8 Academic Buzzwords Decoded

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Academics are notorious for their impenetrable prose.  In my last years of undergraduate education and my first year of grad school, I have read hundreds of academic books.  I have found that, unfortunately, the stereotype is often true.  Over-long sentences, profusions of polysyllabic words, and willful obscuration are all-too common in academic writing.  Insecurity, pretension, and audience-insensitivity drive graduate students, postdocs, and professors alike to write badly.


But academic prose is often rendered muddy by more than poor writing alone.  In the humanities and social sciences, many academic books and essays are clear to specialists, but dense and difficult to lay readers.  This is because these texts are written in what some of my friends and I call “Academese,” a distinctive dialect of English.  Academese has its own stylistic conventions and specialized vocabulary.  Its speakers assign new meanings to ordinary English words.  Academese’s distinctive vocabulary helps its speakers communicate complex ideas to one another clearly and efficiently.  However, it can also make academic prose confusing for readers who aren’t fluent.


I would like to clear up some of the confusion that academese can cause.  In this post, and in posts yet to come, I will highlight some common academese words and phrases, and offer you some translations.


nuance:  In Academese, “nuance” can be a verb as well as a noun.  As a verb, it basically means “make more complex by closely examining details and particular cases, especially ones that the person whose work you’re nuancing neglected.”  Example: “This historical study of upper-class New Yorkers is great, but it didn’t examine how gender impacted their experiences.  I’m going to nuance this analysis by focusing on women’s experiences.”


discourse: A body of communication.  You can identify discourses by their subject (“gender discourse”), the identity of their speakers (this could be professional– “missionary discourse,”  or socioeconomic– “working-class discourse”), their purpose (“imperial discourse”), the ideology that they carry (“feminist discourse,” “Marxist discourse”), or some combination of those things (“bourgeois feminist discourse”).


problematize: One thing that academics in the humanities and social sciences love to do is take a thing accepted as natural, normal, or common sense, expose the possibility that it might actually not be natural, normal, or common-sensical, and then investigate how and why it became naturalized, normalized, or common sense-ified.  We call this activity problematizing.  The thing that gets problematized could be a piece of language, institution, social group, or way of thinking, among other things.  For example, Edward Said problematized European writing about the Middle East (which he identified as a discourse– Orientalism) by arguing that its tropes and conclusions frequently pointed to either the tropes and conclusions of past writings about the Middle East or to the writer’s imperial interests rather than what the Middle East was actually like.  By doing so, he showed how stereotypical depictions of Arabs and Muslims emerged through a historical process.


text: In ordinary English, “text” tends to refer only to written works.  Academics use the word more broadly to refer to any piece of communication.  So, films, video games, comic books, paintings, and conversations can all be texts.  Some academics in Anthropology as well as English and other language and literature departments identify human culture and societies as texts which they can analyze using the same methods they apply to written words.


racism: In ordinary white English usage, “racism” usually means race-based prejudice.  Academics tend to use it in two ways that are at odds with that definition.  The first is historical.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, “racism” was a widely-accepted social-scientific and biological theory.  It asserted that humans belonged to biologically distinctive races, and that the category of race determined how humans thought and formed societies.  Historians of that time period frequently use “racism” to refer to this theory and “racist” to refer to its proponents.  The second is sociological.  In this definition, racism is a social structure which distributes social and economic outcomes unfairly on the basis of race.  Things are racist insofar as they perpetuate this social structure.  The sociological definition of racism has gotten some currency in minority communities and among activists.  I think that it would be helpful if this definition became more common in popular use.  It’s more important to fight structural racism than it is to fight race prejudice (since most people probably care more about being able to eat, get jobs, and be treated decently in public than about whether or not their skin color makes you feel awkward), and it’s easier to identify (Are members of a particular racial group disproportionately poor or excluded from public office or education or prestigious jobs?  Do they form a much higher proportion of prisoners than offenders?  If the answer to one of these questions is yes, then racism is present).  Thus, it’s more useful as a tool for promoting social justice.


reading: An analysis of a text.  People often do readings with a particular set of intellectual tools and focuses.  A Marxist reading will focus on social class issues, a feminist reading will focus on gender issues, etc.


etiology: The study of something’s origins.


reproduction: Academics use this word to refer to any sort of remaking, not just to sexual reproduction or painstaking, deliberate acts of re-creation (which we tend to refer to as “replication” instead).  Example: Conditions on slave plantations in the Caribbean were very deadly.  So, planters were very concerned about the reproduction of their labor force.  This reproduction could take the form of actual sexual reproduction or the form of continued importation of new slaves from Africa.  By keeping their labor force intact, the planters reproduced the slave plantation socioeconomic system.


Hopefully, the next time you check out an academic article for research, read a blog post by an audience-insensitive academic, or read a book written by one of your academic friends or family members, you’ll feel a little more informed.  I plan to make more posts expanding this glossary in the not-so-distant future.


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