Sunday, August 3, 2014

Academic Writing

I’m getting a taste of academic writing, and I don’t like it.

I’ve been doing some light editing for a friend’s dissertation, and I’ve become acquainted with some of the more annoying aspects of pursuing a doctorate. For starters, the whole process seems to be geared to humiliating the candidate, whipsawing him or her back and forth between multiple mentors, each of whom wants something different. I’ve heard that from two different people now. I’d take a walk at that point if I were the candidate. However, I’m not, so that’s not the part that affects me.

One of the things that does bother me is in the exercises leading up to the actual dissertation. The writing assignments come with a minimum required word count.  

Why in the world would you teach to work to a minimum?  If you were going to do anything, you’d want to put a maximum limit on it; encourage the writer to put the thought into as few words as will get the idea across, respecting the reader’s time. Name the assignment; explain the purpose; specify the ingredients; and turn the writers loose. Some will need the full 500 words, but some will do it just fine with fewer. But the candidate aspiring to a managerial position who absorbs the academic approach is going to find him/herself ill-prepared to communicate in writing to the busy corporate CEO.

Writing is supposed to be about conveying information to the reader. Except poetry, maybe. You do it by being as clear and concise as you can be. At least, that’s what you want to do in the real world. But not in academia. I’ve now seen stuff whose purpose can only be to impress people with the most abstruse jargon possible, and to do it at length.

The other annoyance is the principle that you almost can’t express a thought unless someone else has already expressed it before. You’re constantly citing authorities (Burke & Hare, 1894) for just about any point you want to make, even well -established ones. “The sun will rise tomorrow” (Hubble, 1922) (Sagan, 1979) (Tyson, 2007) (Hemingway, 1926) (Genesis, 1:5).   I think it becomes a game to come up with the longest citation list.

It’s not that I don‘t understand; you’re building on the work of people who’ve gone before. Fine. But worrying people into documenting minutiae while encouraging them to write long – think that might be where academia gets its reputation?