Academic Mumblespeak
Stop it.
August 25, 2010
tags: ,

A week or so ago, I had a Twitter discussion with a few academics about writing pet peeves. I'd started the exchange with this simple request:

Free advice to academics: if you find yourself writing "in many ways," stop and delete it.

Other suggestions followed. Alice Daer suggested "the ways in which." Robert Jackson offered "could we not suggest that" and "is this not the case that." And David Morris pointed out that he'd devoted an entire blog post to the specimen "in particular ways," which is clearly related to my starting example. Morris writes,

First on the chopping block: "X does Y in particular ways." Within contemporary humanities, this is often applied to cultural objects, i.e. "Michael Jackson's body of work troubles gender binaries in particular ways." This, like so much academic mumblespeak, expresses a sentiment of precision while, at best, delaying the moment when the writer actually has to be precise.

"Academic mumblespeak" is just the word for it. Morris's since added a new entry in his budding series on the subject, this time on "I want to argue that..." (Why not just argue it?)

This phenomenon is related to my recent post about why digital printing won't save academic publishing. In that post I discussed the low costs of printing, and I suggested that instead of trying to reduce costs by marginal amounts, academic presses would be better off planning better catalogs and investing in editing and promotion to realize the sales potential of key titles.

Academic mumblespeak is a silent enemy that is destroying scholarly publishing from within. (Note that I didn't say, "I want to suggest that academic mumblespeak is a silent enemy that is destroying scholarly publishing in many ways.")

Mumblespeak makes potentially interesting works unreadable, contributing to their esotericism. Good editing does not involve cutting material, but cutting chaff. I'd wager that the average scholarly book's length could be reduced by 1/3 to 1/2 without removing any actual content. Such effort would do two things: first, it would reduce the size of books, making them more approachable, affordable, and legible to a broader readership. Second, it would incrementally reduce the costs of printing, since fewer pages costs less on a digital or an offset press.

I'm about to finish Alien Phenomenology, which will become the shortest book I have yet written. It might not be the thinnest in print (I have some tricks up my sleeve, stay tuned), but it exemplifies a principle: a bigger book is not a better book. A better book is one that is affordable and contains efficiently written good ideas. A better book is one that people actually read.

Comments (18)
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What you're describing seems to be particular to the humanities; I don't recall such constructions appearing in scientific and engineering papers very often.

Another odd thing about humanities writing is the way y'all use the first person. In engineering, we may use the royal "we" and "our" if the article has a single author, but you will rarely find a instances of "I" or "my."

What you're describing seems to be particular to the humanities; I don't recall such constructions appearing in scientific and engineering papers very often.

Another odd thing about humanities writing is the way y'all use the first person. In engineering, we may use the royal "we" and "our" if the article has a single author, but you will rarely find a instances of "I" or "my."

Being in the process of working on my thesis, I suspect the fact that an academic's first book-type work is a thesis might be one cause. One approach to a thesis is to do something unarguably earth-shattering, like the mathematician who resolves a long-standing open question. If you do, you can write up a clear, concise 40-page thesis and you're done. But most people won't do that, so what's the alternative?

The worst option is a clear, concise 100-page thesis that leads someone to say, "oh, yeah, but is that all?" You want a 300-page dense tome that intimidates the reader---that, ideally, intimidates even your committee into not really reading it all, or at least not being sure they understand it. I've even heard it said explicitly, that as a grad student you know you're done when even your advisor no longer understands your work.

That doesn't need to determine future writing, but I would argue it is in many ways not implausible that it may carry over past grad school, into a continuing fear of not writing a sufficiently intimidating journal article or monograph to be taken seriously as a scholar. I mean, you wouldn't want to be a pop academic, would you?

Although I disagree with Paul Virilio in nearly all of his conclusions, you have to hand it to the guy for concise writing. He’s like Foucault, but without the chaff.

I do remember a 2003/04 Zizek interview (I think it was for the Guardian) on his then latest ‘Organs Without Bodies’ book. He apparently became quite agitated when the journalist counted the amount of ‘Is this not…’s at the 100 mark, and asked,

“Rather than saying ‘is this not..’, wouldn’t you save time by telling us that it is?”

The reply? Neuroticism, self-deprecating narcissism and Hegelian double negation.

This particular affliction is indeed one humanists seem particularly susceptible to catching. It's also notable that scientists and engineers don't write books very often (later in their careers, sometimes, and textbooks, sometimes). That said, science and engineering papers have their own issues. But that's a subject for another conversation, I suppose.

The thesis issue might be one cause, but it just points to the fact that the advisors don't fix this sort of thing either. They just perpetuate it. The "is that all" problem seems to continue throughout most academics' careers.

That's hilarious.

"It probably isn't the whole explanation, but, as with the voguish hypocrisy of PCE [Politically Correct English], the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer's own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar's vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer's erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak ("revenue enhancement," "downsizing," pre-owned," "proactive resource-allocation restructuring") that it's tempting to think AE's real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear."

- David Foster Wallace, "Tense Present"

Mark Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose curbed a number of my bad writing habits like creating hedges and using unnecessary rhetorical devices.

Man I love David Foster Wallace.

Conducting research/scholarship and writing well are two separate skills. To be an academic you have to have the first, but not necessarily the second. Academic writing in the humanities is a weird kind of technical writing, and it's quite interesting to watch graduate students develop facility with the technical discourse of their discipline.

In English, we work very hard to train graduate students as sophisticated readers of texts--both literary and theoretical. English faculty are well trained as scholarly readers, but even if they happen to be good writers as well, they generally aren't trained to teach others to write well. One can see the same thing with novelists and poets: being an accomplished writer doesn't automatically mean that one is good at teaching others to write.

However, I don't think it's poor writing that is really the cause of publishing woes. It's hyper-specialization plus the increased emphasis on producing monographs for tenure and such. The result is more books for smaller audiences.

Nevertheless, a better rhetorical education wouldn't hurt.

This is exactly what discourages me from an academic career in the humanities. Not the threat of endless hours, not the adjunct-prof trap that waits for you just past your doctorate. It's all this obfuscation. It's possible this is a misperception on my part, as I've never attended a graduate seminar, but some of the things I've heard and read make graduate-level humanities feel like professional training to say less with more.

Not that grad students don't have enough work, but it might be remedial if humanities graduate programs required students to try their hand at copywriting, or maybe writing for their school's paper. Even short stories. Just something that requires judicious, even brutal editing.

Ryan Beauvais on August 27, 2010 1:45 PM

Mark Fischer's "Capitalist Realism" is a great example of the kind of razor-sharp academic writing that gets more done with less words. At only 81 pages, it felt like it contained more interesting ideas than many texts numbering into the hundreds or thousands. (I wonder if it helps that Fischer is a prolific blogger?)

In David Rabe's Hurlyburly, characters often pepper their lines with filler; the most common are "blah blah blah" and "rapateta." They help maintain the drug-fueled, frenetic pace of much of the characters' actions and dialogue. Here's a sample:

"So what'd she say about me? You know, think back. So the two of you are hurling insults and she's a bitch, blah blah blah, you're a bastard, rapateta. So in the midst of this TUMULT where do I come in?"

In the film adaptation of Rabe's play, Sean Penn is very liberal with "blah blah blah," but Kevin Spacey uses "rapateta" only a few times. While Penn uses the "blah blah blah" as a kind of driving force for the next sentence, Spacey uses "rapateta" as an affirmation in place of "yes."

Is it a disservice or an oversimplification to relate "I want to argue that" and "in many ways" to "blah blah blah" or "rapateta?" All are filler, yes, but also useful in that they help to keep the words and/or ideas coming.

This isn't to say, though, that such phrases shouldn't be removed after the first draft.

@ Ben Abraham

Absolutely!! Since I started my blog in early Feb, I've learnt far more about how to condense arguments and interventions than any postgraduate lesson on writing concisely.

Getting more work done using less words saves time. Not only that but it shows advanced competency with the subject matter. Now..the pressing issue is whether I can get my PhD thesis sorted with 81 pages...

Another flavor of academic mumble speak is actually the use of foreign words to create an impenetrable jargon for simple concepts. My favorite example was in graduate school, where I decoded an author's use of Russian to reveal that he was writing that audiences understand the story through the plot. A recent bit of jargon that I've hated was "intermedia", which was used to talk about how television shows depend on both sound and image to be understood. Sigh.

Mumblespeak? Excellent label. Massive problem. However the humanities are coming in for a bit of unfair (or at least disproportionate) stick here. I feel compelled to quote the well known Dave Barry piece from his "College Advice" column.

"For sheer lack of intelligibility, sociology is far and away the number one subject. I sat through hundreds of hours of sociology courses, and read gobs of sociology writing, and I never once heard or read a coherent statement. This is because sociologists want to be considered scientists, so they spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code. If you plan to major in sociology, you'll have to learn to do the same thing. For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: "Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a casual relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory, or 'crying,' behavior forms." If you can keep this up for fifty or sixty pages, you will get a large government grant."

Two words: Sokal hoax.

There's no doubt academic mumblespeak is a problem, but it's mostly a sideshow distraction, and it's certainly not the force destroying scholarly publishing from within. Most scholars are bad writers---or at least poor judges of their audience's enthusiasm for muddling through whatever arcane point they are mumblyspeaking writing about. And this isn't anything new, nor is it bound to any technological platform (print, blog, etc.)

I don't know that halving books via Gordon Lish-style editorial threshing will save the publishing industry, but I do think we'd end up with more readable books on the remainder tables at Barnes & Noble.

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