This week on the train home from UEA, I started reading a Geography paper. To be honest, it’s been a little while since I read something from a Geography journal because much of my recent work has been based either in the agricultural, conservation, or political sciences. As I read the first page, however, the memories of my Geography degree came flooding back…’why’, I thought to myself, ‘have the authors made up so many complicated words and why have they used ten words when one or two would have sufficed?’. Now this is a gross over-simplification – I have seen many examples of great and bad writing in all fields, and there are certainly papers that I’ve written which are unnecessarily complicated in part.
But as I carried on through this paper, all I could think of was the BBC’s old gameshow ‘Call my Bluff’ . For those unfamiliar with this BBC daytime classic, which involved the brilliant Sandi Toksvig in later series, the gameshow was centred around obscure words. One team had to read out an obscure word with a definition and claim that their one was truthful (only one card was the truth). The other team had to guess which definition was truthful.
So let’s try that with Geography. Let’s start with a Foucauldian classic ‘Governmentality’. Is that:
(a) the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace
(b) the capacity for intellectual thought in a government
(c) David is just really jealous that he can’t make up complicated words to gain a 4* paper and should really shut up
Answers in the comments maybe?
Let’s try another. ‘Glocalization’
(a) Someone mis-spelled globalization
(b) the practice of doing business making both global and local considerations
(c) David still hasn’t written a Geographical 4* paper and is getting increasingly jealous
(a) “An alternative term to post-colonialism that emphasizes the transnational locations and the political implications of critiques of colonialism and imperialism.” (Dictionary of Human Geography)
(b) “Speaking about three continents at once” (Dictionary of Academic Optimism)
(c) You guessed it…I’ll say no more
Last one. ‘Social constructivism’. Ah we can bring good old Marx in here – I say good old Marx, I tend to have significant disagreements with every Marxist Geographer that I meet. Never been a fan of Marx.
(a) social interaction and processes create knowledge and order in the world
(b) it’s definitely (a), this theory has some merits
(c) still definitely (a), but if you go too far down the road of social constructivism you might think that everything in the world is socially constructed and you’ll think nothing is really real.
OK that was a largely pointless exercise in which I listed a few complicated Geographical words or phrases – I could list many further words that are far more difficult! In response to the first draft of this blog, someone sent me this paper . I bet this is 4*, prizes for anyone who can tell me what it means. There are some spectacular sentences in it!
My point is simple, however, and it is a criticism not just labelled at Geography. Most of us are using taxpayers money to fund our research, so surely we have some sort of duty to write things in ways that people understand. Too many papers that I read in the discipline are not written in an accessible way. Indeed, papers that I’ve written, and papers from colleagues, have sometimes been criticised by Geography reviewers for being written in too much of a policy relevant, tangible way. We’ve been advised to make the paper more theoretical, and less policy relevant – surely that’s code for less useful. And I knew a former colleague who used the phrase ‘policy relevant’ as a marking code on dissertations that he felt were useful, but not theoretically elegant – yes, they really used the phrase ‘policy relevant’ as a criticism! Madness! I wager that a fair few papers rated 4* are actually no better, nor more useful, than papers ranked 3*, but they are ranked as such because they’ve managed to make up some fancy-sounding word or theory and convinced the reviewer that it sounds cool.
This reminds me of some other conversations I’ve had over the years. I remember a session held at Cambridge by a famous visiting professor on how to communicate more effectively outside of the discipline. This academic arranged a session for early career researchers based on one of the academic’s papers – after speaking for nearly an hour on their own paper, they finally asked for contributions from the early career researchers. My first contribution, perhaps rudely, but it needed saying – was any strategy that doesn’t involve writing an incomprehensible paper like that is good! Surprisingly that started a chain of emails to me after the session in which some of the other ECRs wrote to me privately saying that they were also frustrated about how Geographers sometimes wrote in difficult ways and they felt duty-bound to follow suit. It was disappointing that they felt unable to share this critique in front of big-name Geographers, but I’m never a shrinking violet.
Second story, I’ll always remember the job interview in which I was asked to describe what I did. The interviewer then replied to me with ‘OK that’s a nice bit of consultancy you’ve just described there, but how is it academic?’. To which I answered ‘well it was published in Nature Climate Change, and it’s very policy relevant, so I’m not sure what your definition of academia is, perhaps it is publishing obscure papers in journals no one reads, but that isn’t my definition of academia’. I didn’t get that job but it was fun to render the interviewer completely silent…..
Rant from me over! But let’s try and write more accessible and understandable papers. It isn’t clever to write in a way that no-one bar a few so-called ‘clever’ Geographers understand – mind you that’s made the careers of quite a few big-name Geographers that I won’t mention! It’s far cleverer to write in a clear, concise, and understandable way! The best compliment I had this week was from AHDB, who I wrote a report for – they said that they found it clearly written! They had expected not to be able to read it because it had been written by an academic, but were surprised that they’d been able to read the whole thing in one go! Winning!