Cleaning up in the loft, I came across a file I started many years ago that contained both awful examples of academic language and writing, and some delicious spoofs of same. A Saturday post seemed the right environment in which to share some of the jewels.
I should start by reminding readers that as an undergraduate one is trained in ‘the essay’, and as one progresses towards the award of the degree, the essay becomes longer, more laden with scholastic apparatus, and increasingly heavy. It oughtn’t to be like this, but it is. PhD theses are leaden, and so are the articles in academic journals.
From about the 1960s the social sciences in particular became convinced that they should imitate the natural sciences: words went out, numbers came in; hypotheses were tested; the passive voice replaced the active, and so on. If I escaped this fate at all the reason was that I started writing for newspapers at much the same time, and there I had to be crisp, readable and interesting.
If I could now redo my academic books and articles I would get rid of anything that looks like jargon, and keep sentences short. If there is a message (and if there isn’t you shouldn’t be writing), make it as clear as possible. If you can’t, you may not quite understand the matter yourself. I found that out quickly when I started teaching.
Here’s an example of what I am on about, from an American journal 56 years ago, in an article whose title is ‘The Politician and the Career in Politics’: ‘the present data suggest a hypothesis worth investigating: the prestige-seeking individual will turn to politics if he sees a political career as being more prestigeful than his present career and more prestigeful than possible alternatives’. Wow! But how would you investigate this potent hypothesis? What would Mr — sorry, Dr — Rudd say?
This kind of language spreads all too easily into the public service: ‘The approved average operative staffing level is not be exceeded except where temporary penetration is required to meet emergency manning situations.’ Got that?
Hypotheses, when shown so far not to be falsified, lead to Laws. Friends sent me things, including Wilkerson’s Law, which states that any academic group includes four kinds of ‘bones’:
1. wishbones, who go along with the idea but want others to do the work;
2. jawbones, who talk a lot but do nothing;
3. knucklebones, who knock everything everyone else does; and
4. backbones, who do all the work.
Another friend showed me a journal article that required translation into English so that you knew what it was about. The problem was that it was already thought to be in English. It had passages like this: ‘Organisations are complex structures-in-action that are best conceptualised as historically constituted entities’. (Means: ‘Both time and change exist, and any social structure may be complex or simple. Organisations are complex.‘)
Or try this one: ‘The analytic focus of their constitution is the control of the labour process’ = (I think) ‘One way of looking at an organisation is to see it as a means of controlling workers and their product.’
Not everyone succumbs to this stuff, and some have ventured out into the world with articles that poke fun at both the language and the pretentiousness of the worst. One I like was written by an academic at an Australian university, and purported to be a serious investigation of patterns, in this case to test a proposed law about whether or not the stripes in men’s ties sloped downwards from the left or from the right, and whether the differentiation was national.
He managed to get it into the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which was a dream of my own for many years. Incidentally, that Journal is great reading on a dull day. It was responsible for the description of the ‘Turboencababulator’ (there are some wonderful YouTubes of boffins telling you about this incredible machine), and also of pseudo-medical warnings, like the one about the dangers of eating pickles, which provides argument and data like the following:
‘Pickles are associated with all the major diseases of the body. Eating them breeds wars and Communism. They can be related to most airline tragedies. Auto accidents are caused by pickles. There exists a positive relationship between crime waves and consumption of this fruit of the cucurbit family. For example:
1. Nearly all sick people have eaten pickles. The effects are obviously cumulative.
2. 99.9% of all people who die from cancer have eaten pickles…
Evidence points to the long-term effects of pickle-eating:
- Of the people born in 1839 who later dined on pickles, there has been a 100% mortality.
- All pickle eaters born between 1919 and 1929 have wrinkled skin, have lost most of their teeth, have brittle bones and failing eye-sight — if the ills of eating pickles have not already caused their death.’
I often think of this rigorous article when I read the latest episode in the great AGW scare.