- Waiting for a Public
Let’s face it: academics are bad writers. They spend their days, and many nights, in an intimate relationship with words, but what they spin out of them, while occasionally beautiful, is rarely transcendent and usually limited to something functional. The relationship between academics and the art of prose is somewhat akin to a cheese maker immersing herself in the silkiest milks from highly satisfied, grass-fed cows and proudly delivering processed cheese slices. True, these are peer-reviewed processed cheese slices, but it’s still processed cheese. Food, but barely so.
Am I being unduly harsh? Probably, but will anyone seriously challenge the notion that the gap between academic prose and so-called “popular” writing exists? The chasm—too often a canyon—is yawning, which is why these two sentences from Timothy Yu’s insightful comment on the state of Asian American studies stood out to me:
We ought to be finding ways, from journalism to popular nonfiction writing, to communicate the discoveries of our field to a wider public. (Note that I do not mean that our scholarly work needs to be conducted in “popular” language— that’s another debate—but rather that we can and should translate some of that work for popular audiences.)
I’m in broad agreement with Yu on the substance of his post, but these sentences confused me. First, I’m not sure what “conducting” one’s research in “popular” language actually means. And let’s not get hung up on the quotation marks around popular, either, and simply agree that popular means any audience that is not primarily academic. More important, it seems to me that Yu wants to talk about language—he raises questions of communication, translation, and audience—without actually talking about language.
But we should address this issue head on, particularly since our language choices relate directly to the limited influence of the academy. This is neither a new argument nor one that applies to Asian American studies only. Edward Said’s 1982 essay “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community,” for example, excoriated the prevailing nonpolitical and highly technical scholarship of its day, arguing that in their abdication of a public role, intellectuals had facilitated the rise of Reaganism.14 While the scholarship in Asian American studies, unlike the literary scholarship that Said was criticizing, has always been self-consciously political, the field similarly carries no substantial weight in the shaping of public debates, as Yu points out. But doesn’t this lack of influence begin because too many academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences and even more specifically in ethnic studies, fail to communicate their ideas to the general [End Page 338] culture? We write only for each other, using highly specialized terminologies, and then complain when other people are unwilling to listen to something they wouldn’t understand anyway.
There are reasons for the existence and (sorry) state of academic prose, and they are, to a certain degree, defensible. Let’s start with jargon. Academics communicate with their peers through specialized languages, and they do so not to exclude others—that’s a byproduct, I believe—but to advance research. Terminology, or jargon if you will, helps us build upon the work of our predecessors and contemporaries in shorthand and without a constant need to restate first principles. Specialized languages produce our disciplines, and to master a discipline’s idioms is to speak as a professional to other professionals. While we can recognize the beneficial function jargon plays (and the institutional legitimacy that is conferred upon Asian American studies as it partakes in the jargon of the profession), we should also be aware of the cost, and I don’t mean only the intellectually lazy use of jargon that sometimes substitutes for inquiry. With jargon, our audiences are immediately limited, and yet to write in one’s discipline and not write in jargon is an important task that is neither taught nor particularly promoted by the profession.
A second reason for the disappointing condition of academic prose is form. Most articles and books published in the social sciences and humanities today tend to follow some pretty specific formulae that are...