Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch: " . . . In particular ways."

Note: As of 8/3/2013, I'm out of academia!  Temporarily! Maybe!  Check out my new blog, focused on my interests in weird fiction, experimental music, and generally all things so post-academic that they're not academic at all, over at

I consider myself almost as much a "writer" as I am a "researcher." I do a lot of journalistic writing on the side, and have accomplished some moderate to big things in that world, including being selected for a major non-academic collection (which you should totes purchase). This makes me at best an oddity in the academic world, which is broadly and justifiably notorious as a haven for bad writers and writing. Let me briefly pre-empt the inevitable line about how academic writing is necessarily bad because philosophers are trying to "challenge the language." I acknowledge that some writing seems 'bad' mostly to people who haven't bothered to learn the specialist language, but it's undeniably true that there are many specific bad habits and lazy gestures that have infected academic writing (as well as some institutional structures that help foster them).  As people whose job it is to increase human knowledge, we should be ashamed of these professional failures, and rather than falling back on boilerplate defenses, we should be working, as individuals and as a community, to improve the level of our writing.

One big way we can do this is to become more conscious of the cliches that litter academic writing. These are distinct from jargon, which needs to be used carefully but is nonetheless an important part of writing within any specialty.  (For my money, Lacanians are the most frequently and undeservingly bashed for using a necessarily dense jargon.) Jargon condenses a whole discourse into a single word, and when used judiciously, and with a consciousness of audience, makes writing richer.  A cliche, by contrast, is the performance of a conventional linguistic gesture that has actually lost whatever original meaning it might have had, a verbal twitch that has more to do with sounding like an academic than actually thinking carefully.

So, this is the first installment of an ongoing series highlighting specific cliches of academic writing that I think deserve to be banned from the lexicon forever. There's a wealth of these that enrage and frustrate me, utterly empty phrases that cloud minds and swell word counts to absolutely no effect. Since the journals are providing new bad writing all the time, I'm hoping the topic will keep me angry and productive basically forever.

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. It implies that there is a list of things that are happening, that that list is finite, and that the author knows what all of these things are. This is another cardinal sin that makes academic writing bad - the apparent compulsion to throat-clearing.  Why not just tell the reader your thesis, instead of wasting time in the ridiculous gesture of, essentially, stating that you have a thesis? If I started this blog by saying “Academics are lazy, hackish writers in particular ways,” it wouldn't be much of a hook, because I've signaled that I'm going to make a claim, but I haven't populated it with even the promise of substance.
While the phrase can be a convenient stand-in for a much more complex list of features and ideas to follow, such a stand-in need not be this completely empty. There's such a thing as summarizing a complex set of ideas, it's what good writers (and good thinkers) do. For instance, "Michael Jackson's body of work troubles gender binaries by melding symbols of black masculinity with a feminine pop sensibility" is a broad summary, a promise of actual ideas and assertions, following which examples or instances can be described to fulfill that promise.

Finally, of course, "X does Y in particular ways" is horrible because of its inherent anthropomorphism. Particularly if you're unfortunate enough to consider yourself a Marxist, you should know better than to engage in the kind of mystification that follows from describing powers inherent to or willed by a cultural object. Michael Jackson did things, his video directors did things, his choreographers and costume designers did things, and consumers do things. His body of work didn't do anything independently. This is, perhaps, a theoretical more than a writing gripe, but if you think the two can be separated, you're fooling yourself.  This is a message I hope I can get across as I stay with this issue - it's simply impossible to be a good thinker and a bad writer.

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