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March 26, 2012

The emperor’s new clothes: Traditions in academia - who’s fooling whom?

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Barnie Choudhury examines the idea that traditional research and writing in academia are unsuitable in journalism teaching and practice today. He suggests that academics hide behind difficult language because they are not sure of what they are trying to say - and that, in many instances, academics over-complicate simple ideas to appear clever. He argues that in order to re-connect with a new generation of practitioner-academics, orhackademics’, academia needs to change

Introduction:

A while ago I asked a publisher to have a look at a book that I was writing. It was called: The Top Line: The Inside Secrets of a Broadcast Journalist. It never claimed to be an academic piece of work. It was nothing more than a series of recollections, of triumphs past and subsequent learning points for wannabe journalists. In my book I explained how I started, what I thought news was; I gave tips on how to find stories, how to interview people, how to carry out investigations, how to perform on radio and television - and an assortment of lessons I had learned in a career spanning three decades.

In each chapter colleagues from the industry, such as the BBC’s Allan Little or ITV’s Bill Neeley gave their thoughts on succeeding in the industry. In other words, it was a ‘how to’ book, a useful and readable companion for sixth formers, college students and undergraduates. I know this because I asked students past and present to read some chapters and offer me feedback. Without exception they all liked it…but. What I didn’t know is that publishers are so scared of going out on a limb that they ask for ‘peer review’. Like Roman Emperors their decision is final. In my case the words were fairly damning:

He’s [Barnie’s] been known to disagree with one or two of the more cerebral types in the Association for Journalism Education, an episode he probably wears as a badge of honour!

When I wrote my offending blog,[1] for the AJE, a colleague drew a sharp breath and said: ‘You’ve done it now!’ I didn’t take any notice and I still hold out hope that they are wrong and I am right: that we can have a diversity of opinion and still be respectful, professional and friendly.

I must admit to laughing aloud to two points in that one sentence. The first insult is that the AJE has ‘cerebral types’; and the second, equally damning, that I should wear my disagreement ‘as a badge of honour’. My contention is that I have yet to meet anyone in the AJE who describes himself or herself as ‘cerebral’. And when I have disagreements, I just think life’s too short. Move on.

But herein lies a first problem of what I will call ‘old academic thinking’. Why do these people hide behind anonymity? It’s probably because they are afraid. Afraid that their comments will come back to haunt them or they will be judged one day by the ones they’re reviewing. They should not be afraid. We just need to remember it’s business and not personal. In this case my peers just did not like my idea or my style of writing. I have survived far worse. My suggestion is that don’t write anything that you would not say to your peer’s face. I have no problem with someone saying my work is valueless or pointless or egotistical - but look me in the eye and say that and let’s discuss as grown up adults. It’s quite simple really.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to uphold standards. I think we need to have criteria. But I also think we need to have flexibility, diversity and intellectual difference of opinions in all forms of writing. George Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Politics and the English language’[2] sums up what I’m trying to say. He says of writing:

It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Unfortunately, I feel we have begun to imitate what some of us consider is ‘academic’ writing. My view is that in doing so we have slipped into a vat of foolish thoughts. And that is my starting point. Writing with clarity and simplicity are not weaknesses; they are strengths.

Writing

My contention is that if we can’t get the writing right, how on earth can we get anything else right? In my view any writing, other than a polemic or an editorial perhaps, needs be fair, accurate, impartial, balanced and have context. So let us assume my argument starts with the words:

Academic writing today is gobbledegook

No right-minded-thinking, self-respecting-conference-organiser, peer reviewer or publisher will entertain the idea. It is far too bald and bold a statement. Without any qualification or context, it is completely idiotic. What the assertion should say is that:

Some academic writing today is gobbledegook

And then to prove my thesis I need to show you examples that I have found, evaluated and challenged with intelligent rigour and argument. I had some beautiful examples but it would be unfair to publish them. Unfair because there’s no right of reply; unfair because it may be that I am the one at fault for not understanding something others find simple because they have been trained to do so. But, being a journalist, I did take the liberty of sending one offending abstract to seven eminent professors. Of those who responded, two dismissed it and ‘wouldn’t give it house room’, while another did translate it for me and said of the abstract:

It made me smile. So many buzz phrases in one place! It is quite easy to understand if, like me, you have been studying cultural studies for 30 years!!

And that’s the problem. I have been a journalist for 30 years and a hacakademic for much, much less. For that reason, before I make informed comment, I like to research what I am about to pontificate about. So I hit Google Scholar and typed in the word: ‘journalism’. I could have taken my pick of those who research, teach and pontificate about journalism. And remember these were just the abstracts.

In one academic paper from an AJE member, I counted 50 words in the first sentence and in a later sentence there were 69 words. I did a quick calculation and realised that on average each sentence contained 30 words and at least one sub-clause and/or one semi-colon. And that’s just on the first page which I could down load for free. Like the boy out of the Emperor’s New Clothes, I find myself rather bemused. We ought to be able to write sentences which have no more than an average 21 words per sentence. What I find terrifying is that this is an eminent, world renowned professor and so one of our great thinkers. And like the boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, I need to ask: Do we really, should we really, entertain reams of paper whose words we have to read again and again to understand their meaning?

I am just hoping my dissertation tutor doesn’t expect me to write in dense, incomprehensible English. I am hoping that he will understand that I have tried to follow Orwell’s advice in avoiding the two bad habits of, in his case, political writing:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

I would suggest that anyone who hasn’t read Orwell’s essay should give it a try. He says it all.

Audience

Carl Freedman continues this theme. In the abstract to his paper Writing, ideology, and politics“[3]: he wrote: “To teach writing is, at least in part, to teach thinking. In particular it is to advance, even if implicitly, a series of propositions on the relations that govern thought, language, and the “real” world.’To do that, I argue that we must start with our audience. Who will benefit from our knowledge? And do we need to write it in such dense, often incomprehensible language, which requires a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in another? No matter who that audience is, we must explain things with simple clarity but not in a patronising way. I argue that we can do this without ‘dumbing down’. We can use our past skills and transfer them to our current profession. And surely, we need to seek out knowledge that is new, interesting and true, rather than regurgitated.

The argument for ‘academic language’

Some academics argue that the audience for an academic paper are, well, er, academics. That’s axiomatic. They then press their case by saying that is why there is a need for ‘academic language’. They say it is necessary shorthand, just as journalists use shorthand and/or jargon in any newsroom. And they also point out that academic papers should not have to explain every theory or have a ‘new readers start here’ section. In short, academic papers should have a degree of assumed knowledge. I have much sympathy with these views. But my argument is not about that. It is based on one fundamental point: say what you mean, mean what you say. I can cope with theories but don’t obfuscate or hide behind a blizzard of meaningless words for the sake of appearing clever or having to play the academic game.

Other academics have argued that academic papers are ‘meant to be hard work’ and are ‘not meant to be journalistic’. One academic put it like this: “Learning French, if you are English isn’t easy, so why does everyone assume that academic writing should be easy?” I can understand the logic in their argument; you have to work at acquiring a new skill and ‘learning academic’ is a subject which needs to be mastered. Where I disagree is that academic papers, first and foremost, are meant to impart knowledge. And acquiring knowledge doesn’t have to be difficult. Professor Brian Cox makes science understandable. So why can’t we make the theoretical models and latest journalism research just as accessible.

The big difference between journalism and academic is often nuance. Quite rightly journalist cut out what they consider to be unnecessary words. In doing so, the ‘on this hand’ and ‘on the other’ are often missed out. How often have we read about medical ‘breakthroughs’ and how often have scientists had to issue an extra press release to say the story was not completely accurate. The beauty of an academic paper is that researchers have the space to be nuanced. But I argue, even then, they can be nuanced in an accessible way, in their own voice.

Journalism and sources:

My view is that journalists should be the best researchers. In investigative journalism do we not echo the academic researcher? We find something which interests us. We try to find out everything about it. We look for something which hasn’t been discovered. We then use all our skills, tried and tested means, to get our answers. We write it up. We make some recommendations and conclusions. We then publish.

Tell me how that is different from anything we do as academics? We provide, for instance, a thesis; literature review; methodology; chapters focusing on primary data analysis; conclusion; dissemination.

But the thing I have failed to understand so far is how we have become so reliant on what other people have said before us. I get it’s about history and context. But articles I’ve read suggest lots of history and context and little new research - academia’s version of ‘churnalism’, if you will. I suspect we are afraid to be pioneers, the discoverer of something truly new, in case we are knocked down and criticised. We are afraid to fail and so we play it safe.

For my MRes I have interviewed the good and the great. What they say is worth hearing and adds to the sum of our knowledge. As a journalist it means a lot. As an academic, I am told top names carry very little weight. Instead, my understanding is that, greater weight will be put on theories and what previous academics have said. Surely that’s the wrong way around - we need to examine the balance of research endeavour versus regurgitating what is already out there. The research question for me is: what new knowledge have I gained?

Parting of the ways:

Because if we don’t then, like all revolutions, there will be a disagreement and a parting of the ways. Donal McIntyre is an excellent investigative journalist. But recently he has had little luck in getting the programmes he wants commissioned. So he has taken it on himself to strike deals with movie houses and distributors to show the films he has made.

Similarly this will happen and is happening in academia. The book I want to write, in my own way, in my own style, in my own voice will be published. I won’t get rich on it but students past and present, who have read chapters, suggest there is a market: here are some of their comments:

Students won’t buy - and are sick of buying - an academic book that they don’t understand. They need to see that the lessons they’re being taught work, and have been learnt by those in the industry. My one regret is that this book wasn’t available before I came to university!

If only I had been bought a copy of this book when I was in the first year then I think my understanding would have been much greater. Not only is it easy to read but the examples are examples of events which are not only recent but are notable, everyone knows about these events. This really separates it from academic texts which use examples of events from the back of beyond.

If it was published, I would suggest giving it to students taking this course before they even start! I would loved to have had it by my side when making and planning stories as I would have gone through the book and ticked off the points made and make sure I was making my piece to the best it could be!

Some academics have argued that it is we, educators, who should tell students what they need to know and students should not dictate to us. But for me knowledge has always been a two-way process. We only have to read Investigative journalism: Dead or alive? (Arima, Bury St Edmunds 2011), edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, to see how three University of Lincoln undergraduate students held an audience at Coventry University spellbound with new investigative techniques.

The danger is that the internet has made it so easy to publish. There’s nothing to stop anyone setting up a website for like-minded academics, is there? And the safety net they need to ensure is that they move with the times and don’t accept that what was once acceptable remains acceptable without being updated for today’s audiences.

A new hope:

Let me conclude by saying I am hopeful. As one of the professors who replied to my query about what one abstract meant said in their reply:

I also like to hear or read about actual research into what actually happened, and I like a logical argument based upon evidence.

You can’t say that more clearly or fairly.

Notes:

[1] http://www.dandavies23.com/blowback/2011/04/13/we-dont-need-to-dumb-down-but-we-do-need-to-k-i-s-s/ accessed 2nd January 2012
[2] ‘Politics and the English language’ by George Orwell. Available online at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79p/, accesses on 3 January 2012
[3] See http://www.jstor.org/pss/377118 accessed 2nd January 2012

Note on the contributor:

Barnie Choudhury is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Lincoln. He’s a former award-winning BBC Correspondent and currently runs his own media production company. Barnie is a Lay Advisor for the Department of Health’s Equality and Diversity Council, sits on the boards of several charities and is the Chairman of AWAAZ, a mental health charity for South Asian communities in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

1 Comment »

  1. Thatb4s sounds great. In this cxtoent I can teel, that u also gave a talk and reviewed our EA-programme to our seminar 11th of may 2006. The talk was very innteresting and learning. Your review was also very productive and we are working on some of the reviewresults. We and Our IT-Department, Ministry of Finance – Agency for Govermental Management (d8konomistyrelsen).

    Comment by jony — April 13, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

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