This is tangentially related to Laurance Yap*s piece and the subsequent postings. His piece sparked a few thoughts on academic writing, especially that published in journals.
It seems to me that an increasing portion of academic writing (at least the stuff I read) is needlessly wordy, overly theoretical, and ever more sub-specialized (sometimes on topics that are so narrow as to seem trivial). I find this especially true in English lit, but sometimes I wonder if it*s also starting to happen in writing studies & rhetoric.
I hope not. When I look back on what attracted me to the study of writing in the first place, I think a large part of it was the writing. I liked the tenor of the conversation. The voices of James Britton, Peter Elbow, Joe Williams, Lee Odell and others were clear, the language was plain, and their concerns, it seemed to me, were ones that might be widely shared. An educated outsider (my mother is my reference point) could read much of what was being published on English lit and writing and the *new rhetoric* in the 70s and early 80s. I*m not sure this is the case now.
I*m not sure why some academic writing is getting worse (if indeed it is). It sometimes seems to me that socio-political and epistemological theory is overvalued. Maybe part of the problem is in how academics are evaluated and rewarded.
A good deal of my work these days is the realm of *performance management.* With a view to making performance appraisal fairer and more transparent, employees in my workplace are expected to develop, one year in advance of their appraisal, a *performance agreement,* a part of which spells out the *performance indicators* for the work. Part of my work is to help employees to develop these indicators. It seems to me that many of the problems in performance management and appraisal stem from the use of poor indicators. By poor, I mean trite and reductive. What gets measured, matters . . . for better and for worse.
A good performance indicator is tied to the real outcome that the work attempts to attain or build. It seems to me that the number-of-publications indicator (a biggie for many academics -- *Publish or Perish!*) is a poor one. The need to publish leads to ever more journals and sub-specialization to accommodate this need. It also leads to people being induced to say something when they may have nothing to say.
There may also be a problem with the changing notion of who professors are addressing when they write. In *Journalists, Cynics and Cheerleaders,* (Telos # 97) Russell Jacoby says: *Unlike past American intellectuals, who saw the educated, nonacademic public as their main audience, today*s leftist intellectuals feel no need to write for a larger public; colleagues, departments, and professional conferences have become their world. And as their desire to reach a nonprofessional public has atrophied, contempt has arisen in its place. . . Disdain for a public prose should stick in the craw of professors on the left. It doesn*t. It goes down smoothly, facilitated by a widely accepted proposition: clear language undermines critical thought.*
Jacoby says that a lot of Marxist-influenced academics (Frederic Jameson is one example) believe that a *bristling mass of abstractions* is preferable to *repressive clarity.* *Convoluted and opaque* writing is required for *complex thinking,* according to Richard Wolff, a professor of economics. Such writing, Wolff believes, is simply the price that has to be paid for *genuine thinking.*
I*m not sure if leftish or Marxist inclinations are entirely to blame, but I for one would like to see less abstraction and more clarity in academic writing -- even in journals not intended for a general public. I find more and more often, I*m skipping the first couple of pages of articles: the theoretizing and contextualizing and problematizing and abstracting. Abstraction is important, of course, and is a part of *genuine thinking.* But sometimes I feel I*m reading third and fourth order abstractions.
I reckon that the number / frequency of publications indicator is likely to have perverse effects. Are any Inkshedders working on the concept of a *balanced scorecard* for evaluation of professors?
It seems to me that such a scorecard for some professors might include: the learning of students in his/her class, the research conducted by his/her students, employment rate after graduation (a *shared* measure), completion rate from programs, and citation indexes, among other things.
What gets measured, counts, so they say. Perhaps part of the reason for bad academic writing is that increasingly, academics are responding (rationally) to the wrong reward system.