It has all the earmarks of traditional scholarly writing: long, clunky sentences, passive voice, recurrent jargon.
Yet the meaning itself is fairly easy to grasp, and I think most of us understand why it’s written the way it is.
Perhaps that’s consistent with the introspective, philosophical nature of the academic enterprise—let’s not forget what the “Ph.” in “Ph.
D.” stands for—but it doesn’t translate well to the world outside of academia, which virtually all our students will inhabit.
This discussion is actually part of a larger debate about what constitutes good writing.
I always tell my first-year composition students, when I’m trying to correct all the misconceptions about writing they’ve picked up in high school—you can’t use personal pronouns or start a sentence with a conjunction, etc.—that the only reasonable standard for good writing is what good writers actually do.But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out neither of those explanations rings true. “Simple,” in this case, does not mean “simplistic.” Granted, Gladwell is one of the very best writers working today.But isn’t that exactly what we ought to be teaching our students—what the best writers do?Nor will more than a fraction of them go on to become academics, thank goodness.The overwhelming majority won’t be writing academic prose in their professional lives, so why should we be teaching it to them in college, much less high school?I’m not going to tell you what was said after that, but you can probably imagine. But the incident got me to thinking, once again, about the difference between academic and conversational prose and the irrational bias so many writing teachers have in favor of the former.After all, I’ve heard some of my college-level colleagues voice similar complaints—that students don’t know how to write academic prose. The fact that they’re students, and that they’re operating in an academic environment, does not make them academics.Bos and Vaughn (2002) similarly noted categories that help student learners distinguish between literal and interpretive questions--skills that they titled textually explicit, textually implicit, and scriptually implicit.I say that I chose this passage “more or less at random” because I was looking specifically for something that would serve as a classic example of academic prose without being too egregious—which this isn’t.How many of our best nonfiction writers, the ones who are widely read and have a genuine impact, write in an academic style? More to the point, how many professionals these days, apart from actual academics, write in an academic style? Of course, lawyers and businesspeople have their own stylistic quirks, which can be even more annoying than academic prose.But the very best writers, in practically every field, avoid those quirks. Admittedly, there are conversations and there are Two academics talking to each other would sound very different from two corporate types, who would sound different from two restaurant managers or two custodians.