There is an epidemic, no, scratch that, a Pandemic of Academic Bullshit. If you spend any length of time with academia or are predisposed to academic people in general or, heaven forbid, are genuinely academic yourself, then you have come across this yourself. You may have written a paper on a topic you didn't fully understand or needed to stretch a few two page ideas into ten page essays. You could know a professor of literary theory and had them explain something deep and meaningful about some author's latent homosexuality or misogyny at you. It is hard not to come across it in many disciplines, especially disciplines that require major forests to write their ideas down.

A pair of professors of mine took an entire class to talk about graduate school, and specifically, to dissuade people from going into a graduate program for history or social sciences. Why? Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste on a dissertation; because the purpose of writing in graduate programs is volume not quality of work. Because the price of Ph.D. in the social sciences is to mentally pass an enormous, hideous mass of bullshit.


Well the root of this problem is that most annoying of academic ailments: Genius. The works of many very smart, very accomplished writers, the works of genius that form the backbone for serious discourse within any discipline imaginable, are invariably long, extensive and beautiful expositions. As a result the bottom 70% of people in those fields want to emulate that genius, in the hopes of being read, recognized and, with a great deal of luck, taught (hopefully by other people).

For those many, prolific writers of mediocre social science, who have some good ideas find that the best way to be recognized in this environment is to write in the most achingly awful, dry, longwinded manner possible. Cryptic arguments and pedantic sounding words abound in their works, which in a graduate school setting can reach dozens if not a hundred pages beyond the necessary amount needed to express plainly their ideas. They do this because otherwise their colleagues will find their work lacking in power simply because they are used to volume. It is impossible to write a short insightful essay in such an environment, because the collective consciousness will deny the existence of such a thing.

On Bullshit

Bullshit is an interesting phenomenon, best learned about in Harry Frankfurt's essay/book On Bullshit, which I suggest all go and read. It is related not to the importance of the ideas that are being communicated in the work of the bullshitter, but the impressiveness of that work. If a simple idea is communicated in a way that is complex, then the sheen of complexity is laid into the idea and thus the illusion that a more significant, or at least greater, amount of work has been done. Academic Bullshit is where a great deal of bullshitting begins, because in academia it is traditional to bullshit, it is a method of writing that is passed on through the oral histories of institutional education, especially those of students. The problem is compounded in early education where length is a primary measure of the quality of a written work. In an undergraduate setting people can step back and look at all the garbage they wrote in High School and say, "Gods I hope I never have to write such filth again." Then they go to graduate school and find themselves doing it all over again, because they expect hundred page essays on topics that don't necessarily need a hundred pages or even twenty.

In these later academic times there are varieties of bullshit. A major branch is post-modern bullshit, in which bullshit may be further lengthened by waxing on about how awful white people are. (Disclaimer: I mean to say modernist culture, but whity'll do. {I can't let this get too dry, can I?}) The irony of the grand bullshit tradition being carried on by middle class white kids who are knee-jerk anti-traditional pomo expounders often goes unnoted, but I digress. Post-modern bullshit branches off into further varying fields, Alan Sokal's favorite punching bag for instance, the post-modern psychologist's interpretation of modern science in all its stupifying glory. There are other flavors, some more subtle than others, feminists who rattle on about how if a male initiates heterosexual intercourse then it is most likely rape or how midwesterners cannot look at an East-Asian without inadvertantly giving them an accent that does not exist. Post-modern bullshit has its own tradition of being more gaudily controversial, thus catching the eye of people like Alan Sokal.

What to do.

English professors can make a career by writing a book about how not to write and including excerpts from their thesis. There are books written for high school students about not writing bullshit, mostly because eventually they have to go to college where excessive bullshit is not universally allowed in writing.

If you teach small children, don't require them to write more than a few pages a year. Get them to take the few pages they write and rewrite them, again and again, with better and better grammar, until they are paragraphs that express what they want to express. If you teach middle-school students, get them to write creative stories, encourage them to realize what bullshit is when they write long papers and how to cut it the hell out. And most of all, if you find yourself writing awful, ugly, lengthy and bullshitty prose, stop.