“Academese” and Exclusivism

I’ve read a lot of inaccessible academic writing in my time, enough to make me cringe. I’ve also witnessed people not being taken seriously in intellectual circles as a result of their supposed “lack” of knowledge. All this has made me wonder what the use of writing something so academic, convoluted and pedantic that it’s practically esoteric is. Indeed, what is the role of the intellectual or scholar in society? And what do people get from alienating others from dialogue?

I don’t believe education or discussions about important issues should be exclusive or elitist. Anyone who desires education should be able to attain it. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible. Those of us who are fortunate enough, or motivated enough to do so should never believe we are better than everyone else. Nor should an individual’s opinion cease to matter just because they don’t have the “right” education, use the “correct” jargon, haven’t read such and such a book, and so on. Unfortunately, I have seen this sort of behaviour both online and in person. I’ve seen people being ridiculed because they weren’t aware of a specific word or term (and let’s be honest, a lot of these terms are only in vogue for a season). I’ve seen people gang up on people who dare to question something they believe. It’s all mind-boggling.

I believe in listening to people’s point of views, regardless of who they are. It’s possible to hear great ideas from the people you least expect. Imagine what we could potentially be missing out on if we go through life with the mentality that someone is not good enough to discuss an issue with due to their lack of education and so on. I have received enlightenment through the most unexpected sources and that has contributed to my being very willing to hear people out.

American historian John Hope Franklin said the role of the scholar in society is, “To provide society with the intellectual tools it needs to function properly and successfully.” He went on to say that being a public intellectual involves “addressing any subject in a way that it has an impact on the general public.”

Ta-da! So as useful as some of the jargon is I believe it can also be alienating. I’ve always believed that there’s a way to explain a concept or an idea simply, if one actually wants it to be understood. Also, as we are all learning, surely perfection isn’t expected to be attainable?

Thinking more on this topic I’m reminded of Canadian intellectual Stephane Dion, who failed to keep hold of the Liberal Party leadership despite having spent years and years writing about Canadian politics. His policies were seen as inaccessible, and Dion himself wasn’t seen as a person who could connect with the voters. Yet he had more education than most of us will ever have.

To be honest, I worry about my own writing because I read academic texts on a daily basis, and the vocabulary and terminology I encounter creeps into my vernacular without my realizing it at times. I think that’s normal but it’s clearly not my intention to confuse people or show off the new words I’ve learned in class. I have always believed that writing about social issues should be done in a way that’s empowering, understandable, open for dialogue, non-excluding and unpretentious, and that’s what I aim to do. Speaking on this issue with a friend, I was reminded that new scholars often feel pressured to adopt this new language of academese so that they can gain acceptance into the community, especially if they want to be published. My friend went on to say that  in the process the academic may then find themselves losing their initial target audience and focusing on the academic world as an audience.

With a lot of the topics that are discussed among the intellectual elite, I see the same topics beaten to death and no action taken. How can we put the theory into practice? How can we expend our energy into something that actually is fruitful? Paulo Freire, a scholar I discovered last year, had the right idea about education. One of his most powerful quotes was “How can I dialogue if I always project my ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?” And that is something to consider.

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24 thoughts on ““Academese” and Exclusivism

  1. You capture it all so very well. It seems to happen in certain movements as well…one has to speak the right language – and speak it precisely – before being granted admission. There’s such a difference between willful ignorance (and there’s plenty of that to go around!) and simply still being in the process of learning, questioning, and letting oneself be challenged. I couldn’t agree with you more that we are all learning, and sometimes un-learning what we’ve taken for granted, always. The gulf between academia and action was one of my biggest struggles as a student, and it came up just this week with one of the books I read. Funny, I am reading Freire at the moment – you chose a great quote! There is so much real progress that needs to be made in the subjects you mention, and so much history and lived experience to be aware of, but so much time seems to be spent on mistrust and in-fighting that the larger issues can hardly be addressed at all. I just wish people would 1) admit what you don’t know and learn from it, and 2) the flip side, which is to give people a chance to learn. LISTEN to each other. And 3) BE NICE. Haha.

  2. “Anyone who desires education should be able to attain it.”

    I agree so very much, and I thank you for this post.

    It’s something me and one of my friends have been discussing a lot lately. We both have various projects going on at present (mine, as you know, is my Zola project) and the EXPENSE of getting information is crazy. I have to pay to use a university library (the university which I graduated from 9 years ago), and to access JSTOR for free, I can only read three or four articles every 14 days. To have access to knowledge one needs cash.

    Furthermore, in the UK there’s been some talk of adding VAT to books. In case you don’t know – VAT means Value Added Tax, it’s basically tax on “luxury” items. Children’s clothes, books, and magazines have been exempt, books, they say, and knowledge should be cheap to those who wish to learn. But it isn’t like that, and the idea of adding VAT is symbolically pushing the poor away. As I say, it’s only talk, no suggestion that it *will* happen, but the fact that it’s been raised is very troubling.

    1. Thanks for your comment, O. Wow, that is crazy and so unfair. So since they are adding VAT to books it looks like any form of education is going to be seen as a luxury and people won’t even bother 😦

  3. It’s so true! I’ve only read a limited number of academic writing on literature but I find it irritating when another scholar’s idea is alluded to but not specified– making the article less accessible to someone who doesn’t know about it (of course, yes we could Google it), but still!

    The internet is really shifting education. Have you seen any of Ken Robinson’s talks on education & creativity: http://www.ted.com/speakers/sir_ken_robinson.html I think you’d really like what he says. Same with Salman Khan’s talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html

    1. My profs always say our writing should be academic-layperson in style i.e. we should make our writing formal enough but also not assume that our audience knows all the terms we use. I found that piece of advice very helpful.

      I was helping a college student write a paper the other day and there was so much plagiarism in her first draft. She admitted she had just copied and pasted (it was very clear to me!).

      And thanks for the TED talks links! I’m really into learning about creativity at the moment so I think the talks will be helpful:)

      1. That’s another good point. I remember in my last quarter in my online class the discussion boards often had huge chunks of the textbook too. Where are the real thoughts and insights?

        You’re welcome! I really love TED! Ken Robinson is awesome, he wrote a few books on creativity too that I’m sure you’d enjoy too. I’m currently reading Finding Your Element.

      2. Yeah, it’s really scary. I was talking to someone about my idea for a research paper and they said “Oh, good topic. I’m sure you can find lots of papers to copy on the internet.” I obviously have no desire to copy anything and I’d rather come up with my own original thoughts.

        I will look out for Ken Robinson’s books, thank you! I’m currently reading the Gifts Differing book you recommended to me:)

  4. Love your writing style Rowena, it’s easy to read and comprehend which is what drafting up an essay/article etc should be! Also, I get so upset because this type of “exclusions” also happen in daily conversations, I’ve encountered social circles where a person is alienated because they don’t say the “correct” jargon or pronounce certain words in a seemingly “bougie” manner. Drives me up the wall, why don’t you just correct them if they were actually grammatically incorrect and move on! Thank you for writing this and getting it exactly right!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Derin! And thanks for pointing out that this exclusivism also occurs in daily conversation. I’d only thought about it occurring in academia and online but I can see how it could happen in person as well. It’s really quite silly, isn’t it? Not sure why some people feel the need to one-up each other.

  5. What an incredibly honest piece! This is so true! I don’t think I can ever go back to academia b/c of this elitism you speak of. What is the point in speaking if no-one understands you? I want my writing to speak to young single mothers, young black boys as well as academic black feminists. I think we should all strive to be more accessible with our work. Thank you for this!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I still struggle with it in academia because we are forced to write in such a formal way and we’re meant to pepper our writing with jargon. It’s very frustrating but I do want to strive to make myself understood. Like you, I’d like to reach a lot of people, marginalized people in particular. We’ll make it happen:)

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