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Donna Reish – Be Vigilant about Jargon: The Importance of Avoiding Academic Lingo

Today we present a guest post from Donna Reish, a freelancer who blogs about best universities.  She loves to write education, career, frugal living, finance, health, parenting relating articles. She can be reached via email at: donna.reish13@gmail.com. In this post Donna discusses the issue of academic jargon …

As anyone who has chosen the profession of professor knows, academia is hurting. The contracting job market and loss of tenure track positions aside, academic journals are also experiencing a paradigm shift.  At the same time, publishing is an important part of achieving tenure, not to mention the fact that it’s a very personally rewarding experience in its own right. As such, it’s not enough to be the leader in your field or specialty. It’s just as important to keep up with publishing trends, and that means knowing what acquisitions editors are looking for.

Just as Freud asked of women, academics must ask themselves of editors. And according to an Inside Higher Ed article from 2005, editors want expanding audiences, which means you’ll have to watch out for jargon. Of course, those outside academia have a very skewed picture of what it means to achieve that level of specialized education. Many contemptuously view academics as charlatans who spout obscure nonsense that they try to pass off as knowledge. While this portrayal is a definite misconception, in order for academics to attract the attention of editors, it’s very important to avoid technical, highly academic nomenclature when it isn’t necessary.

Of course, knowing which jargon is important and which isn’t becomes half the battle, and a complicated one at that. A few years ago, I worked for a research organization in which doctoral students would produce research for publication. My job as an editor was to work with hard sciences researchers, both by editing and tutoring, to ensure that unnecessary jargon was pruned out and that clarity and concision were given precedence.

A rather “cheeky” article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published late last year may shed some light on the predilection of some academics to lapse into overly flowery prose. As a former academic research editor, I found this one article to be so accurate in describing the core problems of academic prose that I feel compelled to quote at length:

“Obviously some material and disciplines lend themselves more easily than others to letting a voice show through the content, but scholarly work would be better if we encouraged people to write more like themselves, instead of in an unintentionally funny parody of what they think academic prose should look like. Sure, there are pieces of jargon and lines of coded language that you feel must be included so that your peers will know that you’ve done your time and deserve to be admitted to the club.

“But that doesn’t mean you have to sound like some inflated idea of a professor; you can express your complex and arcane ideas in ways that come naturally to you. And, yes, people who are not, by nature, casual or informal look as squeezed and uncomfortable as Wall Street bankers when they affect slanginess. Our prose should reflect who we are. Pascal wrote: ‘When we encounter a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.’”

Although I’m sure many of you have heard this tip before, the best way to achieve the tone that the article suggests is to first read your work out loud to someone else. This is when any and all of the ridiculousness of jargon-laden prose first becomes apparent. Then, having someone else read your work out loud to you should remove any remaining issues, even ones that go beyond jargon, like sentence length and construction, as well as problems with grammar. Afterward, you can begin to retool your work for an audience that has become necessarily more varied as journals inch toward a more diverse readership.

A fascinating paper entitled “Sending Signals from the Ivory Tower: Barriers to Connecting Academic Research to the Public” gives further reasons for avoiding jargon in academic research if you aren’t yet convinced. While you do publish for a specific audience, I doubt that there is one professor or researcher who wants to stay in such an insular niche. This paper discusses at length some of the surrounding issues in writing for  more diverse audiences, like dealing with mainstream media which traditionally goes to the opposite end of the spectrum, oversimplifying things to the point of inanity and misrepresentation.

In the final analysis, academic writing is an entirely different animal from other prose styles.  But academics should try their best to find that delicate balance between conveying precise expertise and writing that resembles human speech in one way or another.

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