Academia, here I come

by Lorenzo Piccoli


I had a good talk with Jonas last week – in fact we had many, but the one I am referring to now was probably the only serious discussion we had. Ever. We spoke of academic writing and its needless complexity. This is a recurring annoyance in my research field. I am not going to talk about economics or law, because perhaps complexity is necessary to fully grasp the kind of problems faced by these disciplines. In politics, however, I can assure you can virtually always write simply and clearly. But of course, it ain’t easy.

For more than half the papers I read it takes me a lot of time to decode what the actual meaning of the text is. It is not necessarily that I am slow – in fact it has been shown that academic prose is often so riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax that even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work. This I could accept – if only it were effective. But the problem is most of these papers have nothing to say. Take an academic article that has been published today. This is the concluding paragraph (spoiler!):

A project that should revolve around the will to build a demystified political reality in which the legitimacy of power rests on its capacity to preserve the rights and liberties of citizens and to guarantee a reasonable distribution of goods and services, and not at all on the fulfilment of a national being.

I read this kind of stuff and I feel insulted. It is not only unpleasant to read: it is also empty. Jonas and I came to the conclusion that complexity is normally used to hide a utter void in the message. I looked it up a bit, and found this study showing that “a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence”. If you have nothing to say, just pack a sequence of overly complicated sentences, spice it up with some jargon and you will do the trick of impressing your audience. A needlessly complex text is obscure, vague, and ambivalent; so of course it is much harder to debate. A straightforward, clear, and direct text is easier to criticize, because it conveys a clear message.

academia-billwatterson

To write clearly is not easy; and by opening up your message you might actually be exposed to criticism. But, on the other hand, it is probably the only way to convey a message. All the rest falls inevitably victim of demystified realities where enduring imbalances of power make it complicated to protect one’s liberty to express herself in front of legitimate public audience whilst not hampering her self-determination capacity and individual fulfilment.

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