Language in Academia

“Obfuscation” is one of my favourite words. To deliberately make less clear, to muddle, to confuse.

I completed an MA in Literature in my early twenties, and immediately afterward, stopped reading. Entirely. I didn’t recover for years, I still might not have. I was so burnt out with dense language, reading thirty words where five could suffice,¬† inside references, obscure tunnels of knowledge, endless tomes of paragraphs that seemed to say nothing, but you don’t know that until you’ve slogged through six thousand words via a dictionary and several trips to a wiki. The tradition for using dense language means there is scope for smoke and mirrors in papers to hide the lack of meaning, lack of evidence or the lack of substance in an argument. In research, we are frequently battered by words for hours, until we eventually give up. Multiply these hours up, and we get a significant chunk of time under a deluge of adverbs. I have spent many moments squinting at a paragraph, trying to decypher whether the author has actually said anything or not, like a politician weaselling out from under a hard question. I kept wanting to grab the author and say “Please explain this in two sentences, and ease up on the damn thesaurus”.

As I read, (or tried to read), the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, (cartoon pictures of faeces and all), it got me thinking about language in academia, and how this might evolve in a world pushing toward democratisation of knowledge.
The Manifesto, in contrast to traditional papers, uses images of stock photos interspersed with cross-outs and bizarre syntax. While pretty off-putting, I appreciated  some of the points about shirking off tradition and democratising access to knowledge. If Digital Humanities is expanding into the public sphere via blogs, projects, documentaries, databases etc, do we need to rethink our communication skills?

To be clear, this absolutely isn’t a ‘dumb everything down’ comment. This is a ‘make things as clear as can be to as many people as possible’ comment.

Dense, academic, specialist language definitely has a place, (no one expects the flight manual of a jet to be two pages long and written in crayon), but what I’m talking about is where in papers where succinct, basic language could be used, why isn’t it? Tradition? Showing off? Are academics afraid to use plain language in case they aren’t taken seriously?

Perhaps it comes down to who our audience is, and digital humanities is moving toward the public sphere in many areas. In humanities over the years, there was nothing unusual about writing dense work to be read by other learned people in the same field, it’s frequently necessary, but also not widely read. However, digital humanities as a field seems to reach out to the public, and to other disciplines.

I would argue that if our goal is to create knowledge and be understood by as many people as possible, we might need to rethink our language skills, and decide whether relentless, dense writing is the best way to communicate what we learn.