6 Phrases that Should be Banned

By Dr George Gosling

Academia, whether that means teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.

  • It could be argued that…

This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.

  • On the other hand…

There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a really difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.

  • a biased source

In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which a source is written, or from which they see events. That really can tell us something.

  • some historians

What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.

  • …but then she is a feminist historian

The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.

  • as to

I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.

This post originally appeared on Dr George Gosling’s blog. It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC 4.0. Dr Gosling is a Historian of medicine and charity in modern Britain and beyond. Follow him on twitter @gcgosling.

The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

Gemma Aherne is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University. She originally posted this piece on her blog following a debate about #AcaDowntime on twitter. It is reposted here with permission. You can follow Gemma on twitter @princessjack.

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In 2012 my husband was in Intensive Care, or ICU as we like to call it in the UK. I was told he would most likely die. It was traumatic. My husband spent 3 weeks in an induced coma. It was terrifying. When he woke up still worrying about work more than his near-death predicament, a very wise nurse told him “There ain’t no pockets in a shroud”.

I can tell you there aren’t any publications either. Or titles. Or accolades.

I’m sure we have all had these moments. Losing loved ones, facing severe ill health, caring for ill relatives or friends. And we all see what matters in life is our health and wellbeing, and that of those we care about.

Yet in academia, workaholism is rife. It is normalised and dare I say it revered. If you loved your work enough you would answer emails whilst on annual leave/ at a funeral/ on maternity leave/ sick in hospital. You love your work, so why not do it 7 days a week?

Academia offers flexibility in working hours, which is why it appeals to me. But sadly flexibility often is often translated as available at all hours and working constantly. I’m here as an early career researcher to say no. If this is what academia is, I don’t want it. I love my work, I am so grateful to get paid work that I feel passionate about. But I am entitled to a life outside of it. We all are.

Spending time with your loved ones is not a privilege. Never let people tell you it is. Taking time out to rest, or watch Netflix, or read fiction, or watch films with your kids, or play with your pets, this is not a luxury. It keeps you well. Visiting your elderly relative in hospital, not a privilege. Seeing your old neighbour in a care home rather than taking on yet more additional work, not a privilege.

Not rushing back to work after a painful hospital appointment or upsetting health session, not a privilege. It’s called looking after yourself. I spent my time in 1st year trying to work the day after 2 operations, during my husband being re-admitted to hospital and the day my mum told me she was ill. Utter nonsense! Why? Because I felt guilty for a second off. Guilt and fear that I wouldn’t catch back up.

I wrote about self-care and the Ph.D here and I wrote about the trauma of research here. I have written on Happy Ph.D and M.E here, and blogging with health problems here.

Today I am working on a rare Sunday. Why? Because I am visiting 2 babies tomorrow on Monday afternoon. Since Christmas I have limited my working hours. I am more productive as a result, healthier, happier, and all my relationships have improved. I am a workaholic by nature, it’s anxiety for me and having health issues that I have to pace and deal with. But at Christmas when I felt guilty for having time off, I said no more. Friends on minimum wage didn’t feel guilty for taking time off. They felt lucky if they were able to take some time off, but not guilty. Why is it that guilt is so common place in academia?

I now do 40 hours a week. In marking season I will do more, or if I get a wave of energy for writing a chapter I will binge. But I take days off. Weekends off. I make plans. I enjoy my life outside of academia. I took my first holiday abroad in years in June. It was glorious. And that’s ok. It doesn’t make one less committed.

Today I see the #AcaDowntime hashtag. How good I thought! Let’s challenge current working expectations. It is not privilege to have rest time. Yes, we have times in our life where we are juggling jobs working all the hours we can to survive, but let’s call that out. Let’s not compound it as legitimate. It’s not showing off to join in with the hashtag, it’s challenging the dominant narrative that we must live to work.

Recently I read this For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. Number 10 in the paper stood out to me:

Reach for the minimum (i.e. good enough is the new perfect). Rather than getting caught up in measuring worth by the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published or grant dollars procured, reach instead for the minimum numbers necessary to achieve important benchmarks (such as tenure and promotion). Reaching for the minimum allows for a focus on quality – rather than quantity – and acknowledges the need for balance. Imagine, too, an alternate CV or annual report with all of the other items of life included: relationships tended to, illnesses overcome, loved ones cared for, hobbies cultivated. Be unwilling to be undermined or belittled for not conforming to hegemonic agendas that are devoid of the responsibilities and joys of life beyond the ivory tower.

The authors continue:

Slowing down involves resisting neoliberal regimes of harried time by working with care while also caring for ourselves and others.

A feminist mode of slow scholarship works for deep reflexive thought, engaged research, joy in writing and working with concepts and ideas driven by our passions. As a feminist intervention, slow scholarship enables a feminist ethics of care that allows us to claim some time as our own, build shared time into everyday life, and help buffer each other from unrealistic and counterproductive norms that have become standard expectations. Slow scholarship has value in itself, in the quality of research and writing produced, and also enables us to create a humane and sustainable work environment and professional community that allows more of us to thrive within academia and beyond.

This all day long. Our colleagues and friends who are mothers shouldn’t be answering work related emails on maternity leave, or feeling their part-time position upon their return means they don’t care enough, or they are lacking. Our colleagues with health issues, or caring for family or friends with issues, should not feel they have to choose between some respite, however short, or doing the obligated extras.

Academia actively promotes workaholism and that’s wrong. We need to look after our health.

I love my research, I feel lucky that this is my job. And thus it is easy to get sucked into working non-stop. But I have other commitments and things that need tending to in my life. If I have to choose between extra work and my loved ones, or resting up, or enjoying a hobby outside of my job, I am going to pick the latter. Not because I am not committed enough but because that’s what keeps me well.

I love the fact that in the Psychology department of my university there are a wonderful bunch of critical feminist researchers. They don’t email outside of 8-6 Mon to Fri. They actively encourage life outside the academy. And they are successful, kind, caring, and bloody brilliant.

We need to work and we want to make a difference in the lives of marginalized groups. We are very lucky to have this opportunity. But let’s remember that to carve out time for ourselves, or to opt for a radically different format of working, is not selfish or lazy, it’s absolutely necessary.

I shall follow and support #AcaDowntime. And tomorrow I shall look forward to meeting those two babies.