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WildeThing

All academic articles should come with a short summary in layman terms

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I’ll say it again: all academic articles should come with a short summary in layman terms.

Why?

  • Because scholarship is about knowledge-production
  • Because knowledge is meant to be shared with as many people as possible or else it is not knowledge but insider secret
  • Because scholarship can catalyze change, so the more people who can read and understand it the more positive change it can effect
  • Because a lot of scholarship - perhaps particularly in the humanities and especially in literary studies - is filled with dense jargon, unelaborated reference, and a misguided sense of what constitutes common knowledge (and thus not meriting explanation)
  • Because jargon and the rest limit accessibility, acting as a wall, with jargon and the rest acting as gatekeepers. 
  • Because even if a piece of a scholarship is aimed at the academic community exclusively: students and scholars in other fields still consume the text and would benefit from a more accessible version
  • Because an abstract is a specialized text and not a summary
  • Because many monographs already include chapter summaries (which can still be made more accessible)
  • Because a summary does not to capture every nuance, and if you cannot give a simplified version of your ideas, what is your contribution to the shared pool of knowledge?
  • Because, while this is an extra step that requires more work, scholars need to be able to communicate their research simply and quickly (the old elevator pitch idea) anyway
  • Because even if it is more work, scholars do so much work anyway, why would this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? 
  • Because even if it is more work, isn’t it worth it to make your scholarship accessible? Don’t we jump through the hoops of proper citation and formatting to make our ideas readable, accessible and verifiable? Isn’t opening our scholarship up to a wider audience a way of making it more verifiable, too?
  • Because even if your article is accessible anyway, there is still worth in making it a shorter read (and vice versa)
  • Because if your article needs jargon because of need to have specific terminology for differentiation or any other reason, this isn’t about changing it but about providing a space to make the jargon easier to approach
  • Because this would save time and energy when doing research: how often have you read/skimmed a bunch of articles only to realize they don’t help your research? 
  • Because if you worry that people wouldn’t read the articles anymore: the articles are still available; summaries don’t include every point and every nuance; if people are only going to read the summary, while some full-readers will be lost their time will not be wasted and there is a similarly-significant quantity of readers who would not have read it anyway, but now would at least know something about it (perhaps giving them the desire to read a long article they would have otherwise passed on

Do you agree? If not, why not? If yes, what are the holes to this argument, what is it missing, what is it overlooking? What would you rephrase?

I ask because, after a full semester of reading dozens of articles, I am kind of tired of the standard of inaccessibility that dominates our field. I want to use my time in academia to make academia more accessible for everyone. I think this is one step in that direction. I think it is fairly simple to achieve, too. So, how do we achieve it? Should we request journals to set this as a new requirement? Should we ask our departments, mentors, faculty, etc. to do it for us (especially since some of them edit journals as it is)? If you think this is a nice goal, lets brainstorm how to achieve it. Whatever step we take will be more productive if dome across departments throughout the nation/world.

Looking forward to any input on the big questions: what, why, how.

Edited by WildeThing

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This reminds me of http://www.denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm and all the controversy that followed.

My undergrad background is in mathematics. And trust me, Grothendieck's category-theoretic reframing of Galois theory cannot be explained in layman's terms no matter how much you try. It can be explained more or less elegantly in technical terms, in ways that require more or less technical knowledge (although the rigor always decreases the broader the audience). If you think literary studies is filled with jargon, take a look at a math paper and see how much you understand. And would you still insist that the use of jargon is problematic in this case? If not, can you articulate what causes the difference?

Of course there is such a thing as bad writing or intentional convoluted-ness for the sake of hiding the inadequacies of one's ideas, but to presuppose academic arguments, a priori, can be communicated in layman's terms is, to me, a fairly ungrounded and honestly implausible claim. If anything, "putting academic arguments in layman's terms" has given rise to enormous amount of misunderstandings of academic claims that have led to quite dangerous and problematic fallouts.

Gatekeeping is not the using technical and precise language; rather, gatekeeping is making that language inaccessible. The communal maintenance of intellectual rigor is what makes humanistic thought possible at all, and being inducted into its language is what education is for. When I'm confused by an article, I usually read more about it--the context of the article, the theoretical texts (which sometimes requires more secondary texts to elucidate), prior scholarship--after which the confusion often disappears. Again, this is not to deny that bad writing exists, but there's much more to the picture, I think.

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I don’t have familiarity with mathematics so I can’t comment on that. It is certainly possible that this isn’t possible in some fields, and perhaps I should have used less broad terms, but the reason why this is here and not in the general lobby is that I am speaking about my field (perhaps it can be used in others, but I don’t know).

I 100% completely disagree that there is any concept (in literature) that cannot be explained in layman terms. Of course specificity of language is important and one needs to be careful with oversimplification but the point of such a summary is to make the text accessible, not to substitute it. Butler, who that link refers to, can be famously jargony but her work is taught in many levels and can certainly be explained in simpler terms. In fact, so many undergrad and even some grad theory classes spend time explaining terms. Unpacking an article is usually the first step to teaching it, I see no reason why this step cannot and should not be written down and done by the original author.

Technical terms are important, there is no reason why they cannot be made more accessible in an accompanying summary. Epistemology and knowledge are not exactly the same thing and there is a need for using the former term, but you can also signal that what you are talking about is knowledge (and, if the distinction is important, explain why). The contrary means that academic writing stays solely within academia, whereas concepts like performativity or hybridization (to refer to two scholars mentioned in that link) are relevant and should be accessible to the general public. There are many articles that don’t need this, bell hooks has written extensively on very complex issues while being immensely readable, but it would be unsustainable to pick and choose, so it makes more sense to aim for a general practice (and if the text is already accessible the summary should be easier to write).

Any academic will do more work to research a concept they don’t understand or struggle with. The idea is to a. make that process easier, and b. acknowledge that scholarship should not be restricted to academics. Not even all students, much less the general public, will do this extra work (and frankly, expecting a reader to do extra work, as a standard practice of the field, IS gatekeeping). I LOVE sharing concepts I learn about with my friends and colleagues. To do so, even with other academics sometimes, I need to translate the ideas. Having a tool like this would make sharing academic work much easier, and result in a wider spread for that work, both into the non-academic world and other academic fields.

I think maintaining the idea that academia should have its own language that one needs to be inducted into is just a way to maintain the cultural capital of academia, making it not only harder to get into, but a less attractive prospect for some. Keep the jargon, keep your article as it is; just offer people a way into it. Is your argument based on an existing theory you take for granted that people are familiar with? Why not take a few sentences to explain, or provide the references for people to check. I can’t tell you how many texts I have read that have failed to this. If the point is that this is by design, that the text should not be accessible and is meant for experts or highly conversant scholars in the field, then this idea certainly doesn’t fit. My question would then be, what is the point of such scholarship? 

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11 hours ago, WildeThing said:

all academic articles should come with a short summary in layman terms

I agree with the sentiment that scholarship should "be shared with as many people as possible or else it is not knowledge but insider secret." I do wonder about the value of adding a short summary in layman's terms to academic articles, though. I think most academic articles are written with academics in mind, with the implication being that academics are more likely to understand the technical language being employed and more likely to look up terms, theories, etc. with which they are not familiar. So adding a layman's summary might fail to reach the audience that would most benefit from such a summary (i.e., actual laymen).  

3 minutes ago, WildeThing said:

I LOVE sharing concepts I learn about with my friends and colleagues.

I agree that it's super-fun to explain complicated concepts to friends. I remember getting Gender Trouble a few years ago. I thought it was a lovely book, and I still do. And I find Butler's prose to be aesthetically pleasing, even, because her precision (or use of jargon, whichever you prefer) makes for pretty efficient writing. But I recognized that (a) I was probably the only person I knew who would voluntarily read the book and (b) the ideas in it were interesting enough to warrant communication to others. So I got to work on my communication skills by explaining gender performativity to my mom. My communication with her was less efficient because I couldn't evoke the precision of Butler's own writing, but I gained a lot by sharing a new idea with someone. And she wouldn't have read Butler anyway.

So, while I think that adding a layman's summary to academic articles might not be maximally effective in terms of making academic knowledge more accessible, I agree that we should do more. Institutional outreach programs for the public might be a good idea, but idk what those would look like. Some academics have blogs where they explain things more casually, so maybe academics can engage in more independent web-based publishing. But who knows if anyone reads blogs.

Also, since someone brought up mathematics: I work in law. It's a hugely complex field and is notorious for making heavy use of jargon. It's such a multifaceted field that (generalist) judges are almost always evaluating the law on hyper-specialized areas of the field. The reason they are able to do so without jeopardizing justice is that attorneys take great pains to translate jargon-heavy and complicated areas of law into terms a reasonably well educated judge can understand. All that is to say that there are indeed specialized areas of study that benefit from, and indeed require, the translation of jargon into something resembling layman's terms. And attorneys can and do achieve that translation. It's not an impossibility, it's just extra work. This is just a different perspective.

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I agree, I think it would be more of a long-game but I guess it's better to start somewhere since I also don't know how to better connect academia and the general public. If anyone has any ideas though, I'd love to hear them.

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I think a greater barrier here than the over-reliance on (or even valorization of) industry jargon—which I agree is a definite problem—is accessibility more generally: academic arguments are typically found in academic journals, which typically exist behind paywalls for those outside of academia who don’t have access to various journal databases.

I appreciate Jeffrey Williams’s take on this, which basically boils down to: if academics publish some of their work in mainstream publications, those outside the academy are far more likely to read and benefit from that research. In short, the academy can’t meaningfully impact popular discourse if it doesn’t make a good-faith effort to engage in that discourse. Of course, some subfields are naturally more conducive to mainstream publication than others (20th/21st century Americanist here), but maybe academics should start taking it as a given that part of their work is translating complex thought and argument into something more legible (and, importantly, practicable) to a general audience. That element of public/civic responsibility should be baked right into our conception of who we are as scholars. 

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I am much more in favor of the academy valuing things like popular articles as worthwhile endeavors, lecturing outside the classroom, etc., than condoning the sort of anti-intellectualism that assumes all jargon can be "distilled" to plain terms.. 

As with many things in education, the problem is not that academic language is hard but that it's inaccessible - as EM51413 suggested.

For the record, I do think a lot of bloat could be cut from jargon in English, and I always strive for as much clarity as I can myself. I try to be quite rigorous about using as little jargon as possible. But there are moments where it is helpful or even necessary to use words we've adopted in very specific ways. 

I have a partner in STEM who is very philosophically-minded, and that combination is great for forcing me to translate my ideas as best I can into layman's dialect, which is something I think every academic should do (and ideally is already doing through teaching). He does the same for me, which is incredibly awesome and enriching. But there is always something lost in translation. 

Edited by merry night wanderer

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I find the idea that this proposal is anti-intellectual the same as that a hamburger is anti-gastronomic. The ideas are intellectual, how you communicate them is not. The assumption that jargon is taken for granted as a form of intellectualism is the sort of discriminatory assumption that I (and bell hooks better than I (Teaching to Transgress)) am trying to eliminate. The point was never that jargon is hard but that it is inaccessible, but to relate the two terms: it is the inaccessibility that makes it hard. Similarly, the point is not to replace jargon, but to provide an access point to it. Use the jargon to construct your arguments, just offer a way for a wider audience to understand them with greater ease. Of course using a term like rhizomorphic has more specificity than saying that something is interconnected on multiple levels with no center, but it is also less accessible and thus makes it harder for more people to connect with the argument. Of course, the simpler explanation is not complete, it does not contain all the context and aspects of the rhizome, but in most cases it will get the point across. In those that it doesn’t, you can provide a longer explanation. Either way, no is going to start writing papers about the rhizome without reading the article first, and doing their research, but it will make things more accessible for everyone either way.

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On 12/11/2019 at 7:55 PM, WildeThing said:

I 100% completely disagree that there is any concept (in literature) that cannot be explained in layman terms. Of course specificity of language is important and one needs to be careful with oversimplification but the point of such a summary is to make the text accessible, not to substitute it. Butler, who that link refers to, can be famously jargony but her work is taught in many levels and can certainly be explained in simpler terms. In fact, so many undergrad and even some grad theory classes spend time explaining terms. Unpacking an article is usually the first step to teaching it, I see no reason why this step cannot and should not be written down and done by the original author.

it is interesting that you should cite Butler for this point, given that her concept of "performativity" is famously overused, misused, and therefore misunderstood. (see also: this) there is certainly a way to explain Butler — or any other theorist — well, but I'm not sure if it can so easily be done in a short summary (which implies concision and often dilution).

as someone who works quite a bit with theory and intellectual history, i am quite wary about invoking theoretical terms without either 1. presuming that my reader has at least a general, background understanding of the context in which the theory/its jargon was produced, the body of work it draws from, and the work it follows (since one has to make such presumptions in some forms of academic writing such as one's statement of purpose. but even then, one tries to be as specific as the word limit would allow), or 2. working with, and explicating the exact nuances of what i'm citing (this means elaborating on qualifications and caveats, and lots more paragraphs or footnotes than what a simple summary permits). because the restatement of theory in overly callous or simplified terms frequently means isolating certain propositions from the conditions in which they were made — and by extension, what their implications really are — what then follows tends to be something of a game of chinese whispers/telephone, in which interpretations get increasingly distorted, without the precision of the original text. this is how one arrives at such reductive readings of "postmodernists" (who aren't even postmodernists, or relativists, for that matter) (and on that note, since when did butler become a "face of postmodernism"??), that empty these theorists' more renowned work in what we could call literary theory of their associated ethical, political, and historical significance. 

this is, of course, not to say that academic writing should be inaccessible — it shouldn't. but like @merry night wanderer, i'm more inclined towards a discerning use of theory and its jargon (i.e. do you really have to say "deconstruct" when what you mean is "take apart"). and when one does cite theory, i do prefer that it's explained thoroughly and with care, rather than simply, and thus risking misrepresentation. you're definitely right that "scholarship can catalyze change," but i'd be more wary about what kinds of scholarship do so. i don't know if i'd necessarily want change driven by zizekian notions of multiculturalism (perhaps critiques of that, yes, but not zizek's ideas directly). 

in any case, i believe that academic writing and public-facing writing are two drastically different genres that readers (academic or otherwise) consult for different purposes. i look to one to be told a gist of things, and another for premises and arguments with which to engage, to ask questions about the stakes and implications of certain claims that are made — i wouldn't, say, read a new yorker profile of lauren berlant's work for the same reason that i would delve into cruel optimism. and i think most readers do understand what they're getting into, or what to expect from each genre. so, for me, accessibility isn't necessarily about the difficulty of the language or ideas per se — if it's good scholarship, i'd more than gladly work with its rigour — but it's more about having the opportunity to even come across the pieces in the first place, and the time to just sit down and read. i'm aware that neither are, at the moment, that accessible (so much of scholarship is still locked behind paywalls), so that's something that has to change. 

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48 minutes ago, tiredderridean said:

it is interesting that you should cite Butler for this point, given that her concept of "performativity" is famously overused, misused, and therefore misunderstood. (see also: this) there is certainly a way to explain Butler — or any other theorist — well, but I'm not sure if it can so easily be done in a short summary (which implies concision and often dilution).

 

Doesn’t that prove my point? Butler is misunderstood, overused, misused, and is famously jargony. If Butler had had to provide more accessible points of entry to her texts - composed by her rather than someone else - wouldn’t that avoid some of that chinese whispers problem? In a perfect world I’d say that these summaries have no word limit so that if more space is needed to make a point it can be done, but that would run counter to some of the other uses for such a measure, and again, this is never about replacing a text but offering a way into it. Maybe instead of a summary it can be historical contextualization, or explication of the jargon. The point is to improve access. (The use of Butler and Bhabha was just because they were referenced by the previous poster’s link, rather than any argumentation reasons.)

I am noticing that a lot of the critiques of this idea stem from this idea that the summary would replace the text or eliminate jargon, which is never the point. It is simply about: what can I add to this to make it easier to understand? There are so many Introduction to X, Companion to Y, study guides, and websites dedicated to explaining particular texts out there. And there have been so many times in classes where someone has - to a chorus of nods - said: I found X very useful to understanding Y. This is about making scholarship internally capable of explaining itself. 

I’m not sure what your point about Zizek is. This, in a way, is one thing this would help with. You assume I will understand what Zizekian multiculturalism is, and, in this case, I do not. Surely I am not the only not particularly familiar with Zizek’s work (or, running the issue of knowing which of all of his ideas is being referred to here). Wouldn’t it be simpler to provide a brief explanation? Wouldn’t you prefer to have your point understood by more people? Surely an in-depth understanding of Zizekian multiculturalism is not essential to understanding your larger point? No one (serious in their scholarship) would take that explanation and assume they understand Zizek. This is not a perfect comparison since this is a different setting and this is not an article, but the point is that we do this all the time in academia and it really limits communication. 

That said - and again without knowing Zizek I don’t have a full context - I understand your point about being wary of catalyzing change to be: not all scholarship will produce positive change so making it more accessible would have negative effects. Is this your point? Before I respond I’d want to make sure I am not responding to something no is saying.

Academic and “public-facing” writing are indeed different, but I don’t think that it is a matter of readers knowing what to expect from each but that no one outside of academia actually reads academic texts. I must emphasize the question: if we are in the business of producing knowledge and knowledge is democratic, how is this not an issue? What is the role of the academic in society if the only times it connects to it is by changing to a different format (e.g. publishing in the Times rather than PMLA)? Anti-intellectualism has been mentioned here and we have seen, especially in Trump America, how insidious that can be. In such a political climate, are we not making it easier for these discourses by emphasizing the importance of separating academics and laypeople? 

Edited by WildeThing

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33 minutes ago, snorkles said:

There's an interesting lack of aesthetics in this discussion. 

Do you mean about the beauty of academic prose? If so, again, that would stay in the article itself, wouldn’t it? That said, I am very much a politics over aesthetics type of person so admittedly eschewing beauty in writing is not something I would cry about if that was the cost of greater accessibility. 

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In short, I think good academic writing already is accessible writing, like with Mari Ruti or Kathleen Stewart.

I'm also not trying to defend jargon here (because I think it's often a transparent attempt to try to justify itself academically) - but I do think you risk a lot in either decontextualizing or mistranslating certain terms. For Butler, 'performativity' comes about in her work as a reference to ordinary language theorist J.L. Austin's notion of "performative utterances." While many now misread Butler's performativity to mean something for identity like putting on play as a chosen, costumed role - Austin actually meant it in the sense of words "performing" the tasks they describe to do ("I marry you," "I beg you," "I warn you," as opposed to failed performative utterances like "I seduce you," which cannot enact that which it describes in just its declaration). The reduction of it in common dialogue has (I think) led to a lot of misunderstanding towards gender and sexual identities as mere character performances which we can choose to do or not. Below is a screenshot of Butler's response towards one journalist who recently used the decontextualized term in their writing and thereby changed its meaning.

As for the Zizek point tiredderridean brings up, I think their point is that not all theory makes for good political praxis. Zizek's Hegelian approach often ends with him saying we should "opt out" of false oppositions, and he even provides Melville's Barlteby (of "I would prefer not to" scrivener story fame) as an exemplary political figure in one of his theoretical works. That being said, I love Zizek and I love Bartleby - and I do believe in the political purpose of literature as well. I think we ultimately just need to be careful about what it is that we consider our politics, if that makes sense. Summarizing texts itself isn't democratic - encouraging and enabling others to not only engage with texts, but to enter into dialogues themselves can be. (Shoutout to my guy, Walter Benjamin.)

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Edited by ecogoth

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14 minutes ago, ecogoth said:

In short, I think good academic writing already is accessible writing, like with Mari Ruti or Kathleen Stewart.

I'm also not trying to defend jargon here (because I think it's often a transparent attempt to try to justify itself academically) - but I do think you risk a lot in either decontextualizing or mistranslating certain terms. For Butler, 'performativity' comes about in her work as a reference to ordinary language theorist J.L. Austin's notion of "performative utterances." While many now misread Butler's performativity to mean something for identity like putting on play as a chosen, costumed role - Austin actually meant it in the sense of words "performing" the tasks they describe to do ("I marry you," "I beg you," "I warn you," as opposed to failed performative utterances like "I seduce you," which cannot enact that which it describes in just its declaration). The reduction of it in common dialogue has (I think) led to a lot of misunderstanding towards gender and sexual identities as mere character performances which we can choose to do or not. Below is a screenshot of Butler's response towards one journalist who recently used the decontextualized term in their writing and thereby changed its meaning.

As for the Zizek point tiredderridean brings up, I think their point is that not all theory makes for good political praxis. Zizek's Hegelian approach often ends with him saying we should "opt out" of false oppositions, and he even provides Melville's Barlteby (of "I would prefer not to" scrivener story fame) as an exemplary political figure in one of his theoretical works. That being said, I love Zizek and I love Bartleby - and I do believe in the political purpose of literature as well. I think we ultimately just need to be careful about what it is that we consider our politics, if that makes sense. Summarizing texts itself isn't democratic - encouraging and enabling others to not only engage with texts, but to enter into dialogues themselves can be. (Shoutout to my guy, Walter Benjamin.)

I don’t want to repeat myself too much so I apologize but do we really believe that performativity, and complex concepts like it, can’t be explained in simpler terms (if not in entirely layperson terms, something closer to it)? I mean, that WAS an explanation. We rely on shorter explanations all the time in non-written contexts. We can discuss HOW to best make a text more accessible and easier to understand, but I think there is less to discuss on whether it is possible or not. 

No, summarizing a text isn’t democratic by itself, but is is a way of enabling engagement. We cannot expect dialogue if we don’t make the basic tenent of dialogue: addressing someone (which does not happen if we restrict academia to academics) and intelligibility (the interlocutors need to understand what they are discussing). Perhaps summarizing is not the best way, if not, what is? What is a better way, a good way?

Thanks for the clarification on Zizek. That said, I am not sure how the politics of the articles themselves relate to the idea of making all articles accessible.

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11 hours ago, WildeThing said:

There are so many Introduction to X, Companion to Y, study guides, and websites dedicated to explaining particular texts out there. And there have been so many times in classes where someone has - to a chorus of nods - said: I found X very useful to understanding Y. This is about making scholarship internally capable of explaining itself. 

9 hours ago, WildeThing said:

We can discuss HOW to best make a text more accessible and easier to understand, but I think there is less to discuss on whether it is possible or not. 

I definitely agree on these points. There are ways to make academic writing more explicable to readers, but I'm just not sure if it should be done through short summaries of articles. As you said, resources like intro to X guides, or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or even wiki sometimes, do aid one in one's understanding of particular terms, and a similar format can certainly be adopted for an academic article, when one elaborates on, while engaging with what one is citing in the piece. Mari Ruti and Kathleen Stewart, as @ecogoth mentioned, do this quite well. (Though I personally take some issue with Ruti's critique of critique in Distillations. Again, it was due to a matter of specificity and overgeneralization: "Progressive critical theory," she writes, "defined here loosely as a combination of Lacanian psychoanalysis, continental philosophy, poststructuralism, Marxism, cultural studies, and deconstructive feminist and queer theory — has been relentlessly dismissive of habits, particularly of habits of thought that organize social collectivities." I'm not sure if this statement itself is necessarily true, given that plenty of contemporary Marxist theorists today, amongst other critical theorists, now work with affect precisely as a means of "organiz[ing] social collectivities". But anyway, I digress.) 

My hesitance wrt to short summaries is that because they are so condensed, one might just extract the limited content in them and run with it, without being made to see the nuances of the ideas when they are explored in greater detail. I picked up on your mention of Butler because inasmuch as her writing may be dense, it situates her concept of "performativity" within a specific context, vis-à-vis discussions of sexuality, class, ethnicity, vis-à-vis gender and power relations, vis-à-vis feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory etc etc. This is important because it stipulates the scope in which the term is/should be used. I'm not saying that everyone ought to slog through gender trouble just to be able to cite Butler, but that summaries such as the one she offered in her email is, while short and concise, somewhat insufficient. (I have joked, though, that I'd spent so much time going through her books, only for her to spell it all out in one email. But of course, I was kidding.)

Perhaps, then, what we need is not summaries to preface articles, but only for academics to expound on their ideas more clearly, because:  

On 12/11/2019 at 9:54 AM, EM51413 said:

 there is such a thing as bad writing or intentional convoluted-ness for the sake of hiding the inadequacies of one's ideas

But of course, we can't all write like Mari Ruti or Sara Ahmed, and we'll all also have our own stylistic preferences. Say, certain theorists that my friends find unreadable, I rather enjoy, and vice versa (you'd probably never catch me reading analytic philosophy). It's partly about finding something that suits you, and using that as your way into a particular field, I think. 

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That is definitely a concern. The hope is that the readers will not do that, or at least that the general impact outweighs that; that readers use this to do better research rather than worse, but the opposite is bound to happen to.

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19 hours ago, snorkles said:

There's an interesting lack of aesthetics in this discussion. 

This is a reductive and ungenerous take, I know, but I think the very worst academic writing adopts impenetrability as an aesthetic. As others have noted, though, it's a fallacy to conflate complexity of expression with complexity of thought, and I think there's much aesthetic pleasure to be taken from academic prose that can distill dense theoretical argument into clear and straightforward language. 

When I taught creative writing, I liked to tell my students that meaning-making is a communal process between writer and reader. I'd draw this diagram on the board with the writer on one end of the spectrum and the reader on the other, with 'X' marking the spot somewhere on that line, signifying the moment of readerly clarity and shared understanding with the writer. If the writer is doing their job properly, I argued, they should have to make just as much of an effort to reach that 'X' as the reader does; or, if the writer expects the reader to put in more work than they do to get to 'X,' then whatever 'X' is--whatever grand epiphany, groundbreaking observation, what-have-you--needs to be novel or earth-shattering enough to justify the reader's additional expenditure of effort. But it's a trick to withhold comprehensibility just because you're on some writerly power trip--unless there really is no easier way to say something, why not opt for a more accessible style?

I used this framework when discussing fiction, but I think the same thing can apply to academic prose. Of course we take great care and apply rigorous thought to our scholarly work, but that process is in many ways "off the page"--it's reading and note-taking and outlining. In composing the final product--the article, the book, the thing that we hope will ultimately find an audience--our job becomes largely one of translation: how do we render all that complicated thought into something legible not only to our peers, but to those outside of academia?

(I recognize that there is a strain of anti-intellectualism you could read into all this--why shouldn't a reader expect to work a little, or even a lot, especially with academic writing?--but I would argue it's more about democratizing the work of the academy and inviting new people into the conversation.)

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I have two cynically (and probably overly snarky responses) and two more serious responses. However, I think the serious responses are really just more elaborate articulations of the cynical responses, so feel free to read whichever suits you:

Cynical take #1: This conversation seems to assume that academic writing already is relevant to a general audience and is merely being communicated poorly. But it's far from obvious that most academic writing is relevant to a general audience even if it were communicated perfectly.

Cynical take #2: One wonders if these summaries wouldn't end up being longer than the article/book itself.

Serious take #1: @politics 'n prose's point about considering the reader when writing is very important. However, this conversation seems to take for granted that the reader in academic writing should conceivably include anyone. But it's not at all clear to me why that should be the case. All writing has an audience. When I write a letter to a friend, I write it with the assumption of his particular background knowledge, perspective, etc. When I write an Op-Ed, I write it with a particular newspaper reading public in mind. Presumably a NY Times Op-Ed is going to look different than an Op-Ed in the local paper of a small town. And there are good reasons for that. Why should academic writing be any different? This is why I think the point about writing for public venues is extremely important. We live in a world in which it's not only increasingly important to justify the existence of the humanities, but also one in which certain aspects of humanistic inquiry are undoubtedly important to contemporary society. Yet I think it would be a mistake to think that those sorts of writings would or should have the exact same content as articles that get published in academic journals. They are not merely ideas expressed differently, but fundamentally different sorts of writing addressed to very different audiences. The importance of engaging in public discourse, however, also needn't imply that all humanistic research be pertinent to a general public (and I would contend that most of it is not). That's not necessarily a bad thing though. The pursuit of knowledge and the application of that knowledge are different goals, albeit both important and frequently intersecting.

Serious take #2: As a literary scholar with a background in analytic philosophy, I'm certainly no fan of jargon. I think it's use should be limited to when it's necessary. However, it's interesting to me that this discussion of summaries has focused primarily on the articulation of jargon. But isn't that what dictionaries of literary terms are for? I don't quite see why the author of an academic article needs to duplicate that job. Certainly, if a new theoretical concept is being introduced, that should be articulated clearly, but I would hold that standard should always be in place (which is not to say that it also is and maybe these reference materials need to be updated more frequently and written in a more accessible fashion). I also think it's fair to assume a certain amount of knowledge (or ability to use reference materials) on the part of the reader. Doing otherwise, seems to needlessly increase the length of the works in question (which also isn't going to do much to attract a general audience). Consider a recent abstract from New Literary History: 

This essay advances several overlapping claims about how to conceptualize fiction within the density of historical time. First, I show that fictionality is entangled with ideologies of disenchantment and secularization. There is a long tradition in the West of both distinguishing and deriving fictionality from categories of bad belief; within the framework of the secularization thesis, possessing fiction—which is to say, having the literary infrastructure for a "willing suspension of disbelief"—becomes the mark of an achieved secular modernity. That history suggests the need to reconsider, in turn, what Catherine Gallagher excludes from her well-known account in "The Rise of Fictionality." The present essay seeks to theorize fictionality otherwise, in a manner that is hermeneutic and comparative. To do so, the second section addresses the archive of medieval literature and advocates for a shift in analytic focus, away from contemporary theorizations of literature and toward literary practice. "Commonplaces" of fictionality—or the shared motifs, genres, and contexts for semantic unearnestness—offer one strategy for doing so. The essay's final section then contends that these arguments are related to an important trend in medieval studies, a trend of arguably anachronistic scholarship on topics like medieval disability and medieval race, which deploys modern constructs in nonmodern archives. On the model of such undertakings, a comparative poetics of fiction stands to pluralize the literary-critical concept by returning it to its volatile interface with language's capacity to depict what is nonactual and the reinventions that result.

(Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/731674)

All in all this seems to be a pretty good abstract for what appears to be an interesting essay. Some terms are probably needlessly obscure ("the density of historical time"). Others are certainly jargon in some sense of the term: ideology, disenchantment, secularization. Book (and very large ones at that) have been written on each of these topics. I would certainly expect that the author will situate her use of these terms in the broader discourses. But the abstract actually seems to function as a pretty good summary of what the essay is doing. To entirely remove all of the theoretical terminology would seem to require making the summary much longer than it currently is (plausibly to the length of the article itself). And I'm just not entirely sure what is to be gained by that. Again, I'm all for academics writing clearly and using less unnecessary jargon. Additional summaries, however, seem to be a fairly artificial bandage for making humanistic scholarship more relevant to a wider public. 

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11 hours ago, Glasperlenspieler said:

Cynical take #1: This conversation seems to assume that academic writing already is relevant to a general audience and is merely being communicated poorly. But it's far from obvious that most academic writing is relevant to a general audience even if it were communicated perfectly.

Serious take #1: @politics 'n prose's point about considering the reader when writing is very important. However, this conversation seems to take for granted that the reader in academic writing should conceivably include anyone. But it's not at all clear to me why that should be the case. All writing has an audience. When I write a letter to a friend, I write it with the assumption of his particular background knowledge, perspective, etc. When I write an Op-Ed, I write it with a particular newspaper reading public in mind. Presumably a NY Times Op-Ed is going to look different than an Op-Ed in the local paper of a small town. And there are good reasons for that. Why should academic writing be any different? This is why I think the point about writing for public venues is extremely important. We live in a world in which it's not only increasingly important to justify the existence of the humanities, but also one in which certain aspects of humanistic inquiry are undoubtedly important to contemporary society. Yet I think it would be a mistake to think that those sorts of writings would or should have the exact same content as articles that get published in academic journals. They are not merely ideas expressed differently, but fundamentally different sorts of writing addressed to very different audiences. The importance of engaging in public discourse, however, also needn't imply that all humanistic research be pertinent to a general public (and I would contend that most of it is not). That's not necessarily a bad thing though. The pursuit of knowledge and the application of that knowledge are different goals, albeit both important and frequently intersecting.

 

Academic IS relevant to the general public. As I mentioned in my original post, scholarship is about producing and uncovering knowledge, and knowledge does not have owners. Any semblance of a notion that academic writing is only for academics begs the question of what is the point of writing at all? For instance, why do we assume that laypeople would not be interested in literary theory, when there are hundreds of "amateur" analytical pieces on non-academic platforms like Wordpress and Youtube. Academic writing is highly specific, so of course most people would not be interested in any given article (which is also true of academic readers in general). Isn't non-inclusion a form of exclusion, particularly when the argument is to maintain jargon? It is one thing to say that most academic writing is not pertinent to the general public, but using that to justify its inaccessibility seems like a strange proposition. What is the purpose of excluding certain readers in this way, to decide for them that something is not pertinent? Does this not fuel the distrust in intellectuals, and aid the dismissal of the humanities?

I'll repeat, again, that this is not about changing the articles themselves, which is what many of these points argue against. Write for your particular audience. Keep the content as it is. Write differently. Just provide a way in to the text.

11 hours ago, Glasperlenspieler said:

Cynical take #2: One wonders if these summaries wouldn't end up being longer than the article/book itself.

Serious take #2: As a literary scholar with a background in analytic philosophy, I'm certainly no fan of jargon. I think it's use should be limited to when it's necessary. However, it's interesting to me that this discussion of summaries has focused primarily on the articulation of jargon. But isn't that what dictionaries of literary terms are for? I don't quite see why the author of an academic article needs to duplicate that job. Certainly, if a new theoretical concept is being introduced, that should be articulated clearly, but I would hold that standard should always be in place (which is not to say that it also is and maybe these reference materials need to be updated more frequently and written in a more accessible fashion). I also think it's fair to assume a certain amount of knowledge (or ability to use reference materials) on the part of the reader. Doing otherwise, seems to needlessly increase the length of the works in question (which also isn't going to do much to attract a general audience). Consider a recent abstract from New Literary History: 

This essay advances several overlapping claims about how to conceptualize fiction within the density of historical time. First, I show that fictionality is entangled with ideologies of disenchantment and secularization. There is a long tradition in the West of both distinguishing and deriving fictionality from categories of bad belief; within the framework of the secularization thesis, possessing fiction—which is to say, having the literary infrastructure for a "willing suspension of disbelief"—becomes the mark of an achieved secular modernity. That history suggests the need to reconsider, in turn, what Catherine Gallagher excludes from her well-known account in "The Rise of Fictionality." The present essay seeks to theorize fictionality otherwise, in a manner that is hermeneutic and comparative. To do so, the second section addresses the archive of medieval literature and advocates for a shift in analytic focus, away from contemporary theorizations of literature and toward literary practice. "Commonplaces" of fictionality—or the shared motifs, genres, and contexts for semantic unearnestness—offer one strategy for doing so. The essay's final section then contends that these arguments are related to an important trend in medieval studies, a trend of arguably anachronistic scholarship on topics like medieval disability and medieval race, which deploys modern constructs in nonmodern archives. On the model of such undertakings, a comparative poetics of fiction stands to pluralize the literary-critical concept by returning it to its volatile interface with language's capacity to depict what is nonactual and the reinventions that result.

(Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/731674)

All in all this seems to be a pretty good abstract for what appears to be an interesting essay. Some terms are probably needlessly obscure ("the density of historical time"). Others are certainly jargon in some sense of the term: ideology, disenchantment, secularization. Book (and very large ones at that) have been written on each of these topics. I would certainly expect that the author will situate her use of these terms in the broader discourses. But the abstract actually seems to function as a pretty good summary of what the essay is doing. To entirely remove all of the theoretical terminology would seem to require making the summary much longer than it currently is (plausibly to the length of the article itself). And I'm just not entirely sure what is to be gained by that. Again, I'm all for academics writing clearly and using less unnecessary jargon. Additional summaries, however, seem to be a fairly artificial bandage for making humanistic scholarship more relevant to a wider public. 

The summary is supposed to be a summary of the main ideas of the text, so a dictionary would not acheive this (note that there were other benefits to this idea which a summary was useful for, not just making the text accessible). It is not meant to explain all the difficult terms, but the point was that it COULD if that was necessary. While the summary you suggest would be longer, I am not sure it would as long as you state. That said, I don't necessarily think a longer-yet-simpler version of an article is a bad thing, though it would not be a summary, of course. Perhaps the issue here is thinking that the summary must be perfect, that it will address every term and every possible source of confusion. As you say, that might be overly-laborious. Perhaps if these summaries have a cap, a 2 page max, for instance, the idea would be that the author does the best they can to make the text accessible. While it would not do everything, it would certainly make it more accessible than the current state.

It is certainly a bandage but sometimes bandages are useful. That said, this thread does suggest that, helpful or not, this is not something that people seem interested in, so I am not sure that there is much use in continuing to argue the case.

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4 hours ago, WildeThing said:

Academic IS relevant to the general public. As I mentioned in my original post, scholarship is about producing and uncovering knowledge, and knowledge does not have owners. Any semblance of a notion that academic writing is only for academics begs the question of what is the point of writing at all? For instance, why do we assume that laypeople would not be interested in literary theory, when there are hundreds of "amateur" analytical pieces on non-academic platforms like Wordpress and Youtube. Academic writing is highly specific, so of course most people would not be interested in any given article (which is also true of academic readers in general). Isn't non-inclusion a form of exclusion, particularly when the argument is to maintain jargon? It is one thing to say that most academic writing is not pertinent to the general public, but using that to justify its inaccessibility seems like a strange proposition. What is the purpose of excluding certain readers in this way, to decide for them that something is not pertinent? Does this not fuel the distrust in intellectuals, and aid the dismissal of the humanities?

I think this hits the nail on the head, and the point about armchair analysts is especially salient. The past few years have seen the rise of the video essay on YouTube, with folks like, say, Lindsay Ellis producing relatively rigorous pop culture critiques. I think the never-ending churn of (and I hate this word) content--thanks to streaming platforms, digital publishing, etc.--has created a complementary demand for critical writing on the books, TV shows, and films of the day. Academics, particularly those in the humanities, should be embracing this moment more fully, because in a lot of ways this really is our time to shine.

This is not to suggest that all literary theorists should drop what they're doing and compose treatises on Game of Thrones or whatever, but merely to say that the archetypes and stories we're seeing replicated in today's popular media (not to mention the broader cultural and sociopolitical trends) surely have their roots in earlier literary/historical periods. I think it's reasonable to expect academics to be able to draw those parallels for readers, whether those readers are fellow academics or part of a more general audience. More to the point, I think contemporary audiences are far more receptive to this stuff than we might want to think: if you're a medievalist, for example, and you can find a way to engage with that Game of Thrones fan in your scholarly work, then you might open the door for that reader to explore the larger canon and develop some interest in creative and critical work of/about that era. Sure, that doesn't have to be the only goal of scholarly writing--indeed, we also want to contribute to the discourse of our field, converse with our fellow academics, and carve out a niche for ourselves--but it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility, or contrary to the spirit of scholarship in the first place.

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A few more thoughts and then I'm probably out:

I see know that there are at least two senses of 'relevant' that pertinent to this discussion, and I may have latched onto one mistakenly, when the other is actually what is being discussed:

1. Literary scholarship is relevant because there are many people in the general public that are interested in related matters.

2. Literary scholarship is relevant because it has a meaningful impact on the contemporary world.

If we're talking about relevance in the first sense, then I certainly agree that literary scholarship is relevant to the general public. I still think that I would rather see more of an emphasis on having academics write for more popular venues. In some ways, the sciences are a good model for this in which researchers publish very technical studies in academic journals and then there are other venues like Popular Science or Popular mechanics specifically designed for communicating these developments to a broad audience. In philosophy, things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Richard Marshall's interviews are good examples of similar sorts of venues. For literary scholarship and cultural studies, literary magazines like the LA Review of Books also play an important role here. I prefer this approach for several reasons. 1) I really do think that academic writing is a different sort of writing than writing for general venues. And I think that writing for a general audience is very hard and that many academics can't do it well. So it may make sense for the people who are skilled at it to be focusing on it rather than have academics do a poor job of it. 2) I really don't think every article published in an academic journal is that valuable. (I tend to think that as a result of career pressures academics publish too much). So rather than writing a summary for every article, having people who have a in depth knowledge of the field could write essays covering the field more broadly and communicating its important insights. This also helps prevent us from simply maintaining the academic article and mongoraph as the necessary building blocks of scholarship. 3) Finally, it's important to remember that most people don't have access to these articles anyways because they are behind a paywall. If the goal is the democratization of knowledge, then the first order of business is a complete overhaul of academic publishing. 

Regarding relevance in the second sense, I really wish I believed it was true, but I'm increasingly skeptical. Full disclosure, I'm midway through a PhD program in literary studies and am increasingly plagued by doubts about the relevance of my own scholarship and that of fields I am familiar with, especially in a world in which right-wing populism doesn't seem to be going away and climate change is apt to fundamentally change the face of the earth in a very short period of time. So this is the position I was coming from in writing the above. Maybe this is just graduate school depression talking, but I do think it's a mistake to simply assume that what we do is relevant in the second sense, with out critical engaging that assumption.

On a final note, I'll reiterate my support for academics writing as clearly and simply as possible (but, as Einstein tells us, not any simpler). In that vein, I find it deeply ironic that scholars like Judith Butler and Stanley Cavell (who I find infuriating to read) are both ostensibly influenced by J.L. Austin, who was probably one of the clearest writers of academic prose in the English language.

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I completely agree with you about the first type of relevance. Those are good ideas and perhaps they are better ways forward, though I am usually believe in cumulative measures rather than either/or.

As for the second type of relevance, I am sure that most articles are not impactful (though an article doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to have an impact). However, I personally (emphasis on personally) think that that’s an issue. I do believe that (at least my) academic writing should strive for at least minimal relevance. There’s a lot of potential in academia, especially cumulatively, so I think all writing should be political (positively political, all writing is always political). I have been having similar thoughts to you in my past few years in grad school, and have grown quite disappointed with the lack of interest by many in academia to pursue relevant scholarship (relevance of the second type). So I agree that academic writing is not relevant in this way in most cases, I just think we should do our best to make it so (admittedly, this is not achievable through form but through content).

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11 hours ago, WildeThing said:

I completely agree with you about the first type of relevance. Those are good ideas and perhaps they are better ways forward, though I am usually believe in cumulative measures rather than either/or.

As for the second type of relevance, I am sure that most articles are not impactful (though an article doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to have an impact). However, I personally (emphasis on personally) think that that’s an issue. I do believe that (at least my) academic writing should strive for at least minimal relevance. There’s a lot of potential in academia, especially cumulatively, so I think all writing should be political (positively political, all writing is always political). I have been having similar thoughts to you in my past few years in grad school, and have grown quite disappointed with the lack of interest by many in academia to pursue relevant scholarship (relevance of the second type). So I agree that academic writing is not relevant in this way in most cases, I just think we should do our best to make it so (admittedly, this is not achievable through form but through content).

just came across a comment that rita felski made on twitter that i thought i'd throw into this discussion, since i'm interested to hear your thoughts on this matter.
but first, for a bit of context: following aaron hanlon's tweet about how literary scholars sometimes don't "love" or are "fans of" what they study ("the analogy I often use is expecting a physicist to have a favorite particle and if they don’t you assume they’re unhappy"), there ensued a discussion on whether enjoyment is, or should be part of the point of literary studies. that is, if literary critique sometimes elides enjoyment (i know, this is getting into the very contentious territory of "critique vs postcritique"). anyway, what felski had to say on this matter was:

"I think this is perhaps the key division among literary scholars: attachment to objects (which we share with lay readers) versus attachments to methods (which we don't). Perfectly possible to be attached to both, of course!" 

so, a few questions: 
1. is our current debate on jargon-packed academic writing tethered to a sort of "attachment to methods"? (it would seem so, if we were to take into account how much the discussion was centred around theory/ideology, but i'm curious to know if there are other ways in which literary studies might seem, or be made opaque to lay readers.) 
2. do we really not share the same "attachment to methods" with lay readers? and is it just me or is that a slightly elitist opinion? or, is felski simply being realistic about the situation?
(i've always liked to have more faith in her so-called "lay readers," since i think it's rather condescending to believe that people aren't going to be interested in, or that they can't appreciate and work with more specialised methods. i mean, as literary critics today, it seems we're often being called to be "amateurs" in fields related to, but aren't exactly our own. someone working in the intersection of literature and law might, say, have to teach themselves about an entire legislative system, whereas someone whose work draws on STS might have to learn how to navigate scientific terms. we're always drawing on, and adapting methods from other fields for our own uses and interests — aarthi vadde and saikat majumar's recently published book, the critic as amateur would probably be able to speak to this better than i can — so i don't want to presume that "lay readers" don't have the capacity to do the same.) 
3. to paraphrase aaron hanlon's reply to felski, does the end of lit study amount to aesthetic judgement or historical/critical knowledge? or, in other words, what is it exactly that we, in academia (contra, perhaps, the pop culture critiques @politics 'n prose mentioned), are trying to communicate to our readers? 

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Without reading the pieces I don't feel like I'm in a position to comment on Felski or Hanlon's comments, and to be totally honest I'm not sure of how they connect to the discussion so I don't know how to approach the questions. (I'm not dismissing the questions or attacking them, I just don't have a response based on the context, sorry)

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