I have no idea why an incomplete draft version of this post was sent to those of you who are subscribers. I can’t decide whether I hope it was WordPress’s fault (meaning that any draft post might be randomly published at any time) or my own fault (meaning that I’m incompetent). I don’t see any discussion of this problem in the WordPress forums, so I have to assume it was just me. My apologies for taking up unnecessary space in your inbox!
This post from the Lingua Franca blog addresses the nature of complexity and obscurity in academic prose. Lucy Ferriss mentions the University of Chicago sentence generator (which I discussed here) and then evaluates some of the pitfalls of academic writing. I particularly like her decision to direct attention away from jargon toward the prevalence of weak verbs. Jargon is an easy target: it can seem so gratuitous and so obstructive. But it is, in many cases, a red herring; jargon is often just doing its job and is thus not deserving of the amount of vitriol directed its way. (To be sure, I am talking specifically about academic writing and not bureaucratic or business writing; the use of jargon in those types of writing requires a very different analysis.) By deflecting concern away from the obvious suspect, Ferriss is able to turn her critical eye towards the verbs that are failing to animate the relationships between these bits of jargon (or ‘technical vocabulary’ as we say when we are trying to make nice). In Ferriss’s words, “we’ve lost sight of argument as action”. Solving this problem won’t be possible at the level of vocabulary choice; we will need to target the weakness that is often found at the heart of such sentences, the verb.
This post from the Hook and Eye blog deals with the length of writing assignments. The author makes a good case for asking students for shorter pieces of writing: that practice would allow instructors to pay closer attention and would increase the chances of giving feedback on multiple iterations of the same text. What if instructors assigned 3 pages to be submitted twice rather than 6 pages to be submitted only once? Obviously, there are unique skills involved in writing long texts, skills that all academic writers need to develop. And if short writing assignments were treated as insignificant precisely because they were short, that would undermine the value of this proposal. Overall, however, the close attention and multiple iterations might give students the chance to develop skills that they could later use in the pursuit of excellence in longer pieces of writing.
Break Writing is a collection of posts on academic writing from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University (they are called ‘break writing’ because they were sent at regular intervals over the recent winter break). These posts—all based around the importance of writing everyday—are full of helpful advice for academic productivity. Everyone needs different strategies and motivations, but I am sure there is something here for everyone. And the list of resources provides lots of places to look for more guidance.
Lastly, from the The Professor Is In blog, here is a good overview of a recent conference on non-tenure track faculty. The author provides her own take on the conference plus links to other reactions to this conference and the issue of contingent faculty more broadly. This topic falls outside the normal range of topics for this blog, except that academic writing can never be divorced from the professional circumstances under which academics write.
Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.