Over the past few months I’ve read somewhere around 200 academic papers related to transparency, accountability, and e-governance. Over that time I’ve reached several conclusions, all of which I am documenting in a series of posts on Global Voices. But the conclusion that has determinedly raised its hand more than any other is this: graduate school corrupts effective communication.
This morning, in preparation for today’s post on parliamentary informatics websites, I re-read Arthur Edwards’ 2006 paper “Facilitating the monitorial voter: retrospective voter information websites in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.” It provides some useful context to a few case studies of voter information websites. But the 30-page paper should really be a three-paragraph blog post. Between those few paragraphs of helpful context, I have to suffer through pages and pages of paragraphs like this one:
According to institutional theories of political action, political actors make their choices within an institutional context of certain rules of conduct, codes of rights and duties, and methods constituting a ’logic of appropriateness’ (March and Olsen, 1996:252). A part of the institutional context of ICT design and usage in democratic practices is the political system (Hagen, 2000). Political institutions include formal and informal constitutional rules, including the electoral system, the party system and executive-legislative relationships. Against the backdrop of these political system properties, we can evaluate the ‘appropriateness’ of information-seeking by voters and choices made by the designers of political websites (see also: Hoff, 2000). In this section, I address the two dimensions of voters’ information needs and relate these to political system properties. What follows also serves as the basis for the selection of the cases.
In case you’re having a tough time deciphering just what Edwards is getting at, let me help: absolutely nothing. Or how about this for slurred obviousness:
The idea of responsiveness is captured in the cyberneticians’ classification of essential capabilities of a control system. Such a system requires instruments for effecting change in the state of the world (generally referred to as ‘effectors’) as well as ‘detectors’ for providing data about the state of the world. Transparency in its fullest sense thus requires that citizens be able to exert an influence on (to ‘control’) the way that public services are provided, based on their views or preferences about how they are provided, as well as knowing about the decisions that are made.
That comes “Transparency Mechanisms: Building Publicness into Public Services” by Lindsay Stirton and Martin Lodge.
Why, one might ask, can these highly educated individuals no longer write in standard English? And why does it take them so many words – and so many syllables – to make such simple observations? While I have no concrete evidence that Edwards, Stirton, and Lodge wrote with clarity before they enrolled in graduate school, my hypothesis is that there is a strong culture of calculated confusion in academia that deliberately isolates graduate students from The Real World.
I don’t know how to battle against the disease, or which noble warriors are waging the war, but perhaps a “Journal of Comprehensible Writing from Academics” could help highlight and celebrate the woefully under-represented examples of clarity and effective communication in academia?
Update: I realized that it’s in bad form – and even hypocritical – of me to only complain about poorly written scholarship without pointing to the good stuff. So, two examples of clearly written, well researched, and insightful papers about transparency:
- “The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability” by Jonathan Fox
- “Corruption and the Watchdog Role of News Media” by Sheila S. Coronel
That’s all. 🙂
I suppose you could try studying some more as a remedy for this disease. The excerpts are perfectly clear.
Also, you’re comparing absolute different media. Blogs have other purposes and means than scientific papers.
They’re not writing for you. They’re writing for their colleagues who know this language and write similarly convoluted paragraphs. Plus, in order to meet their goals (tenure track faculty position in many cases) they NEED to write like this. The author of that paper gets tons of credit for publishing this article, but would get no credit for keeping an accessible blog about the same issue… even if he reached 10 times more people. The rewards — tenure, promotion, salary — go to the researchers who get the grants and publish their findings. They don’t go to the best teachers or the academics who frequently comment or discuss original research in mainstream or new media.
That said, not all graduate students are so disconnected from the real world.
I’ve read Pierre Bourdieu. Talk about bad writing. His sentences are paragraphs.
But don’t flowers grow out of cow shit Cindylu? 🙂
Your reaction – “they’re not writing for you, they’re writing for their colleagues” – is indicative of the isolationism in academia.
This has nothing to do with which medium you publish in. I could publish in an academic journal, a newspaper, a blog, or on a wall. The purpose of all research is to provide clarity and insight where there is complexity and confusion.
And, they actually are writing for me, because I’m one of the very few individuals (maybe the only) out there who is taking their observations and insight (for which I am grateful) and applying it to more modern communication structures.
In the spirit of graduate education, let me propose an alternative interpretation of the problem at hand: Blogging Corrupts Reading.
No offense but I also found the paragraphs you quoted readable and easy to grasp. And why are you complaining anyway, reading papers about corruption and transparency? That’s the easy stuff
“The purpose of all research is to provide clarity and insight where there is complexity and confusion”
hell no. the purpose of most research is to add complexity and confusion. adding clarity and insight is the purpose of PR hacks
Modesto and Evgeny,
If the above passages are so easy to understand, why don’t you interpret for me what the authors are trying to communicate? Once you do that, you’ll have proved my point.
That’s funny. One of the few things I like about your writing – despite the obviousness of what you say (that Twitter will not undermine dictatorships; that Facebook will bring an end to the FARC; that Google should not be expected to become the new Radio Free Europe; that improving governance will require more than just tinkering with spreadsheets) – is that you are a very clear thinker. Your unfortunate reliance on soundbites, however, pushes you toward the “PR hack” end of the spectrum.
@Evgeny@Modesto Fortuna: You can’t reduce an argument to its examples, their is a reason why they call them (guess what!) “examples”.
The point of the argument stills stands, that a lot of academic writing uses esoteric jargon which is unnecessary and in fact contrary to its stated purpose, which surely IS to enlighten.
@Evgeny nice counter claim though on blogging corrupting reading though, I like it.
Academia 1, Bloggers 1 is how I score it thus far.
well, I am also not doing any primary research – I function more of a synthesizer – so by default I am supposed to talk in a language that normal people would understand. There is no way to do that without sound bytes – not in 800-word op-eds anyway (I’d challenge you to find many sound bytes in my 4000-word pieces).
Complaining about sound bytes in op-eds is like complaining about holes in bagels; they are there by design. I do oppose unreasonable analogies and metaphors – I think they corrupt our understanding of complex problems – and I do try to stay away from them (if you spot them, do let me know).
You have very high standards for obviousness, as you yourself know very well. I’d challenge you to pick some of my statements and compare them to the “obviousness” of most editorials – they’d suddenly seem much less obvious. Ultimately, thought, I think you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of public life and the trade-offs that involved in acquiring any kind of influence over the public conversation (which, by the way, is not what academics want to do – so don’t judge them by this standard).
And finally I don’t know why you decided to respond to my valid point that you misunderstand the nature of academic research by mounting an ad hominem attack. The reality is that most academic research is fuzzy and is done to add – rather than reduce – complexity.
What I’m advocating is less fuzziness, and more clarity, precision, and applicability.
I had a similar conversation today with someoneholding a book titled, “Critical Theory.” I have a love-hate relationship with academia. I’m anti-jargon but still an advocate for higher education.
I thought your challenge was interesting so I took a few minutes to see if I could do it:
Translation 1: When voters research the stuff on their ballot, they can’t escape the structure of the political system. It shapes the way they think about voting. If we take a closer look at the political system, we can see how it affects what voters search for and whether or not political websites do a good job of presenting what they need to know.
Translation 2: Transparency must go beyond a one-way flow of information; it needs to go further than simply knowing what governments are doing. True transparency happens when citizens’ voices change the way public officials do their job.
Maybe we should start a new org that translates academic papers into plain English in the same way Global Voices translates international blogs 😉
There is definitely a disconnect between academics and the real world, and it’s easy to say “ok the academics are over there and the people who are DOING the work are right here.” But when you’re in the trenches it’s sometimes a relief to know that the academics are paying attention to the bigger picture, so we don’t have to. The confusion with academics for me comes in when they try to make a point about something that’s happening now without really being in it (or having never been in it, for some).
The bad writing…. well, that’s just inexcusable, but here’s to hoping it’s not an epidemic.
Now I actually corroborate’ve been very busy, very busy.Take care and hope you come back for my Medellin.
In my freshman year at university, I was blundering along a silly course, Intro to American Civilization. Even with help, my papers kept coming in Bs. After being forced to watch Disney’s Pocahontas, I finally had it. For the next paper, I devilishly used every polysyllabic, over-ornate word I could. That A has always left an impression.
Most academic work can be simplified and shortened. I’ve spent years forcing myself to simplify my prose; it gets increasingly complex when I’m lazy or tired. However, fancy writing serves a basic purpose – to mystify, and hence make the author seem important. It’s all rather a pity, since that thinking is essentially lost to the rest of us.
Word counts. I have a 20,000 word thesis to write at the mo. Give me a 5,000 limit and I’ll get my point across much better then I can ever do in something as thick as my arm.