writing away professional narcissism

Writing is a continual learning process, where the possibilities for improving one’s communication skills are endless.  However, in the academy, deteriorating writing is one likely outcome, especially if one absorbs the norms of academic writing.

Recently, as part of a professional development workshop, I came across Steven Pinker‘s critique of academic writing norms, titled “Why Academic Writing Stinks and How to Fix It.”  In it, Pinker slays one standby of how researchers justify the importance of their work (i.e., citing scholars’ increasing attention to a particular topic).  He attributes this gambit to “professional narcissism” and advocates assuming that readers already are interested in the topic:

Academics live in two universes: the world of the thing they study (the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the development of language in children, the Taiping Rebellion in China) and the world of their profession (getting articles published, going to conferences, keeping up with the trends and gossip). Most of a researcher’s waking hours are spent in the second world, and it’s easy for him to confuse the two. The result is the typical opening of an academic paper:
In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have turned
their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent research on this process will be reviewed.

No offense, but few people are interested in how professors spend their time. Classic style ignores the hired help and looks directly at what they are being paid to study:
All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?

Of course, sometimes the topic of conversation really is the activity of researchers, such as an overview intended to introduce graduate students or other insiders to the scholarly literature. But researchers are apt to lose sight of whom they are writing for, and narcissistically describe the obsessions of their federation rather than what the audience wants to know.

Download the full PDF of Pinker’s essay and other colleagues’ recommendations for improving writing here at the CHE.


Written by katherinechen

April 28, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Posted in academia

Tagged with

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thanks for this!



    April 30, 2017 at 6:56 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: