The gratuitous complication of scholastic writing impedes academics from absorbing any and all useful takeaways, particularly when faced with a cumbersome array of abnormal terminology. Or, more realistically, academic writing is too complicated and really just sucks sometimes. It’s as though each author pulls out a thesaurus and looks up synonyms for every word of every sentence, choosing only the most obscure ones for us students to navigate on a daily basis. It is hard to trust the professor that promises a quick ten page read when each page consists of a dictionary’s worth of terms. Research becomes impossible when “skimming” an article simply reveals a mess of obscure references and unfamiliar words. It doesn’t matter how fascinating the subject is or how important the concepts are, complicated jargon obscures the point and there are only so many hours to devote to understanding. I often question the author’s intention while reading such works, and I have concluded that while their complex approach is not a personal attack, it sure feels like it might be.
Researchers devote lifetimes to their field of study and immerse themselves in their subject of interest. Their vocabulary understandably evolves in these circumstances, growing to encompass what the writer knows. A chemist is familiar with the dictionary of chemistry, an art historian at home amongst the tenets of formal analysis. Academic writing is simply people writing about what they know and love, and while I respect this fact, I also struggle with it. The complication in explaining what we know is that sometimes — oftentimes — our audience has no clue what we are talking about, but they have faith that we can explain things. While I acknowledge that this is not universally true (sometimes we really do just choose to read more about things that already interest us), it is often true in an academic setting. It would be unreasonable to expect that we are already experts in what we are studying. So when authors start dropping funny words or throwing names, places and philosophical concepts around like it is nothing, academic writing becomes hostile.
I am not asking for academic authors to write at an elementary level or eliminate big words because I do not always know them, but I believe we have reached unreasonable barriers in understanding. This verbose style of writing becomes problematic when the unnecessary complications and the fancy embellishments make it impossible to find the point. This is especially problematic when those details make readers feel unwelcome. The goal of academic writing should be to engage as many readers as possible. It should strive to reveal new concepts and considerations and to educate readers on something relevant. It can be a big ask, expecting researchers with decades of knowledge to tidy it all up into neat digestible packages, and it is fair to assume that they do not write in complicated ways to elicit their reader’s tears. However, there is a better way of sharing knowledge. What is decades of research worth if students cannot focus long enough to absorb the first two pages?
Writing has the truly beautiful capacity to invite a reader in, but just as fluidly, it also has the violent capacity to turn a reader away. Whether authors are too absorbed in what they know to acknowledge the background their readers might lack, or they are trying to appeal to some sort of journal for higher recognition, it is the reader who should matter most. In an academic setting, writing should have the sole goal of enhancing a reader’s knowledge and enriching the work they go on to produce. I imagine I have missed out on quite a lot simply because I did not have time to try and guess what an author was expressing. It is hard to waste time on lengthy readings brimming with complicated jargon when a quick Google search reveals answers (though at times under-researched, questionably reliable and possibly totally incorrect answers) in an instant. Papers and essays and journals are every professor’s favorite citation, but they have become harder and harder to find in the small research windows we are so often provided. It is time for academic writing to be more clear.
We are long overdue for a change and “plain writing” is the obvious solution. A term we often recognize in relation to governmental responsibility, it should extend to the academic realm as well. Writing should just be clear. It can be lengthy and full of information, and it can even remain at an adult level, but we need to immediately see the point. The problem with inaccessible writing is that it cannot draw us in, and we cannot learn from it with the limited time we have. For a non-native speaker, newcomer to a subject or just an exhausted college student it can feel like one is not welcome if they cannot constantly understand masterful English terminology or complicated syntax. Inaccessible writing is belittling writing, and academic work should never be anything but welcoming.
It would be unrealistic to expect complicated writing to vanish, and it is not unreasonable that a class might necessitate an in-depth reading. Further, as we grow more comfortable with a subject our understanding may grow to welcome a difficult piece. It is more a matter of how we reach this point, and I think Wellesley is capable of approaching this issue. If an introductory course stays true to its name, students should be presented with easily digestible work that allows them to dip their toes into a subject without having to dive headfirst into the unfamiliar. There is nothing more frustrating than struggling through a thirty page reading brimming with unnecessary synonyms and brand-new terms that pop onto the page as though we have known them our entire lives. Professors should consider the scope of the work they place before their students. Moreover, I have grown tired of this one-track method of building knowledge, as assignments can come in more than one form. Why focus exclusively on the written word when there exists a multitude of media forms that can enhance understanding? We should consider films, news articles, and barefaced introductions with no initial assumptions. Why not encourage students to listen to a podcast or watch a YouTube video, formats that are comfortable and familiar? Variation comes with benefits beyond enhancing basic understanding, and a reading, when it comes, would no longer blend into the sea of written work that already exists in our brains. Wellesley should learn to be okay with untraditional work, toning down harsh academics in favor of approachable work that genuinely aids understanding. Importantly, we should all acknowledge that we each learn a bit differently, and if an academic reading feels harsh or unapproachable, we can simply take it back to square one and embrace a YouTube video or well-narrated documentary as equivalent forms of knowledge production.