Read the related Chronicle of Higher Education post At Goucher College, Applicants Who Send Videos Need Not Send Grades

calvin-writing
Source: Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat

In Why Academics Stink at Writing Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University and chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary points to Watterson’s Calvin to provide a summary for why academics stink at writing:

“…the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!”

In addition to this wonderful humour Pinker offers the following explanations for why so many academics write so poorly:

  • Metadiscourse — Verbiage about verbiage or the unnecessary attempt to guide your read through your writing.
  • Professional narcissism — The unnecessary description of their federation rather than what the audience wants to know.
  • Apologizing — The over explanation of ideas that are difficult, complicated and controversial.
  • Shudder quotes — Many academics have a nose-holding disdain for idiomatic English.
  • Hedging — Academics often fear criticisms and cushion their prose with wads of fluff to give them a way out from making a firm commitment to an idea.
  • Metaconcepts and nominalizations — Because academics spend so much time thinking about issues and ideas they write at that abstract level. This also contributes to their tendency use Zombie Nouns. They do this by turning a verb into a:

“lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, or –ation. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement.”

Pinker expands on all these ideas throughout his long article but his final reason for shoddy academic writing is:

“There are few incentives for writing well.”

Since few graduate programs teach writing, few academic journals stipulate clarity as a submission criteria and few reviewers and editor enforce it there is little professional motivation to engage in self improvement.

That is until now…

In this blog post The sophistication of truth Seth Godin argues that these common forms of complexity are the sophistication of fear.

“Long words when short ones will do. Fancy clothes to keep the riffraff out and to give us a costume to hide behind. Most of all, the sneer of, “you don’t understand” or, “you don’t know the people I know…”

“It’s complicated,” we say, even when it isn’t.

We invent these facades because they provide safety. Safety from the unknown, from being questioned, from being called out as a fraud. These facades lead to bad writing, lousy communication and a refuge from the things we fear.”

He encourages us to be fearless and reminds us that our work doesn’t have to be obtuse to be important or brave. I agree with Godin since I have spent that last 20+ years in academia I too have fallen into the traps of

“scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle [my] audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.”

To be fearless Godin suggest that we need to start with:

“This is, “here it is, I made this, I know you can understand it, does it work for you?”

Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to stop writing in the conventional way and simply state what we need to state in the simplest terms. I subscribe to and read Godin’s posts on a daily basis because they are short, simple and to the point.

Or when it is appropriate we need to stop writing all together and use other forms of communication. The following video is a the best example of this sophistication in simplicity:

Do you prattle on with words when a video, infographic, illustation or other form of media is the right tool to use?

Richard Lyons, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business says:

“Half of the business schools in this country could be out of business in 10 years—or 5.”

This isn’t an empty prediction. It is a stark reality especially when you consider what Robert Lytle, partner in the education practice at Parthenon Group, warns:

“Once you get out of the top tier of schools, you’re either already online, on your way there, or dead in the water.”

While this is a bold statement it does ring true when you consider that Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business which launched an online MBA program in 1999 now has 1,072 students enrolled in their online MBA program–more than double the number in the school’s regular two-year program.

Perhaps an even more significant factor contributing to the need to move programs online is the level of daily online utilization in world around us. Internet banking, ticket purchases, merchandise overnighted from Amazon and so many more daily aspects of our lives are being served online at the times that are convenient for us.

This really became clear in the past few weeks after I started watching the news on cable TV once again. Because of several moves in the past couple of years we haven’t subscribed to cable TV. But now that we are settled down in one location for the foreseeable future and Shaw offered a 6 month free trial TV cable package as an addition to our internet connection, I have been watching several news channels. These channels haven’t really changed all the much in the past few years except that they all point to Twitter as a way to keep up with the breaking news, their websites have matured and now offer virtually all the same content one can watch on TV and they use Skype or other video conferencing tools to regularly to bring in experts from all over the world to comment the news.

If the major news channels and networks have recognized that we all demand control over how we consumer the daily news and expect to have best experts Skype into the conversation in real time is there any wonder that this same level expectation will extend to the way that we are educated. I have been teaching online since 1995 and have been promoting a student-centered approach to creating significant learning environments and I am excited to see that online learning has matured to the point where we can now address the most significant aspect of this type of learning–giving the learner control over the time, place and context in which they wish to learn.

The schools that get this are already online or are well on their way to getting there. The rest will be dead in the water. What category will your school fall into? Are you part of the problem or part of the solution? What are you doing about this?

Read the full Bloomberg article…

When we look back twenty years we can see how close AT&T came to predicting the future. They missed a few key details like the people using pay phones for video conferencing but the fundamental ideas that people would use the network to video conference was very accurate. When we look back on these adds most of these ideas are now taken for granted but at the time they were very revolutionary. The challenge we face is that there are many predictions being made today and we need to consider if we are actually paying attention and preparing our learners for a very different future.

The wisdom offered in Simon Sinek’s inspirational post of the day:

“A team’s job is to provide their leader more options. The leader’s job is to give their team the resources to do so.”

will only work if your work environment/department/group operates as a team and you have the right leader.

Unfortunately not enough work settings function as teams and not enough leaders recognize that their priority is to power and equip their teams and most work groups aren’t interested in offering their leaders options. You need both components to make have an highly efficient and productive work environment.