On academic gibberish

Stephen Krashen started us off this week with a brilliant and beautifully frank critique of academic gibberish. The careerism argument really rang true for me – I see it all around me – as did the “Fog Index” and the paradigm of a pretend lecture. Those of you who know this blog will know that I profoundly agree with all this.

However, there’s a side to the problem that I feel was a little under-represented: the mechanism within academia that triggers gibberish in otherwise perfectly intelligent and sensible academics.

In every profession, there are boxes that need ticking before one can move forward. The minute-by-minute lesson plan at CELTA level is one example from our own field. It was very damaging to my early days as a teacher, skewing my vision of what a lesson entailed and draining me of creative resources. I felt like a technical assistant to an industry-imposed pedagogy that remained obscure.

Doing an MA after that felt like an amazing lightness of being because I could live and breathe ideas about language and education. I fell in love with the force of academic writing and the intellectual responsibility that went with it. Yes, the dark side of academic writing is the gibberish phenomenon. But I believe that this is partly born of the pressure to tick boxes.

I see two reasons for this: the hegemony of English in academic publishing, and the lack of evolution in academic managers’ recruitment criteria. A lot of gibberish is caused by a non-mastery of the English language, especially when authors are multiple. (Admittedly, a lot of it also stems from the pure arrogance of systematically seeking out the most complicated counterpart to a word in a thesaurus.)

But the problem of English is a very real one for so many academics the world over, and one that we don’t talk about enough. English is the language of science and academia, and tant pis pour les autres. Of course, my job would be very different if this wasn’t the case. But the argument that academics use gibberish for job-advancement must be digested with the perspective that many academics simply aren’t hard-wired to write in English.

This is often treated as an embarrassing hush-hush among faculty, rather than as an issue that institutions need to invest more resources into improving. When I gave a workshop on scientific writing some years ago I said that it was simply “good scientific thinking that produces good scientific writing.” A few more years of doing this and I take that back. There is no running away from the problem of English in scientific and academic writing.

The language experts who correct scientific writing don’t always do the job either. I corrected a paper last year that had already been through an out-sourced scientific language expert, and which was laden with very basic problems of convoluted syntax. So gibberish perpetuates and validates itself in the Dr. Myron Fox vein that Stephen Krashen so nicely illustrated.

The second problem is recruitment in academia. Every single job offer requires applicants to ceremoniously roll out a publications list – and when applications are online there is literally no box in which you can spin this differently, as one might in a CV. You either have a list of journal publications or you don’t. Recruiters then size you up based on the grade of the journal, its impact factor and so on.

Which leads back to the question I asked with iTDi – “is the standard of greatness in an academic really determined by journal editors?” This also leads to the question of how to recognize people who publish digitally and open-sourced; academics who invest more heavily in their classrooms and supervision and less heavily in their publications; and academics who don’t have PhDs but are no less articulate or intelligent than those who do. These things are virtually impossible to measure in higher education in its current state yet contribute so much to the energy of universities.

I was once told that this blog had “too many big words in it”. Blog = little words. Journal articles = gibberish…?

The defence that sprang to mind was “my words are as big as they need to be”, and I immediately thought of the scene in Amadeus where Mozart is told that his opera has “too many notes” in it. “Just cut a few”, says the Emperor, “and it’ll be fine”. Now, I sure ain’t no Mozart. But in a society of outcomes and results and absolutes- where we’re constantly looking for formulae to standardize creativity and where our impatience renders the complex illegible, maybe we should start encouraging little acts of artistry – mapping them onto the mind as opposed to finding ways for them to tick boxes? Maybe the healing of academic writing could come from less standardizing and editing and more celebration of thought.

So, gibberish is the strategy for gaining academic prestige but the problem is also caused by the decisions of academic managers and the stranglehold that journals have on validating academic practice. The box that needs ticking is an unfortunate fact that we all just have to suck up for now. There are mechanisms that can be overthrown in education systems but I think the one of our governments and societies wanting ever more accountability and control isn’t going to disappear soon enough. But there’s a lot that we can do, especially those of us in education management, towards reducing the damage and one day seeing change. And there are little acts of creative thinking that need saving along the way.

Join the conversation:
“Box-ticking or mind-mapping: the professionalisation of ELT”
Willy Cardoso and Divya Madhavan
IATEFL Harrogate 2014

6 thoughts on “On academic gibberish

  1. hi divya

    thanks an interesting read of institutional mechanisms for producing gibberish

    i was wondering about possible cognitive mechanisms involved when receiving gibberish as prompted by this article http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/decoding-noisy-language-0429.html.

    maybe i am making too much of a leap from the findings reported in that article to the possible conclusion that the sillier something sounds the less likely people will see this as ‘noise’ and more likely to assign a meaning however ridiculous?



  2. Hello Divya,

    When I read this line “maybe we should start encouraging little acts of artistry” I almost jumped up and called to thank you. But I don’t know your phone number.
    Little acts of artistry, yes, big acts, whole damn rebellions of artistry. Writing is an art and we teachers of the English language should protect it and promote it as such.
    Krashen’s article was wonderful and yours the icing on the cake.
    That’s all.
    Gibberish be gone!


  3. I really enjoyed reading your post, Divya – and not only because you mention a scene from my favourite movie of all time 🙂

    Just like you, I’ve been asked to correct scientific papers which were completely incomprehensible (because of my unfamiliarity with the subject matter). I may have tidied up the syntax but can’t vouch for the meaning so in a way I may also be guilty of perpetuating academic gibberish, although I do hope that the papers made sense to those with the knowledge of the field.

    As regards our field (ELT), many academic articles are written in such abstruse language, no wonder they make little sense to practitioners. What’s worse, no wonder practitioners are reluctant to read research articles because they are simply incomprehensible. Perhaps, academic gibberish is academics’ stock-in-trade – just like the need to grind out papers on a regular basis – and little can be done to change it…



    1. Hi Leo,

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment (and I seriously LOVE Amadeus too;). I think the difficulty in engaging with research articles is a very real problem simply because it leads to survival strategies such as drawing false conclusions from the material or worse yet, only reading the first or last paragraph without engaging with the researcher’s actual thinking process.

      Although it’s a little bleak, the need to grind out papers isn’t going to change soon or soon enough, I agree. But I think that this is where blogging will play a bigger and bigger role in bridging the gap. I’m thinking of Phillip Kerr’s adaptive learning blog which so many of us have been following. In the old days something that well researched and well argued would have needed a long long time before the grand publique had access to it whereas we can now we can access it on a much more pertinent level of the here and now.

      Take care :)x


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