Your Citation, or Mine?

Over the last two days, I have brought the final (or, at least, second-to-last) set of edits on my thesis to a resounding finish. I now feel much more confident about the coherency and readability of everything that I was trying to say throughout the roughly 165-page tome. In the first few versions of the document, the purpose of what I was writing was unclear even to me. (This is often the case with my writing, as I find writing to be a process of thinking, and thinking isn’t always perfect the first time).

Working on my thesis again did require me to return to the literature to resolve several of my leaps in logic. Scanning through Scholars Portal for some relevant citations, I was again reminded of the obscure and dense nature of academic writing. In undergraduate school, I enjoyed tackling these obscure journal articles because they challenged my ability to understand what I perceived to be complex concepts. Nowadays I am rather fatigued trying to wind my way through their arcane wording, circuitous arguments, and hyper-precise analyzes.

© Bill Watterson.

Academic writing caters to certain communities of people within disciplines or fields (e.g. law, business, philosophy) and transfer between the fields tends to be resisted by the academic community (Wikipedia article). The purpose of academic writing is to reach other academics, leading to accusations of inflated self-importance and elitism (Michael Sacasas, 2013). Despite scholarly claims that authors want to reach the public with their findings and become ‘transdisciplinary‘ by crossing subject boundaries, scholars frequently have to write multiple papers on a single finding to reach different audiences.

As argued by Michael Sacasas (2013) in his excellent blog on “Writing, Academic and Otherwise“, academia is just like any other language and takes time and work to understand (i.e. failing to understand academic jargon on the first read does not mean that you are dumb or incapable). I would add to this that Latin was used as the academic language in Europe until the 18th century, when scholars started to use their mother tongue to write books and papers (Wikipedia article). The ongoing issue of academic obscurity merely continues a tradition of wanting to think at a so-called ‘higher level’.

Some people have identified articles that take this thinking at a higher level to extremes. The Bad Writing Contest ran from 1995 to 1998 and awarded prestige to language so arcane the results appear laughable to the average person. Those responsible for these articles are highly-paid, well-respected individuals, but the award honours the “most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years” (Denis Dutton, 1998).

Check out these two examples from the Bad Writing Contest and see if you can make any sense of their meaning:


“This year’s second prize went to a sentence written by Homi K. Bhabha, a professor of English at the University of Chicago. It appears in The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994):

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

This prize-winning entry was nominated by John D. Peters of the University of Iowa, who describes it as “quite splendid: enunciatory modality, indeed!”


“Jack Kolb of UCLA found this sentence in Paul Fry’s A Defense of Poetry (Stanford University Press, 1995). Together with the previous winners, it proves that 1995 was to bad prose what 1685 was to good music. Fry writes,

It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.

Incidentally, Kolb is reviewing Fry’s book for Philosophy and Literature, and believe it or not he generally respects it.”

I should hasten to add that I still respect and value academic writing. I derive great pleasure from reading about philosophical topics, and from sharpening my comprehension by trying to write about them coherently. However, this is also one of the biggest issues driving me away from the academic world.

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