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Speculative Diction

The politics of (academic) style


Late last year you may have seen an article circulating in which linguist Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of books such as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, expended 5,500 words on the topic of academic writing and its many flaws. Pinker’s piece, subtly titled “Why Academics Stink at Writing” (there’s a summary here), is particularly critical of the dense, complex language that he argues is characteristic of academic prose – including writing produced by star scholars.

There are some buttons that Pinker knows he is pushing here. The first point is that writing is personal, but it’s also a matter of professional identity. So when Pinker criticizes academic language in general, it hits home in a personal way. A second issue is that if you think of the conditions of discovery and knowledge as political, which I do, then writing is also political because it’s one of the ways in which we share our knowledge with the world. Academic writing presents unique challenges because it’s concerned with specialist topics, yet may contain insights relevant to broader audiences. How we communicate knowledge affects who can “access” it (and who cannot).

Considering the importance of writing in academic work, you’d think there would be a strong emphasis on developing this skill during the PhD – but you’d be wrong. In an article for Hybrid Pedagogy, Liana Silva discusses how “writing is an essential part of…scholarship, but often students receive no formal instruction in the kind of writing that they are expected to do at that level.” She also notes that “professors often assume that students know the form of academic writing while in class they focus on content”. My experience fits with this; throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, only once has a professor recommended a style guide to me; I’ve seen no explicit discussion of what constitutes “good” writing in its many different forms, nor have I had much advice about how to improve my own writing. It’s as if we’re supposed to absorb a concept of what is “good” through osmosis, then somehow reproduce it through painful trial and error and practice. While all those things play a part in the process, I still think it’s a problem that we lack explicit discussion of writing styles, strategies, forms and genres.

To write well in the acceptable way is necessary to becoming an academic, and written communication is relevant to students’ success at every level. Their personal expression needs to work with the existing norms in such a way that the writing is recognizable as “academic”, while retaining some sort of distinctive voice. Lack of support in this task doesn’t mean students just learn all this without help; it may mean they’re looking elsewhere for writing help, for example to academic writing blogs, or to paid editors.

These problems are especially important when students need to understand the kinds of political issues being played upon by Pinker and numerous other critics of academic communication. We should be encouraged to ask, what are the implications of how we choose to write? What is the context in which we are communicating and how does that influence our choices?

Style is important – and should be something we develop consciously – because it’s assumed to reflect something deeper. Take for example the well-known “Bad Writing Contest” held by the journal Philosophy and Literature back in the 1990s. Judith Butler famously took the prize in 1998, for an article published in Diacritics. In her response, which was both brief and easy to read, Butler argued that scholars are “obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world”. For Butler, writing that is “difficult” for readers is also forcing us to stop and think about what is being said, or to push ourselves to think differently about something.

Pinker can’t resist returning to Butler as an example of the failure of academic writing, but more specifically, writing from the humanities. Pinker associates the latter with a kind of squashy relativism that is reflected in unclear prose; by contrast, “the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist”, whose goal is to uncover “objective truth”. As Pat Thomson argues in her post on Nicholas Kristof, this kind of rhetoric seems to take easy shots at the most obvious – at this point, hackneyed – targets, and in this case it does so by invoking disciplinary differences. It also reinforces a pair of extremes that don’t represent most academic writing. Even if I’m not modelling my writing style on Judith Butler’s, I can appreciate what she’s doing and why; even if I question “objectivity”, I can write clearly about it.

Regarding Butler’s argument, James Miller asks, “must one write clearly, as Orwell argued, or are thinkers who are truly radical and subversive compelled to write radically and subversively–or even opaquely, as if through a glass darkly?” And would this also mean that writing that isn’t “difficult” is somehow less meaningful or insightful? Miller’s question hints at the binary concepts often invoked in these debates: clear vs. obscure, simple vs. complex, easy vs. difficult, specific vs. general. The equation of writing with thought is clearly evident here, just as in the comments on Pinker’s article. If thought is reflected in language, what does our language say about how we think? What does our writing style say about our ideas?

If there’s a problem with academic writing, I think it’s one that Pinker doesn’t address. Graduate students are expected to develop a style that conforms to what’s required for academic success; they can use style to mark themselves as “insiders” who can begin to lay claim to a professional identity. This is necessary if they want to participate in activities such as publishing and presenting at conferences. How does this happen? Pinker doesn’t quite deal with the argument that students might mimic “bad writing” because they must do so in order to gain entry to the profession, though he does concede that “there are few incentives for writing well [in academe]”. That last issue is important because it points to the factors guiding how students and early-career academics make decisions, not just about how they write, but more broadly about what work is “worth” doing. Pinker underestimates the influence of these professional pressures.

In sociolinguistics classes I was taught that “a comment about language is always a comment about the speaker”. The discussion about writing is important because what we’re really discussing is the nature of the academic profession, the role of intellectuals and scholars, and the means and manner of performing that role. Pinker’s arguments are embedded in the cultural context of American anti-intellectualism, and it’s no coincidence that much of the rhetoric about “public intellectuals” reflects the same themes. These are the politics of knowledge, made visible through critiques of writing.

I think there is also a deeper conflict between the re-assertion of expertise as separateness, and the need or desire to move beyond a specialist audience. Academics are perpetually accused of rejecting the “real world” even as they’re criticized for how they (already) participate in it. Perhaps the ongoing debate about “good writing” also reminds us, in an uncomfortable way, that academe is still an enclosed territory and these are the ways in which we re-articulate, symbolically, how we want that to look and who is allowed in.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. anonymous / January 8, 2016 at 13:01

    This was an excellent critique, and, as a doctoral candidate in the social sciences, I couldn’t agree more. I’m curious, Melonie, what style guides/manuals/books on academic writing would you recommend?

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