Consider the term “postfordist-transnational-mediatic-techno-electro-corporate-capital.” If not confusing, it makes you take a step back and draw out a pen and paper as you set out to acknowledge each term on its own so you can piece them to finally understand what it means together. A lot of it, for me, probably has to do with the fact that I am only an undergraduate student; but at the same time, my professor’s response, upon my asking them what it meant (and thankfully they explained it so well) was this: “Academicians are sometimes way over their heads by using phrases that boggles people while it doesn’t mean much.”
This is where the idea of “gatekeeping” in academia comes to. Academic jargon is often given a free pass because they are said to refer to particular things or ideas, they are highly specific, so as to condense a load of information and connotations into one. And indeed, the above absolute gem of a “term” with its multiple hyphens is pretty specific, so specific in fact, that unlike academic and teacher Sasha Braun’s so called lazy people, I did put effort into understanding it. (Sasha Braun says “laziness is their problem and the last responsibility of academic writing is attending to readers who can’t keep their end of the reader-writer bargain.”)
The term ‘hegemony’ for example, which you grow used to hearing after spending one semester, is explained by Peter Barry to be “an internalised form of social control which makes certain views seem ‘natural’ or ‘invisible’ so that they hardly seem like views at all, just ‘the way things are.’”
I will admit that I brought up hegemony on purpose, the idea that jargon is specific and hence justified also seems to be just the way academia is supposed to run. A brief overview of academia in history actually indicates how elitism through the use of overly complicated words instead of their simpler versions is also a mode of gatekeeping knowledge from the historically marginalised communities, for whom, because of their oppressed status, understanding a language such as English could be a problem. Think of the ways in which lower class, lower caste communities and gender minorities were denied educational and employment opportunities — in Hindu mythology, the “low-born” Eklavya had to cut off his thumb to not overshadow the upper-caste Arjun in his future; in actual world, to be educated in the scriptures was not a privilege the “outsiders” could afford.
This internal “othering”, ie. forming notions of collective identity based on exclusion of communities, I think, extends into the important aspect of education. No longer able to deny it, jargons provide a safe space for creating niche “cliques” within academia. For example, we see an emerging pattern in how pop culture being examined with the same tenacity as Dryden or Shakespeare is considered less esteemed: pop culture is, in itself, closer to the “masses” and hence, it makes academicians uncomfortable when they encounter a “Lacanian reading” of say, Twilight.
This can be further seen in the assessment of what a “good answer” is. “Walters maintains that applicants to graduate school… should be privy to the underlying truths in academia, face up to the myths of academia, and most of all, they must impress the gatekeepers,” Jo Ann K Heckers writes in How to Apply to Graduate School Without Really Lying. So then, the judge must be impressed: Statements of purpose or personal statements or letters of intent, they must all be filled in with relevant jargon to appear knowledgeable about the course – the actual understanding means less than the appearance of one. Communicating in a simpler language is not restricted per say because it is easier to come up with a singular, direct term, but because it restricts: it becomes a preliminary straining of who must be rejected because they cannot “act like the Romans do.”
Deborah S Bosley, University of North Carolina professor and clear writing consultant, for one, says that “Academics, in general, don’t think about the public; they don’t think about the average person, and they don’t even think about their students when they write.” The intended audience for academic writers is their peer, whom they have to “impress to get tenure.” She also adds that “even someone with a Ph.D can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work unless he or she comes from the very same discipline.” The entire concept of an illuminating spread of “knowledge” crumbles disastrously when we examine the workings of this system. In fact, it is so ironical, that a study shows how scholarly articles that are hard to read are actually cited lesser.
The entire concept of an illuminating spread of “knowledge” crumbles disastrously when we examine the workings of this system: The more we look, the more we find out that jargon is a way to legitimize an academician’s presence; to theorize and to explain is insufficient until it comes with a package of terms that doesn’t make it shameful.
The need for impressing is another motivation, clearly, both for “would-be” academicians, and the ones who are currently in the position to accept others. Language has been a class and caste barrier and is an efficient tool for social exclusion and within our own subcontinent, it is a widespread mentality that speaking English is better; and if so, then speaking like Shashi Tharoor is the best.
The tendency to consider someone superior because of the words they use reveals an inner tendency of wanting to use words others might not know so that we might seem better to the next one who comes along. This indicates how there is an equation of better grasp of the English language with “smartness”, which maybe, from a post-colonial context, is a result of the white man’s burden and saviour complex to ‘modernise’ the ‘barbaric’ Indians. I can’t say I am not guilty of it myself, I used the word “hegemony” without understanding Marxist connotations for a full semester: and dare I say, I did it to fit in.
We relate words that sound “smarter” than the others to a certain kind of atmosphere: think of an image of a chemist and then try imaging what is written on the board. Movies literally write out whatever equation they please to make the “scientist” character seem “smart” because it relies on the confirmation that an average user will not immediately understand it (or not at all entirely). I think it is the same with academic jargon: to read a book on the psychology of art for leisure and then come across five jargons in one paragraph is essentially like being told by your doctor that you have Bradycardia when it would be a lot more informative to just say “low pulse”. I find that the works I appreciate the most are the ones that define and then write the jargon they might use later on in a little bracket on the side – bonus points if you get a note at the bottom to fully understand it.
While it might seem ultimately hypocritical of me to write this article given my own history, there is also a certain disrespect involved. That the language be “clear, concise, low-jargon” is imperative simply because people are not equal — we are not born into the same privilege, class and caste status that endows us with the opportunities to acclimatise ourselves to such jargon. Using jargon in front of a highly experienced academician in your field is understandable, not so much when the audience is unclear and there might be a severe break in the meaning of sentences owing to it.
Funnily enough, not knowing a word or two in a sentence does not completely destroy the meaning that you can get the “gist of”; but academia is not just basic vocabulary that’s available in dictionaries – they encompass ideas and theories. Under the current situation, what the critic has said does not seem to matter. That they wanted to tell something doesn’t matter either – their saying deals with the “formal relations,”, “Bell’s ‘the ultimate reality’”… and what have you not. Their work seems to be great. Except, to a beginner, it is in the dangerous territory of losing all meaning altogether.
To expect that people can look things up on ‘Google,’ or read an entire book on a theory that people have worked on for decades to understand one paper is incredibly entitled – it is ignorant of the political background of education that already seems to be only accessible to the privileged few. Combined with the fact that they all expect the audience to keep up with challenging phrases – I kid you not, I once came across an entire paragraph of French in a paper written in English, because they wanted to quote a French theorist; and somehow there was no translation either – in a language that even a proficient reader will not understand immediately (by twisting words and sentences until you feel like you are reading a work from 18th century) is ultimately counterproductive if academia preaches that it wants to teach: Who does it teach, then? Who is the audience? The answer seems to be only the privileged.
Also read: To The Bhadralok Academia, With Love
Does this mean that all writing should be accompanied with translations in all languages? Does this mean that jargons should be met with utter contempt and declared completely useless? Should all works come attached with a Wikipedia article? What does it mean? I do not know. I am not a theorist. But it also does not take a theorist to realise that clear language is the basis of communication, that all people are not born with privilege or the brains that come fit with jargon of the stream they want to enter, that academia is incredibly hostile to the ones who cannot immediately understand the “workings.” The works that are considered best are the ones which talk to and not down on its readers.
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