The saying goes “less is more.” Except, of course, in academic writing, where “more is more.” Effectively, the more verbose, wordy and academic-sounding a work reads, the better it seems, regardless of actual content. This logic has unfortunately mixed into the worlds of Literary Criticism, Gender Studies and Postcolonial Theory, with awful results.
Consider titles. Once upon a time, books had them. Sometimes they were short and sometimes they were clever and sometimes they managed to convey the essence of a work without heavy-handedly giving away the plot. Take, for example, William Faulkner, who knew how to write a title, even if it only meant repurposing quotes from Shakespeare or the Iliad or the Bible. The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Absalom, Absalom! Roll those around your tongue a little bit.
But students of literature seem to have been taught that the more academic-sounding a title, the better it is. And the key to anything sounding academic is, of course, the colon. Sprinkle in some wordy jargon – preferably made up, preferably assuming some extant social ill, and preferably employing as many words as possible – and you’ve got an academic title! You get bonus points for sandwiching in extra punctuation. Look how much better the title of this blog post looks, when written academically!
Three Little Words: A Study of the Overutilization of Grammatic Elements in Modern Academic Writing, Concentrating Upon 21st Century Academic Quasi-Intellectualism
Who needs sentences when titles can do the trick for you? In fact, who needs papers at all? Screw it, let’s skip class and watch a TED Talk!
And how, dear confused reader, do you know what the article is about? You could, perhaps, skim the tags. Or check the category. Or read all three sentences in the first paragraph. But, nah, writing a paragraph long-title is way more fun. Plus, it looks like all those other long article titles on JSTOR.
Which brings me to my second point. Modern academia, most especially the liberal arts, finds it entertaining to use long, meaningless words and phrases when simple ones will do. Consider this quote, from Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal The Concept of a Rhizome:
“Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible to neither the One or the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five etc. It is not a multiple derived from the one, or to which one is added (n+1). It is comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills.”
Didn’t understand? That’s okay, nobody does. But it’s not about understanding, it’s about pretending to understand. It’s about the wholesale production of quasi-academic intellectualism, packaged as deep objectivity, and characterized by excessive cultural relativism and overlong, overcomplicated texts that ultimately go nowhere and say nothing.
To this end, one might easily boil down all of college to three words, which, if used excessively, guarantee a student high marks on exams.
As in: “The author wrote an article, seeking to undo the agency of traditional academia,” or “Hey, stop removing my agency and give me back my ice cream cone!”
Using “agency” to mean control of any sort guarantees a high grade. Sure, I could’ve used “power” or “status” or “control” or “mint pistachio” but all those other words are so short and unacademic. I can’t even remember the last time I used a word shorter than thirteen letters or didn’t extraneously footnote something.
2. State Actor
As in: “The state actor imposed harsh costs on the rebels,” or, “The state actor sought to remove ice cream from the writer’s sticky hands.”
Why say “government” or “Congress” or “President” or “ice cream police” when this vague, inspecific term will do? Because you’re in college, that’s why.
As in: “The writer followed a heternormative agenda by mentioning ice cream in all his examples.”
This one has become popular in Lit Theory, where it often, obviously, populates queer theory texts. The trick is to avoid using descriptive, concise terms like “traditional” and use this one, largely because it’s made up of two smaller words, “hetero” and “normative,” both of which could also be simpler, and so you get bonus points for making things even more complicated.
4. The Triple Whammy
As in: The heteronormative state actor sought to undo the agency of the academic left, by censoring blog posts and melting all ice cream.
This is, of course, the greatest height a student can ever reach: overcomplicated, nebulous terminology used to describe simple concepts. Plus, if you throw in extraneous building-related words like “framework” and “structure” and “construct,” as well as anything with the prefix “socio-” you’ve scored the gold.
College students would be well advised to follow George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing, where he cautions writers to “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” But you guys remember Orwell, right? He wrote that book with a really short title. Must be a sham.