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Academic vocabulary to know and use


Below are a few words you should start using in academic writing. Some you’ll practically only find in university-speak. Others have specific meanings when used in an academic context, different from everyday usage.

Rhetoric/Rhetorical has both a general and a specific meaning in the academy. Generally, it can mean simply the language (or other communication techniques) a person uses to express herself. More specifically (and the original meaning of the word), rhetoric refers to the persuasive aspect of writing. If someone says, “You’re full of rhetoric,” he means you’re words are persuasive but empty of real meaning.

Margin/Marginal/Marginalize refers, in universities, to voices, texts, histories, or interpretations that are generally left out of discussion. For example, until recently, schools focused on teaching American literature as mostly a group of books written by dead white males. These would be called the dominant texts. Narratives by slaves, Native Americans, and other minorities were marginalized. You can also refer to things in/on ‘the margin.’

Discourse/Discursive in the world outside the academy means a discussion or conversation. Within the academy it more specifically means the language, structure, and thought-process used by a given ‘community.’ For example, academic discourse features a specialized vocabulary and rules for organizing and supporting ideas. There’s political discourse, popular discourse, minority discourse, marginalized discourse, etc.

Ideology is a term to refer to the way we look at the world. It includes our values, our sense of right and wrong, our feelings of human rights, and more generally our way of thinking. Everyone has their own individual ideology, derived from how and where they were raised, but we often share similar ideologies. The American ideology, for instance, could be said to include concepts of freedom of speech, capitalism, and equal human rights, among other things. The ideology of the academy might include the scientific method, documented thinking, and putting knowledge-gathering at the highest value.

Reductive comes from the word “reduce,” and in college is usually a negative term. It means simplifying complex ideas, and thereby leaving out important specifics. Academic thought is all about leaving in the details, you’ll find.

Binary/Dichotomy/Bifurcation all refer to being reductive in a way that you simply matters into an Either/Or context. For example, you’ll often hear professors talk about binary thinking, which means leaving out any gray area between two extreme possibilities. Some common binaries that are out of fashion in the academy include the gender binaries (something is either feminine or masculine), cultural binaries (civilized or savage) and racial binaries (white or non-white). The academy thinks matters are more complex.

Conflate/Juxtapose/Imbricate are fancy academic verbs that all basically mean ‘to overlap’ or ‘put side by side’. Sample: Dominant theory, Carroll claims, had been prone to several methodological impediments, among them a tendency to conflate film interpretation with film theory, in which theorists mistakenly assume that film interpretation can do the work of theory building.

A canon is a group of texts (or other media) that makes up a sort of whole on a subject. The Western literary Canon (note capitalization here) refers, for instance, to the books that are considered worthy of primary study in literary scholarship. Any canon is up to interpretation and always changing. Sample: I understand and respect snobbery, but making a canon, but excluding Spielberg entirely is such a total waste of time. The canon should include texts without which the study of the field would make no sense.

Criticism, in academic-speak, is not a negative word. It means more along the lines of close evaluation and interpretation. Thus movie critics, literary critics, and gourmet food critics are not in the business of saying how crappy things are. They give their expert analysis of things. This is actually truer to the word’s Greek etymological roots, which have to do with an ability to discern or judge.

hegemony (usually pronounced with a ‘j’ sound) is a word that comes from the Greek for ‘authority,’ and in its most general usage, simply refers to dominant power of one entity over another. For example, China exerts hegemony (or has hegemonic rule) over Tibet and Mongolia. More specifically, as theorized by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is a kind of dominance different from military force and coercion which persuades people to find the beliefs and practices of the powers that be natural and unquestionable. According to Gramsci, it is the media and intellectuals and entertainers who can exert hegemony.

heterogeneity is the opposite of homogeneity. It means many different things, usually coexisting or interacting, and is often used in discussions about multiculturalism.

heteronormative/heteronormativity is a concept from Gender Theory. Thinking ‘heteronormatively’ means assuming that human beings fall into two distinct gendered categories–male and female–and that there are normal ways that males and females are supposed to behave and that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. Gender Theory usually thinks of it as a coercive (hegemonic) way of thinking that has come to seem normal to modern society but in fact constrains freedom of sexual expression to two very narrow options. In this way, critiques of heteronormativity are a type of feminism, as the termed is used above, because they seek to allow oppressed viewpoints/lifestyles/ideas to flourish.

hermeneutics means applying one method of interpretation (be it psychoanalysis, Marxism, Biblical allegory, etc.) to a text in order to understand it. To use the hermeneutic circle means understanding a text comes from how all its parts work together to make a whole. It assumes that every detail of a movie or novel or symphony is unified through one common meaning and that the interpreter must simply fit all the pieces together (without leaving out or ignoring any parts) to figure out that meaning.

Contextualize. To contextualize something means giving important perspective by citing similar examples or relevant background. More explanation on my page about contextualization and historicization

Historicize. To historicize something is to explain the topic’s social environment in history and speculate how this environment may have shaped the topic. More explanation on my page about contextualization and historicization.