“The Big One” (The Atlantic) Bites Down Hard on Opaque Academic Writing

by Tracy C. Brown

Annoyed Reader

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to share with you a new article just published in the popular literary journal The Atlantic. It is our sincere hope that all Tennessee archaeologists, American archaeologists, and others with an anthropological frame of mind will read this new article and take it seriously—dead seriously.  Here is the safe link to click:


As some of you already know, I have detested for many years the opaque garbage that passes for sound academic writing, especially in the realms of anthropological method and theory in general and archaeological method and theory in particular. In fact, I have spent whole weekends—whole weekends of my life when I wanted to be doing something fun—in anger and emotional despair from trying to read through certain academic journal articles and book chapters that were impenetrable.  My first inclination was always to accuse myself of being illiterate and just plain stupid in the face of these opaque monoliths, but the Summa Cum Laude at the bottom of my undergraduate degree from a major American university always whispered back, “You don’t really believe that do you?”

Then, in the middle 1980s, a Princeton University alumnus who had majored in English and had been pursuing a career as a professional writer opened my eyes and dried my tears with a brilliant article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. As it turned out, he was equally outraged at the poor quality and impenetrable nature of the academic writing he was encountering during the course of his own research and writing.  His article took bad academic writing to task in a scathing assault that left nothing but a wasteland in its wake—scorch and burn—and he used specific examples of impenetrable academic writing to illustrate it.  After reading his article and pondering all of my lost weekends, my feelings of anger and despair were finally vindicated.  In a move that I especially appreciated, he identified academic writing in the social sciences as the overall worst offender in all of American academia.

Several years later, I would begin pursuing a life-long dual career as a professional technical editor and science writer in a small Tennessee town devoted to science. Throughout that career, I would gain a firsthand, in-depth appreciation for just how lousy and opaque a lot of academic writing can be—and it had nothing to do with brilliant academic authors occupying higher planes of thought, reasoning, vocabulary, and terminology that we mere mortals beneath them could never attain. Instead, it had everything to do with disorganized thinking, lack of thinking, equally disorganized writing, saying one thing when the author meant another, and an amazing inability to state easily understandable ideas simply and clearly so the reader could understand what the author was saying—and this was in addition to all of the poor grammar, bad syntax, misused words, incorrect acronyms, omitted words, and so forth.  From my own experience, it became even more clear to me that the Princeton alumnus had been right on the money with his article.

With all of that said, I agree thoroughly with Victoria Clayton and her new article in The Atlantic entitled “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.”  In my carefully considered opinion, no reasonable excuse exists for producing opaque academic writing aimed at nothing more than impressing a few academic colleagues with an intellectual high-wire act to gain esteem and promotions—and screw the rest of the world if no one else can understand what has been written. This nonsense has to stop in academic anthropology and archaeology, and I can think of one very good way to begin the process of stopping it.

Many anthropology and archaeology projects in the United States are funded by my tax dollars and your tax dollars, and I would bet good money that the research behind many of these opaque, high-wire acts in journal articles, books, book chapters, and other printed media are financed to some extent by those tax dollars. From now on, rather than sacrificing a weekend in despair and tears trying to read through and understand one of these academic monstrosities, a more productive use of my time might be copying the academic monstrosity and sending a copy of it to the President of the United States, my U.S. Senator,  my U.S. Congressman, and the Governor of my state.

This would afford me an opportunity to complain about the fact that the document is so opaque a person trained in the discipline cannot even understand it. How then is any other taxpayer going to understand it?  Then state in no uncertain terms that I really resent seeing my taxpayer dollars spent on opaque garbage like this—and please pass this formal complaint on to the head of the federal or state funding agency that financed the writing and production of this monstrosity. If enough American taxpayers, like you and I, were to do this or some version of this over time, we might be amazed at how rapidly some of these weekend-killing anthropology and archaeology documents would begin to show up written in crystal clear English any person with a good college education could understand.

Fortunately, as a Tennessee taxpayer and as a professional scientist with a background in anthropology and American archaeology, I am proud to say that over the past 44 years I have never seen a Tennessee anthropologist or archaeologist publish one of these opaque monstrosities.  We do pretty well here in Tennessee.  It is the academicians in the other 49 states that worry me and my tax dollars.

Oh sure, I can hear it now:

How dare you!!!  Why this is an outrage and an impingement on my academic freedom!!!  I must be accorded the opportunity to write and publish unintelligible garbage that no one but me and a few close colleagues can understand.  I have no responsibility to anyone else but myself, my colleagues, my university, and my discipline.

My response to that is simple and very straightforward. Your academic freedom to be an irresponsible, incompetent, unintelligible, and noncommunicative academic writer ends where my anthropology and archaeology tax dollars begin. The American public and its tax dollars deserve much better than what they are getting from many anthropological and archaeological academicians out on the American landscape. Do not be surprised if a formal inquiry with demands for a written explanation from a U.S. Senator, U.S. Congressman, Governor, or head of a government funding agency crosses the desk of your department chairperson or your own desk some day in the future. No more lost weekends!!!!  No more!!!

Photograph Credit: The Huffington Post

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