Deciphering academia’s wordiest sentences

By seeta.bhardwa@…, 5 February, 2018

Universities urge students to develop a clear writing style and this quality is taken into consideration by markers. Yet the academic writing found in journals and books is often dense and wordy at best, and completely undecipherable at worst. As a political theory master’s student, I spend two-thirds of my time plodding through incomprehensible books and journal articles. Just last week, I came across such a complex sentence that I felt compelled to share it with the world.

So, I set up a blog to archive all those sentences from academic journal articles that I have to read multiple times to understand.  

Let me give you an example plucked from Jürgen Habermas’ article, “The constitutionalization of international law and the legitimation problems of a constitution for world society”. I know, right?  Believe me though, it is a genuinely thought-provoking read if you can get through sentences such as this: “The monistic construction should not lead to a mediatization of the world of states by the authority of a world republic which ignores the fund of trust accumulated in the domestic sphere and the associated loyalty of citizens to their respective nations.

If this is the kind of academic writing that students are expected to aspire to, then the chance of academia staying relevant is slim. Making your writing style accessible does not mean getting rid of nuance and sophistication, it means writing in a way that is engaging and inclusive. Basically, it means not making readers feel foolish because they don’t know what “mediatization” means. In fairness, I’m not quite sure I know myself.

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I’ve looked back at my own “academic” essays and cringed at how pompous I could be. Some are so bad that I’ve even included them on the blog. Academia can encourage pretentiousness. However, altering an institutionalised mindset is never easy and I’m aware that I cannot change the face of academic writing overnight. 

The point of this blog is not to pick on anyone in particular, or say that all academic writing is awful. In fact, there are some beautiful writers out there. Ultimately, though, we cannot appreciate good writing, which, for me, means writing that is inclusive, accessible and engaging, unless we distinguish it from the nonsense flaunted as “intelligent” writing.

A few more examples

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Judith Butler, , (1997).

“If and to the extent that constitutional patriotism can bind democratic citizens together, I argue, if and to the extent that it can create a civic identity based on liberal and democratic principles, then it will define “others” of that identity (the illiberal, the anti-democratic), creating both a potential for aggressiveness toward those others and a strategic incentive for elites to exploit that potential.”

Clarissa Hayward, Democracy’s identity problem: is ‘constitutional patriotism’ the answer?”, Constellations, (2007).

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Having to wade through so much dense academic writing seems odd given that students are encouraged to write concisely, argues University of Sheffield student Enya Evans

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