Humanities academics’ poor communication skills

Today I was most inspired to write a comment at Binary Bonsai, where Michael Heilemann was complaining about DAC 2005 delegates’ inability to express themselves clearly. It’s a post in its own right.

To academics, Michael, the words you think are barely known are commonplace: they use them every day. Academia has its own dialect, and it is able to do so because academics aren’t, as a rule, forced to have much contact with the world outside academia. It’s incredibly destructive, because the more time academics spend with each other, reinforcing their curious use of language, the more they ensure no-one in the world at large will be interested in what they have to say.

Why did academics start using this language to begin with? Why do they tolerate speech that often verges on nonsensical? The answer, I believe, is in the emergence of literary modernism in the early 20th century. Experimental writers of prose from Ezra Pound to James Joyce attempted to reinvent literary style according to the idea that new times demanded new language, and they produced some famously unreadable pieces like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.

The “make it new” idea of modernism seems to mesh rather well with the need for humanities scholars to write something “original” to get their doctorate. Rather than talking about something new, you can talk about something old using new words that you made up yourself, or by taking an old, incomprehensible study of something and making it incomprehensible in a slightly different way. The experimental techniques of the literary modernists made their way into the academy, where they slowly infected almost all of the humanities, throughout the world.

These days, to get a doctorate in the humanities, you usually have to emulate your peers’ incomprehensible style. This is called being scholarly. Sadly, the people you think are unenthusiastic on stage probably are very passionate about what they’re trying so unsuccessfully to talk about, but they’re labouring under the extraordinary effort of producing convoluted sentences.

To get a doctorate, you also have to cite “previous scholarship.” If there isn’t much in your field (as there usually isn’t in game studies), you have to choose some from another field. Which explains why you might be hearing people going on about literary hypertexts, political theory, or psychoanalysis when it seems they really ought to be telling you about a game they played. It’s also, sadly, part of what they have to do to convince other academics that studying videogames is a worthwhile activity.

It was the entrenched poverty of communication in academia that made my time as a PhD student in Melbourne, Australia, very unhappy. At DAC 2003, I put forth the same tripe that seems to have been boring you for the last day or so. But I got tired of it, I spoke against it, and I tried to stop doing it. It earned me no love, but now I’m living in Japan, thousands of kilometres away from my university, I feel much more at home in my intellectual life. I can think more clearly about my PhD thesis when I don’t have to spend time with my colleagues.

For what it’s worth, I found the Scandinavian contingent at DAC 2003 to be among the plainest-speaking of the delegates. Think yourself lucky you’re living among the best of them.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.