The Problem With Academia

Now, I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person.  Not particularly clever, but not especially stupid either.  However, sometimes language employed by academics really drives me up the wall.  From time to time, certain academics seem to employ the language in a rather exclusive manner that can only be understood by fellow academics.  It’s a bit like a secret language knowingly shared amongst intellectuals to exclude those unworthy of their high prose.  Take this example from an article that I have been reading today:

Now, finally, the variance of a group is the mean sum of squared deviations from the mean (∑fd²/N), and it is a property of variances that the variance of samples added together is equal to the sum of the variances calculated from the samples independently.

I lost count of the amount of times I read the passage of text before I finally understood what on earth it actually meant.  Maybe it was because I had spent all day studying and my brain was flagging.  Maybe it is because I am just not that bright.  Or maybe it is simply because the writer has indulged in the aforementioned ‘academic speak’ that I loath so intently.  For the record, I tend to think it is the latter…..although if anyone thinks I am being a bit dim, feel free to say so in the comments – I won’t hold it against you!

Personally, I have always subscribed to the view that all academic writing should be inclusive rather than exclusive.  I am not impressed by writers who stick to this academic code that excludes those without an ‘education’.  I have always been more impressed with the style employed by academics such as Noam Chomsky.  That is to say, using simple language that everyone can understand without employing language that excludes a large percentage of the population.  To my mind, it takes greater skill to communicate complicated ideas in simple language, than to employ language aimed solely at academics.  But then what do I know?  It took me half an hour to understand what the quote above actually meant.

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12 thoughts on “The Problem With Academia

  1. No, I don’t understand the quote either (and the word “variance” repeated 4 times in the same sentence drives ME up the wall!). It might look clever, but it doesn’t look grammatical, and it makes some of librarianship’s arcane texts (did I mention AACR2?) read like “Topsy and Tim”!

  2. I’m not a fan of being obscure for the sake of it – and ‘academic speak’ does drive me up the wall. But there is a difference between being deliberately obscure to make something sound cleverer than it is and something being difficult to understand. (I always thought that Derrida was obscure for the sake of it, but was told I just didn’t understand him – I’ve only recently discovered that I’m not alone http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derrida#Intentional_obfuscation)

    In the case above, I thought it was relatively clear. Although I agree with Chris that multiple repetitions of the word ‘variance’ doesn’t read nicely, I’m not sure what the alternatives are – it is a technical term being used to describe something very specific, and the repeated use means that we know the author means the same thing each time.

    The real test is whether this can be rephrased in a more elegant way that is more readily comprehensible? If you can’t, then I’m not sure you can say it is deliberately obscure. I have to say that each attempt I make ends up being more wordy than the original, and I’m not sure adds anything to the sense.

  3. Chris – Glad I am not alone on that! Knew the repetition would drive you nuts!!

    Owen – I see what your saying and I was being a touch unfair as I probably took that piece out of context. Also, I came across this extract towards the end of my study day, when I had already had enough technical terms thrown at me to make a grown man weep. I guess it is difficult to find an alternative way of phrasing the extract and still make sense, and I certainly haven’t attempted it! I have to say, I even have an A-level in maths, and stil struggled to make sense of what on earth the author was trying to explain. Then again, as I said, I was due for a tea break around this time….. Perhaps implying it was deliberately obscure was unfair….

  4. OK, I think the first bit is pretty hard to improve “Now, finally, the variance of a group is the mean sum of squared deviations from the mean (∑fd²/N)” – this is technical, but not convoluted I think?

    The next bit “it is a property of variances that the variance of samples added together is equal to the sum of the variances calculated from the samples independently.” seems more convoluted. My attempt at rephrasing is longer, but may be slightly clearer – what do you think (unfortunately I’ve managed to increase the use of the word ‘variance’)?

    “When calculating the variance across a set of samples, it does not matter if you calculate the variance of each sample independently and then add these variances together, or add the samples together first and then calculate the variance – the outcome will be the same.”

  5. I’m with you. I’ve wasted hours of my life trying to understand things like that, and I decided that that was why maths were invented. Logic, abstract manipulation of non-existing things (computing) and complex solutions for example are made to be discussed. Just observed. We do however have to share the research with people outside of the lab, so papers have to be written and unfortunately a lot of them are a nightmare.

    I’m a computer scientist and I was told that my style was too “flowery”. If you read it I think you would laugh!

    This “dictionary of useful research phrases” is funny because it’s so accurate: http://john.regehr.org/reading_list/research.html

  6. Owen – Yes that certainly makes more sense. Although I may perhaps have written:

    “When calculating the variance across a set of samples, it does not matter if you calculate the variance of each sample independently and then add them together, or add the samples together first and then calculate the variance – the outcome will be the same.”

    Cuts out one of the ‘variances’ and still makes sense (in my mind anyway). It does go to show, however, that it can be simpified for the average Joe. It certainly reads better.

    CJ – Love the link! Certainly neatly sums up the types of vocabulary used in research papers…particularly the one I was reading yesterday! Hopefully I won’t be wasting any further hours of my life on such things!

  7. I don’t think that either you or I are the ‘average Joe’ – but there you go! I think the problem with using ‘them’ instead of ‘variances’ in your version is that ‘them’ could apply equally to the ‘variances’ or the ‘sample’ – so introduces ambiguity.

  8. I suppose it does create some ambiguity…curse those variances! And I’m now crushed at the thought I am not an ‘average Joe’. Another illusion shattered!

  9. While I agree with you for the most part, and I agree that the language in your example is poor, I wonder how good an example Chomsky is when it comes to clear writing.

    Let’s take a couple of sentences from his famous Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, pg. 85: “Instead of the grammar (5) we now have a grammar containing the branching rules (51), which I repeat here as (23), along with the subcatergorization rules (20), repeated as (24), and containing a lexicon with the entries (25). It is to be understood, here and later on, that the italicized items stand for phonological distinctive feature matrices, that is, “spellings” of formatives.”

    Whew.

    Chomsky’s writing probably has less ambiguity in it then the example you provide but, thanks to the technical language, I don’t find it any easier to read.

  10. I have to admit I have mainly read Chomsky’s more political works, although I found Manufacturing Consent relatively easy to follow as well. I guess linguistics will inevitably have a high level of complexity in the language used to explain it. I just felt that the above example made a relatively straightforward equation seem more complex than was required.

    John – I have a distinct feeling that that passage is easily skipable…don’t know why on earth I persevered!

  11. Pingback: When less is most definitely more… | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian…

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