Zero Sum Thinking and Academic Writing

I recently came across social media discussion about difficult academic writing, and what struck me as I was reading the usual complaints was one particular instance of zero sum thinking about academic writing. It works like this:

Either. . . “I am too dumb to understand this writing,”

Or. . . “This writing is very bad.”

I think this zero sum thinking is the dominant on-off switch governing reading comprehension for too many of us: all writing should be written at the reader’s level, with that specific reader as the intended audience, so if a reader fails to comprehend, it’s either the author’s or the reader’s fault.

IMG_7701What amazes me is that this thinking doesn’t consider any middle ground. Maybe the work we’re reading is written above our reading comprehension, and we just need to educate ourselves to comprehend it? I constantly tell my students that no, they’re not dumb if they have a hard time understanding some of the reading the first time around. I tell them that doing the reading increases their ability to read even more difficult texts in the future as it teaches them different ways of thinking. I encourage them to do the hard work of understanding difficult texts because it increases their future reading comprehension.

That’s been my experience, anyway. I purchased Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology on November 23rd, 1996 at the Books-A-Million on International Drive in Orlando (I know because the receipt is still stuck in the book). The first time I read it through, I started writing a list of works discussed at some length in the back of the book, as you see in the image above, because I hadn’t read them yet. At one point I stopped reading Derrida, went back and read this list of works, and then revisited Derrida’s very dense text with a much higher reading comprehension. Was it still hard? Yes, but not incomprehensible. It was only incomprehensible when I hadn’t done the reading.

I think the zero sum thinking I just described proceeds from the idea that everything should be written for the same audience, and I think it plagues humanities scholarship particularly — very few people complain that scholarship in physics, chemistry, or medical science are written above their heads. I’m not sure why people think that professional discourse about the humanities has to be written at the ninth grade level to make it readable to a general audience, but I don’t think this is a fair expectation. When we limit writing this way, we limit the range of ideas we can express and the sophistication of our thought. AP style does not need to govern everything written.

I think that more humanities scholars should indeed be public intellectuals, and that they should write works accessible to a general audience (and learn AP style), but I don’t think they should be limited to doing only this kind of work. Specialized language is important and can perform a useful purpose. It allows us to advance our thinking more quickly, serving as a shorthand for a dense array of conceptual moves. It positions our approach within recognizable theoretical assumptions — people know where we’re coming from by our language. Difficulty also allows us to defamiliarize our writing to our readers. This use of difficulty originates in the early twentieth century and requires readers to do some work to understand what we’ve written. That way, they can approach our ideas on their own terms, with their own nuance and emphases, rather than allowing readers to use their pre-existing ideas only as fill-in for the author’s own, rather than as a bridge to new ideas.

So when others very commonly say, “It doesn’t have to be this hard to understand,” I think the validity of this complaint depends first upon the work the reader did to understand the text. I think there are two kinds of people who say this. First, people who have read the difficult text, worked through it, understood it, and then realized it didn’t need to be this hard. Most of us who read humanities scholarship have had the experience of doing this work to arrive at a very simple argument. The use of jargon in these cases was only a veneer of sophistication spread over conceptually thin thinking. But there are also people who say this, quote examples of overly difficult sentences, and just reveal that they’re reading on a level below the text’s. If you think the word “pastiche” is complex jargon, pick up a dictionary before you complain about the author.

This criticism is harder to address because it is sometimes true (I won’t say often — that’s lazy quantifying). I can say that I’ve worked through Derrida, understand him much better than I did when I first read him, and see why he needs to be so difficult as well as the benefit of doing this work. Part of the difficulty of his writing proceeds from his desire to get us to think differently: he writes in a way that defamiliarizes his readers with our usual reading practices so that we can think about reading differently. Robert Brandom, similarly, was very difficult for me on a first read, but doing the work to understand him was a rewarding experience.

I would say, then, that yes, they do need to be that hard. The difficulty serves a purpose, and it should be allowed to do so.


Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at for details.

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