Saturday, 7 June 2014

Things That Annoy Me, Part 6 - Academic Writing (at MA University Level, especially...)

                       by Flann O'Brien, taken from website :

I’m talking primarily here about Literary Criticism, that sort of academic writing.

First, let me get clear what I think good academic writing is.  Its when you write on a subject not purely out of your own ideas, but having read widely round it, paying attention to other scholars in the field. When you refer to those other scholar’s ideas when you talk, you reference them (by name within your text, and/or by footnote/endnote, with specific book/essay/journal and page references).  Your references should be uniformly done and of a recognised kind in your field for your country (e.g. literary academic writing, social sciences academic writing, and science subjects – all have completely different forms of referencing conventions).

So far, so unutterably dry, right? Yup.

The point of all that is that people need to be able to tell the difference (on the net these days, especially), between an opinion or editorial piece, an opinionated blog bit (like this one!) – and a proper piece of peer checkable academic research.  Hence the referencing of peers within your field; hence the handy checkable footnotes. To show you aren’t writing or thinking in a vacuum. All well and good,  conventions followed for a reason.

My problems with literary academic writing in particular, are – to put it pompously – twofold.

The first is the style a lot of it seems to end up in.  I appreciate my own style here is annoyingly idiosyncratic.  I love a long Lawrence Sterne like sentence sometimes.  I love too many commas, adjectives, and oh my god, I do love sticking bracketed caveats and clauses in sentences.  Yes!  And I do like to mess about with grammar a bit.  And lots of exclamation marks, question marks in particular.

But its readable, its conversational, and unless I’m doing one of my subjects that bores roughly half my readers (that’ll be Dr Who or herbalism!), you’ll still be roughly awake.

The problem with much academic writing (in several disciplines) that I’ve had to plough through in the past, is a terrible dry yet verbose style. “So and so notes/ observes/ suggests/ dictates” etc, “and which neatly brings me on to…” – lots of very repetitive and trite phraseology.  Weird linking sentences.  The fact you can read certain sentences several times before they actually make sense, because it’s constructed in such a bloomin’ verbose and jargonified fashion:

I’ll show you that love entanglements complicate each of these women’s financial fate, linking to the prevailing doctrine of the time for private and public spheres – and which gender should be in each.  I conclude that money is part of a wider discourse of female negotiation of their culturally assigned zones.

That whole paragraph is brill, eh??  Did you recognise it? Its one of mine, from the first post in my about to be too long sequence on Women, Money and Debt in 18th Century Novels. 

I left that section in the original, only changing one word, despite a partial rewrite of the document, because it did make me laugh.  This is the sort of sentence your university tutors like, expect and mark you well for.  Surely such sentences could be written better?  As in, more plainly??!  There’s good reason a lot of people are put off of academic writing, and its not because they are thick – its because they are made to feel unnecessarily stupid by silly pretentious sounding sentences like that!  Imagine loads of them running together in a really long paragraph, or a whole chapter – a great herd of plumed rhinoceros, all sneery and lips turned down in pride at their cleverness?!  You don’t really fancy reading that book, do you?  Can you really learn much from a writer who chooses to cover up their knowledge of subject matter behind clever sounding but impenetrable sentences?

And note: nothing wrong with archaic or nearly obsolete words – some words are lovely and we should bring them back if we like the sound of them, why not? (I think we should say 'hillock' more often...)

Also, nothing wrong with big fat words that can send you off to a dictionary – do you want to have a big fat fun roll over your tongue vocabulary?  That would be good!  Words are great fun.  Time Traveller and I had a brief exchange about this the other day.  On the subject of the writer Will Self, venerable trouble-making user of archaic, nay also big fat long words.  Someone she knew objected.  We thought this was a shame.  We think he uses these words SO THEY WILL BE USED, so we can read them, and let them explode like sherbet over our synapses.  Like sweets, like chocolate of the mind.  We think its fun, and we don’t think he’s doing it to alienate us or make us feel stupid.  We feel and suspect simple love of language  in what he does with words.  (If you don’t think he loves language, try any of his books.  If you don’t think he has a sense of humour and exploration about it, whilst taking it dead seriously, read The Book of Dave.  That’s a melon twister, even I had trouble with it, and I love words.  But I enjoyed having my brain spun and thinking about language. Which, granted, you don’t want all the time; sometimes you want to relax.  In which case, you wouldn’t be reading either challenging lit fiction or, god forbid, anything academic, cos you do need to be more wide awake than not for either of those.)

I digressed a touch.  Sorry.  Point of that digression was: a dry and yet ickily verbose academic style is not the same as loving words and using unusual ones sometimes.  That doesn’t (or shouldn’t really, should it?) alienate people, and prevent them from learning what they came to the paper for?  Whereas a combination of being dry and verbose – well, it obfuscates.  Makes people feel tired, fed up and none the wiser.  Writerly fail.  Scholarly fail.  Did not communicate knowledge to anyone, let alone masses.

But we’ve all read stuff like that, so you know what I’m talking about.  Not news.

My second problem with (especially literary) academic writing is more annoying and invidious, and its why I stopped studying academically.  (Apart from the fact I would have had to pay the equivalent of our massively inflated rent per year on our tumbledown house here, for 2 terms of doing  a PhD.  Couldn’t afford to pay.  So stopped after MA.)

When you study at BA level in the UK, first degree in the Arts (I can only speak for the Arts here) – its necessary you learn the way to write an essay, a paper and eventually a dissertation, that’s reviewable and judgeable by your peers in the field.  Like I said before.  Because by becoming an academic student, you are saying you subscribe to (or will at least play by the rules of) a certain set of standards agreed in your field.  Everybody then knows where they are.  Within that, you write about what you want in your niche, following the style and footnote conventions.  You don’t write just your opinion, without backing up your ideas from (a) your source text, AND (b) your peers available research.

Sounds reasonable, yes?  Ok.

Then you go to MA level, where you specialise more and theres…more of the same.  I suddenly became aware of a very alarming thing, at this stage.  I was having original thoughts about the novels I was studying, all over the place.  Despite reading many essays, notable journals and thick tomes of commentary (and other often dry verbosely written sludge) – I couldn’t find anyone else having remotely the same thoughts about the novels as I was.

I had a conversation with my tutor about it. I told her I was seeing a different interpretation of the novels, and that I could illustrate each point I wanted to make with the original primary source material – the novels in question.  Obviously, my new interpretations would not be The Interpretation, but simply one viewpoint of many possible ones – but was I allowed to try to make my case?

She thought.  She answered: only if I could ALSO back up my interpretation with other peer articles. In other words: if my original thoughts had already been thought of by someone else, and I could reference their work.

Er…no no no, I reply, I think you don’t quite get what I’m saying; and I explain again.  Adding that the reason I suspect these are original thoughts, is that I’ve read loads round the subject (in the beautiful and very expensive, I note, to get into, if you aren’t a student at that university, Senate House Library, London).  I say I’ve read extensively, right round, and no one yet appears to have had the exact thoughts I’m having.  Just me.

Hmm, she hmmms.  Has anyone else said something similar?  Something you could link to yours, like a sort of…A to B to C, you being C they being A?

Erm…no, I reply.  I’m getting my interpretation from my reaction to the original primary source, not the commentaries; from the actual thing we are sposed to be studying…?

No, she says.  You can’t include those ideas.  Unless you can reference them back to both the text and the critical works by others.


Now.  I had always assumed we were using the woks of others to show we were within a field and aware of all other research.  To illustrate our thoughts, to illustrate what thoughts had already been made, to paint a full and clear picture.  So that we didn’t plagiarize or accidentally pretend ideas were ours when they weren’t.

I seemed to be having the opposite problem.

I was not allowed to have any original thoughts on the novels of my dissertation because I could only back them up with the actual novel.  I could NOT back them up with the thoughts A had about B’s work while C sat in the bath scrubbing his back meditatively, thinking about D’s work and how it related to A.

Do you see what’s wrong here?  Do you see a whole industry of ‘critical’ reading going round in a little self satisfied circle, referring constantly to each other and each other’s ideas, ad infinitum?  Do you see the actual thing they are talking about, the actual novel?  Do they occasionally quote from that, but more often quote from each other?

I asked, rather crossly and plainly, at what level of academic study I was ‘allowed’ to have Original Thoughts about what I was studying and writing about?  PhD level, I was told.

The existence of PhD students and their dissertations (whilst still necessarily riddled with outside refs) is how the literature field in the UK doesn’t get completely bogged down with very old ideas and variants of same, discussed by A-Z forever.  Apparently, there I could’ve had my exciting new and original thoughts put out for discussion and review, carefully referenced with nothing but the Original, Actual, Most Important Primary Source Itself: the novel/s I was studying.

That that unsatisfactorily answered that.

But coupled with the fact I was starting to feel the entire academic writing thing was a game (with rules, that I was very good at, 'cos I play well alone with set perimeters), that like statistics, was a tool you could use to swing data one way or the other; and the fact I was clean out of cash…that was where academia and I parted ways.

I never quite got over the discontent, the disillusion, the disconnect there – that in order to say things in a responsible checkable way, I ended up having to say them in a really boring, dry, verbose and unoriginal way.  I ended up feeling I was adding to this vast self congratulatory accrual of circular critical reading.

Instead of saying anything new.

And that’s why some kinds of academic writing annoy the hell out of me.

And why, whilst I will footnote forever, and you may well catch me being verbose in my BlackberryJuniper fashion; you hopefully won’t catch me being so dry you sleep the very minute you open my blog!  And whilst I have many unoriginal thoughts, I do try and say them in my own (joyfully overbracketed) way.

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