The Prats and Pitfalls of Defining “Academic Writing”

Rick Wysocki, Consultant

We often hear about “academic writing” in higher education.
In essays, we always cite our sources, professors say.
Avoid unclear and passive language.
Don’t use a million-dollar word when a nickel will do.
In my experience in college these maxims were typically presented as absolute truths. In this post I want to look the harmful effects of this tendency.
Don’t get me wrong–I think properly citing sources, emphasizing active voice, and focusing on clarity are all helpful strategies that students should learn. What’s dangerous, however, is presenting them as rules rather than as conventions or rhetorical choices, which can interfere with a student’s sense of agency and force their writing into a non-contextual “academic” mold. In extreme cases, taking conventions for absolutes can lead to bizarre acts of policing language.
A quintessential example of this is Denis Dutton’s “Bad Writing Contest.” Dutton, a professor of philosophy, solemnly swore to uphold the constitution of his self-importance, taking it upon himself to deem certain pieces of writing–by established academics, no less–as bad. Not ineffective. Just bad. One “winner” was Judith Butler, with the following sentence:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate the renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” (From Butler’s article “Further Reflections on the Conversations of our Time”)
I want to make it clear that unlike Dutton’s silly contest, I’m not trying to disparage Judith Butler’s writing. If I was, my credibility would and should go right into the toilet; Butler is one of today’s most widely read thinkers, while for some reason no one seems to be talking about the last article Rick Wysocki didn’t have published. This notion of ethos seems to be lost on Dutton, who has awarded “Bad Writing” prizes to Butler, Frederic Jameson, and Homi K. Bhaba–three critics whose main similarities are theories of hegemony and being more influential than Denis Dutton.


What I do want to call attention to, however, is the fact that Butler’s sentence breaks every one of the maxims I presented above. First, Butler doesn’t cite Althusser. How can we know that Judith Butler is interpreting Althusser correctly without a proper citation in one of the accepted formats?! Next is the passivity of the sentence. “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations”? Excuse me, Dr. Butler, but who or what is moving? Finally, if we should be avoiding flooding the market with “million-dollar words” then Butler is acting seriously irresponsibly with her capital. Has anyone found a connection between Judith and Lehman Brothers?

Jokes aside, what I want to show is the types of neuroses that occur when “academic writing” is presented to students as a fixed and objective system. The fact that Judith Butler is “breaking the rules” doesn’t mean that her writing isn’t academic (a fact that should be obvious by her status as being among the modern academics), but that there weren’t any hard and fast rules to begin with, only choices.
My problem with Dutton isn’t that he doesn’t like Judith Butler’s writing–plenty of people disagree with the way she chooses to employ language. What’s intolerable about Dutton’s criticism is that he carried out a “Bad Writing Contest,” not a “’Rhetorical Choices I Disagree with’ Tournament.” The presentation of writing as good, bad, right, or wrong only leads to confusion. Where we can point to citation, active voice, and clarity as conventions of college essays, attempting to define “academic writing” in general is a tricky and potentially dangerous affair. So when you’re thinking about a particular paper or context, keep in mind that notions of “academic writing” are always contingent upon audience, context, and intention. If you need help sorting through these questions, we’re always here to help you in the Writing Center.

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