Complex academic writing excludes students and minorities

Illustration by Loki Bischoff

Diana Flores, Contributing Writer

I’ve spent so many nights reading long and jargon-filled articles that I’ve mastered the skill of skimming just to muscle through 100-page readings. Reading soon becomes a function rather than an experience. What once was something enjoyable, can become grueling and unstimulating. 

The constant worry of not feeling “smart enough” discourages many students not only from participating in classroom settings, but also makes us question our ability to succeed within our fields. 

Whether you’re in the sciences or humanities, you will likely encounter professors who are so trained in their niche that they often forget how to communicate and relay their knowledge to novice students.

As a political science major, most of my work revolves around dense reading and writing. I sometimes worry that I’m not writing at the same standards as my peers and other academics in my courses and begin to doubt myself. As a first-generation Latina student raised by immigrant parents, most of my challenges have been trying to obtain and practice these skills on my own.

Many times, my writing has been described as “too conversational” or “too informal” by my professors. I am often confused by this because the purpose of writing should be to have a conversation with your audience — is it not?

Scholarly discourse is a game played by elitists. Writing that reads as clear and concise should not be deemed insufficiently insightful simply because it’s seen as accessible work. Like Hakeem Jefferson, a professor of political science at Stanford, once said; “Rigor is not incompatible with legibility.”

Those in the ivory tower should consider this statement as they think about their next publications and who they want their work to truly reach. On the rare occasion a non-academic would want to read an academic article, they may not have the time to go back and reread that same convoluted sentence a third time, or have the expertise necessary to power through such a complex piece.

Training students under such outdated notions further reinforces the idea that success can only be achieved through the comprehension of jargon-filled reading and writing. Our academic programs suffer when the students we train don’t reflect the world we study.

Academic success often depends on one’s ability to hold conversations with other experts in their respective fields, as opposed to ordinary people. Whether they’re interested in the political behaviors of youth violence or health disparities among Latina women, researchers have studied the social and scientific behaviors of many marginalized groups, yet these very groups are often absent from important conversations.

My question then becomes: what is the purpose of conducting this research and engaging in these conversations if they are only understood by those in elite academic circles?

Researchers should care about their storytelling just as much as their findings, with the aim of maximizing understanding of their work. Employing creative writing among those in the ivory tower would not only provide a way to engage readers, but also diversify research writing.

We must find our own voice and remember that whatever feedback we may get, we can’t let academia beat the friendly writing out of us — the world is already full of unwelcoming writing. 

I believe any kind of research is capable of liberating and educating communities that reach far across the globe — it just has to be accessible enough. As sociologist Anthony Ocampo once said, “Research can save lives, so long as the rhetoric in which it’s packaged resonates with those who need to hear it the most.”

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