Why academic writing is so bad

In a recent post on his blog, Steve Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School amplifies on a discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s new blog about why academic writing is so bad. It’s well worth reading, because I think Walt gets to the heart of the matter: academic writing stinks because academic writers intentionally mean it to stink.

Walt nods to the difficult of the some of the subjects involved, noting that if you’re writing about epistemology, you’re going to have some dense prose on your hands no matter how able you are as a writer. But then he gets to the real reasons academic writing is so ghastly:

The first problem is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.

Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.

The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.

But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood.

Amen. Preach it, brother.

I’ve carped about this before; back in July I wrote about a piece of impenetrable garble I had come across in a review of an equally impenetrable book about Russia and got a hurt, angry blast from the author. People who write poorly tend to have thin skins. (My own sentences, of course, are collections of shiny pearls, each an object of unspeakable beauty. Ahem.)

I was thinking about this because a friend of mine has to attend a professional seminar on information technology, and his packet of assigned readings include some scholarly articles that are so bad they’re good.  Here’s an except from an article called “A Political Economy of the Substrate Network,” whatever that means:

Applying the economic framework of socialism to online collaboration, Kelly’s article is a classic symbol of the techno-ideology that surrounds the digital commons, a sign that the effusive rhetoric of the ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler, 2006) is alive and well in the public consciousness and has yet to reach its conclusion in the crisis of capital. This reflects this paper’s core criticism of the ideology of free culture, specifically that its notion of “free” pays lip service to an imperial credo aligned more closely to the social factory than to the necessary apparatuses of an idealised peer-to-peer economy, rolling out a vista from Utopia to YouTube that wilfully [sic] glosses the conflicts inherent in immaterial labour.

Yeah? So’s your old man.

All of this reminds me of the 1996 Alan Sokal hoax, which should have been a wake-up call to the academic community. Instead, academics acted like embarrassed cats trying to kick litter over an inconvenient piddle on the rug. Gibberish still runs rampant in the journals, and Walt’s right: if ordinary people could understand academic articles, the writers would not only lose their claim to intellectual superiority, but they would actually have to defend their ideas…assuming any are to be found, of course.

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23 comments

  1. Apparently it’s part of a”view of future networks that is based around the notion that networks of the future will be performed into existence from a mix of crowd[-]sourced, shared and exclusively owned resources.” Tomorrow we’ll learn “cognitive capabilities” can be understood in a “sharing-economy context”.

    Cool. I performed a zygote into existence once, I think this might be similar.

      • I think it means that the internet will evolve from having an infrastructure that is wholly owned by big players to one that also includes ad-hoc wifi networks and other cool technical things. I think.

  2. Actually, the snippet you quoted seems to actually have a clear message, allow me to decode/unpack/unzip:

    Applying the economic framework of socialism to online collaboration,

    “Let’s look at online social interactions via the lens of socialist theories regarding how economies work.”

    Kelly’s article is a classic symbol of the techno-ideology that surrounds the digital commons,

    “Kelly’s article does exactly the type of looking that I was talking about in the previous part of this sentence. There is a set of shared ideas that those who participate in digital communities which revolve around sharing information freely, and it looks like an application of socialism but with an emphasis on technological considerations.”

    a sign that the effusive rhetoric of the ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler, 2006) is alive and well in the public consciousness and has yet to reach its conclusion in the crisis of capital.

    “Many digital communities have nothing but nice things to say about what they would call “networked information economy”, i.e. an economy that is based on sharing information and knowledge collectively without an explicit profit incentive. People in general are supportive of this type of economic system, but they don’t seem to be generalizing it to the problems of capitalism in meatspace. In other words, they are praising the idea of digital collectivization, but at the same time they are not yet also praising the idea of physical collectivization, even though they follow from the same core values. I think that digital collectivization will result in increased awareness of the crisis that capitalism causes in the real world; however, it has not reached that point yet.”

    This reflects this paper’s core criticism of the ideology of free culture, specifically that its notion of “free” pays lip service to an imperial credo aligned more closely to the social factory than to the necessary apparatuses of an idealised peer-to-peer economy, rolling out a vista from Utopia to YouTube that wilfully [sic] glosses the conflicts inherent in immaterial labour.

    “This paper criticizes a group of ideas shared by many people, which I refer to as “free culture”. Within this group of ideas, there is one particular idea that I want to focus on. Many people who share the ideas of “free culture” have a definition of “free” that seems too good to be true. In fact, what they call “free” is actually very unfree and this prevents people from understanding what “free” actually is. You can see examples of this from Utopia to YouTube, so this is not something that is an isolated phenomenon, but rather something that is very extensive. And by preventing people from finding out what “free” actually is, these people who are in favor of “free culture” ideas make themselves and others unable to see a problem. This problem is in how digital work is treated.”

    ***

    There is definitely a message in there somewhere, but the authors of this writing ought to be sentenced to reading “Politics and the English language” a thousand times. There is absolutely no excuse for this level of obfuscation and obscurantism. They should be ashamed of themselves. Writings should be for everyone, not just for the author. If you have great ideas, then you need to communicate as clearly and comprehensively as possible so that you can share your great ideas with others, and that they can share them too. Ironically, this fits in with what this paper is trying to say with regards to how information ought to be shared online.

    …at least, this is what I HOPE the authors here are trying to say.

    • I think your interpretation is as good as any, and that’s the point. People who write like this intentionally explode jargon all over the page like Gallagher hitting a watermelon with a sledgehammer, and then hope that the readers will import their own meaning to it. It always reminds me of the Dilbert comic where they coach a consultant to bamboozle the Pointy-Haired Boss by saying things to him like “We must leverage our knowledge assets,” because the boss thinks it sounds smart.

      American business, science, and foreign policy reached tremendous heights for 200 years before the advent of this kind of mediocrity, and no matter what kind of dreck gets published in specialized journals, nothing can take the place of clear and reasoned communication.

  3. Wow… I’m the author of the article discussed above. That is really upsetting to read.
    Mainly because I hate the idea of willfully reproducing jargon or trying to deliberately obfuscate a point in verbose prose (i.e. that you have so little of substance to say or are so unsure of yourself that your only bet is to try and overcomplicate a simple idea and hope that nobody points out that the emperor is actually naked). So I’m horrified that this is what’s coming across. But I also don’t think that this is necessarily the case with the paper you’re quoting from (which isn’t to say that my academic writing leaves nothing to be desired). I’d have to say that if the sentence above is hard work, it’s not because I didn’t have anything at all to say about the subject or that I’m unsure of my position, but the opposite, that I’m trying hard to say something very specific and condense the arguments that get discussed later on in the paper. Probably unsuccessfully (in that I tried so hard to cram so many ideas into one sentence that you might have no idea what I’m talking about). It also includes terms like ‘free culture’ ‘networked information economy’, ‘immaterial labour’ , ‘social factory’ and ‘peer-to-peer economy’ that might seem like empty jargon if you’re not engaged in a very specific discourse around autonomist marxism and the political economy of communications (99.999% of the population in other words), but they actually have a very specific signification (and those are explained/footnoted/referenced in the text).

    I’m definitely going to take your criticisms on board as I’m already aware that my academic writing can be dense :) and it can get very wood for the trees when you’re in the middle of something and don’t have the luxury to step back for a few weeks, but I also don’t think that a piece of *academic* work has to have to same level of transparency as a more popular piece of writing for a general audience. For better or worse the text above is part of a very focused discussion that requires a level of fluency that isn’t just a given. You wouldn’t expect to immediately grasp an academic paper in computer science or engineering I presume? Why should critical theory, political philosophy or contemporary art be more transparent? It sometimes feels like we’re perfectly happy to accept expert language in the sciences but expect humanities to be completely democratic. Anything that smacks of exclusion is met with suspicion or even vitriol. It happens I write about things like digital policy, open source and networks regularly in more public contexts regularly http://www.pivotdublin.com/index.php/blog/entry/strongopen_stronghere, http://www.neural.it and I really hope the tone of those articles isn’t elitist. And that means that those pieces can have a much broader readership and dissemination, which is a great thing (or maybe not depending on how you feel about my writing). But it’s also usually a much more superficial, less nuanced discussion of something I’ve devoted some years to studying and thinking about. Terms like ‘immaterial labour’ of ‘free culture’ aren’t jargon so much as shorthand for a whole set of practices or situations that have to be unpacked and explained at length if a reader is unfamiliar. i.e. Jason Macker’s comment unpacks the offending sentence perfectly and into the kind of language I’d use when I’m teaching a class on open source software or writing a blog post, but the paper you’re critiquing is applying a theoretical framework from autonomist marxist political philosophy to specific aspects of network infrastructure. It’s not exactly beach reading :) If I want to get down into that level of analysis the only way to do it in under 8,000 words is to presume some kind of prior knowledge and to condense. If I want to write something that’s specifically engineered for an academic context and might only speak to a small network of people who are also looking at this tiny cross-section of knowledge, is that so terrible? Should that kind of writing be held accountable in the same way as a general piece for a general audience? Are there better ways to do this? (Honestly – these aren’t rhetorical questions).

    Sorry for the rant. Thanks for the feedback. Horrible to read but maybe it’ll help me to make my academic writing clearer in the future. Rachel

    • Hi, Rachel, and thanks for writing.

      First, please remember that The War Room operates on the “Michael Corleone principle,” which is to say that whatever zingers and criticism you might see here, it’s always business, never personal. So in advance, thanks for being a good sport.

      As a practicing political scientist (and someone who’s written a fair number of words, including some books, in my career), I take your point that what seems like jargon to the layman is really just the inside-baseball terminology of a particular profession. That’s true enough in many cases. But I don’t think that’s the case here, and I don’t think that most articles, with the exception of things like articles about astrophysics or pharmacology or something. Even in your explanation of the article, you fall back on terms like “a very specific discourse around autonomist marxism,” which is a mouthful, and makes no sense to me. (And I think I have a pretty good background in Marxism in two languages, so if you’ve lost me, that’s saying something.)

      I do not accept your argument that the social sciences needs the same level of technical explication that one might find in an engineering journal. Indeed, the problem with academic writing in general is exactly that pretense to “scientism,” in which things are made to sound more lofty and scientific than they are by giving them names that obfuscate concepts that might actually be otherwise accessible to lay readers.

      I mean, seriously: I just wrote an entire book on nuclear weapons and the history of nuclear strategy for a major academic press, and I managed to find (I hope) pretty clear workarounds for the maddening jargon and sometimes unavoidable technical terms involved in that endeavor. I could have written: “Increased Soviet throw-weight threatened to degrade the robustness of the C3I infrastructure in the event of a central exchange,” which is how people used to write about that stuff. What that sentence means is this: “In the 1970s, the Soviet Union built larger missiles capable of destroying more targets, including communications and control facilities, and American planners were worried that a major attack on North America would paralyze any U.S. response.”

      Now, that’s a few extra words, and you have a point that we’re always trying to keep down the word count. But an economy of words means nothing if your readers have to break a sweat decoding spaghetti-like sentences. So my advice is this: do all those concepts need to be there? My rule of writing, whether with a book or an article, is that if you can’t explain your basic thesis in two sentences in plain English, you’ve screwed up. With all that said, I understand that sometimes you have to use the existing terminology of a field, and just talk to your peers in the ubbi-dubbi language you share. But when someone with a doctorate in the social sciences can’t make heads or tails out of your work on two or three readings, that’s a problem.

      In sum, I’m suggesting this: take a risk, and be one of the authors who breaks the back of the jargon in your field. Find a different way to say things without resorting to words that exist only to prove that your field exists as a separate and lofty intellectual enterprise. If you mean “tangential” instead of “epiphenomenal,” then say “tangential.” Don’t try to imitate the hard sciences; have some faith in your readers, and write for them, and not for the dissertation committee you think might still be looking over your shoulder. Think of some of the greatest works in the human, and even physical sciences, and note that they are still accessible decades later. Emulate the people who inspired you to study your field, not the mediocre journal gatekeepers who simply look for a checklist of the current phrases that are trendy today but will be forgotten tomorrow.

      I appreciate your visit to the blog, and really do wish you the best. Your willingness to chat about this is far more open-minded than most people would be after such criticism of their writing: good for you.

      Best,

      Tom Nichols
      Owner/Proprietor and General Pain in the Ass of The War Room

        • Oh, I’m sure it existed somewhere before you used it. But again, to explain it, you use words that don’t have a clear meaning (at least to me): “operaismo,” and “workerist communist” movement? Do you mean “working-class communism,” as opposed to the version advocated by middle- and upper-class elites? It doesn’t signify meaning if a lifelong student of communism (that would be me) can’t figure it out without a long or discursive footnote.

          • If you’re a lifelong student of communism and expert in marxism as you claim to be, the fact that you’re unfamiliar with terms such as autonomia, operismo, immaterial labor, workerist or indeed the relationship between communism & the commons says way more about you than the author of that particular article. Also, you’ve unfairly taken his/her quote out of context. The section you quote is from the beginning of the article. Those terms are unpacked throughout the article, and are necessarily so. They aren’t superfluous, but actualised concepts that it seems Tom, your expertness in all things marxist, is somehow completely unfamiliar with. Considering the relationship these ideas have with armed struggle in a number of places (Latin America, The Arab Spring, Italy’s Red Brigades but to name a few), I’d consider your criticism of the “writing” as a cover up for the embarrassment you must feel being a political science commentator and teacher without knowing anything about possibly the most famous and relevant incarnation of marxism to come out of political economic theory since orthodox marxism itself

            • Good heavens. Deep breaths, Mr. Sioux. Whatever I “claim to be” is easily verified. You can start here: Tom Nichols.

              I said I was a lifelong student of Marxism and communism, not of the family of interpretations of Marxism that sprouted from the European left. While I will gladly dispute you over whether “workerism” is “the most famous and relevant incarnation, etc,” I will contend in any case that the article used so much of this inside-baseball jargon that to even a better-informed reader, it was pure gibberish. I didn’t take a tiny chunk out of context: I had the whole paper right in front of me. And by the way, saying that the except is from the beginning of the article is inadvertently making my point: the opening of a paper should be the clearest, not the densest, part of the work.

              But why was I even reading the paper? I’m glad you asked. The person posting as “Tom’s Friend” was actually assigned the article for some kind of professional workshop. In frustration he sent it to me, because he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And since I teach a writing course as part of my courses in political science and government at extension, I’m always on the lookout for examples of specific kinds of bad writing: in this case, the pretentious (no offense, Rachel) overuse of insider jargon to establish the author’s claim to the depth and complexity of her ideas. I do not dispute that these words have meaning in academic writing, but that’s exactly why I deplore the current state of academic writing.

  4. Well, this is getting way off topic, right into the kind of academic posturing and point-scoring you claim to despise. But Operaismo isn’t an academic movement; its a social movement that originated in struggles – by workers. Presuming that it’s nothing but an abstract discourse perpetuated by an academic or economic elite isn’t just a cheap and easy shot, it’s also poorly informed.
    I’m also not entirely sure what you mean by your suggested substitute ‘working-class communism’ as it’s a much more general term that doesn’t have any specific designation (unlike operaismo or autonomia/autonomist marxism in english). Using a more legible umbrella term gathers together (and therefore flattens out) lots of different moments in time and space as well as lots of possible orientations and perspectives on ‘communism’, especially today when notions of ‘communism’/’the commons’ are applied in so many spurious contexts. So ‘working-class communism’ might be perfect language if want to tell my friend the gist of an idea over a quick coffee, but it doesn’t really help me if I want to get more specific or critical. I guess this is why I think terms like operaismo or autonomist marxism or indeed much of the terminology you criticize me for using in my paper are sometimes very useful, even if they aren’t immediately transparent and send up a populist red-flag, because they refer to very specific situations or ideas. Even if it means a reader that’s new to some of them might have to go away and look it up.

    • Well, you’re kind of missing my point, which is that I don’t know what “Operaismo” is. Unless there’s a good, specific reason to use it, is there something that explains it in terms an educated reader can grasp quickly? If “Operaismo” is a term that was coined and used at the time, or has a distinct meaning within the study of Marxism, then it’s my fault for not knowing it, but I still don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

      Notice that in your explanation, we sink deeper into the quicksand. You object that my substitute (which was a suggestion only because I am trying to approximate what I think you meant) as

      “a much more general term that doesn’t have any specific designation (unlike operaismo or autonomia/autonomist marxism in english). Using a more legible umbrella term gathers together (and therefore flattens out) lots of different moments in time and space as well as lots of possible orientations and perspectives on ‘communism’, especially today when notions of ‘communism’/’the commons’ are applied in so many spurious contexts.”

      Wow. Why the forward slash between “communism” and “the commons?” I’m pretty sure those aren’t even remotely the same thing. And what does it mean to refer to different movements “in time and space?” Do you mean at different points in history, in various parts of the world? Why use language that sounds utterly…existential?

      This goes back to the point that Steve Walt was trying to make: that there is a mode of academic writing that is meant to make things seem more weighty, more intelligent, more profound than they are. Back in my misspent youth in grad school, I had to plow through the works of everyone from Kolakowski to Gramsci to Miliband, and I never encountered this sort of blizzard of words. Are they really necessary?

      I’m not trying to wave a populist bloody shirt. I’ve had to use my share of depleted-uranium prose in order to communicate with my scholarly peers (and used more than my share of coy and too-precious metaphors, like “depleted-uranium prose”). I’m not objecting to this kind of writing because I want to be a working-class hero, but because I increasingly find reading the literature of my own profession tiresome and boring. Believe me, when you agree as a service to your academic community to review entire books that are written like this, there isn’t enough Diet Coke and Advil in the world to help you through the experience.

      I will flag, however, that I think you’re giving in to a certain amount of pedantic elitism in your suggestion that people who can’t understand your writing should “go look it up.” Ah, no. That defeats the purpose of clear writing. If your reader has to keep Wikipedia on the next screen, or constantly stop what they’re doing to go find an interpreter for your writing, then you’ve failed to engage that reader on your own terms. Now, I grant that if you’re writing for a narrow audience of specialists, then it’s unfair to criticize you (except for a certain inelegance in the prose). But if you’re trying to communicate with a wider audience, then an admonition to go self-educate doesn’t add much to the piece: after all, if they can go read something easier to understand somewhere else, why are they wasting their time reading you?

      Moreover, I doubt anyone could claim Walt is a populist, and he hates that kind of writing as much as I do. So did people like the late Samuel Huntington, who wrote about extremely complex concepts without resorting to impenetrable language; he even used to chastise students about things as small as splitting infinitives. I’m not sure who your role models for writing are — and we should all have some — but it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on Orwell’s rules for writing, and start from there. Accessibility and readability are not prima facie evidence of a low level of intellectual capacity. Orwell, among many, proved that.

  5. “and what does it mean to refer to different moments “in time and space?” Do you mean at different points in history, in various parts of the world? Why use language that sounds utterly…’existential’?”

    Sure, in different moments in history and in different parts of the world if that’s more agreeable to you :)

  6. “Now, I grant that if you’re writing for a narrow audience of specialists, then it’s unfair to criticize you (except for a certain inelegance in the prose). But if you’re trying to communicate with a wider audience, then an admonition to go self-educate doesn’t add much to the piece: after all, if they can go read something easier to understand somewhere else, why are they wasting their time reading you?”

    As I said in my first comment, any criticisms about a certain inelegance in the prose are duly noted. I also think I mentioned that when I intend to communicate with a wider audience then I use a different kind of language, one that is more accessible, but also, by necessity much more general http://www.pivotdublin.com/index.php/blog/entry/strongopen_stronghere.
    But when I’m trying to contribute to a very specific academic discourse (which is the only claim I’m making by publishing in a peer-reviewed academic journal) then I’m hoping that a reader who is completely new to it all might read around, presuming they’re interested. That’s what bibliographies are for :)

    • I can’t remember the last time I assembled a bibliography. In book-length projects, publishers tend to hate them because they eat pages. But maybe I’m too old school.

      This popped up last week. What’s more elitist than citing George Will? But I’m going to do it anyway, because Zinsser was one of the first books on writing I ever read and I kept it by my desk for years.

      Will on Zinsser

  7. I guess I started a bit of something. I’m an engineer by trade, and I read techno-gobble as part of my living, so I appreciate that a quantity of jargon is necessary. But when I read a technical piece that requires me to constantly access that part of my brain that stores the gobbleducks, I run out of patience and stop caring, and the author has failed in his mission.

    I think the point is that you can do both. You can be technical but accessible, not by throwing away all the jargon, necessarily, but by using it with delicacy, where it’s really needed. And, by not using it where it isn’t. Just as big emotions don’t require big words (Hemingway?), neither do big ideas.

      • Formerly advanced race from a Neal Asher novel that intentionally devolved in order to preserve the universe. Hey speak unparseable gobble. You could just look it up on wikipedia!

    • That is a pity Tom’s Friend. I’m sorry if you were assigned a highly theoretical paper with a marxist orientation at what appears to have been a technical seminar. I’m in engineering too so I present these ideas on a regular basis to other engineers and people in industry and I wouldn’t expect you to want to engage with a bunch of ideas from political economy just to get to the gist of the technical stuff. In those contexts I usually say something like:

      There’s a lot of hype about how the Internet is allowing people to voluntarily make and exchange information for free. And these kinds of practices are sometimes held up by online activists as being a way to combat globalizing, capitalist forces. But they also get held up by neoliberal corporations like Google who reproduce ‘right on’ ideas about sharing and ‘open source’ as a way to actually hide the fact that their whole business model is based around exploiting the information that people produce for free online. Both parties tend to ignore the fact that even though information might be ‘free’, the physical infrastructure most certainly isn’t. I’m looking at how ownership of things like processing and storage capacities or physical network infrastructure allow the owners of that infrastructure to extract value from the voluntary production (in social media sites for example) without actually paying somebody a wage for producing it.

      This isn’t totally new; economic transformations from the 1970s onwards mean that we’re seeing sharing and openness emerge, not just as a nonmarket practice, but at the very centre of the market. However, there are certain antagonisms between an economy that’s based around property and one that allows for lots of sharing and openness. An example of this might be the music industry, where old forms of property relations based on physical artifacts rub up against an economy that encourages sharing and reproduction of digital artifacts – with sometimes disastrous consequences). It’s not a smooth and easy transaction; it’s always threatening to fall apart.

      Without going into the details of why here, we’re seeing similar antagonisms emerge in physical network infrastructure. An example of this might be something like electromagnetic spectrum – the radio waves that all mobile and wireless devices use for communication. At the moment most of this spectrum is treated more or less like private property, but due to large amounts of mobile traffic nowadays, there’s controversy about how long this can continue – sharing spectrum and making it more open seems like a better bet to a lot of people in industry. I’m very curious what will happen if network infrastructure becomes more ‘open': Will people have more autonomy? Will it make it harder for corporations to profit from people’s online activities? Or are we just seeing a new kind of capitalism emerging that we don’t fully understand yet? ?

      And then when I’m chatting to telco engineers at this point we talk about stuff we’re mutually interested in like next-generation networks, cognitive radio and shared spectrum.

      But I’m also really interested in a whole lot of nuanced issues about how categories such as work, wages, rent and profit are changing drastically today. I want to understand how openness and sharing cooperate with private property and debt in contemporary capitalism. I’m no island and there’s lots of people – many of whom are situated in Marxism and/or political economy – that have spent much longer than me mulling this over and have fascinating things to say and great ideas to contribute. They also have terms they’ve developed to help describe very specific aspects of those transformations. I don’t want to sweep those things under the rug, I really want to engage with and discuss these social, economic and political aspects and that requires a fair amount of complexity. But I also don’t expect that everybody will be interested in it; I don’t want to make a horrible generalization but I don’t expect most engineers to be passionately interested in theories from autonomist Marxism. I’m sorry if that was the situation you found yourself in before your seminar – phew! I can imagine that if I gave that paper to most engineers I know they would be horrified and think I was a terrible w**ker, in the same way that most Marxists I know wouldn’t appreciate having to read something I’m working on for IEEE. So once more, sorry if I wrecked your head.

      All that said, maybe it’s not fair for me to frame this like it’s an impasse… I’d also like to think about better ways to communicate ideas that don’t require a strong disciplinary orientation. But I don’t think my journal article or the journal in question (whose output I really admire and feel to be important) is necessarily the place to do that.

  8. Rachael,
    The whole point of the seminar was to get a bunch of smart people together, water them with interesting papers, some of which are intentionally a stretch and many of which challenge the participants to look at technology from a social, political, or ethical perspective. So don’t pity me, I wasn’t hurt or sad or overtaken by tragic events beyond my control, leading to the exposure of my tragic flaw and ultimate humiliation by fate. I was frustrated.

    Look. I read serious works of history and philosophy for entertainment. I pick up “Science” whenever I see it, and struggle through articles in the world’s leading technical journal, and always get something out of them. Those guys use technical words to be precise. And they’re papers can be parsed.

    I fear you’re right. ’tis an impasse. Nevertheless, I hope you continue to do well in your chosen environment. Good luck, and good life to you.

    As you say though, we’re at an impasse. I believe that with care and dic