvard historian Jill Lepore, scholarly writing is “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.” For Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, academic writing “stinks” in part because its “goal is not so much communication as self-presentation.” Helen Sword, the director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, has even gone so far as to suggest that academics avoid writing well for fear it will make their arguments appear shallow.
In the face of so much negativity, it is easy to overlook the fact that most academic writing is actually pretty good. Randomly select an article from an edited volume or journal, and we are likely to find an orderly argument whose trajectory is previewed in a brief abstract. The vast majority of the sentences will respect grammatical and stylistic norms without feeling slavishly conventional. The author will explain why we should be concerned with the topic at hand and will make an effort to hold our attention with unexpected observations, anecdotes, and even humor.
If the attacks on academic writing nonetheless show no signs of abating, it is because what is being said is as much of a concern as how it’s being said. Nowhere was this more evident than in the infamous Bad Writing Contest, run in the late ’90s by Denis Dutton, the then-editor of Philosophy and Literature. Like a wound that doesn’t heal, Dutton’s search for “the ugliest, most stylistically awful” passages of academic prose has been rehashed endlessly over the past decades. In the process, it has rarely if ever been noted that from a syntactic perspective there is little or nothing wrong with the “winners.” Even the longest sentences singled out by Dutton unfold smoothly, their grammar, rhythm, and punctuation clarifying the relationships between phrases and clauses.
One relatively short sentence highlighted in the 1997 contest reads:
Since thought is seen to be “rhizomatic” rather than “arboreal,” the movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own positive trajectory.
If one has never read Deleuze and Guattari, the distinction in the opening clause may be puzzling, but we might just as well say that any sentence taken out of context can prove obscure. Similarly, the content of the second half of the sentence may seem abstract, but would it look that way to the readers of the text in which it originally appeared, The Continental Philosophy Reader? Viewed in isolation, this example of bad writing is remarkably innocuous and certainly no evidence of a general decline in grammatical or rhetorical standards. Dutton’s contest is a reminder that whenever we innocently praise someone’s writing for being “clear” or “concise,” “elegant” or “fluid,” we are affirming a host of ideas — and prejudices — about thought and expression. Opinions about writing style are just as ideological as any other kind of aesthetic judgment.
So what’s really going on here? One scholar who remains a devoted fan of Dutton and his contest is Pinker. To his mind, language like Deleuze and Guattari’s is designed to make the reader feel stupid for not understanding the weighty pronouncements of the master theorist, who in all likelihood is a know-nothing masquerading as a know-it-all. With jargon, however, practicing what one preaches is never as easy as it sounds. Consider this eminently academic sentence:
People’s insensitivity to the phonological frequency of nonheads in compounds therefore cannot be due to the weakness of the legality manipulation.
All clear? No? For some clarification, let’s read the sentence that follows it:
Nor can their indifference be an artifact of our rating methodology (in which participants compared matched pairs like
, a procedure that could reduce sensitivity to properties manipulated across pairs), since the participants evinced a strong and significant difference between the compounds containing regular and irregular plurals (which, like our phonological legality manipulation, was manipulated across pairs).
Still not getting it? Should we conclude that the authors, Pinker and Iris Berent, are trying to make us feel stupid? Are they simulating insights they do not possess? Or is the lesson rather that if we had started at the beginning of the essay and read their explanation of their terms — precisely what Pinker and Dutton are not willing to do with the texts they lambaste — we might not have so much trouble understanding what is being said? Like Dutton, Pinker embraces the notion that complex technical vocabularies are acceptable, even essential, in the sciences and social sciences but somehow unnecessary, even toxic, in literary and cultural studies. This double standard has shaped most discussions of bad academic writing, which are almost always accounts of bad writing in the humanities.
Another scholar who shares Pinker’s interest in policing the academic lexicon is Helen Sword. Sword is particularly adamant that academic writers should avoid using nouns formed from verbs or adjectives. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012) she deems such nominalizations “abstract” in contrast to “concrete nouns,” which allow us to “immediately visualize [a sentence’s] objects, actions, and relationships.” Sword appears untroubled by the possibility that her concrete/abstract opposition itself may be neither stable nor concrete, and she never feels compelled to explain why “visualization” — an abstract notion in its own right — should be the gold standard for grasping the nature of objects, actions, or relationships.
She has playfully offered the following example, the objectionable nominalizations helpfully italicized:
in a discursive
may be an
This sentence, she observes, “fails to tell us who is doing what” [her emphasis]. Even if nominalizations sometimes help us express complex ideas, Sword insists that clarity is best realized by populating our sentences with human beings actively doing things. As an example, she offers the following sentence from the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years.
This thought experiment illustrates “the universality of the human condition by describing a time-traveling baby.” We might ask whether concepts such as “normal,” “universal,” or “human condition” are any more concrete than the objectionable nominalizations. Even more puzzling is why a claim drawn from something close to science fiction should be the first sentence Sword reaches for in trying to illustrate the nature of concreteness. In fact, Sword herself concedes as much when she makes a point of explaining what Appiah’s statement means, thereby revealing that its supposed concreteness is no guarantee that its message is straightforward and unambiguous.
Wholeheartedly endorsing Sword’s attack on abstract nouns, Pinker goes even further, calling for us to avoid all “metaconcepts” in our writing: “Could you recognize a ‘level’ or a ‘perspective’ if you met one on the street? What about an approach, an assumption, a concept, a condition, a context, a framework, an issue, a model, a process, a range, a role, a strategy, a tendency, or a variable?”
With remarkable brevity, Pinker condemns our reliance on any concept that pertains to some feature of discourse, including the concept of the concept. That this is close to a dismissal of the entire history of philosophy, as well as most of modern literary and cultural studies, is of little concern to him. His texts are rooted in precise, concrete ideas, whereas those of his undisciplined counterparts indulge in baseless flights of fancy, using words to talk about — horrors! — other words. Whether Pinker believes we would recognize a time-traveling baby if we saw one on the street remains unclear.
With jargon, practicing what one preaches is never as easy as it sounds.
Pinker is well aware that writing and thinking cannot be disentangled and that we never know what our ideas are until we have tried — and more often than not failed — to put them down on paper. Indeed, he acknowledges that he is advocating “a pretense, an imposture, a stance.” The goal is to make it “seem as if the writer’s thoughts were fully formed before he clothed them in words,” whereas in reality “the messy work has been done beforehand and behind the scenes.” Good writing radiates apodictic certainty despite the fact that we are all in on the deception, since any serious reader will know that such a semblance of unconditioned certitude must be disingenuous.
For Pinker, any text that betrays traces of the labor that helped give shape to it is not simply poorly written, but flawed in substance. The clear, precise expression of an idea is only possible because the idea is clear and precise. When the translation from muddled inquiry to tidy result runs aground, the results must be inchoate or just wrong.
We can scarcely imagine a more frank expression of intellectual conservatism. Pinker sets out with a preconceived notion of what the truth looks like and dismisses as incoherent any text that does not conform to his ideal. Consider his evaluation of the opening sentence of Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990), a collection of essays by Fredric Jameson. Jameson writes:
The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless efforts to discipline the viewer).
Pinker begins his exposition with a stern objection: “The assertion that ‘the visual is essentially pornographic’ is not, to put it mildly, a fact about the world that anyone can see.” The assumption that a fact about the world is something that we must be able to “see” suggests, “to put it mildly,” a limited understanding of the concept of a fact. Can we “see,” for instance, that facts about the world are necessarily things that can be seen?
Perhaps aware of the trap into which he is stumbling, Pinker asks: “Can’t something have ‘its end in rapt, mindless fascination’ without being pornographic?” He does not want to think about why Jameson might want to put pressure on our customary understanding of the word “pornographic” any more than he wants to think about the implications of his commitment to a particular conception of the relationship between seeing with the eye and seeing with the mind’s eye. Confronted with a new idea, Pinker has no more time for it than he needs to determine that what is being said is unfamiliar to him, at which point he rejects it.
Offended at being presented with a claim that cannot immediately be assimilated to his worldview, Pinker declares that the ultimate effect of Jameson’s sentence is “that the puzzled reader is put on notice that her ability to understand the world counts for nothing; her role is to behold the enigmatic pronouncements of the great scholar” (Pinker’s emphasis). Jameson’s crime is to have written something that does not tell the reader what she already thinks. With his conclusion that “bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce,” Pinker leaves no doubt that a well-written text is supposed to make us feel smart by reassuring us that we already know whatever it has to offer.
Pinker seems to have gotten only half of the Cartesian message, affirming an ideal of clarity while forgetting that Descartes was the ultimate thinker of doubt. For Pinker, to write well is to be in complete control of one’s language and its reception, which is why he urges authors putting pen to paper to imagine that they are an avatar delivering a soliloquy in a world of its own construction. Irony of ironies: The goal of one of the most prominent public intellectuals of our day is to talk to himself.
The political and academic climate has changed substantially in the 20 years since Denis Dutton’s publicity stunt, but the relentless assault on academic writing has taken its toll, as ever more professors have become convinced that stylistic experimentation is a vice rather than a virtue and that the only way to be part of mainstream intellectual life is to avoid sounding “like an intellectual.”
Contrary to what Pinker would have us believe, however, a text is academic precisely when it is not informed by a dogmatic assumption about what a true statement looks like. The implicit message of a well-written sentence is not “this is the form an insightful claim must take,” but “this is a form that an insightful claim might take, although hardly the only one, much less necessarily the best one.” The headlines notwithstanding, most “bad” academic writing is actually pretty good because it is open to the possibility of failure as well as success. The vast majority of books and articles that scholars produce are distinguished not by their allegiance to a dominant style or form, but by their ambition to seek out new modes of expression while testing the powers and limits of old ones. If bashing on such work is unlikely to go out of fashion, we must hope that the impulse to produce it never disappears either.