accessibility and language
February 22, 2016
As occassionally comes up, I saw Yet Another Post Defending Academic Jargon. Or whatever. I wanted to explore this issue a bit and, hopefully, bring some fresh air into this stale debate.
By and large, there are two main positions: 1) academic writing is inaccessible (supposedly to the communities it represents/discusses); 2) academic writing is technical in the same way that physics is (as in no one tells a physicist to write their journal articles in baby talk bc the subject doesn’t really allow for it – ie, you can’t really present findings of high level physics without all the technical language and math).
People shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I think, depending on the context, that both positions have some level of truth to them.
Again, the issue is one of context. Academic writing, in the context of academia, is exactly that: technical writing whose intended audience is other specialists/experts in the field. Now. One does not necessarily need a degree to become a specialist or expert. In any given discipline (sociology or physics), any given person can given sufficient time, motivation, and passion become an expert. It just so happens that given our current social structure the people most likely to have had the time and opportunity to become specialists/experts are academics.
There are reasons for this. And part of it is that ‘higher’ education has always been about elitism, since it was originally intended as a place for class-privileged white men only. That the academy has become more inclusive doesn’t actually change the basic fact that academia is elitist. As a result, it isn’t really surprising that the products of academia and academics are likewise elitist. Their audience is each other.
In general, while not impossible, it can be really difficult for a person not in school to find the time and opportunity to reach the same level of expertise as someone who is being guided through the process and is given the space and resources to do so (ie, a student). Certainly, now that I’m not in school and have Life Stuff to deal with, I find it hard to spend as much time learning the things I’d like to learn (this is why its taken me like three years to gain rudimentary skill in ruby).
And look. My current context outside of school is much much more conducive to self-directed learning. I work part-time. I don’t have any kids. I have access to two of Canada’s largest research libraries. And yet… I find it hard to get the time, space, and opportunity to devote as much time as I’d like to research. Certainly, I’m not able to spend as much time doing it as I was as a student.
So when I think about someone working full time. Maybe with kids (or other dependents). Someone without access to a research library. Sure. They could become an expert/specialist in critical race theory but… it would be more challenging in this context than an undergrad majoring in it. Or a grad student researching it.
The intended audience for academic writing is important to keep in mind, since most academics publish with the implicit understanding that most of their audience will have about the same amount of education/expertise. More importantly, they assume that most of their audience will have read the same books, studied the same methods and theories, and in the cases that they haven’t, that they have access to these materials.
Why do publishers bother with popular science books or ‘a very short guide to: post modernism’? These are published and written with the purpose to communicate academic research to a general audience. And they are published because people are, in fact, interested in this sort of thing. They may not have had the time and opportunity to become an expert, but they love to learn and this makes it easier.
I’m also suddenly curious as to why the apologists think that academics start blogs… I mean. In more than a few cases, their stated purpose is to be able to communicate their research to a general audience. It gives them space to write and explore their ideas in a less formal fashion. It makes their ideas accessible (not only in terms of language but also for economic barriers – since most blogs are free to access and easy to find).
Academic writing has its time and place. It serves a specific function and has a role to play. Saying that this context can be elitist and inaccessible to outside people isn’t the same as saying it has no value or purpose.
But what happens when you take this writing outside of its context? Like… maybe you’re on tumblr and you write in an academic style and people complain. Honestly? I do think that the main problem people have with this is contextual. People don’t expect a tumblr post to be written in an academic style. Remember, tumblr is the land of ‘feels’ and ‘I can’t even’. It would be just as discordant to try and submit a paper to a journal written in a ‘tumblr’ style. I know someone who converted a blog post to an academic article and while it was accepted, one of the reviewers main comments throughout was that the language was ‘too informal’.
If you bring academic language and writing into a context like tumblr, you really shouldn’t be surprised that people accuse you of being elitist. Tumblr, for the most part, is pretty fucking informal.
kinds of access barriers
Part of the inaccessibility of academic writing to people outside of the academy is not only the language used but the citational references. Technical jargon can be sussed out by reading it in context. But when a theorist makes a shorthand reference to another theorist’s Major Theory? Maybe not so easy to figure out. Want an example? Stuff like ‘blah blah blah Spivak’s subaltern blah blah’. Maybe it comes with a citation but maybe not (depends on the context). For a non-academic this is immediately an access barrier.
Not necessarily one of comprehension but an actual barrier. Few people outside of the academy have access to a research library. If you don’t have access to a research library, it’ll be pretty much impossible to track down all the citations to properly contextualize a given paper. Since academic wank apologists love to say ‘don’t assume poor ppl are too stupid to understand jargon’, I’m not sure how they deal with this very real economic access barrier. Poor people can’t generally afford to buy five books and ten articles just to follow citations (I know I can’t afford to buy books)1. Indeed… this exact thing is exactly why the open access movement exists.
A lot of apologists also seem to forget that disabilities are a thing. That academic writing is absolutely cognitively inaccessible for some people. Now, I’m not saying that disabled people can’t be academics or comprehend academic writing.
Using myself as an example, I can read academic stuff. Yes, I have a formal educational background. I’ve done grad studies. I’m familiar with the methods and language of academia. However, because of my cognitive limitations, reading that stuff is hard. People without disabilities find academic writing hard. The problem with approaching this stuff while disabled is that… often I just don’t think its worth the spoons. And this particular problem isn’t just about disabilities that might impact cognition. Might a person with chronic fatigue want to expend precious energy trying to decipher your tumblr post filled with academic jargon? Maybe. Maybe not.
Again, using my own writing as an example, while I may not be the worst offender for academic writing I do occassionally write really long essays. Especially for tumblr where people think anything over 500 words is a ‘long post’. Again, context. So I’m not surprised when even some of my friends tell me that they haven’t read some 4000 word essay I wrote. Because they just don’t have the spoons for it.
What does this mean? It means that my writing is inaccessible (to at least some disabled people). And, yes, I have absolutely been told on more than one occassion that my writing is inaccessible. I don’t bother denying this because its true. I also don’t feel motivated to apologize for it. My essays are the length I feel it necessary to fully and completely articulate what I’m thinking.
I don’t think that inaccessibility in terms of creative output (writing, art, whatever) is a moral failing. Nor do I try to make it into some kind of virtue (which is often how apologists end up sounding, btw).
Some of the more honest apologists will openly say that ‘academic’ conversations on tumblr aren’t for everyone. Which… this is true. Very few conversations are actually for everyone. But if your discussion/writing isn’t intended for everyone then, by definition, someone out there cannot access it. Thus, its inaccessible.
As I noted in the previous section, if your creative output isn’t universally accessible, this isn’t a moral failing. I’m not sure it is either desirable or possible for a human’s creative output to be universally accessible.
For example, I have aphantasia (mind-blindness). As such, I generally have a lot of trouble interpreting and understanding abstract images. So there is a lot of visual art out there that I simply don’t get. They are cognitively inaccessible to me. But I don’t think there is any possible way that the artist could’ve created their work while also making it accessible to someone like me.
But why should they need to? In terms of the desirability of universal access to creative works, I’m not sure why this is even something people would want. Sure, in theory it might be nice, but I sort of think that its impossibility is why we have so many different mediums of expression. It creates an environment wherein we have so many different ways to express things. Some people like visual art. Some like film. Others enjoy short stories. Some love reading critical theory monographs. Some just like reading their twitter timeline.
Of course, the real problem here, is that we – as a society – place a premium value on certain kinds of expressions. Academic writing is more valued than tweeting. Its certainly better rewarded and respected. And, again, the reasons for this are absolutely tied to varying kinds of oppression and elitism.
And I think this is, ultimately, what gets me about the wank apologists. In their defense of academic writing, they tend to simply erase the many other methods for communicating complex ideas. They say that all the technical language is necessary to express what they want to express. Except that it isn’t. It really depends on the context and the audience.
I’ve always said that one of the easiest ways to learn about post-modernism’s conception of subjectivity and authorship is to read Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. Its a short story but manages to communicate pretty much all you need to know about this post-modern idea. Or, speaking of current times, some of my favourite writers and thinkers can express in five tweets what takes some academics thirty pages. Context. Audience. Just as no journal would accept an article that was a screencap of five tweets, people on twitter don’t really want to read a thirty page article dribbled out in 140 character increments.
I do think its important that the people who get defensive when told their writing/art/whatever is inaccessible remember that this isn’t a moral failing. However, what does make you look like an asshole is when you try to provide some ideologically correct virtue for why it is inaccessible.
Similarly… I do think that some people who ‘callout’ inaccessibility likewise need to realize that inaccessbility isn’t a moral failing – at least not in the context of creative/intellectual work. There is a world of difference between building a public space that is inaccessible in various ways and a single person expressing themselves in whatever way they feel is best. While we do have a moral and ethical obligation to make certain things as accessible as possible, there is also contexts where universal accessibility is impossible (and probably undesirable).
I also think that people ought to be a little more precise when they callout another person’s intellectual or creative work as being inaccessible. I think there is a difference between posting a video with no captions and telling them that their visual metaphors don’t make sense.