I say the key to good academic writing is saying complicated things as simply as possible. Winnie-the-Pooh says… pic.twitter.com/iYKFa4YxN2
— George Gosling (@gcgosling) March 9, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love data visualisation, and every now and then a gem comes along that blows my mind. Last week I came across Ben Schmidt’s tool for analysing gendered language in teaching evaluations. The tool allows you to plug in any word (or two-word phrase) and see how much that phrase is used in 14 million RateMyProfessor.com reviews. You can see usage is split across gender and discipline. While intended to show gender differences, it turns out the tool is excellent for revealing all sorts of weird and wonderful trends.
1. There are predictable and problematic gender differences.
The words ‘smart’ and ‘intellect’ are more likely to be used to review male professors, and ‘genius’ is more likely to describe a male professor in every single discipline for. By contrast, words such as ‘awful’, ‘terrible’, and ‘incompetent’ are used much more in relation to females. More on this here.
2. There are also some less predictable gender differences
Female professors are more likely to be called ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’, while the males are more likely to be ‘strange’. Males are simultaneously more likely to be reviewed as ‘funny’ and ‘boring’.
3. All professors can be ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’
These two words remain satisfyingly gender neutral (with the exception of in engineering).
4. Men are idiots
By contrast, the word ‘idiot’ seems to be reserved for males.
5. Hair grows in unusual places
A search for ‘hairy’ ranks physics top of the class, due to an unexplained preponderance of hairy females. The hairiest men are overwhelmingly in education and philosophy.
6. Some disciplines have poor dental hygiene
A search for ‘bad teeth’ reveals that male anthropologists and female historians and apparently have problems going to the dentist.
7. Anthropology professors are irritating
As are those in Fine Arts and, ironically, communication.
8. Criminal Justice professors are awesome
As are psychology professors.
9. Music teachers have no dress sense
I personally love elbow patches and tweed, but if you subscribe to the view that they are outmoded attire for the modern academic, you best steer clear of music.
10. You aren’t allowed to claim that your prof is an alcoholic
Yet I couldn’t find any other prohibited phrases. Believe me, I tried all the taboos I could think of.
11. Weird stuff goes on in classrooms.
Even the most unlikely words will have been used in a review somewhere. ‘Tea bag’, ‘sand castle’, and ‘baby food’ all appear, for some reason. Find some solace in the fact that neither ‘naked twister’ or ‘strip poker’ appear in any.
The internet is approximately 85% cats. Lots and lots of academics have cats and they have been rushing in their hundreds to proclaim as much with the #AcademicsWithCats hashtag. So, we decided to hold the First Annual Academics with Cats Awards. Voting closed yesterday and we shall now wade through the votes, announcing the results on Friday 16 January.
To keep you amused as you await the results with baited breath, we bring you our guide to the academic life, illustrated with cats. Enjoy!
1. Wake up nice and early.
3. Have a wash…
4. Then start the day with a hearty breakfast…
5. …and grab a cup of tea or coffee.
6. Make sure your desk is setup nicely, ready for a morning writing session.
7. Get out the laptop…
8. …plug it in…
9. …and get writing!
10. Always look at everything from all possible angles!
11. Then some reading – don’t forget your library card!
12. Take out a pile of books
13. Get reading.
14. Maybe an article or two
15. Make sure you take good notes!
16. Feeling tired?
17. Take a nap…ZZzzz…
18. …and awake full of energy for the afternoon!
19. Catch up on your online lectures
20. Get on top of your admin.
21. Organise yourself.
22. Conference call.
23. Do some marking.
24. Tidy up your office.
25. Be sure to unwind. Play some music…
26. …hang out with friends…
27. …then sleep. You’ve earned it!
Prefer hats to cats? Click here!
Academia is known for its ever-increasing specificity and specialisation, and, in the internet era, quantity. There are approximately 47,845 academic periodicals currently in circulation, churning out research papers on a mind-bogglingly wide range of subjects.1 Inevitably there are some rather odd publications out there. Here we present our top five.
1. American Journal of Potato Research (AJPR)
There are about 196 countries in the world, depending on how you count them. The best estimate we have of the number of known plant species is around 400,000,2 though we probably really don’t have the foggiest. 20,000 of these are edible,3 yet somehow we humans have managed to whittle this down to just 20 species that provide 90% of our food.4 Apply this tendency to academic publishing and you get the American Journal of Potato Research.
2. Rangifer: Research, Management and Husbandry of Reindeer and Other Northern Ungulates
Proudly billing itself as “the world’s only scientific journal dealing exclusively with biology and management of arctic and northern ungulates, reindeer and caribou in particular” one has to wonder if we haven’t stumbled upon a topic so specific that one volume would suffice. Yet Rangifer is still going strong after 34 volumes.
3. Journal of Near-Death Studies (JNDS)
Exploring near-death experiences, empirical effects and theoretical implications, out-of-body experiences, deathbed visions, after-death communication and the implications for an understanding of human consciousness. Despite the niche subject matter, the JNDS says it is “committed to an unbiased exploration of these issues and specifically welcome a variety of theoretical perspective and interpretations that are grounded in empirical observation or research”.
4. Answers Research Journal (ARJ)
In contrast to JNDS’ commitment to allowing challenges to its niche, the ARJ is perhaps the only journal in the world that openly declares that it will only publish articles that accord with a pre-established hypothesis. The Journal, titled as if to deliberately obfuscate the content, publishes:
research that demonstrates the validity of the young-earth model, the global Flood, the non-evolutionary origin of “created kinds,” and other evidences that are consistent with the biblical account of origins
Still, at least they are telling you up front what you need to say to get published.
5. Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine (JNRBM)
You might imagine that JNRBM is a place where losers gather to celebrate their failures, kind of like Best Buy or Division III football. But JNRBM meets two important needs in science reporting: the need to combat the positive spin known as publication bias and the need to make other scientists feel better about themselves.
Realising the growing tendency for scientists to publish only positive results, JNRBM instead encourages the “publication and discussion of unexpected, controversial, provocative and/or negative results”. The Journal is also pushing the envelope in the other ways, recently implementing an open peer review policy, whereby reviewers sign their reviews and their reports, and authors’ responses, are made available. This Journal may just be a taste of things to come.
Anybody managing to publish in all 5 of these journals will be handsomely rewarded.