I Do It For the Faculty, But I Gotta Keep It Hood

Maybe I’m oversensitive about this, given as I’ll be writing a Social Studies thesis in two years, but Will of Ordinary Gentlemen’s criticism of the prose stylings of Jeff Rosenfeld (linked by Conor Friedersdorf) seems oddly detached from the realities of academia:

Among other relics from middle school, my CD case still contains well-worn copies of both Pinkerton and The Blue Album, so I read Jeffrey Rosenberg’s [sic] undergraduate thesis on Weezer’s odd career arc with great interest (via). My interest waned, however, as the piece wore on; not because Rosenberg’s ideas were stupid or uninteresting, but because his thesis is written like every other piece of turgid, academic prose.

OK, that’s unfair. There are, in fact, accessible academic works floating around out there. And Rosenberg’s thesis really isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s pretty darn interesting – more interesting than anything I wrote as an undergrad (a low bar, to be sure). But it is written in the oddly stilted, formal style of most academic papers (THIS IS MY THESIS STATEMENT), and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I mean, I understand why an undergraduate’s writing style would be modeled on other academics’. But a paper on the fall and rise of America’s premier geek-rock band needn’t be impenetrable to a broader audience.

But undergraduate theses aren’t written for a “broader audience”. They’re written for the two, maybe three faculty members and/or grad students who’ll be grading your thesis. Those are the people who’ll be deciding if it gets highest honors or high honors or honors, and given as that grade has a pretty big impact on the Latin honors one graduates with, most students are going to be focused on pleasing them, not blog readers six years out. Being academics, thesis graders are accustomed to “turgid, academic prose”, and will thus prefer theses which use it. This is especially true with a thesis like Rosenfeld’s, which more than most needs to establish its seriousness to readers who might be skeptical of its academic virtue from the outset.

5 thoughts on “I Do It For the Faculty, But I Gotta Keep It Hood

  1. From the perspective of an undergraduate, the logic of adopting a certain style to appeal to a narrow, academic audience is pretty irresistible. But my larger point is that there’s no reason why Rosenfeld’s thesis – not to mention academic papers from other fields that tend to attract general interest – can’t be written in a more accessible style without compromising analytical rigor. I’ve had some interesting pushback in comments, and I think there is a legitimate debate over accessibility versus scholarship, but I certainly didn’t mean to criticize Rosenfeld for playing to his audience.
    Also, I can’t believe I screwed up the author’s name that badly. Mea culpa.

  2. No worries. I agree that it’d be possible for Rosenfeld to err on the side of accessibility, but the perception of rigor is as important as rigor itself, and non-jargony language would harm perceptions form faculty even if the piece doesn’t suffer.

  3. It ought to be pointed out that the Social Studies universe trends towards a consuming black hole of ever-worsening prose as students compete to out-“teleological” and out-“chimera” themselves to a summa reading. Oftentimes it is just as good a gamble—and a certain benefit to sanity and clarity—to write in a riskier, more compelling style.
    Also, in my URL amnesia I found the following: http://dylanmatthews.blogspot.com

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