Commonplace Poetry & Academic Jargon
Samuel Matlack, in a piece for The New Atlantis titled “Quantum Poetics,” considers how commonplace, descriptive language bridges understanding between academics & the broader world:
It is a modern conceit that we have advanced from the poetic imaginations of the ancients to clear scientific description, leaving behind the quaint and parochial ways of speaking about the physical world. Poetic imagery, after all, is the kind of language that is the most parochial, most personal, and most dependent on our everyday experience. Its use in writing about physics is not simply a mark of ancient ignorance, nor mere embellishment in popular writing, nor just a sign of the bemused writer’s amazement at the world as physicists know it; rather, those aspects of physics that touch on the fundamental nature of the universe can’t always get squeezed into descriptive terms. This means that the widely shared ideal of describing ultimate reality purely in terms of physics is futile, at least if we mean verbal, not mathematical, description. And if poetry is necessary for talking about the foundations of physical reality, this should both elevate the importance of poetry and help to disabuse us of the idea that we can exclude the more personal, parochial, poetic forms of language and still truly apprehend reality.
This is a significant problem in academic writing across disciplines — not just those within the hard sciences. One of the most frustrating trends within the humanities has been the erosion of common ground between academics and anyone outside the narrowest parochial alleys of most recently-published scholarship. While one might claim that the influence of the social sciences has pushed those in the humanities toward greater complexity in their questions & methods, I think an equal or greater problem is the deliberate insularity of the academy and its preference for jargon-laden discourse.
Academic jargon is perfectly fine within the confines of a graduate seminar, and perhaps even within academic journals, but as a matter of practice for public scholarship, it is both haughty & intellectually lazy. No matter whether one’s book is to be published by an university/academic press or (God forbid?) a trade press, the language should be inviting and straightforward. Readability need not be sacrificed at the altar of conceptual complexity. Writing with a clear voice that welcomes a non-specialist reader into the knotty discourse on a topic — cultural, historical, or scientific — yet does not compromise on the quality of the analysis is a sign of a scholar’s ingenuity.
The other day, a colleague mentioned participating in a disssertation defense during which the dissertator was told by a faculty member on the defense committee that the dissertator’s writing made their scholarship seem “too simple.” This was not meant as a compliment. It also says a great deal about what some in the academy perceive as “scholarly writing,” and the privileged few whom they should be welcomed into — or excluded from — the circles that discuss it.