Transparency as an Academic Stratagem?

Transparency isn’t something that is seen often in the world of academia. In my view, this is largely due to academia’s long tradition of gatekeeping. Ever since the sophists were wandering around Ancient Greece, education has been a symbol of status and often an indication of wealth; something only for those who deserved to know. Part of this was study– long hours studying ancient languages and the masters of certain disciplines. We still do this today, although with a smaller emphasis on dead languages. There is still an element of gatekeeping. Even if students no longer have to learn Latin to read academic texts, they certainly must become indoctrinated with the jargon of the discipline.

Disciplinary jargon is a double edged sword. Learning disciplinary jargon is rather a right of passage. In order to be privy to the conversations within a discipline, students must understand the language they use to communicate. For rhetoric, we learn things like the three types of rhetoric: forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. Along with the four (or three, depending on who you talk to and what era you refer to) types of appeals: logos, ethos, pathos, and kairos. A rhetorician might go on about a particularly kairotic speech of event, but someone outside the discipline might have a tough time understanding exactly what the rhetorician means by that. But, another person in the field of rhetoric knows exactly what the original rhetorician meant. On the other hand, a student of literature might gush about post-modernism and the rhetorician would have next to no idea what that means (well, to be honest, most people don’t know what post-modernism is, even lit students).

Use of disciplinary jargon is a necessary evil in academia. It can and does serve as a gatekeeping tool; however it is generally accessible and does improve disciplinary communication.  If you have ever read an academic article, you can attest to the fact that heavy use of jargon and $100 words. Sentences can be so dense that often even more experienced graduate students must read with a dictionary nearby. What is the purpose of $100 words and jargon if it mangles the meaning? What is the purpose of forcing the reader to suss out the argument and evidence instead of stating it and explaining it clearly? Often, I think, it’s to force the reader to believe in the author’s intelligence. “Look, look here!” the author says, “I am smart! I know all these words! And if you want to be privy to my brilliance, you must learn them too!”

See, academia is a game of intellectual chicken. It’s why graduate classes are so intimidating at first glance. It seems that everyone already knows the material. They have all this background knowledge, discussion turns to the Foucauldian panopticon or the Platonic view of Truth and, if you have not been indoctrinated, you are lost. But the truth is that graduate school is fake-it-until-you-make-it. No one wants to show their flaws nor be caught off their game– a game of intellectual chicken. A game that makes if very difficult to be transparent about thoughts, knowledge, research strategies (and flaws), and writing.

If a person’s academic career is built upon their ability to be confidently intelligent, why would transparency be rewarded? It is, sometimes. Good researchers include missteps and oversights in the write up of their work. Good researchers acknowledge bias. This is a form of accepted transparency. What is not as well received is discussing openly the struggle that is behind the article; the road full of dead ends and the nights spent staring at a blinking cursor, willing the right words to appear. As an academic,  you want to appear effortless. No chinks in your armor. 

I don’t think this is practical. Especially in this day and age of information and technology and the way  academia is evolving in today’s society. We need more transparency. We need better communication between the disciplines, and we need to break down the barriers that bare centuries’ worth of gatekeeping practices.

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