Academia: it’s time to “write” the way

Riya Bindlish, Features Editor

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Literature held to the highest esteem is that which portrays characteristics of concision while simultaneously maintaining brevity.

In other words, the best writing is clear and to-the-point. 

When I first started reading lengthy research reports, I was amazed (and simultaneously confused) at the seemingly profound verbiage being used. Yet, scrolling through countless JSTOR journals in AP Research now exhausts and frustrates me. 

As I try and extract arguments from 60-page long studies,  I realize it takes me a while to fully understand the thought processes and ideas communicated. I initially believed it was because of the specialized vocabulary used in many of the studies. While research analysis and interpretation have merit, circulative diction creates more barriers that lessen educational value. The purpose of research writing shouldn’t be to present an idea for the sake of sophistication and complexity—rather, it should efficiently communicate an idea with the largest audience possible. 

A lack of emphasis on argumentation hurts our ability to communicate these ideas efficiently, propagating a cycle of inaccessibility and poor writing norms in both high school and college.

Academic writing is reputable for its didactic nature: Helen Sword, author and research professor at the University of Auckland, finds that in a sample of 500 research studies, only a small minority communicated their findings concisely.

Though these problems are established and recognized, academia continues to make these mistakes. One of the biggest reasons why is due to normalized habits in the industry and the repercussions of breaking them. 

In fact, the Atlantic reports that researchers hold the perception that they will only be taken seriously if they please gatekeepers (individuals who vouch for researchers and hold leadership positions in their field). Thus, they fill papers with seemingly academic language.  

More prevalent, however, are bad writing habits. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist at Harvard University published the article “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” which analyzes mistakes researchers make in their rhetoric. The two mistakes Pinker points out that apply most to my experiences reading research papers are hedging and the usage of abstract meta concepts. 

Hedging is a technique where the author fluffs or dilutes their ideas by adding phrases such as “somewhat,” “I would argue” and “to some extent.” This allows the researcher to cite purposefully vague diction as evidence of acknowledging their findings could be wrong, should anyone criticize or oppose their findings. While this technique may be necessary in some cases, Pinker asserts that a better technique is to qualify statements rather than hedge them; to solidify a stance, instead of dancing around the topic.  

The second mistake researchers make is the normalization of using meta concepts and nominalizations. Phrases such as “we aspire to” or “calling the police” suddenly become “on the aspirational level” and “approach this subject from a law-enforcement perspective.” Shifting toward unnecessarily convoluted phrasing reinforces elitism and exclusion in academia without merit — not only does it make it harder to communicate progressive ideas, but it locks people out of the discourse, limiting the impact of the study and future collaboration to further said research. 

Some argue that fields such as the sciences require highly specialized terminology known only to fellow researchers and peers. Yet, there is a clear distinction between using language that is restricted for a certain field and complicated substitutes for simplistic words. In fact, neuroscientist William Hedley Thompson at the Karolinska Institute analyzed roughly 700,000 English-language abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 in 122 leading biomedical journals finding the amount of “general scientific jargon” has been steadily increasing: words such as “underlying” and “robust” have become normalized fluff.

The first step to fixing this problem is by reforming collegiate writing instruction. Right now, many colleges don’t take the time to assign enough written assignments due to grading time constraints, subjectivity of grading, and large class sizes. Furthermore, many colleges assume that students can already extract arguments from writing, decreasing explicit instruction. However, with many students arriving at college unable to write cohesive thesis papers, the educational gap grows.

The disparity becomes clear when looking at employer expectations compared to skills of college graduates. The Hart Research Association found a 43 point gap between recent graduates’ ability to communicate with clear writing and the importance employers placed on the skill.

A large contributing factor is the inability of students to break bad habits they’ve kept for 12 years of their education. The problem roots itself in high school writing curriculum. 

With students’ main objective being to get good grades and collegiate research writing serving as a model for high school writing, changing the way high school writing is taught is difficult. Exposed to the world of abstract and elaborate language while researching reports and reading articles in class, I now find myself having to completely change the way I write because I had instinctively based my writing style on these readings.

The clearest implications of poor academic writing in a high school context are fishbowl discussions. Academic language is on almost every fishbowl rubric I have received, without any definition or explanation of what that entails. Thus, discussions that are supposed to delve  into various perspectives are clouded by long-winded monologues, loaded with jargon to get that extra tick mark (I am definitely guilty of this).

DV AP Language Teacher Mrs. Michelle Wilson corroborates, saying, “I will notice in fishbowls you can sit there and listen to somebody and they sound so smart … just the tone and the words that come out of their mouths, sound so incredibly insightful … But if you really dissect what they are saying, they’re not saying anything.”

So why isn’t there any incentive for students to change? Why? Because it works — students are rewarded for seemingly intelligent statements with good grades.

Authentic thought is difficult to evaluate from both a student and teacher perspective.

Transitioning to a curriculum focused more heavily on clear and concise writing — including specific strategies on how to do so, discussing the limitations of literary journals and providing detailed feedback — forces students to break out of bad writing habits. Additionally, instead of benefiting students with a fancier vocabulary, it emphasizes quality over prose.

However, the nature of the American education system makes it difficult to shift towards flexible curricula. Linda Holcombe, 4th year doctoral student in Global Governance and Human Security, says that “Teachers in high school are further and further hamstrung by having to teach to standardized tests so they lose the freedom to help students grow as individuals rather than as producers to minimum goal. But changing only one part of the system is not enough. I might even argue that the issues we see with writing are an indicator of wider problems with how we approach the idea of education.”

Both sides must take initiative in order to effectively change the academic community. While the problem may not entirely be in our control, time and effort put in at the high school and collegiate levels are necessary baby steps; In the long run, accessible, substantive writing skills at an early age results in efficient communication and progress.