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by Peter Moskos

February 20, 2013

Why is Academic Writing So Bad?

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:
In the end, it comes down to what a scholar is trying to achieve. If the goal is just narrow professional success -- getting tenure, earning a decent salary, etc. -- then bad writing isn't a huge handicap and may even confer some advantages. But if the goal is to have impact -- both within one's discipline and in the wider world -- then there's no substitute for clear and effective writing. The question is really pretty simple: do you want to communicate with others or not?
Back in October I looked at Amazon's top 40 books in sociology. You had to get to number 43 (Alone Together by Sherry Turkle) before you came across a sociologist. Foucault came in at #61.

It's not to say there wasn't great sociology in the top 40. It's just that this sociology isn't being done by sociologists. Admittedly Amazon's classification of "sociology" leaves a bit to be desired, but in the top 40 are 7 journalists, 3 moms, 2 CEOs, 1 priest, 1 aspiring model, 1 rapper, 1 liberal TV talk-show guy, 1 survivor of child abuse, 1 public speaker, and 1 community organizer / President of the United States. There were 8 professors selling in the top 40 of sociology: three economists, and one each from political science, computer science, law, clinical psychology, and business administration. Where are the sociologists?

Here's what's weird. Sociologists assign many of these books in our classes. The outstanding work of Alex Kotlowitz comes to mind. He wrote There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. Last weekend I heard him on This American Life discussing the horrible effect of gun violence in one Chicago high school (really worth listening to, especially for those who think the American playing field is level). I don't know a single sociologists who doesn't respect Kotlowitz's as sociology. And yet his work, as written, would be rejected from every top sociology journal (poor guy has probably never ran a regression in his life). The same could be said for Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Alexander, Eric Schlosser, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putnam. Sociologists rightfully claim such excellent research and writing as sociology, and yet we do not reward sociologists who follow in their footsteps.


Anonymous said...

The episode of This American Life was sad. The story of the school valedictorian who only leaves his home to go to school and had no social life for the past three years three years reminded me of Albanian blood feuds. To this day some families in Albania are reluctant to send their kids to school for fear that they will be targeted by rival clans.

Peter, you grew up in Chicago didn't you? How did your experience compare? Did you attend Chicago public schools or did you live just outside the city?

From Canada

PCM said...

We lived just outside Chicago, and I attended public schools in Evanston. My high-school graduating class had more than 800 students and the school distract was about 35-40 percent black. I have nothing but great things to say about Evanston public schools.

Though there actually was a student shot on high school's front lawn one year. It didn't phase us when we heard it was a stray bullet from across the street.

Anonymous said...

I just looked up the demographics for the Chicago and Chicago public schools. The city is 45% white, yet the public schools are 8.8% white. So where do whites in Chicago go to school?

-From Canada

Anonymous said...

Why is academic writing so bad?

I was watching a Canadian public affairs show and one of the academics mentioned that there is a bit of a stigma about academics appearing on television. They fear losing the respect of their peers if they are constantly on TV. I wonder if that same stigma affects academic writing. An academic that writes easy to read books that are widely read by the public risks being viewed by their peers as a shallow and unsophisticated writer of middlebrow airport bookstore junk. Conversely, someone who writes jargon-laden tomes only read by students and experts in the field is seen as someone to be taken seriously, a real academic.

-From Canada

PCM said...

The dirty not-so-secret race-secret of America -- non-Americans are always amazed to learn -- is that white people basically don't send their kids to public school in the big cities. Such is the end result of so-called northern liberal "integration."

Whites go to Catholic schools; rich whites go to private schools.

(Of course there are some exceptions...)

PCM said...

You do some snickering from academics about others who appear on TV too much. I think it's about 90 percent jealousy and 10 percent legit. Certainly it's good for you school to have the PR of being out there in the media.

As to writing, yes. Hard to read means deep (think Foucault). But this is a relatively recent problem (well for few decades now). There's a generation of older professors (think Becker and Goffman) that wrote good books that were accessible. Something changed around the 1970s, I think.

PCM said...

This might be vaguely relevant.


Chief Scott Silverii, PhD said...

Good question, and thanks for breaching the surface. Jane Jacobs is my favorite and rarley recieves the credit for influencing so many criminal justice theories.

I reposted this article at my site and of course credited the Cop in the Hood.

Ken said...

Hard to read means deep in the case of Foucault, Heidegger or Butler. But Heidegger almost got the boot for not publishing. Hard to read in most academic writing, often means jargonistic, full of stock phrasing, observent of somewhat arbitrary disciplinary rules that are obscure to outsiders, and, in the end, unfocused on the craft of writing.