A Twitter exchange Sunday between Sara Goldrick-Rab and Ken Lindblom touched on a favorite topic, but one that I don’t think we take seriously enough. SGR asked for a definition of “college readiness” in accessible language; Lindblom responded that graduate schools don’t teach accessible writing.
They don’t. It’s a real problem.
The postmodernist trend of the 90’s had its strengths, but one of its greatest flaws was a semi-intentional premium on incomprehensibility. When you’re supposed to show your sophistication with terms like “always already” and “overdetermined,” simple statements come across as naive. Traditionalists used to make great sport of quoting particularly opaque sentences out of context, poking fun at highfalutin word salad. Admittedly, the search for sentences like that was often like looking for hay in a haystack.
Postmodernism aside, though, academic writing isn’t typically geared towards the educated public. We know the reasons for that, and some of the reasons make sense. Making a narrow point seven levels into an argument requires using shorthand for the first five or six levels, or you’d never get it done. (A few months ago a mathematician was asked to leave a plane because someone in the seat next to him found his notes jarring. They were a complicated math problem.) The public isn’t really into footnotes. Specialists use shorthand that non-specialists find daunting, and it makes sense that they do. On campus, I don’t stop to define “accreditation” every time I say it. It wouldn’t help.
But our failure, as a sector, to engage the public has created a vacuum. When we leave the public sphere to others, with their own agendas, they take advantage. Now the stories making the rounds about academia are about “dropout factories,” student loans, and political correctness. Those stories are based on varying degrees of truth, but our stories are missing. Why aren’t we hearing about those…