Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Opacity And Remoteness Of Academic Texts

"The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn't a new one — and it isn't limited to government agencies, of course", writes Victoria Clayton in The Atlantic. "The problem of needlessly complex writing — sometimes referred to as an 'opaque writing style' — has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition."

Indeed, but why?

[Steven] Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to "brain training": the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.

I believed for a long time that academics wrote that way because elitism - writing for their peers and seniors instead of the public in a tone one can use to dry laundry. I'm not the only one who feels like this. In The Conversation, an article on "redetermining paradigmatic norms" in academic writing states that:

The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry "glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience", while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that "most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public."

The same article, by Siobhan Lyons, a tutor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, also claims that a 2013 writing guide issued by the University of Technology in Sydney advised, among other things, that academic essays be "written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures."

I also believe that this obtuseness is why people no longer trust the experts in matters such as climate change, finance and vaccines.

But textbook publishers might have also been taking advantage of this "brain training" to price their books sky-high, implying that certain types of knowledge must commensurate with the amount of time and effort taken to compile it. Which makes sense.

However, with online storage capacities growing, textbook prices (and tuition fees) rocketing, and attention spans shrinking, is it still viable to be so opaque when recording and conveying knowledge? The widespread TL;DR syndrome among us might also be a sign that it's time to change the way we record, teach and learn.

An expert's value in his field depends not only in his ability to absorb and retain information, but to apply it to his field and further develop it - and get others to take up his work as well, picking up where he left off.

Distilling opaquely written knowledge to more plebeian levels will go a long way towards that, but other things must also be considered - passion, interest and the ability to use that knowledge - before one argues that such a move would cheapen the value of these compiled texts.

I doubt it would. As Ms Lyons stated:

...complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Regardless of how it is recorded, knowledge is valuable. Someone has to go out there to get it, make sense of it all, and put it down in letters, numbers and symbols. All that work is what people are paying for.

Like how some nutrients from our food need to be reduced to simpler forms for better absorption, making the language more layman-like doesn't lower its value, but makes it more easily understood. How is that bad?

Taking the stuffy prof out of the pages might be tough, as not every text may survive the process. Ms Lyons noted in her piece that...

...not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.

Considering the amount of material already out there, it's probably too late to have it all reworded for the masses. But maybe we can start with what is being written right now. Which brings us back to the issue of accessibility and money.

With academic texts so inaccessible, even for those willing to pay, a black market in academic papers seems to be thriving. Also looming large is the threat of book piracy.

Compensating academics and the publishing ecosystem fairly would also go a long way in encouraging their work and enhancing its quality, which also wards off tendencies to rely on essay mills and those who peddle dodgy material. You can't talk about ethics and integrity if you're worried about income.

A pay-walled, well-maintained online alternative to shelves of bulky books heavy enough for weight training can be attractive to those who require regular access. Digitisation has its own issues, and some publishers are understandably reluctant to do business in countries where fraud is rife.

But with places such as Southeast Asia, India and the Far East hosting many voracious consumers of digital content (and students desperate for reference material to help them get top grades), an ethically administered digital textbook library or store makes more sense.

All the better if that material was written plainly (or in a stylishly academic manner), so that we can spend time using that knowledge instead of figuring out "what did this writer mean by that?"


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