How to avoid the trappings of de-facto university language. Tom Scott, writer and university lecturer, examines the rise of Acabusinish, the unlovely hybrid of academic jargon and management speak.
In this article, issues regarding approaches to written communication typically characterising academic discourses will be problematised, while it will be noted that the hybridisation of such discourses with linguistic features associated with management discourses can be observed to have occurred.
That opening sentence is the sort of thing that drains the life out of far too much academic writing and limits its interest to all but a tiny audience of fellow academics.”
Have you lost the will to live already? If not, you are made of stronger stuff than me. Because that opening sentence is the sort of thing that drains the life out of far too much academic writing and limits its interest to all but a tiny audience of fellow academics.
Let me start again. I’d like to look at some of the reasons why academic writing is often so dull and difficult to read, and at what happens when academics start trying to communicate like management consultants.
How is it that sentences as ugly and opaque as the one at the top of this piece have become pretty much standard fare in academic journals? A full answer to this question could easily occupy a doctoral thesis of its own, but I’ll offer just a few observations drawn from my own experience as, successively, a student, a professional copywriter and editor, and a lecturer in Professional Writing.
One of the few comments on my essays that I can recall being given as a student of English Literature several decades ago was that my style was too “journalistic”. I puzzled over this verdict at the time. As far as I can remember my essays were not offered up under screamingly sensational headlines, nor did they feature unattributed quotes from mysterious “sources close to William Shakespeare” or unnamed “friends of T.S. Eliot”. Looking back, I realise that the real problem was that they were deemed lacking in the gravitas expected of academic prose.
Some of the best academic writers have a lightness of touch that does not exclude even the possibility of humour.”
Gravitas (from the Latin “gravis”, meaning serious) is a quality that one can well understand academic authors wanting to project. Dignity and seriousness are generally more fitting to academic contexts than indignity and flippancy. But gravitas shouldn’t be confused with long-winded obscurity, and – for all their faults – journalists are often very good at communicating facts clearly and concisely. What’s more, some of the best academic writers have a lightness of touch that does not exclude even the possibility of humour. Think of Simon Schama, Mary Beard and even Slavoj Žižek – all formidable experts in their fields, but also academics who successfully engage wider audiences outside academia.
One reason that academic writing often takes such contorted forms traces back to the historical context in which it developed. For hundreds of years, European academics wrote almost exclusively in Latin. There was a good reason for this when Latin was a lingua franca that could be read by a learned audience in every country of Europe. But it meant that when academics started to write in English, from around the 17th century, they adopted a peculiarly latinate style and vocabulary that was far removed from everyday language.
Unfortunately, it’s a style that has come to be seen as a necessary marker of “gravitas”. Along with it has grown a whole lexicon of terms that are seldom – if ever – used outside academia, though it is hard to see any good reason for many of these (“problematise”, for one).
Of course, academics are not the only professionals to have developed ways of expressing themselves that function as a kind of status marker but that also have the effect of alienating readers from outside their profession. As a copywriter and editor for businesses – often financial services and management consultancy businesses – I sometimes have to deal with texts that rival the most abstruse varieties of critical theory. Typically, my job is to make such texts comprehensible to a non-expert reader.
For a while now, I’ve combined writing and editing with university teaching. And in recent years I’ve noticed that two distinct jargons – of academia and of business – have come together to form a new and unlovely hybrid. Let’s call it Acabusinish, a suitably ugly word for it.
Partly this is the result of the increasing marketisation of higher education, and the notion that universities should be run along the same lines as commercial businesses. But when academics start trying to channel the language of management consultancy, the results can be peculiarly offputting.
Laurie Taylor – a former Professor of Sociology who is also a superb communicator – often made fun of the incomprehensible and overblown jargon of university management in his ‘Poppletonian’ column in the THES. On his excellent Radio Four show, Thinking Allowed, Taylor once discussed the seeming inexorable spread of such language with a panel of experts including André Spicer, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School and the author of the memorably titled Business Bullshit.
…The more you use words to say nothing, the more you can mangle the language until people don’t really know what they’re doing.”
Another guest of the programme, the entrepreneur and writer Margaret Haffernan, observed that one reason managers express themselves so poorly is that “ it makes them feel that they must be earning these huge salaries if they can sling around these huge words […] The more you use words to say nothing, the more you can mangle the language until people don’t really know what they’re doing.”
The downside, of course, is that when people don’t really know what they’re doing, organisations tend to get into an almighty mess. And when people feel that their managers are trying to bamboozle them with empty, overblown language they tend to develop a certain cynicism about these managers’ intentions and even their competence.
Many of the students I teach (on an MA in Professional Writing) are recent graduates whose main experience of writing has been producing academic essays and dissertations. One challenge for them is to understand that the habits they’ve formed in producing these will not necessarily be helpful to them as professional writers. Another is the idea that writers for business need to sound “businessy”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Business writing is most effective when it is least “businessy”, and many academic writers would also find a much wider and more appreciative audience if they made a conscious effort to write more naturally.
One piece of advice I offer my students is to read anything they have written aloud to themselves. Does it sound like something that one human being could naturally say to another without feeling like, well, a bit of a pompous twit?
It’s a pretty good test, and one that I wish writers of Acabusinish would try more often.
Tom Scott is a copywriter, editor, poet and university lecturer based in Falmouth, Cornwall. You can read more of his work on his blog Compostability.