On obscurantism

Recently I read this post Complexification facilitates obscurantist discourses and it got me thinking. Not about the obvious point that despite the charge of being obscure, the paper seemed to be well understood by the author, so it can’t really have been that obscure. Of course, what followed was a Twitter flame war – how could it not? And don’t get me wrong, I love a flame war as much as anyone. Sides are picked, DMs flow and teams meet outside the virtual bike racks for a turf war. Tweets fly thick and fast: riposte, parry, move in for the kill etc. And everyone else on twitter probably thinks those people clogging their feed are being massive dicks (I do wonder about that – does my perception ring true?)

What I am really interested in doing in this post is making an argument about purpose and audience, and to try to explain to a wider audience how academic publishing actually works, what the incentives are and why academics write the ways that they do. Of course, like most things I am sure that we can all improve, but I am more interested in challenging the idea that complexity is necessarily a bad thing, or the only thing, that academics engage in. As Pat Thomson said in this post we often assume that obscure journal articles are all that academics produce:

Don’t worry about the fact that there is a lot of other academic writing out there that is much more accessible and straightforward. Don’t worry that lots of academics now write for newspapers and blogs. Don’t worry that some of them even write for you. Just say “ivory tower” ,”real world” and “incomprehensible” a few times and no one will bother about how selective you’ve been in your choice of examples.

And before I begin this post, I need to make three things clear. First, I am not directly responding to the post lest I be accused of setting up strawmen. Rather I am thinking through it as one provocation amongst many regarding how academics write. Second, I know the authors of the article very well, but my intention is not to defend them, they are experienced academics and can take umbrage on their own account if they wish. Third, I’ve written much more obscure work than this myself (a point I will return to in my next post) and have wrestled with complexity and communication, and made various decisions about that in my academic career.

Now, I used to be a High School teacher of English and Literature amongst other things, I also taught History, PE and Woodwork at various times in WA (which is why I use the WA Syllabus, I understand it the best). When it came to teaching composition, the syllabus and I were pretty clear, purpose and audience are central considerations for assessing the quality of writing. For example, the WA K-10 English Syllabus states that in Year 1 students will:

Understand that the purposes texts serve shape their structure in predictable ways(ACELA1447)

As the syllabus goes on, increasing the complexity with which primary and high school students are meant to understand the ways that purpose influences both structure and language.

The same is true for audience. Once again, returning to WA K-10 English Syllabus, Year 2 students will:

Understand that spoken, visual and written forms of language are different modes of communication with different features and their use varies according to the audience, purpose, context and cultural background (ACELA1460)

and

Create short imaginative, informative and persuasive texts using growing knowledge of text structures and language features for familiar and some less familiar audiences, selecting print and multimodal elements appropriate to the audience and purpose (ACELY1671)

Once again, the syllabus neatly extends the application of these concepts, so that in Year 12 students will:

So, from this I would like to suggest that understanding purpose and audience is essential for the students that we teach, and that the same should be applied to academic texts. Further, what I do want to talk is the notion of purpose and audience from the perspective of an academic. And this is a conversation I have with Early Career Academics all the time these days as part of my job. For everything you write, there is a purpose and an audience, and this dictates how you approach the task of writing, where it is submitted for publication and how you phrase your contribution.

Purpose

While I don’t want to get bogged down in research genre here (ie research reviews, meta analyses, case studies etc), it is enough to claim that academic texts have different purposes. Some are written to report on research findings, and contribute to the known body of empirical research. There are lots of journals that cater for these kinds of articles. Some academic work is written to challenge our thinking. Often, this research is published in different journals. Sometimes, articles are written as thought experiments, where positions or theories are taken ‘out on the road’ so to speak, put to use.

Audience

Relatedly, there are different audiences that influence how we write. My sense is that this is one of the most poorly understood aspects of academic publishing, both within the academy and without it. Sometimes, academics write for each other, and even specifically for those whose interests are closely aligned. The purpose of this type of paper can be to advance a very specific knowledge set amongst a very specific readership. These tend to be published in academic journals that are highly specialised, with a readership that is also highly specialised. If we return to the paper that inspired this blog, I didn’t find it particularly hard to read, nor do I find words like dispositif difficult to understand, but I imagine that academics like me are the intended audience for a paper like this. This is true in all disciplines in my experience, and when this is not taken into account can make the research seem trivial, or even silly. I think this is an ungenerous tactic but not unusual, one thinks about the ways that Derrida’s work was trivialised at various stages.

On other occasions, academics write for a broader academic audience, and this is often published in multidisciplinary journals that have an eclectic audience representing multiple research orientations and theoretical traditions. These tend to be the journals that publish both qualitative and quantitative articles, disparate theoretical traditions alongside each other. Generally, but not always, these journals are less ‘jargony’ and can focus on the empirical moreso than the conceptual. Some of the biggest and most prestigious academic journals as measured by impact factors and rejection rates fit this explanation.

As well there are other journals that we call practitioner focused. These journals or periodicals tend to be written with much less focus on academic discourse and much more on pragmatic language and practical insight. Of course, it doesn’t mean that these articles reach different conclusions from articles written for academics, it just means that audience dictates that these are written differently. As well, there is the media work that academics do through outlets like The Conversation and blogs that are both important and require consideration of how best to communicate to lay audiences.

Now, I haven’t touched on books and book chapters, but needless to say that the same can be said here. Some books are meant for practitioners, some are highly specialised and intended for specialised audiences. Expecting one to be the other seems to be a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

Before I finish, I would like to make two points. First, I think that it is important that academics have a varied approach to publishing, to write journal articles that are for specialised audiences, to write for practitioners and the public. However, we mustn’t forget that universities run according to metrics, and those metrics do privilege certain forms of outputs. I sometimes get the sense that some are surprised that academics write journal articles. My response to that is that is what we are paid to do, and institutions tend to judge ‘quality’ very differently than the public. Second, I think we should acknowledge that some of the most important academic work in education is done via presentations to groups of practitioners. In my time I have presented to ‘expert’ teacher groups, principal associations, high level bureacrats and parents groups. I don’t mention Deleuze or the eternal return there, that is for sure! To conclude, I’d like to post a video of Bob Lingard recapping a presentation on equity to teachers and principals in NZ and I’ll leave it for you to judge whether he is an obscurantist or not.

On defending shit work

In response to On Reading (Part I) Greg Ashman responded with his post Dense and Complex. While I welcome the debate, and thank Greg for his consideration of my post, I think there are factual, logical and nonsensical problems with his work. Greg’s arguments, if I may summarise, and respond underneath to each one, are as follows:

1. All sociological/critical theory/poststructural work share certain outlooks: ‘In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.’

Unbeknownst to many (it would appear) there is a strong tradition of positivism in both sociology and  philosophy. Whilst I don’t subscribe to these positions myself, the argument that all sociology etc is anti-positivist is nonsense. A little bit of research (ie googling the terms) can simply refute this.

2. While Science and Maths are difficult, New Scientist (and presumably other publications) make this complex work like string theory easy to understand.

Just for fun, I googled ‘introduction to poststructuralism’ reasoning that if this field of endeavour was being deliberately obtuse, you wouldn’t be able to find anything. Here is a screenshot:

image

Given that there are around 342,000 introductory posts, papers, podcasts, lectures and comic books available for study, I disagree that explaining  poststructuralism has been shirked. There is more than enough for study there, and while I wouldn’t suggest that they are of equal quality, there is more than enough to go on with.

3. The Sokal Affair showed that postmodernism is nonsense.

The Sokal Affair showcases shit editorial work, and I’m not going to defend it. The editors deserve to be called for publishing the nonsense paper. However, as I’ll explain below, this is not a failure of the academic field and/or peer review. Sokal’s paper is often trotted out for rhetorical effect, with scant engagement with the actual details of the affair. Just to clarify:

  • The nonsense paper was sent to what I would call a literary magazine, not an academic journal, and as such was not subject to peer review. The editors read the paper, and asked for revisions, which Sokal refused to do, and they decided to publish anyway. Obviously this was a mistake, and the editors (and their journal) have had to cop the humiliation of publishing a nonsense paper. This is harsh but fair. However, and I stress this, because the Sokal paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, the argument that it is an indictment of academic work in the area is not a valid inference.
  • Further, Sokal also published a book which ridiculed many post-modern and structural thinkers. This book was enthusiastically received by the anti-PoMo crowd, until a number of problems of logic and fact were pointed out with the work. Here is one refutation. Someone who can’t even get the history of their own field correct seems to me to be of dubious authority as your go-to-guy for slaying the big bad PoMo wolf.
  • Finally, we all know that Science is not immune from egregious errors in publication. These include plagiarism, fudging results, and downright lying in areas such as cancer research. Now I, and I assume most people, would see these egregious and dishonest acts as exceptions to the rule and that the vast majority of science researchers are ethical, methodical and making their best possible contribution to their field. I am interested that this generosity isn’t extended to much of the theoretical work in and around education. Interestingly, I work as an editor on two education journals that publish sociological and philosophical work in education. Both of these journals have high rejection rates because they are rigorous, methodical and exacting. These rejection rates are as high as for some Science journals. If it was ever true that once upon a time all you had to do was mention ‘discourse’, ‘power/knowledge’ etc to get published, it is certainly not so now.

4. Given ‘that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself’. On the one hand, I think that all disciplines could do with better outreach communication. Broadly speaking, I agree with the second half of that argument, but as I’ve pointed out above, there is lots of (unread) explanatory and introductory material. However, in the spirit with which the comment was intended, over the next few weeks I’ll take the challenge of explaining poststructuralism in a series of posts, so watch this space.

  • My first problem with this statement is that the idea that we can choose where our tax dollars go isn’t how parliamentary democracy and taxation work. For example, if we could decide how our tax dollars would be spent, I’d imagine that there’d be a number of very nervous elite private schools in Australia. Of course,  wishing that governments would spend tax dollars how we would is the stuff of fantasy.
  • Second, each year government funding makes up less and less of the budget of universities, around 45% on average in this latest report. Following the taxpayer logic (remembering that academics also pay tax, so I suppose they could just refuse as taxpayers if tax payment confers some special authority), academics could manipulate their workload allocation on paper to show that they don’t use the government funding of their wage (approx 45% minus the tax that they pay as taxpayers themselves) for their poststructural research and devote the tax-funded aspects to teaching and service. Given the teaching/service/research workload split most academics work under, I doubt they’d have to change anything that they do. Of course, this example is nonsensical, sketched out to show the messiness of the ‘I’m a taxpayer’ argument.
  • Third, given that many of the most wealthy corporations in Australia pay no tax, one of which is NewsCorp which owns a number of newspapers which comment on Australian education, I wonder if the argument is that as non-taxpayers they don’t really have the right to that commentary? Of course, I would disagree with this because a) the status of taxpayer doesn’t seem to confer the authority in practice that the blog suggests and b) silencing public voices in most cases should be avoided.

Ultimately, this post has extended well beyond the 500 words I set myself for each blog post. If you’ve read this far, congrats, and sorry for the length.