Monday, May 8, 2017

High academic vs Low academic

I loved this article from The Conversation, about how Academics can change the world, if they stop talking only to their peers.

Having spent seventeen years in higher ed, much of the article resonated with me. From the article:
This suggests that a lot of great thinking and many potentially world altering ideas are not getting into the public domain. Why, then, are academics not doing more to share their work with the broader public? The answer appears to be threefold: a narrow idea of what academics should or shouldn’t do; a lack of incentives from universities or governments; and a lack of training in the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.
The article reminds us that many academics don't believe it's their job to communicate with the lay public. There's really no motivation to do so. If you're chasing tenure, writing in trade magazines or newspapers may not "count" towards your publication credit, anyway. And once you have tenure, writing for non-peer-reviewed venues may be considered "cheap."

I observed that attitude several times when I worked in academia. I remember our campus held an annual celebration of scholarly faculty achievements. Faculty were invited to submit samples of their work that had been published in the previous year. I also remember commiserating with friends in the faculty who failed to get recognized because they wrote in non-academic journals and magazines. They wrote for the common reader, not other academics.

The article also highlights that even when academics feel motivated to write for a broader audience, it may be difficult for them to get published. As the article points out, "Writing an article for an academic journal is a very different process to penning one for those outside the academy." When you've been trained to write "academic" speech for your whole career, it can be difficult to construct prose that is more approachable.

I have a similar view. When I was in my Master's program, I referred to three different styles of writing: "High academic," "Medium academic," and "Low academic."

High academic is typical for many peer-reviewed journals. This writing is often very dense and uses large words that demonstrate the author's command of the field.

Medium academic is more typical of undergraduate writing. It is less formal than high academic, yet more formal than what you find in the popular press.

Low academic tends to include most professional and trade publications. Low academic authors may sprinkle technical terms here and there, but generally write in a way that's approachable to their audience. They use contractions, although sparingly. Certain other conventions continue, however. Numbers are written out; "fifty" instead of "50," and "two-thirds" instead of "2/3."

In my Master's program, I learned to adjust my writing style according to my instructors' preferences. One professor might have a very formal attitude towards academic writing, so I would use High academic. Another professor might approach the subject more loosely, so I would write in Medium academic. When I translated some of my papers into articles for magazines or trade journals, I wrote in Low academic.

Academics need to adopt a similar approach. It's okay to write in High academic when you are writing for your peers, in academic journals. But the academy needs to be visible to the public, to share their findings in a way that non-academics can understand. That means adopting a Low academic style.

The article concludes with a similar message, but also adds that universities need to change their attitude about what should "count" as "publication," saying:
Doing this sort of work ought to count towards promotions and should yield rewards for both universities and individual academics. Quality academic research and innovation are crucial. It is equally important, though, to get ideas out into the world beyond academia. It could make a real difference in people’s lives.
And I agree.

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