The Academic Writing Debate

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At the end of last month, Nicholas Kristof published a piece in the New York Times calling for academics to come out from their insular bubble and participate in the mainstream conversation—especially with respect to writing. Joshua Rothman responded in the New Yorker that academic writing is only as “knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish” as the academy itself.

Now, professor and writer Emily Jordi has joined the fray. Up at the Feminist Wire, “Why is Academic Writing so Beautiful? Notes on Black Feminist Scholarship” takes issue with the idea that all academic writing is impenetrable:

For the black feminist tradition of academic writing I am describing, this has never meant simplifying one’s ideas, rejecting critical theory, or aiming for immediate accessibility; it has meant taking responsibility for one’s own language of complex thought and presenting ideas in a way that invites understanding. And—crucially—it has meant deciding to do so in the 1980s and 1990s, at the very moment when the specialized vocabulary and complex syntax of poststructuralist theory was in vogue. The fact that “difficult” academic writing has its own value and purpose is another subject. My point here is that before we engage in hand-wringing about the way academics are forced to write, we should recall black women critics who intentionally pioneered and sustain a tradition of understated, beautiful prose.


Marisa Siegel lives, writes, and edits near NYC. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Mills College in Oakland, CA. Her essay “Inherited Anger” appears in the anthology Burn It Down (Seal Press, 2019) and her debut poetry chapbook, Fixed Stars, is forthcoming from Burrow Press in 2022. She is editor-in-chief and owner of The Rumpus. Follow her on Twitter at @marisasaystweet. More from this author →