Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: “How Shall I Put This?”: The Dangers of Acadamese

Monday, December 6, 2010

“How Shall I Put This?”: The Dangers of Acadamese

ac•a•de•mese: æk ə dəˈmiz,-ˈmis,əˌkæd ə [ak-uh-duh-meez, -mees, uh-kad-uh-] –noun. pedantic, pretentious, and often confusing academic jargon: a presumably scholarly article written in incomprehensible academese.

December has arrived (internal screaming may begin here). So, now that we must confront this monstrosity, let’s talk about how we can get through this successfully…shall we?

I’m not sure about all of you, but as an English major I don’t have any final exams. I have what, to many (including those suffering under the specific burden), seems worse: papers. Upon papers. Upon papers. And papers are exactly where the Acadamese Monster (see above...and yes, that is a chocobo) is most likely to attack.

I’d guess that almost everyone who goes to grad. school, and even most undergrads, have heard the term “acadamese.” In case you don’t know though, and in case the above definition doesn’t help: remember when you were assigned your first critical work in college (mine was in an Anthropology class) and you had no idea what the author was saying? You probably thought you were stupid. You probably thought to yourself “Oh my God, maybe I’m really stupid and don’t deserve to be at this school.” But you were wrong. This is definitely a clear case of “it’s not me, it’s you.” That scholar was writing in acadamese. It’s not your fault it was unintelligible! In fact, he may have only been published because nobody could understand him but they were all too embarrassed to admit it. Or maybe they thought a lack of clarity  meant he must be brilliant. Who knows? In any case, totally not your fault.

What would be your fault would be slipping into this form of writing yourself. And, sadly, many people do. If you don’t stay on your guard, you’ll turn into that guy you didn’t understand your freshman year in college. And it’s not because you got smarter…it’s because you got bitten by the Acadamese Monster. I used to see this when I worked in the Writing Center with undergrads all the time. I’d read a completely convoluted sentence from the paper we were working on out loud, ask the tutee what she meant, and she would then proceed to explain the same concept to me in completely clear and normal language. “Why didn’t you just say that?” I’d ask.

“Because I didn’t think it sounded smart enough,” was the inevitable reply.

Now, this writer in the Chronicle who was complaining about acadamese recently is a little extreme, in my opinion. She thinks signing emails using “Cheers” counts as acadamese, as does using “shall.” I don’t quite agree with her there. But she does, at one point, give the best and most concise advice I’ve ever heard on how to avoid this trap. Instead of simply saying “write it down like you would say it,” or something to that effect, she says: “Make it correct and precise for your field, but think a little about sounding like yourself—the best version of yourself.”

Of course, nobody sounds exactly like themselves when they write. Writing is automatically more formal—you have to think more about it, so it tends to be a bit more eloquent than your everyday speech would be. But you should sound like a “version” of yourself. If you’ve erased yourself entirely, then you’re probably sounding like that crazy scholar that nobody understands (remember him?). The best writing, even academic writing, maintains something of the writer’s personality. That’s what makes it interesting to read!

By thinking about this I’ve realized something: writing this blog is probably a great exercise for me. I can write my papers this month (OMGONLYTWOMOREWEEKSTOWRITEEVERYTHING *breathe*) worrying about one less thing. I have a defense against the Acadamese Monster. I’ve been practicing writing with a voice all semester long!

So, new advice for December: If you need to procrastinate, do it productively. Start a blog! :)


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