Saturday, October 31, 2015

Two for the price of one

Eschew Obfuscation

How many of you can make good meaning of the above without looking up either word?  This expression I learned in high school, a mantra of sorts, though I confess I can't remember whether it was in math or English or someplace else.  Perhaps one of my high school friends in Facebook will have better recall than I and let us know on this score.  But maybe they don't even recall the expression and can't make good meaning of it now.  In this case, is it my job as a writer to translate it for them, so they can understand it?  Or should I leave it to them to look it up if they care to do so?

What basis is there for answering those questions?  Over time I've come to learn that the writer needs to have some sense of the audience.  The voice in the writer's head speaks to them.  The writer does want to know whether he is getting through with his message.  So hearing something from a reader whether good, bad, or indifferent is quite a useful thing. And nowadays, via social media, a writer who says something that resonates with a reader might very well find his audience expand for that message.  Does the message also resonate with those secondary readers who learn of the message by referral?  If the reader has to bring something to the party to make it gay and merry, might these secondary readers not share in the fun because they come us moochers without bearing gifts?

Alas, this question doesn't emerge in this otherwise interesting piece from the Atlantic, The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.  The implicit argument offered up there is that if the reader can make good meaning of this article by Victoria Clayton, then the reader should be able to make good meaning of a lot of academic writing as well.  Authors construct unnecessary barriers for such readers because the authors don't have them in mind when writing their articles.  The authors write for the referees and the journal editors only.  Publish or perish does have a rather powerful influence on the preferred audience of an academic author.

So let's take assistant professors out of the equation and focus only on those academics with tenure.  Might they expand their audience by moving to a writing style that features plain English rather than disciplinary specific jargon?  And if they might, whose decision is it to make that they should do this, the authors themselves or somebody like Clayton?  Might it be that different conclusions would be reached on the matter stemming from the perception of whether this potential audience has the appropriate gifts to bring to the party?

I will not try to answer those questions here but instead change gears and look at some life events for me that had a big impact on how I write and who I care to include in my audience.  Getting married mattered.  Until then, I hung around other economists much of the time, though I had some interaction with other academics on campus.  That stemmed from their interest in economics and their need to find an economist who would explain things for them.  Once we were married, I began to have some interactions with people my wife worked with in the Personnel Services Office.

That was a change but still small potato stuff.  The biggie was having kids, sending them to daycare, and then becoming friends with other parents who also sent their kids to daycare.  The experience normalized me a great deal.  (If there were a word "denerdify" it would offer a perfect description.)  The importance of ordinary people elevated in my perception and I wanted to be able to communicate with comfort with such folks.

A further life change happened at work, where I became involved with learning technology and with that having discussions with people around campus about using online technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The skill set for me in those discussions was acquired prior to graduate school, via friendly arguing with my housemates at 509 Wykcoff Road in Ithaca.  None of us were studying the same subjects and some of us were grads while others were undergrads.  These discussions were by amateurs (in the sense of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind) and quite enjoyable for me.  It was they skill I needed as a learning technology administrator and seemed to mirror my needs as a parent with young children.

I stopped writing papers for economic journals around then and what I did write, academic or otherwise, was far more conversation-like in style.  That sort of writing suited my intellectual disposition.

Knowing my own trajectory here, I wonder if it was fairly typical of academics or not.  I can't imagine that Clayton's argument would have much traction if my experience were atypical.  So, assuming I was fairly ordinary in my experience and motivation, the issue to me is whether the academic can live in both worlds at the same time, authoring disciplinary specific pieces and generalist pieces on a steady basis.  If the academic does that, does the criticism about impenetrable discipline specific jargon still carry much weight?  Flipping the question on its head, would academics feel impelled to live in both worlds so as to keep their work from being ignored by only living in the inside world of the discipline?

I don't know.  Even with tenure, those who are playing the game of grant renewal are living in a world quite similar to the one where assistant professors reside.  Competition here is quite ruthless.  So one should be skeptical on that score.  And for the tenured faculty who don't get grants regularly, clearly more so in the humanities and the soft social sciences, they are getting pretty beat up now on other issues - placement of their doctoral students and whether their undergraduates can find gainful employment.  At a minimum, one should ask whether those forces matter in encouraging some degree of generalist writing.  It is the sort of question Clayton might get at in a follow up piece.

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This is another word I learned in high school, definitely in a science class but whether in chemistry or physics or perhaps biology, who knows.  I do recall us looking down at a ruler where we were to indicate the position of some marker and then being made to notice that the position we recorded depended on where we were standing when we took the measurement.

In an Op-Ed in today's NY Times, Arthur C. Brooks has a column that is fundamentally about parallax in social science research, that he attributes to that old canard - liberal bias in academia.  Why this piece and why now?  After Gail Collins' take down piece on the recent Republican debate, is Brooks trying to pull a bait and switch?

There is, of course, conservative bias within certain academic units, business schools certainly and certain economics departments come to mind.  Should that be a concern for the rest of us as well?  A far greater concern, it seems to me, is that higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on large gifts from donors and it seems to me naive to assume all such donors give their money freely without any implied agenda attached to the gift.  The Chicago School developed the "Capture Theory" as a conservative critique of regulation, a criticism I respect even though my own orientation is far more liberal.  Might much academic research end up being captured by the donors?

The peer review process isn't perfect.  Papers with erroneous results do get published on occasion, not because of duplicity but rather because arguments seem plausible and reviewers don't do all the verification with the data that would be necessary to show the results aren't correct.  Consider the story of Reinhart and Rogoff's This Time Is Different.  Does Brooks worry about research done by conservative authors also having problems with parallax?  Why is this framed fundamentally as a problem of liberal bias rather than as an issue that any researcher comes at his subject with strong prior beliefs on the matter and those beliefs will influence the outcome of the research?

* * * * *

Perhaps Clayton and Brooks can sit in the same room and unpack each other's essay.  Simplicity in the writing often masks implicit maintained assumptions that go unchallenged.  If those assumptions were all brought out in the open would readers have the patience to slug through the longer piece?  And is the tonic for errors in research to avoid them being committed in the first place, by identifying all issues of parallax stemming from researcher prior bias?  Or is the method where subsequent researchers challenge the conclusions found in prior work the better way of eventually getting at the truth?

Authors do have agendas.  I have mine.  Part of it is to get people who write opinion pieces like these to try to take the other side of their own arguments.  A different reason why people don't read even generalist writing is that they don't like being sold a bill of goods and they can't differentiate sufficiently well propaganda from reasoned argument.  Authors who want a broad audience for their ideas need to recognize the problem and modify their own writing accordingly.

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