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Monday, May 23, 2011

“Too Long Didn't Read It” and the College Writing Assignment

Academic style:
Even as a physics major, my college workload has been punctuated by the requirement to write many essays and research papers. Over the past three years I've written: “The Philosophy of Idealism in Borges and Berkeley,” “The Mystical Stories of Rav Nachman of Bratslav,” “The Scientific Methodology of Rene Descartes,” “John Stuart Mill's Inductive Methods,” “The Sociology of American Sports,” “Nomadism and Agricultural Economies in the Bible” and more. To succeed on these assignments I've learned:

  1. Use big words and complex sentence structure to sound as smart as possible
  2. The longer the paper the better
  3. Site many sources and append a bibliography

The aforementioned three guidelines are consistent with an academic writing style. You see, most college professors (those grading the papers) belong to a special class of the human population called academics. In my own experience, academic writing is dense, tedious and abstruse. Here's an example of some academic-style writing:

Many futurists would agree that, had it not been for fiber-optic cables, the development of information retrieval systems might never have occurred. We view partitioned software engineering as following a cycle of four phases: prevention, deployment, location, and emulation. For example, many frameworks observe modular technology. Obviously, the study of XML and the UNIVAC computer are based entirely on the assumption that reinforcement learning and Scheme are not in conflict with the emulation of consistent hashing.

On the other hand, this approach is fraught with difficulty, largely due to heterogeneous communication. Certainly, we emphasize that our methodology refines wireless algorithms, without controlling multi-processors. Though existing solutions to this grand challenge are encouraging, none have taken the ubiquitous approach we propose here. This combination of properties has not yet been investigated in previous work.

When turning in a paper to an academic, it's generally preferred to adopt this academic-style writing as much as possible.

Internet style:
Today, much communication happens in writing. We text, chat, send emails, tweet status updates and “comment” on everything we see or read. Never in human history has it been easier to self-publish a book or blog. The writing that happens on the Internet is different from academic-style writing and has its own set of rules. Over the years, here's what I've learned about Internet-style writing:

  1. Clearly state your point - the shorter the better
  2. The organization of your idea is as important as the idea itself
  3. Assume your reader has a bad case of ADHD

The problem with academic-style writing:
There is nothing inherently wrong with academic writing, and lots of academic writing is wonderful and important. However, academic-style writing isn't so useful in the real world because academic-style writing is mostly appreciated by academics and in the real world most people are not academics. Also, a dense academic style can be used to mask unoriginal ideas and simplistic thinking (this is called BS-ing). By way of illustration, the quotation found earlier in this post, the one that starts with “Many futurists...,” sounds like many academic articles that I've read in the past, but was actually copied from a website with an algorithm to automatically generate “random” computer science articles: http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/. Even though the content of these articles is completely meaningless gibberish, they sound so academic that the MIT students who wrote the software succeeded in getting some of these articles published in repudiated academic journals of computer science.

Writing clearly and for the common reader, forces us to think to clearly. Clearly expressing our ideas so that anyone can understand requires that we have ideas of substance. Along these lines, G. K. Chesterton writes:

Most of the machinery of modern language is labor-saving machinery; and it saves mental labor very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration" (Orthodoxy ch. 8).

For these reasons, a high school teacher or professor should never require a minimum length to any essay or written assignment...ever. The student who can convey a rich and insightful idea in five sentences is a far better writer than the student who can fill ten pages with pseudo-contemplative bullshit. Two-page essays can be too long and twenty-page papers too short.

I believe high schools and colleges should be teaching Internet-style writing and not academic-style writing.

Writing in College:
Internet forums and online communities recognize a handy shorthand for responding to long blocks of texts: “tldr.” “Tldr” conveys that the average Internet reader is impatient and will not stand for rambling academic-style writing. The college professor is probably the singular worst person in the world to asses a student's essay, because the college professor is the only person in the world who isn't allowed to tell the student “too long didn't read it.” Also, the college professor is probably the singular worst person in the world to be reading student essays, because the college professor gets almost no value from reading these essays. Instead, I recommend that students write their essays for real people and not academics. Students should hand in their school work to siblings and friends or should publish their writing to a blog with titles like: “The Scientific Methodology of Rene Descartes – Why Should I Care?”

If this method is adopted, the clarity, organization and succinctness of our students' writing will be improved and the voluminous work produced by that community might actually bring some value to the world.

Appendix - More Academic Writing:


Language Crimes, Denis Dutton:

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

The following sentence by Professor Judith Butler from the University of California, Berkeley, won Denis Dutton's "Bad Writing Contest. From a publication in the academic journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

You can read about Denis Dutton's contest and many other winning sentences here.

You can read Butler's response to Dutton here.

3 comments:

  1. See this for more about how formulaic academic works are:
    http://isotropic.org/papers/chicken.pdf
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL_-1d9OSdk

    Anyway, I don't think "tl;dr" is a comment on academic-speak. People don't read anything anymore. Any text longer than a few paragraphs, even written in simple, informal conversational style, is almost certain not to be read in its entirety. Check this out this piece by usability expert Jakob Nielsen:
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html

    Surely websites aren't written in academish? And yet people scan it, not read it.

    Finally, while academic works are often stilted and formulaic in a way designed to inflate minimal substance, the solution has to be to bring up the quality, not lower the standard to Twitter-style micromissive.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Mordechai, your criticism of writing as it happens via the Internet and your point about the real meaning of tl;dr may be correct. Here I offered an idealized characterization of Internet-style writing as defined by the second set of three “bullet points” in the post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The writing that I was thinking about when addressing “Internet-style” is the type of writing found on popular blogs, stackoverflow.com, the stackexchange network of Q&A sites and certain forum communities.

    ReplyDelete