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Scholars’ Writing Is Often Unclear. Why That Matters for the K-12 Field (Opinion)

In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and we will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us.

Today’s topic is the value of scholars writing for the public.

Rick

Jal: I am a dreadfully slow writer. Articles, books, you name it—it takes me forever to figure out what to say, how to structure it, and what tone to strike. But there is one kind of writing that comes fairly easily: blog posts.

Why is that? I think it’s because in blog posts, you just speak in first person about an issue and you try to communicate what you think as simply and clearly as you can. You don’t have all the trappings that come with academic writing. You draw on your knowledge, yes, but you aren’t limited to what you can prove scientifically. You can abandon the fiction that what you say isn’t influenced by your values. At risk of sounding grandiose, I find it liberating—I can be my whole self, not just the part of me that can demonstrate certain “truths” social-scientifically.

As someone who has regularly engaged in this kind of writing since graduate school, I also think that there is a positive feedback loop between public writing and academic work. Blog posts are places to try ideas, see what resonates, and realize which threads are worth developing in longer and more formal writing. Much of what became my second book, In Search of Deeper Learning, initially appeared in shorter form at the Learning Deeply blog that Bob Rothman and I edited.

When I was a junior professor and coming up for tenure, some people discouraged me from blogging. It wasn’t serious, they said, and it took time away from academic writing. But I think what they were missing was that it was helping my academic writing. It gave me a place to concisely develop ideas and see what would resonate with the field. To this day, I’ve gotten more feedback on “Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem” than anything else I’ve written in my whole career—proof that short and pointed can sometimes be a lot more compelling than long and academic.

Rick, you long ago traded an academic track for one that put you in the middle of the public square. What say you?

Rick: I think you’ve captured a larger tension here. Today, “expertise” has too often become a synonym for incomprehensible jargon and an excuse for incoherence. Hell, most academic writing seems more intent on scoring points with the scholarly fraternity than on providing clear explication, analysis, or argument.

There are obviously some lucid scholarly articles and books (just as there are some unfathomable blog posts). But scholarly publications reward econometric jabber and critical theory, with too many editors and scholars apparently mistaking this stuff for profundity. One consequence is that authors have little incentive to worry about things like word choice and none to make things easy to understand.

This is a problem. College students read this argle-bargle in classes, study it in grad schools, and see it modeled by their teachers. Bad behaviors get reinforced and passed on. I long ago stopped being surprised that razor-sharp new grads (with dazzling grades and sparkling resumes) tend to be pretentious, stilted, awful writers. I don’t blame them; I think it’s a consequence of years spent in classrooms that don’t model or value good, clear writing.

As someone who believes that truth, understanding, and public discourse matter, this drives me to distraction. These things benefit mightily from clarity of word and thought. That means doing our best to help students and readers grasp our meaning, weigh our claims, and appraise our assumptions. Unintelligible word salad does the opposite. It sows confusion. It obscures claims. And, along the way, it divides the world into those who have and haven’t learned the shibboleths buried in the garbled jargon.

Given this dynamic, do you see any obvious implications for educators and scholars?

Jal: I know this isn’t for everyone. But I think more people should try it. The converse—writing only for other academics—can have significant drawbacks. It can encourage whole fields to develop where people are writing in prose that only a few others can understand and it can narrow scholars’ vision to whatever will win the approbation of a few colleagues. Because editors are ferocious at eliminating jargon and pushing for clarity, public writing breaks that self-reinforcing loop and forces you to see if you really have anything to say. It also creates a disciplining force in favor of questions that matter to the field as a whole rather than just a few colleagues. And it will improve your academic writing because you get used to plain language and shorter sentences.

Public writing also encourages some breadth, fighting against the specializing forces of academia. The goal is not simply to “translate” one’s research for public consumption but rather to take up the issues that are facing the world and try to inform people based on what you know. Scholars seem quite willing to take on this task when they teach: Framing a syllabus and responding to students’ questions necessarily requires some range and willingness to leave one’s narrow comfort zone. Why not write down some of these thoughts and share them with the broader world?

A related point is that if we don’t engage, others will fill the void. Journalists, partisan hacks, think tankers, and others will inevitably publish public-facing writing that they hope will shape and influence the debate. When I read these folks, I tend to think, “Well, what you are saying is not factually wrong, exactly, but if you really understood the institution you were writing about, you wouldn’t frame it that way.” Journalists in particular are drawn to extremes—the parents whose kids are sitting out tests, “CRT” or “not CRT,” etc.—when the real issues are about whether slow, piecemeal, incremental, institutional changes are making education better or worse. We study these things, and the public deserves to know the real story—not just the hot one.

Rick: Writing for the sake of the reader (rather than for the sake of showing off) forces writers to think, “Will this be clear to anyone but me?” Frequently, of course, the considered answer is: “Nope.” Now, I’m as guilty of that as anyone. I’ve spent a huge chunk of my career revising (or abandoning) pieces because something I thought scintillating actually made sense to no one else. And, if you can’t find a way to say it clearly, odds are that your insight isn’t nearly as insightful as you initially thought.

A big problem is that many academics have never spent much time working on their writing. As a result, most don’t get many practice cuts or the kind of humbling feedback that asks, “What the heck are you trying to say?!” It’s the rare professor who offers stylistic feedback on writing (most of the time, it’s fair to say that length and footnotes are enough to earn a good grade). In graduate school, there are lots of classes in research methods but hardly any attention devoted to writing or clear communication. Academic incentives reward writing journal articles, working papers, and book chapters, all of which tend to foster bad habits rather than good ones. In fact, much of academic culture suspects that, if writing is accessible, it’s probably not as smart or important as writing that isn’t.

I despise that mindset. But it’s pervasive. I have talented research assistants who, when handed some piece of jargon-laden, horrific writing, treat its ineptitude as evidence of deep thought. They’ll nervously poke and prod at it, worried they’re failing to appreciate its brilliance. A bit of that humility is healthy; I’m all for humble readers. But, c’mon, man.

There was a time when the academy celebrated public-facing scholars who debated one another in national newspapers and magazines, not just in obscure journals. They were clear about their views and didn’t try to hide them behind impenetrable jargon. From the 1960s to the 1980s, economists Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson regularly duked it out in Newsweek. While they were both Nobel laureates, they also famously took pride in seeking to persuade the public and public officials—not just intimidate them with “expertise.”

Jal: You know, I had a number of models when I was in graduate school, including my advisor Christopher Jencks, who started as a journalist for The New Republic and is the most direct and clear writer you will ever find. (Sandy, as he is known, red-penned my writing throughout graduate school, which was one of the kindest and most helpful things anyone has ever done for me.) People like him—and also William Julius Wilson, Katherine Newman, Gary Orfield, Xavier de Souza Briggs, and others—taught me at a young age what publicly engaged scholarship could look like.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that it is not all rose petals. Sometimes, people make a fool of themselves by writing far beyond what they know. Public writing can incur resentment from more traditional scholarly types. I have heard from junior scholars of color, in particular, that they are wary of writing anything that could be perceived as not fully academic or grounded in data.

I think these concerns are real but not dispositive. As with anything, context matters, and the content of what you say will be judged and will contribute to your reputation, for good or ill. So I think the question becomes less whether to write publicly or not but when, about what, and how. If you are drawing on what you know, adding to the debate, and making salient points in plain language, then on the whole, people will respect that.

Rick: This is all well said. At the same time, I’m also concerned that some readers may get the wrong idea. For me, the point is less about academics bestowing their expertise on the world than challenging them to write more clearly, cogently, and accessibly, so that an audience beyond their scholarly mafia can weigh the evidence and arguments on offer.

Too much academic discourse today takes the form of mystical incantation, with claims that “the evidence says” often relying on some scarcely understood study of suspect provenance. This has led to plenty of dubious decisions. And it has fueled cynicism, especially in an era of populist distrust. While advocates, policymakers, and educators who wield research as a cudgel are certainly culpable, it’s also on the shoulders of those academics who seem to revel in being regarded as oracles. We’d be far better off if part of the academic job involved writing forthrightly for the public, allowing assertions, assumptions, and evidence to be more readily weighed.

Writing for the public offers an important educational platform. More important, though, is that it imposes a healthy discipline. And colleges that have become repositories of in-group double-think and credentialitis would benefit immensely from doing much more to encourage, cultivate, recognize, and reward that kind of writing.

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