Sunday, September 5, 2010

Do You Speak "Academia"?

If our profession exists to enable understanding of new ideas, should we really have our own language? Consider the following opening paragraph from a recent journal article:

“Education is an all-encompassing institution where schools can be found in each and every continent, culture, and society; their functional principles, organizational structure, and modus operandi are quite universal.”1

The paragraph, from an article with content I appreciate, illustrates several “rules” of academic writing. As a result, it violates several principles of good writing.

To begin, the opening main clause, “Education is an all-encompassing institution,” makes little sense, and the rest of the sentence fails to clarify its meaning. The use of “each and every” is redundant; if each continent and culture, then, by default, it is every continent and culture. After the semicolon, good verbs become weak adjectives: functional and organizational. The entire paragraph could be restructured as an easily understood sentence: In every society, schools organize, function, and operate similarly.

Lest I be guilty hypocrisy, here’s a sample of my own convoluted academic writing:

As a causal-comparative study, instructional time represents an uncontrolled factor. Teachers in each fifth grade classroom made decisions about instructional time based on the required time to complete activities dictated by the reading program in use. It is likely that instructional time varied between the classrooms, but the decisions about instructional time were based on the independent variable used to define the groups. Any variance developed, in part, because of the independent variable being examined.
Interpretation: The teachers in each fifth-grade classroom were not given minimum or maximum time limits. They determined how much time to spend on reading each day by considering their students’ needs and the activities recommended by their reading programs.

So what? Why pick on paragraphs pulled from their contexts? If you read (or try to read) educational journals, you’ll find that these examples are not isolated. They illustrate the “academic style” characterizing such periodicals. These periodicals, their supporters argue, provide the link between research and classroom practice. But the poor communication—the academic writing—requires the reader to add steps to the usually efficient cognition of comprehension. The reader is forced to pause and ask,
“What does that mean in plain English?” It’s not that different from reading text in a second language, one in which the reader may be knowledgeable but not proficient.

Unfortunately, it’s not just our journals that speak their own language. This same gap often exists between students and their textbooks. Consider the following passage from an advanced high school biology text:
The technical aspects of life involve the complex chemical interactions that take place among the several thousand different kinds of molecules found in any living cell. Of these, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the master molecule in whose structure is encoded all of the information needed to create and direct the chemical machinery of life. Analysis of the flow and regulation of this genetic information among DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid), and protein is the subject of molecular genetics.2
Rather than “A-ha!,” such writing often elicits, “Huh?,” as a recent study highlights:
Middle and high school students who read fluently in English class and on the Web may find that they cannot understand their science texts. And their science teachers may be ill prepared to guide them in reading the academic language in which science information is presented.3
This issue is so prevalent that some experts recommend we teach students “academic language.”

This additional distance between the writer and reader decreases the likelihood that the journals will actually be read. And if the journals are not read by teachers, the research will be slow to influence educational practice, if it does at all. With some research, a “translator” will eventually convert the findings into easily understood material for teachers. Research that does not attract the attention of such a translator may remain unknown and unused. We are spending time, effort, and sometimes money on research doomed to remain idle because it’s not communicated well. The poor writing prevents worthwhile application.

Similarly, our textbooks may alienate students and hinder learning. If understanding depends on translating the language, students who struggle with this prerequisite may lack the motivation or inertia to think beyond, or even through, the interpretation. We’re making understanding more difficult—a seeming antithesis to our role as educators.

Does academia serve its purpose by maintaining its own language? Why can’t “academic” journals and textbooks utilize common principles of good writing. Why do we insist on communication complexity when our goals would be better served by simple clarity?

Tradition? Are we trying to honor the past by continuing to insist on outdated standards? If so, then we should rethink our goals. Journals are not meant to influence the present but to carry on conventions of the past. Textbooks are not meant to inform but to complicate learning. If this is their purpose, teachers and students ignoring journal and textbook content should not be considered a problem.

Status? Are we insisting on “academic writing” because it separates journals from the “rags” intended for the masses or textbooks from the unlearned? If so, our goal must be to maintain some perceived elite readership—a readership probably not teaching or sitting in our classrooms. And thankfully so! Who wants children to be in a classroom where the teacher communicates with consistent complexity? ‘Children, today the teacher (the academic style outlaws use of the personal pronoun I!) will initiate a discussion of the upper atmosphere in post-sunset conditions.” In other words, “Today we’re going to talk about stars.” SImplicity produces clarity; complexity produces confusion.

Alignment? Do we think that our research and subject matter is complicated, therefore our communicating should also be complex? This is so contrary to logic and sound teaching that it’s an oxymoron. A basic principle of writing (and teaching) rebuts this argument: A complex topic requires simple writing, especially when the reader likely lacks the author’s background knowledge and experience. This is almost always the case when a researcher seeks to address individuals who were not part of the research team or involved in similar research themselves, or when experts in a field seek to articulate concepts for students.

As an example, consider the topic of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) previously discussed in the textbook example. Complex? Absolutely, yet note how beautifully and simply John Medina writes about it:
One of the most unexpected findings of recent years is that DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is not randomly jammed into the nucleus, as one might stuff cotton into a teddy bear. Rather, DNA is folded into the nucleus in a complex and tightly regulated manner. The reason for this molecular origami: cellular career options. Fold the DNA one way and the cell will become a contributing member of your liver. Fold it another way and the cell will become part of your busy bloodstream. Fold it a third way and you get a nerve cell—and the ability to read this sentence.4
Medina presents ideas simply and in ways known to foster learning. As the brain engages in elaboration, it overlays new data with known experiences, making connections that help construct understanding. Medina relates a new, complex topic to a familiar childhood activity—origami (even though he is not writing for children). By giving us a reference point for understanding DNA, he equips us with the tools needed to construct understanding. Isn’t this what we should be striving for, both in our textbooks and our journals?

Why, then, do we not insist that good, clear writing characterize our journals, the journals researchers want us to read and heed, and the textbooks we use in our classrooms? We’re educators. Let’s write like we want people to actually learn something.

  1. Chen, D., Schooling as a Knowledge System: Lessons from Cramim Experimental School,
  2. Micklos, D. & Freyer, G.A., DNA Science: A First Course (Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2003) 4.
  3. Science Daily Staff, Academic Language Impedes Students' Ability to Learn Science, Expert Argues,
  4. Medina, J., Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008), 53.
'...but there's still so much left'
'Day #2: Back to the grind'


Todd I. Stark said...

Very well stated.

There seems to be an underlying assumption in academic culture that cleverness is the key to understanding, and separates the cognoscenti from the rabble.

It starts with students competing to impress with their cleverness and later extends to journal style.

Not just in "postmodern" influenced material but even in basic science.

Never quite explicitly stated in those terms, but definitely there. Always the bias that saying something clearly somehow betrays simpleminded thinking.

Finally the bias is crystallzed to some extent into standards of style that just aren't compatible with clear communication.

Thanks for saying this so clearly, it is something that has bothered me for many years.

There are always going to be journal articles that someone with an undergraduate college level background can't understand fully because they don't have the specialist expertise or context from that field, but they should still be able to parse the sentences and make sense of them!

There are some legitimate theoretical arguments for "operationalizing" language, but the goal there is a kind of clarity and empirical accountability, and academese tends to complicate rather than clarify or connect to empirical observation.

Thanks for saying this so clearly.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Great thoughts, Todd. And as always, you communicate with great clarity! I've been interested in the news on the new clarity in government legislation. Some of the before-after examples have made the point. The need to present material objectively should not be an excuse or reason for obfuscating its meaning.

Todd I. Stark said...

I've been thinking about this. We do use jargon in science as a shorthand between people who already understand the concepts, but that isn't an excuse for using it when teaching or communicating to a wider audience.

It can obviously be difficult to communicate complex counter-intuitive ideas clearly, but people like Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Matt Ridley, and Carl Zimmer have shown that it is certainly possible to be technically accurate, precise, clear, and accessible all at once if you work at it.