Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How the Jargonauts Keep Normies in their Place

I spend most of my working life, and even a disturbingly high share of my private life, trying to move back and forth from academic jargon to a more widely-shared human vocabulary. Maximillian Alvarez offers some pungent thoughts on the temptation of academics to become entombed in their jaron in "The Accidental Elitist: Academia is too important to be left to academics," posted February 22, 2017 at The Baffler website. At this time this was written, Alvarez was a PhD candidate in History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.
"There’s a huge difference, for instance, between defending academic jargon as such and defending academic jargon as the typical academic so often uses it. ... It’s not that things like specialized disciplinary jargon are inherently bad or unnecessary. They are bad, however, when they’ve traveled into that special category of identity markers, which so often allow people in contemporary academia to at least act like their primary purpose is to confirm their identity as academics. Like the tweed jacket, things like jargon help form a template of accepted behaviors and traits that qualify one’s identity as an academic, and such qualification becomes the primary justification for keeping them around. You’re not an academic unless you use a certain kind of jargon when you speak and write; you’re not an academic unless you publish in certain journals, etc.
"The scales tip a certain way and being an academic becomes less about what you do, how you do it, and whom you do it for, and more about where you do it and how you look and sound doing it. There are still other, more noble parts of the profession (advancing human knowledge, shaping the minds of tomorrow, etc.), but on a daily basis they can slip unnoticed into the background of secondary concerns. ... The sinister part of all this, then, occurs when, even if you don’t realize it, you end up being more willing to serve your public image and professional ego than you are inclined to put yourself out for the sake of other people. ...
"The perpetual conceit of academics in the humanities is that translating their work into a more accessible vernacular will “dumb down” what are necessarily complex subjects. Important stuff will be lost. Behind this conceit, though, is an implicit presumption from just about every academic that they could perform this kind of translation if pressed to. It has been one of the great sources of my disillusionment with academia to realize that a staggering majority of jargonauts, when pressed, actually can’t. ...

"[M]any academics will subconsciously fall back on the “complex” nature of our work as a way to put normies back in their place and get them to stop asking questions. Remember, we’re neurotic, anxious, self-conscious people. We have our own defense mechanisms and will do much to deflect the realization that very often, the problem is not that our work is so complex that it can only be understood through disciplinary jargon, but that we can’t or don’t want to do the work of “putting it in terms others would understand.” Or, even worse, we fear that making ourselves easier to understand will take away some of our social capital, our special aura as keepers of the densest secrets. We fear that, if we actually could explain our dissertation and book projects to others in simple, but still precise, ways, we might face that most troubling question—“So what?”—without being able to come up with a remotely plausible answer."