By: Aharon Nissel  | 

When Academia Falls Short of Its Ideals

There’s no denying that the world of academia gets a bad rap. It is accused of being irrelevant, too focused on insignificant details and too technical. The typological academy is criticized for being too removed from the world and for being too homogenous in its demographic make up. A “publish or perish” attitude can lead to plagiarized or subpar works. Above all, the academic is accused of being elitist. These are all, to some extent, valid criticisms, each deserving of its own analysis, but here I will focus specifically on the nature of academia to get so caught in its own formalities and conventions that it disrupts its own mission. 

The typological academy is centered around critical inquiry, research, and knowledge. Research is (meant to be) objective, as scholars employ critical methods, amassing “permissible evidence,” to reach conclusions. Findings are published in peer-reviewed academic journals. At the heart of academia is the pursuit and spreading of knowledge. For a field that is so bent on inquiry and learning, we would think that it is configured to be inclusive. After all, if more people can contribute to a conversation, a more informed conclusion can be reached. And yet, the striking result is that the findings of academics remain largely inaccessible to readers, and the entire field remains exclusionary in its proceedings. 

Take for example the case of style guides, such as the Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago style, and the American Psychological Association (APA). As a student, you’ve likely encountered these, and have likely lost points on a paper for messing them up. These style guides dictate various technical aspects of a paper, most notable in how to format citations. Chicago style uses footnotes, while MLA uses parenthetical in-text citations. 

While indeed, having a single standardized set of conventions for formatting and citations might be convenient, the style guides are generally overly complicated. They dictate trivial details, such as at what point a quotation is long enough to constitute a separate block quote or if an author's name should be [First Last] or [Last, First] in a citation. For the academic, these issues may be taken care of by external citation tools and journal copy-editors, but for students they are just time consuming. Students get caught up with the formatting and citations, when they should be focusing more on the ideas within the paper.

Further, the style guides serve as gatekeepers to keep out those who are not already part of the system. They may become second nature to those who have experience with academic writing, but anyone who has not gone through the university system will not know how the style guides work, and their publications will be seen as lesser because of it. Voices are left out of academic discourse for such trivial reasons as non adherence to an accepted style guide. 

This is coupled with the fact that unless a student remains in academia, they will likely never need to use any of the style guides again. Most professions don’t use any sort of citations at all, and those that do, tend to do so in a more ad hoc sort of way, to suit the specific needs of the moment. Journalism simply mentions the speaker and source directly in the text. For example, in a recent Commentator article about administrative restructuring we are told that “President Ari Berman announced in an Aug. 7 email to university faculty” and no other sort of citation is given. In some instances in online journalism it is even acceptable simply to link to a source.

Setting aside the issue of whether the content of academic articles are even relevant or significant at all (in general, yes, but sometimes, no), the language of the articles tends to be inaccessible to the average reader. Of course each discipline has its own jargon and specific terminology that won’t be intuitive to the common reader, but academics love using the most obscure vocabulary words they can find and writing in the most convoluted way possible. Articles are riddled with sentences with so many subordinate clauses, they ought to be split into multiple sentences. Why do academics feel so compelled to write in ways that are so unnecessarily complex. Are they trying to prove themselves to be smarter than other academics? Are they trying to reach a quota of SAT words per article? Is there a competition for the most convoluted formulation of the simplest idea? Are they trying to make their otherwise trivial research seem sophisticated? Whatever the reason, the result is that readers spend more time trying to figure out the literal what is being said, rather than focusing on the ideas being conveyed. 

Next, the cost of academic works is staggering. University publishing presses publish books that expect to sell just 200-300 copies. In 2017, the average  cost of a scholarly book in the humanities was $72.67, and it's not uncommon for the price to be in the hundreds. Publishing houses sell to university libraries and that’s just about it. The books are directed at other academics, and are only easily accessible to those with institutional access. Of course, the reason why the publishing houses sell so few copies, and therefore need to make the books so expensive, is the general reader simply has no interest in the book, nor is it written for them in the first place. But what about the person who is interested in the research? They can’t afford it and don’t have access. Academia cannot complain about being underappreciated when it denies people the ability to engage it, let alone appreciate it.

The unfortunate picture that emerges from all this, is that as much as the world of academia claims to promote learning and broadened knowledge, its own conventions and formalities at times negate this cause. Rather than spreading knowledge and increasing perspectives to reach a more informed conclusion, information stays in the hands of the few, and those not familiar with academia are left without. Of course, much of academia is simply so irrelevant to the average person that they don’t mind this at all, but that’s already the much larger issue of the fact that most academic research simply does nothing for the world.

Photo caption: In 2017 the average cost of a scholarly book in the humanities was $72.67.
Photo credit: Pixabay