Emma Reay is a first year PhD student. Her research is on video games!
Academic publications and academic lectures are designed for academic audiences. Platforms that follow the TedTalk formula prove that it is perfectly possible to present specialised research to non-specialist audiences, but, generally speaking, the language, format, structure, and price of academic communications do not promote the dissemination of research in The Real World™. This sucks. And it especially sucks when you’re attending a two-hour leftist humanities lecture that claims to glorify and individualise the ‘voices of the masses’ and the speaker just cannot leave “ontological paradigms” and “metaleptic discursion” and “hermeneutic reduction” alone. I am a humanities student, but I couldn’t follow this scholar through her jargon jungle to arrive at her point – how could ‘the masses’ that she was hoping to represent access her ideas? This made me think about the ways in which we share knowledge within our own academic field. Academic publications and university lectures series rarely serve those beyond the Ivory Tower – but how effectively do they serve us Tower-Dwellers? Is there something inherently effective about the style and format of traditional academic publishing or can we imagine better ways to communicate with each other?
I’ve been frequently criticised for writing academic papers that are ‘too journalistic’ – as if being chatty, sarcastic, and humorous were somehow antithetical to being rigorous, informed, and compelling. I have a problem with this because I see it as mistakenly equating accessibility with superficiality: firstly, you have to know your subject area pretty well to make decent jokes about it; secondly, a ‘lively’ writing style is no less of a conscious choice and certainly no easier to master than the sterile objectivity of traditional academic prose. I write in this style because I prophetically empathise with the poor academic who may one day need to read my research to inform their own work – I want them to share in my excitement for my subject and not to choke on the dry pellet of my desiccated data.
Of course, not all academic writing is cinnamon-challenge dry (can we start the hashtag #notallacademicwriting please?) but the fact that I notice with surprised delight when a writer has made an effort to make the reading experience palatable tells me it is not the norm. Why are we dragging each other through jargon jungles? Jargon is supposed to be a linguistic short-cut so that the in-group can communicate ideas as quickly as possible: your seven-syllabled wordjaculate is the scenic route, but the scenery is really bleak and depressing. If your research is solid and your argument is strong, you shouldn’t need to hide behind the passive voice and a latinate metalanguage. Every time I see the word ‘ontology’ I read ‘onanism’, which is a fancy word for masturbation. I am not alone in this. A highly-respected academic told me that whenever she sees the word ‘hermeneutics’ she pictures neutered hermits. Right now I’m visualising castrated ascetics wanking. I hope you’re happy.
Stylistic affectations are sometimes carried over into lectures, conference papers, and symposia too, but what is worse is the format of these events. No matter how clever, how disciplined, or how interested you are in the subject – eight hours of back-to-back academic talks is torturous. I can concentrate for approximately seventeen-and-a-half minutes before my inner-entertainment system obtrudes. A translucent stage curtain is drawn between my mind and the lecturer and then a cabaret of shopping lists, half-brewed puns, and hypothetical conversations compete for my attention. My note-taking deteriorates from orderly bullet points to wildly-detailed doodles (I tend to draw recurrent circle patterns, which according to psychoanalytic personality testing means I make great lasagne). We need to do better than this. I’m not saying we need fireworks (although, that would be a fun alternative to coffee breaks), but do we need to think beyond slides on an interactive whiteboard.
To end on a lighter note, at a recent symposium at the faculty on the theme of Intergenerational Solidarity, the head of the department gave the final keynote at the end of the day. She made me snort-cackle. You would not think that someone could coax more than ‘politely glazed’ from me after a full day of papers and panel discussions, and yet this professor had me gripped for the whole hour. Why? Because she used wry humour, she told stories, she was polemical, and she was not afraid to communicate her research through the lens of her personality.