Communication and Content

This interesting article by Jacques Berlinerblau in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the future of the humanities. This is well-covered territory, obviously, but I was interested in the way he discusses the role of communication skills. His argument is that the humanities can be ‘saved’ by greater engagement with the general public and thus by a greater emphasis on communication skills. Berlinerblau suggests that we ought to “impart critical communication skills to our master’s and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with that sentiment. However, I am puzzled by the next step in his argument: “this plan will result in far less time for the trainee to be immersed in seminars, bibliographies, and archives. That this will retard the absorption of deep knowledge at an early stage of one’s career is undeniable.” While I understand that this may be a strategic concession designed to allow him to get back to defending his core idea, I do not understand why he allows that time spent on communication skills necessarily has a deleterious effect on disciplinary knowledge. To be clear, Berlinerblau is definitely saying that this trade-off—greater capacity for communication, diminished grasp of content—is worth it. But why is he so sure that this is a trade-off? I see no reason to believe that graduate students who devote time to improving writing or speaking skills are actually taking time away from their disciplinary studies.

There can be no doubt that we all feel that way at times; we all feel that we must try to balance time spent on process with the more urgent demands for production. This sentiment can be particularly pronounced in graduate students. I often hear from students that they would like to visit the writing centre, but they just don’t have enough time. And I am not denying that—in any given day—putting writing on hold in favour of visiting the writing centre may not get you tangibly closer to the goal of a finished piece of writing. But graduate students can and must think in longer increments of time: over the course of their degree, they genuinely do have time to improve their communication skills.

More importantly, formulating this relationship between communication and content as a trade-off contributes to the problematic notion that our communication skills are somehow distinct from our disciplinary knowledge. I would argue that the two are in fact closely intertwined. Effective communication is not valuable only to the recipient; as we improve our capacity for communication, we necessarily improve our own understanding of the topics about which we are communicating. The better we communicate, the more we engage others; the more we engage others, the more we learn from them. And when we strive to explain ourselves better, we inevitably come to a better understanding of what we thought we knew. The artificial division of content knowledge and communication skills needs to be resisted. Knowing what to say and knowing how to say it aren’t distinct. Graduate students who address themselves to the crucial matter of communication aren’t diminishing their content knowledge, they are enhancing it.

Earlier in the summer, I had the great pleasure of participating in the GradHacker podcast. I spoke with one of the hosts, Alex Galarza, about this blog and about academic writing more generally. The audio is a bit wonky in places near the end, but I hope you’ll listen and I hope you’ll return to the GradHacker blog and podcast; they are both great resources for graduate students. You can find the podcast on their site or you can subscribe in iTunes.

Finally, Rob J. Hyn­d­man from Monash Uni­ver­sity has created a helpful list of research blogs (in which he kindly included this blog). Not only did he create this list, he set it up so you can subscribe to all of these blogs as a bundle: one stop shopping for enhanced insight into many facets of the research process!

My links posts are 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.

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