Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writer's Block: Academic Hieroglyphics

Where have I been lately? Well, apart from my day-job, I've decided to take up my Masters Degree in hope that I would learn something useful from this "higher level of learning."

Perhaps it's too soon to say, but in a span of two months, I can't recall having read as much rubbish as I have in my life -- and that includes my teen-boppy high school romance novels that I stopped reading when I turned 15.

I don't believe I am stupid, neither do I believe that I don't have the tenacity or discipline to work on something that isn't being fed to me on a silver platter. I have read millions of books in my life (ok, maybe not millions), and text-heavy documents riddled with legal and economic jargon that I have managed to understand despite my lack of a Law or Economics Degree.

So what is the problem? It's simple, and ironically, not so simple -- it's the use of "academic" English.

Take for instance text from Adam Katz, who wrote this critique on "Postmodern Cultural Studies". Try to read that and multiply that by several thousand pages printed and bound, using size 9 font sizes. Then at the end of it, say whether you understood any of it.

The vague, non-committal, grammatically-correct but terribly wrong sentence construction is to blame. Not only is it boring. It is more importantly self-indulgent gibberish that can be written or trimmed down into a third of the space it occupies.

A simple sentence is not as simple for academics. It has to be written with a load of ifs and buts in between, leading readers off tangent, if only most of those words had a point.

I understand, yes they are smart and well-read -- but apparently not smart or well read enough to realize they should have read (and applied) Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" to their writing.

But then again, I may be wrong. Maybe their main point is to NOT be understood, and to keep students constantly trying to decipher academic hieroglyphics instead of actually gaining knowledge.

In my frustration, I decided to look for a tutorial on academic English and came across this 2006 article instead, ironically written in plain English by an academic (then again, maybe editors of "The Guardian" re-wrote it).

Here's an excerpt of what it was about:

The broadcaster James Naughtie said recently on the BBC's Today programme, during a discussion about grammar, that academic prose frequently contained "pieces of English which are frightful. They may adhere to rules, but they're unreadable." We can be sure that Naughtie is not alone in this perception that academics often abuse the language. What can it be that he perceives as bad?

But there are things academics love to do that are less common in other types of writing. Using the passive voice is one.

I shall leave the rest for you to read. Now back to deciphering hieroglyphics.