A couple of days ago the brilliant and bracing Jacqui Shine offered the following “thought for the day” on Twitter:
This was, by and large, a well-received tweet. But there was some pushback from a couple of folks (okay, a couple of guys) who separately invoked the terrifying specter of “critical jargon” or “academic jargon” – without, ironically enough, defining what they meant. But whatever they thought they were saying, they were drawing their terms from an old debate. For the invocation of “critical jargon” or “academic jargon” as a marker of unreadability – or low quality, or this-kind-of-academic-writing-that-is-ruining-it-all-for-the-rest-of-us, or whatever – has a history. Everything does.
Here’s a quick graphical summary of the history of these two phrases in English prose (or that subset of English prose catalogued in the Google database) from 1900 to 2008.
A few things to notice:
The late 1960s-1970s spike in mentions of “academic jargon” coincides with the opening up of the academy to large numbers of women and people of color. (Color me shocked!)
Suddenly, around 1981, panic about “academic jargon” plummets – this may have something to do with election returns from 1980. You know, once your culture war has met with some success, you can stand down.
But then, in the mid-1980s, there is once again a sudden spike in mentions of “academic jargon” – a spike that overlaps fairly neatly with the canon wars of the 1980s, rises alongside controversies over multiculturalism and political correctness in the early 1990s, and continues right through both terms of the Clinton administration.
And then, after the 2000 election, for some reason “academic jargon” recedes as a matter of concern. Again, I suggest that this has something to do with who won that round of culture wars at the ballot box. (And also probably something to do with a post-9/11 focus on identifying other cultural enemies more menacing than academics who write academic prose for other academics to read.)
Now, Google would let me search only up to 2008. But I have a hypothesis for what we might find in subsequent years. I bet you dollars to doughnuts that a search of texts published between 2008 and 2017 would once again show a fairly steep uptick in mentions of “academic jargon.” Whether the graph line will rise or fall after 2017, I don’t know. That depends on whether the current anti-intellectual/rent-seeking regime in power continues to focus on delivering a final knock-out blow to higher education – turning what was once a broadly-supported public good into a personally financed luxury available only to an elite few – or whether they will be distracted by other priorities.
But I do know this: academics or aspiring academics who fuss and fume about “academic jargon” are doing the work of culture warriors who despise the academy. They are also, perhaps without realizing it, adopting a term of hostility that came into extensive use not so much to complain about a certain kind of academic work as to complain about a certain kind of academic person. We see mentions of “academic jargon” or “critical jargon” increasing precisely when the demographics of academe were shifting in the late 1960s and early 1970s to include more women and more minorities, the very persons who brought new questions and heretofore unexamined and underexamined subjects into the purview of professional scholarly inquiry.
Is scholarly writing within a discipline, writing meant to be read mainly by one’s fellow experts, really overburdened with “academic jargon”? Or is it simply that many of the people who deploy this lazy accusation are deeply unhappy about who gets to take part in the conversation?
L.D. Burnett is the 2017-2018 Teaching Fellow in History at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her book, “Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education,” is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.