Cognitively Accessible Language and Writing in the Disciplines

In the latest installment of the interview series “Scholars Talk Writing” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, historian James M. McPherson made the following comment in response to a question about ‘popularizing’ academic writing:

“To be called a popularizer can be the kiss of death to an academic, young or old — if such a denigration is directed toward writing that is cheapened by a conscious effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In my opinion, however, good historical writing based on sound scholarship can and should be accessible and meaningful to an expert as well as a popular audience, so long as the canons of accuracy and sound interpretation are not violated. If this kind of accessibility is ‘popularizing,’ I consider it a badge of honor rather than shame.”

In WAC/WID, we often talk about writing as both a form of communicating one’s work, and as demonstrating a mastery of disciplinary conventions. But what if the convention in one’s discipline is an opaque writing style–aimed at an audience of experts who speak the same language and jargon? The role of the academic (and thus her writing) in relationship to the public and to her peers is far from settled. Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, for example, wrote a widely read piece on academic writing, calling it “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.” The reason? “Brain training” — academics spend years mastering the specialized knowledges of their field, and develop cognitive blindspots regarding which aspects of their research are specialized and which are widely known.

But there are reasons why it might be a good thing for academics to think about writing for a wider public, that have nothing to do with dumbing down the research (and that echo some of the ways we think about “writing to learn” for students in WAC).

Making your point in both academic language and non-academic language may strengthen the richness of your work, help bridge the gap between research and teaching, or may increase the potential of academic institutions to both reach and nurture students.

We often think of accessibility of language as a commentary on jargon, but there also other kinds of accessibility concerns to consider in the realm of social justice. “When we write about other people, especially in language they have no chance of picking up and reading, let alone writing in themselves and seeing their own voices in print, we are perpetuating a gross injustice.” In this sense, writing with less jargon to a wider audience is a matter of inclusivity and access to the places of knowledge production.

Writing with clarity is a skill that can be developed with practice, can help sharpen thinking skills, and lead to other professional development opportunities. New sites distilling academic work for a public audience are cropping up all the time. Check out The Conversation, and JSTOR Daily, both of which are a collaborative effort between academics trained in their disciplines, and journalists trained in writing to the public.