Author Topic: Why do academics tend to encode their insights into turgid English?  (Read 8523 times)

Joe Carillo

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In “Professors, We Need You!”, an essay that came out in the Sunday Review of the February 15, 2014 issue of The New York Times, op-columnist Nicholas Kristof set off a rancorous debate in the U.S. mass media when he argued that academics are beholden to a publish-or-perish tenure process and a culture that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

Kristof observed that academics seeking tenure have a pronounced tendency to encode their insights into turgid prose. “As a double protection against public consumption,” he said, “this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.” He then quoted a Harvard University historian, Jill Lepore, who said that the result of all this is “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As might be expected, Kristof’s views triggered an avalanche of denunciations and rebuttals from the academic community both in the U.S. and abroad. Before providing links to a sampler of them, however, I’m taking the occasion to present first my own take on the “publish or perish” syndrome, Philippine style, as articulated in “When Educators Befuddle,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times sometime in 2003. I think that reading that essay beforehand will put the debate on the issue in much clearer perspective particularly on how the usual run of academic English reads and sounds like.

I’m now posting the essay in this week’s edition of the Forum as my own position regarding the English that a good number of Filipino academics use to formally present their ideas—a position that, sad to say, I’ve found no reason yet to change in substantial measure over the 12 years that I’ve been advocating plain and simple English. (March 2, 2014)

When educators befuddle

My son Eduardo, who was then in third year high, got befuddled one day by a source material he wanted to use for his school report on Philippine culture. He had chanced upon it on the op-ed page of one of the leading newspapers.

“Dad, I found a very impressive report on the effect of culture on globalization,” he said. “The only problem is that I can’t seem to understand what it’s saying. Can you help me? Listen:

Basically, globalization indicates a qualitative deepening of the internationalization process, strengthening the functional and weakening the territorial dimension of development.

You always told me that I’m good in English, but I just can’t seem to understand this one!”

“Let me take a look,” I said, getting the paper and quickly running through the passage. “Oh, no wonder! It’s those educators speaking again, with their imprecise and obtuse English. Well, son, what they probably meant was this: ‘Globalization is a deeper form of internationalization, one where a nation’s drive for development becomes more important than its territorial size.’ In even simpler English, a nation can be small but it can become a major world economic power.”

“That certainly makes sense,” he said, “but why do these educators say it the way they do? They are writing not only for English experts but also for people like me, aren’t they? Why then use such fuzzy words as ‘qualitative deepening’ and ‘territorial dimension of development’? Why even use them in a newspaper like this?”

“Son, this article was not written for you. It was probably done with the best intentions for their fellow educators and higher-ups, but somehow it landed on this newspaper without being adapted for readers like us. In any case, don’t ever think that anyone should use an ‘English for experts’ only. Linguists perhaps, but these educators, no. They should have used English that newspaper readers like us can understand.”

“So why publish at all if they couldn’t be understood anyway?”

“Well, son, in academic circles there’s a jaded saying: ‘Publish or perish!’ You must publish your work no matter how trivial or badly written, or you don’t count for anything. You are dead fish. So in some countries—ours included— there has evolved something called vanity publishing. It’s a growing industry that aims to meet this need—and also to massage some big people’s egos. Every now and then, of course, some good ideas with social value get across somehow through this mode, but more often they don’t, as in this case.”

“I see. But, Dad, here’s a great passage that seems to be clear enough for my school report. Listen:

The Philippine national culture is rooted in the people, their land, and their experience. From these develop their way of seeing and living, their systems of thought and values, their customs and traditions, their crafts and arts, their problems and their triumphs, that which they dream of and aspire for, and ultimately the national culture that they recognize in consensus and commitment.

Impressive! Do you think I can use it?”

“I’m not too sure, son. That sounds suspiciously trivial, more like a piled up definition of culture in general, but the authors just seem to have made it look like it was unique to Philippine culture in particular. You can apply the same thing to Kenya and Tobago and Palau and it will still be correct. In their own circles it’s called ‘rank tautology,’ a needless repetition of an idea in different words. In fact, they could have reduced all of those 62 words into the words ‘Philippine culture’ and nothing would have been lost.”

“Tough luck then! Now I’ll have to look for some other source material for my report,” he said, almost wailing. “But wait, Dad, here’s something that I’m sure will impress my teacher. Listen:

The third posits that education paves the way towards the designated type of society—which, to our belief, is a modern and humane society characterized by a comfortable quality of life in a peaceful, global and multicultural connection demonstrating adaptability and flexibility of a people without necessarily vitiating the core values that they hold or which define their culture.

Isn’t it great English? I’ll probably get a 95 for my paper if I used it!”

“Hold it, son, hold it! That sentence may sound nice but it actually says almost nothing. No new insight whatsoever. Notice how all of the 59 words are straining and groaning to define what needs no definition, because everybody already knows it deeply in his heart: that society needs good education to prosper. Don’t tell me that you still don’t know that!”

“You’re right, dad,” he said dolefully, “of course I already know that. But aargh! I guess I’ll just have to look elsewhere for something more substantial and readable for my school report.”
This essay originally appeared in the author’s “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 142 of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge. Manila Times Publishing ©1969 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.


Nicholas Kristof's “Professors, We Need You!” in The New York Times

Below is a sampling of the responses pro and con to Nicolas Kristof’s op-ed essay:

Joshua Rothman’s “Why is academic writing so academic?” in

Rev. Adam J. Copeland’s “Why Nicholas Kristof’s Latest Column Stings So Much and Why He’s Right” in

Erik Voeten’s “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!” in

George Shen’s “We need to hear more, not less, from our intellectuals” in the South China Morning Post

Kwok Pui-lan’s “Feminist Professors Are Not Secluded Monks” in
« Last Edit: March 03, 2014, 11:37:47 AM by Joe Carillo »

Gerry T. Galacio

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Relevant resource on problems with academic writing
« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2014, 07:51:09 AM »
“Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic Prose” (by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Professor of History, University of Colorado, 1993) at