Over the Garden Wall

It’s important, I think, in this media saturated, socially connected age, to recognize when sometimes things just aren’t directed at you. If arguments or opinions don’t speak to you, or if they rub you the wrong way, maybe it’s because you’re not the audience that the author had in mind. I’m sure this holds true in several contexts, but I’m thinking of one in particular, that of the line drawn around academia.

I imagine the din has been with us for some time, but it seems as though over the past couple of years the noise over how academics supposedly use jargon-laden language to obscure their ideas and make them inaccessible has become more clamorous. To my memory, this was most notably articulated by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, but I’m sure there were other instances of late.

Too often, I think, these complaints can be attributed to the desire to peer over the garden wall. Critics of academic output believe that scholarly work should be directed to them as an audience. One peers over the garden wall because they believe what is on the other side is something wonderful. Academic language — jargon — presents itself as a vertical extension to that wall, obscuring the view and further preventing the outsider from accessing the presumable bounty that awaits on the other side.

I was happy to hear one of my favorite popular podcasts, the Slate Culture Gabfest, do a segment this week on an article in the Guardian that defended scholarship written for scholars. The author, James Mulholland argues that complicated ideas work themselves out over decades in academia before filtering out to broader audiences. Counterintuitive ideas, I would argue, often require the creation of a new language and cannot be simply stated in 2000 word think pieces. As the Slate commentators noted, the idea that gender is construct seems obvious and simple to us now, but this occurred because of decades of serious, if allegedly “impenetrable,” work was carried out in seminars, conferences, and journals.

All of this is a rather roundabout and sneaky way of saying that I’m excited to have published my first non-academic article. You can read it here.

Writing for a public outside of academia was fun, but its a special challenge when your word count is limited. I have enough trouble getting peer reviewers to understand the counter intuitive ways I want us to rethink the arc of 20th century liberalism and the relationship between civil liberties and civil rights. I resisted every urge to cite Nikolas Rose or use words like “conjucturally.” I’m not sure if it all worked in the end, but I was happy to try. Now its back to the garden.