Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Author Believes… The Academic Voice and Expressing Yourself.

In December, I attended a University workshop entitled “Does My Research Make Sense to You? Plain English for Research Communications”. The point of this seminar was to help us learn how to interact with the public and other non-specialists. Because, of course, four, five, even six years of academia had completely ruined our ability to write, and to a lesser extent speak, like a normal human being.  My supervisor particularly recommended I take this workshop as I am going to be speaking about archaeology to lots of chemists, and about chemistry to a lot of archaeologists. Academics may not speak the same language as the rest of us, you see, but nor do they speak the same language as each other.

What is academic language?
Academic language is, broadly speaking, the rhetorical style adopted by people in academia in order to write papers and books and speak at conferences and be accepted into the academic community. It is broadly characterised by formality and, to a lesser extent, archaism. It also attempts to sound objective and, in theory, sensibly structured. This language can range wildly. Let’s consider:
“The ageing data for each of the main taxa are presented in the form of mortality distributions” (Jennings et al 2004: 125)
“It would be more than satisfactory to classify the civitas centres into groups by the periods and rates at which they grew, and the pattern suggested is comparatively simple, based on the status and development of areas in the LPRIA [Late Pre-Roman Iron Age]” (Millett, 1990: 85).
These come from books I pulled off my shelves almost at random; the former is a site report and the latter a very influential monograph. Taking Martin Millett’s sentence, it seems fairly straightforward, if a bit wordy. You might struggle if you don’t know what a civitas centre is (an important administrative town) but the general gist is probably clear, if (of course) you’re used to reading words like “satisfactory” and “comparatively”, and sentences with stacked clauses. Most of the readers of my blog are, since I write like that too, but let’s remember that this is still a level above what many people can manage.
The first quote, however, is more difficult, if you lack the requisite vocabulary

What is jargon?
“Jargon” is one of those words that is generally only used as a pejorative. In a book section about jargon, one of my old lecturers wrote “Our specialised technical terms are of course indispensable for a proper understanding of the subject” (Morley, 1999: 122), intending to highlight the unspoken parallel: but their jargon is meant to obfuscate. In the  Jennings et al. example, though, I think their “jargon” is justified.  “Taxa” refers to the various species recorded, but includes within it the recognition that sheep and goats are almost impossible to tell apart from their bones, and are included as the same category. A mortality distribution is a graph showing when the animals were killed/ died. As population data, this might indicate whether a herd was kept for meat, labour, milk or wool, for instance. Here, their technical terms form part of a discussion of the animal remains, which is a very specialist subject with protocols and methodologies of their own. We wouldn’t expect their work to be readily understandable to a lay person on a first read, and nor should we.
But what about words with more than one meaning? Often, jargon comes from an instance when an academic wanted to apply an idea from outside the discipline to a problem within it. For instance, Chris Tilley (1994) and phenomemology. Wikipedia says that
“In archaeologyphenomenology applies to the use of sensory experiences to view and interpret an archaeological site or cultural landscape.”
But the Wiki philosophical definition is 
"the study of the structures of experience and consciousness
Which. You can see that they’re related but they clearly don’t mean the same thing. Your average philosopher would struggle quite a lot with some of the things archaeologists write about. Is this helpful? Can we always invent a neologism? Is it desirable that we should do that, rather than borrow from other disciplines? Sure, we bring some baggage with us, but we bring meaning too. I personally settle on the latter argument. You just need to be careful about making sure you know what the words mean in context.
But what about when jargon goes bad? Let’s not beat around the bush. Some academics (Shanks and Tilley for two) often use jargon and complex sentence structure in a way that is deliberately difficult to understand, as though you are only allowed to know their hallowed thoughts if you first wade through 40 pages of baffling waffle. I’ve not got a copy of any Shanks and Tilley on my shelves, but I’ve got something even better: Horden and Purcell, 2000: 423.
“While there are many factors contributing to the distinctive role of mutability in the religious history of the Mediterranean, we maintain that, among them, prominence should be given to the immemorial uncertainties of the microregional environment and interconnections.”
Yikes. It’s worth saying I know only a few people who have read this book cover to cover (including myself) and not one of us has a damn idea what it’s on about. I had to literally follow the lines with a pencil to prevent myself from getting lost.

The Academic Voice
Then, we come to the academic voice. Do you write in the active, or the passive. Do you refer to yourself as I, we, one, the author, or not at all? Do you seek to remove yourself entirely from the text; pretend as though it has been issued forth by a machine which has perfectly weighted the evidence and presented a perfectly accurate, objective narrative outcome? Do you speak in the passive, squeezing yourself smaller and smaller to try and squeeze yourself and your feelings out of the text. Do you pretend to befriend the reader, and control the conversation? “We will now turn to the topic of…”
Academics, in general, hate “I”. Somehow the admittance that one is a person (and not from the 19th century), that you are just one person, too, is terrible. That you have emotions and feelings and unsubstantiated opinions and gut reactions. This has become informal and so must be stamped out. But why is this such a problem? I really struggled with this as an undergrad. We were studying postmodernism, after all, which is all about subjectivity and personal experience and stuff. Why couldn’t I refer to myself as I?

How do students learn to write?
In first year, you write essays. They come back covered in encouragement and admonishment and everything in between. The academic or PhD student marking your Introduction modules is on the lookout for bad academic writing and is there to train you otherwise. They bring their own personal ideas to the table, their own feelings about what just sounds right and what does not. These people shape our writing. More than one member of staff recommended we found an academic whose work we like and copy it. Yesterday, one of the postgrads in my office bumped a student down a whole grade for saying “I” and “we” throughout their otherwise excellent report. How else will they learn? You have to know the rules before you can break them.
The net effect of all this is that we write like our predecessors. And so do all our peers. And then we teach our successors to write the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised to run across a paper that made occasional use of “one” published this year, or next year. The net effect of that is that all of our voices become the voice of the establishment. If you want to be different, you’re going to struggle.
But what’s the problem with that?
Well… a) it hasn’t actually worked to stamp out our individual styles. We’ve still got them, but they’re bandaged down tightly like the breasts of the Amazons of legend. Flattened so as not to interfere with the perfect aim of our argument.
b) It helps perpetuate the idea that academics are objective, autonomous robots who never have feelings or instincts or make mistakes. This isn’t true, and I think we lose something by pretending it is.
c) It makes us really difficult to communicate with! We struggle to talk to each other. We struggle to talk to the public, which is more important than ever, now all out research is expected to have “impact”. Don’t believe me? My dad became an academic in his 40s. Here’s an article he recently wrote for the Guardian. He really, really tried to make it accessible.

How do we fix it?
How do you fix a worldwide, centuries old, deeply entrenched position? Good luck. But we could make a start by teaching our students that it is okay to use “I” and okay to write while acknowledging all it stands for. If you're a PhD student, why not occasionally question the mark scheme? If you're an academic, why not talk to your students about the problems of the academic voice? I was lucky enough that in Ancient History they took this seriously, prescribed us Writing Ancient History (which had been written for that exact purpose, by one of our professors). In Archaeology, I don't think I ever heard a single thing about the academic voice. Not in Introduction.  Not in Contemporary Theory. Sure, we had writing classes, seminars. Just last week we had a postgraduate "How to write" seminar which was really well attended. But these are practical guides, not lengthy discussions of why we write. So: we can do better. Maybe it's something I'll suggest for my research cluster: it's annual review time, and we're just desperate for something to do. 

Horden, P. and Purcell, N. (2000) The Corrupting Sea (Oxford)
Jennings, D.; Muir, J.; Palmer, S.; Smith, A. (2004) Thornhill Farm, Fairford, Gloucestershire. An Iron Age and Roman pastoral site in the Upper Thames Valley, Thames Valley Landscapes Monograph no. 23
Millett, M. (1990) The Romanization of Britain (Cambridge)
Morley, N. (1999) Writing Ancient History (London)
Tilley, C. (1994) A Phenomenology of Landscape (Oxford

Edit: I'm sorry; I have no idea why this is white-background when all the settings are as usual. Guess we'll just have to live with it

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