The Nature of Academic Discourse

College students are often frustrated by professors and textbooks that seem to be speaking in a foreign language. This “foreign language” has both positive and negative aspects. First, it is important to recognize that it is necessary. Each academic discipline has its own vocabulary because it is trying to discuss a different part of the intellectual world. Terms are developed as ways of encapsulating ideas. In this way, such terms are useful because once understood, they simplify the debate because a the concept need not be repeated. As one becomes more advanced in a discipline an increasing number of advanced terms may be necessary to adequately effectively describe one’s ideas — much like a medical discussion might use very precise terms.

Understanding what the terms denote or literally mean is actually an easier part of entering an academic discipline. It is  harder is to understand what the terms may connote or imply. The connotation is built up over time as various publications use them. For example, the word “Weberian” denotes the thinking of Weber, however his thinking may have a special place within an academic discipline, as compared to say Marx. Therefore, to say Weberian is could be a way of saying “not Marxist” or shorthand to refer to the defining idea of Weber. This is the kind of conversation that one must be initiated into through study and mentoring from others who are in the conversation.

An excellent instructor has the ability to bridge the gap between the non-specialist and the specialist. They are able to explain the complex ideas which the specialized vocabulary refers to and help you into the conversation. Some professors do not have this orientation. They will speak to you in the language they read and write in their technical journals. This is where the negative side begins to come in. The Bible says that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” Some who enter academia become puffed up by the knowledge and they become more interested in their own thought than in teaching others. They become proud of their knowledge of  The Christian heart is the opposite — our longing to help others causes us to work hard to communicate clearly and effectively to others who may understand less. Another related effect is that those who may actually not know that much will bury us in a blizzard of vocabulary in their effort to appear smart. We read and are confused not because we are dumb, but because what they wrote was confused and confusing. They use terms imprecisely and in long sentences with long words. The goal of speaking and writing is to communicate, not to impress, unfortunately, some people become intoxicated by the pride of knowledge and forget this.

In some cases this phenomenon can invade the entire discourse. A regime of terminology can be built up not for the purpose of helping the discussion, but for the purpose of obfuscating the truth. One can use very advanced theories and terms which are really just ways of hiding a subversive idea, or the denial of the truth. In this way they can advance the idea without others detecting it, and also get to look down on others  as less intelligent. The most brilliant people are able to make the complex simple. Unfortunately, there seem to be many more who are adroit at making the simple complex so no one can understand it. It is much easier to make a mess than to clean it up. And likewise, it is much easier to produce something hard to understand, than it is to understand it. So do not let yourself become intimidated by “complex” writing or ideas. Sometimes it represents your need to study the ideas, sometimes it represents your need to get inside the discourse, and sometimes it represents someone who is trying harder to impress or obfuscate than to communicate.

This street runs both ways, however. Because academic discourse is designed to contain, manipulate, and sometimes hide complex ideas, we can use it to our advantage. I remember one literature professor who gave a talk to the English department on “eucharistic sacramentality.” This was his way of discussing faith in Christ. More directly though, the ideas that are being discussed are either Godly and edifying or they are not. “Dialectical materialism” is a way of talking about the atheistic ideal of Marxism/Communism. Perhaps you could use “postmodernist idealism” as a way of chipping away at the atheistic assumptions and terrible fruit of “dialectical materialism.” There is no necessity to use God, Christ or anything else, any more than they are using “Communist” as a way of describing their ideas. In the academy the discourse remains civil by moving to the ideas behind the popular terms.

You will also find that in order to advance a countervailing idea, it is best to be very limited and specific in your claims. Find a weak spot and raise a very limited question using strong support. Then you will be inside of the debate. When you make broad sweeping claims, you will find yourself outside of the debate and the academy. You have to engage it where it is and help to push it in the right direction. Therefore in any discipline, one of your first jobs is to identify what are the primary views. At least one of them will reflect a very ungodly perspective, and at least one of them will reflect a mildly Godly perspective. Find where the debate is among them, renovate the Godly perspective, and enter the field at just the point of discourse.

Unfortunately we live in an era where the historic nature of this discourse and the Academy itself as a place where debate is welcomed are under attack. Increasingly students and especially professors find themselves handcuffed in what they are able to say. Darwinism, for example  is an orthodoxy that even to challenge it is considered reason enough to rule you out of court, no evidence needed. It’s the new faith. This mindset is  growing in other disciplines as well, which is why groups like the National Association of Scholars and the Historical Society have cropped up to preserve true academic freedom of discourse and thought.

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