Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Ideas for not being so woolly & imprecise

Dr Steve Joy

This post is the working through of a personal bugbear - one which only riles me so much because I am fully aware that every piece of academic writing I have ever produced has fallen victim to the same syndrome. Even so. Do not as I do, but as I say. The pesky syndrome is this: woolly, imprecise phrases when describing the importance of one's research, i.e. its contribution or significance. It happens in cover letters, grant applications, articles and papers, research statements - it's reached pandemic proportions.

Here's an excellent example of just such offensive wooliness:

"There has not yet been any attempt to survey the senses in a more comprehensive fashion [in Thomas Mann's work]. This study aims to begin that (re)appraisal, which will hopefully give rise to a more nuanced conception of Mann’s bodies, and demonstrate that the corporeality of his fiction is at the core of the author’s aesthetic project."

In the words of Mary Poppins: 'Dreadful.'

I'm allowed to be so harsh, because as you may have guessed, I am the author of this verbiage. It's taken from the introduction to my PhD, and it is one of the very few places where I make any serious attempt to state what the point of my research was supposed to be. Yet I am all too aware that I am not alone in drafting such heinous waffle. So, let's look at why it's so very bad.

First, we have to ask whether we can accept the claim made in that first sentence, since the intent is ostensibly to map out where the study fits within the field (which is clearly important). I'm fairly confident that it was true when I wrote it, partly because, reading it back now, I reckon I couched it in sufficiently vague terms to ensure that it would be hard to argue with. But that's not really the point. The point is, rather, that the sentence relies on a sophistical argument. As I've said before, a gap in scholarship is not the same thing as a need. Perhaps nobody has attempted such a survey because the topic just doesn't deserve to have time & money spent on it. Even if it does, what would it mean, in practice, to 'survey' the senses 'in a more comprehensive fashion'? In other words, whose work would be helped or influenced by this newly comprehensive account?

Secondly, there's the problem of 'aims to begin that (re)appraisal'. Please, let's not speak of that achingly juvenile academic writing tic: the pretentious & misguided use of parentheses. It's either an appraisal or a re-appraisal, but it can't be both; and if it were the latter, it would make the preceding sentence untrue. Much more disconcerting is how little this statement of intent is actually promising: why 'aims to' instead of the future 'will'? And why only 'begin'? Linked to the egregious 'hopefully' later in the sentence, the reader gets the (as it happens not incorrect) impression that the writer has neither clarity about, nor confidence in what he is doing. Moreover, the promise of a 'more nuanced conception' leaves one decidedly cold. It means that the writer is just trying to make the situation more complicated, without explaining why that should seem like a good thing.

Nope, there's nothing for it. These two sentences are beyond saving. So, instead, let's take a blue pencil to the following hypothetical example:

"I work on the lived experiences of LGB people in contemporary Britain [why?]. I look particularly at secondary school children [why?], and I use mixed methods to describe their experiences of homophobic bullying [vague]. My PhD is the first full-length study of this topic [so what?]."

A better version would therefore read:

"In recent years, significant progress has been made towards equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people living in Britain. However, young people aged 11-19 who self-identify as LGB are more likely to experience verbal and physical bullying, and they are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide. In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of a large metropolitan secondary school, in order to identify the factors which lead to homophobic bullying, as well as policies and initiatives which LGB young people find effective in dealing with it."

Here's a simple template for writing about your research in a way is not woolly & not maddeningly imprecise:

(1) What is the big issue or overarching topic you're working on?
(2) What specific aspect of this issue are you researching?
(3) Why?
(4) How do you research this?
(5) What conclusion(s) have you come to?
(6) Who will benefit from these conclusions?


"Children in the nurseries of Edwardian Britain often spent their lives at a substantial distance from their parents, who relied on nannies and other domestic staff to care for their offspring. This behaviour could be perceived by such children as a lack of interest in their well-being, and there is evidence that they protested against their parents' neglect by unruliness or running away. In my dissertation, I analyse the case history of a typical London family of that time, the Banks family, whose story was captured via rare film footage. I conclude that the unexpected intervention of an atypical nanny, Mary Poppins, and the introduction of jolly musical numbers brought about a shift in the family's values, particularly in those of the patriarch, George Banks. The findings of this study, notably its emphasis on the value of a spoonful of sugar, will be of interest to other domestic historians of the period, as well as to psychologists of family dynamics."


For your reference, here are some other vexatiously woolly phrases on my hit list:

'opens up new perspectives' [too vague]

'problematises' or 'complicates' [fine, but what solutions are you offering?]

'explores ideas' [please, this really doesn't say anything at all!]

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