Is “bad” academic writing a self-defense strategy?

There were at least two moments for me as a graduate student when I knew I was struggling to become part of a larger intellectual community: the first time I encountered scholarly writing that was so dense, complex and specialized that it made me feel stupid and resentful, and the first time I looked at a draft of my own writing and recognized some of the same patterns of overly complicated scholarship-as-legerdemain I resented in others. “Wow, I’m capable of that? Yuck.” I suspect I am not the only one to have had two such moments in my career.

While some of us take pride in being able to read and write in prose thick with jargon and layers of stylistic complexity, others are more vocal about feeling like I’ve often felt. The late Denis Dutton’s brief annual series The Bad Writing Contest took aim at these conventions of academic prose and brought them to broader attention.

“As usual,” commented Denis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature, “this year’s winners were produced by well-known, highly-paid experts who have no doubt labored for years to write like this. That these scholars must know what they are doing is indicated by the fact that the winning entries were all published by distinguished presses and academic journals.”Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Dutton remarked that “it’s possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing that has led Professor Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University to praise Judith Butler as ‘probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet’.”

There are any number of reasons why academic writing can feel laborious, impenetrable, and intimidating to readers — and it’s often not the case that the reason is the intellectual inferiority of the reader. Indeed, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker points out in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, several factors leading to problematic academic writing style might be located at the intellectual anxiety of the writer:

  1. self-consciousness: the writer’s worry that they will be perceived by others as intellectually illegitimate in their field;
  2. the “curse of knowledge”: the writer’s inability to recognize the possibility that other people may not know what they know.

Even the venerated literary critic Jacques Derrida has shared that he experiences feelings of fear and intimidation when engaged in critical scholarly writing:

Pinker’s essay is a thoughtful, useful examination of why our writing often takes the forms it does at its worst — useful for us as academic writers, and useful for us to share with our students as we attempt to guide them into the kind of writing that helps them enter an intellectual conversation with fellow experts.


Why Academics Stink at Writing


Scott Seymour

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: “Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development.” In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment “The Dynamics of Inter­being and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes,” and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, “Academia, here I come!”

No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype. When the late Denis Dutton (founder of the Chronicle-owned Arts & Letters Daily) ran an annual Bad Writing Contest to celebrate “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles,” he had no shortage of nominations, and he awarded the prizes to some of academe’s leading lights.

But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

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Go ahead… “rush” into networking!

I don’t know about you, but I always feel a bit nervous about situations where making conversations with total strangers is part of the point.  You know, what some folks call “schmoozing.” I have typically felt weird about schmoozing. I think many of us introverts who are drawn to academia feel this way. Part of me is afraid this will happen:

There are a couple of important realities about the schmooze, however. One is that it is usually a lot less like rushing the Omega House than you might imagine. Another is that conversation for networking — be it for a job search, promoting a scholarly project, making inroads for your student advisees with other institutions, or personal development — is a vital professional skill. As I prepare for a number of conferences and off-campus meetings over the next couple of months, I’m finding myself nearing a number of potential networking moments that I don’t want to waste.

Just in time for the conference season, graduate student career consultant Christine Kelly  offers this valuable advice in Inside Higher Ed.  Check it out!  Then, if you’re thinking you’re ready to take your schmoozing game to the next level, check out these power networking tips “for people who hate networking” from Eric Barker in The Week.

Then you won’t need to worry about being stuck in the corner with Kent and Lonny… er, Larry.


September 29, 2014

I attended a conference recently and stayed at a hotel that required me to take a shuttle to get to my events. On my first shuttle ride back to the hotel I chatted with another hotel guest who was attending a different conference and also not staying at his conference hotel. We chatted about a variety of things before we got to that pivotal point where I was very glad I chose this particular hotel.

It turns out he worked for a company not far from where I work, and when I learned that piece of information my next question was, ”Do you hire graduate students?” I told him I worked with graduate students at the University of California at Irvine and would love to help his company connect with our students. We exchanged business cards and when I got back to work I sent him an email and information about our Career Center and reiterated that I could help his company connect with students. Since then I’ve also been able to introduce students to his company. This happened because I ignored what my mother told me and I talked to a stranger. As we approach conference season I want to encourage graduate students to talk to strangers and I offer this primer to those who hate to network.

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“Desirable Difficulties”, Part 2 (or a retroactive Part 1?)

Not much to add from yesterday’s post, except to point you toward another great discussion of the pedagogical opportunities provided by “desirable difficulties.” This time, David Gooblar, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (and an instructor at Augustana College, yesssss!) provides some additional details for the kinds of moves you can make to provide opportunities for students to develop their storage memory for deeper learning. So, if you haven’t read Maryellen Weimer’s piece on desirable difficulties that I reblogged yesterday, great!  Read this one first, and then check out how Weimer recommends approaches to approaching student buy-in for a teaching approach that causes students to struggle (productively) on purpose.



September 10, 2014

Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or share more teaching tips in our new group.

Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

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“Desirable difficulties?” Try telling that to students…

"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."
In the John Hughes ’80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see why Ferris ditches school: his history teacher (played with deadpan brilliance by Ben Stein) stymies, bores and infuriates a classroom full of students through a mind-numbingly repetitive and monotone lecture, punctuated with the worst attempts at coaxing student involvement ever.  Ironically, we know that students in the early stages of their college education actually prefer to receive information passively, served up by teachers with expertise. This is largely due to their less-developed stage of learning, and increasingly aggravated by public high school teaching that is designed to move through required content quickly and efficiently. However, to move students to higher orders of thinking and learning — application, critical analysis, creative synthesis — we need to get them to take more ownership of their learning process. Which is hard — especially when students are first faced with this demand in areas of study new to them.

As you might be aware, the benefits of student struggle in the learning process has a sound basis in cognitive psychology. Robert Bjork of UCLA, who studies processes of learning and forgetting, distinguishes between “retrieval memory,” or the easy, immediate accessibility of information, and “storage memory,” or the longer-term ability to retain and recall information. Since the latter is the product of deeper learning, the objective becomes facilitating learning that boosts storage strength as well as retrieval strength. Bjork’s research developed the concept of “desirable difficulties,” beneficial struggles in the learning process that can result in deeper learning.

For instance, pedagogical moves such as frequent quizzes and tests, active problem-solving, and varying the locations where learning takes place are examples of desirable difficulties that prior research links to effective learning.

Of course, as the video statement from Bjork above points out (did you skip it??? go ahead, watch it… I’ll wait…), there is a bit of a dilemma here: students enjoy a rapid, easy improvement in performance (due to the triggering of retrieval memory), but the slower, more troublesome learning process that actually leads to optimal learning can be frustrating to students.

The Teaching Professor Blog‘s Maryellen Weimer discusses how we might respond to this dilemma: how do we help students get beyond “teach me, and make it easy!” to accept the desirable difficulties of student-driven learning? In brief, the way we frame these experiences for students is key to their success.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2014

“She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”

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The four-question path to critical thinking. Really? Really!

Thinking is hard — just ask Christopher Robin’s friend, who observes that even valiant efforts at problem solving can suffer from underdeveloped critical thinking skills:

Even harder is to figure out approaches to engage students in critical thinking — a central goal embraced, at least philosophically, by most all college and university teachers — in ways that can actually lead to observable outcome gains.  It’s a tricky business.  The VALUE rubric developed by AAC&U for assessing student development in critical thinking defines it as  “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” The rubric is a useful tool, largely because it lays out stages of critical thinking development from initial benchmark to capstone in a variety of important areas: explanation of issues, use of evidence, considering assumptions and contents, establishing a position, drawing conclusions.

So we’ve got some guidance on assessing what students do… but how can we provide them explicit practice in doing it, in ways applicable to a broad range of learning contexts?

Coming to our rescue again,  from the Teaching Professor Blog shares what appears to be a too-simple pattern of four question prompts that guide students through four important paths to critical thinking: analysis of concepts, reflection on the relevance of concepts, application of concepts to other situations, and continued questioning about concepts.  The four-question plan comes from Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009), whose SOTL research on the use of this question set revealed significant effects on student performance!

So you don’t have to bruise the side of your head like poor little Pooh to think of ways to get your students to think. When in a pinch, just take them down the four-question path!  And stop for some hunny on the way, silly old bear.


AUGUST 28, 2013

Prompts That Get Students to Analyze, Reflect, Relate, and Question

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

A simple teaching technique that helps students learn; now there’s something few teachers would pass up! This particular technique involves a four-question set that gets students actively responding to the material they are studying. They analyze, reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:

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Want to encourage participation? Give ’em a mulligan!

Sometimes, in order to reap the greatest rewards, we need to take a risk. Of course, the problem is that risks are risky, and the prospect of failure looms, which we usually don’t perceive as rewarding. If only we had the opportunity for a do-over…

[Check out this short film when you have some time… it’s charming.]

Our students are frequently faced with the opportunity for productive risk — particularly when it comes to in-class discussion. We know that active engagement in the classroom is positively associated with learning gains (Tinto, 1997), and in-class participation is an important component of student engagement (Handelsman et al.,  2005).  For the Millennial students currently in our classrooms, class discussions can be a powerful way to leverage some of their generational traits for learning (e.g., their desire for an active learning environment and their egalitarian belief that all voices should be heard); however, other traits (e.g., their sensitivity to criticism) can make them risk-averse when it comes to the prospect of ‘being wrong’ in the classroom (Roehling et al., 2011).

Our Millennials also crave achievement and can be consumer-oriented when it comes to the cost-benefit analysis of their personal efforts in the learning department. That’s where the innovative advice of Jefferson College’s Lisa Pavia-Higel, recently published in Faculty Focus, comes in.  She suggests that we can stimulate student participation in class discussions by leveraging the current wave of “gamification” of the learning experience (i.e., strategies that “focus[] on what games do for brain processes and tr[y] to bring that into the learning environment”).  In brief: offering “mulligan” credits to apply in subsequent exams can both incentivize active class participation and reduce student test anxiety at the same time.

This strategy, an alternative approach to both “participation grades” and “extra credit,” has the tantalizing possibility of encouraging otherwise risk-averse students to put themselves out there in the classroom, where we want them to engage.  It also fosters the active and welcoming environment for participation Millennials crave.

So… consider going out and buying some stickers???

Handelsman, M.M., Briggs, W.L., Sullivan, N., and Towler, A. (2005). A measure of college student course engagement. The Journal of Education Research, 98(3), 184-192.

Roehling, P.V., Vander Kooi, T.L., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B, and  Vandlen, C. (2011). Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions. College Teaching, 59, 1-6.

Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistenceJournal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.


AUGUST 18, 2014

Using “Mulligans” to Enhance Student Participation and Reduce Test Anxiety

By: in Teaching and Learning

When I speak with other professors who work extensively in the classroom, we often find that we share many of the same challenges. Students’ lack of classroom participation in discussion and test anxiety are two of the most common. Many professors try to mitigate these issues through two time-honored pedagogical tactics: a participation grade and extra credit questions on tests. While both tactics can be effective, by applying concepts from gamification research I found a way to both enhance classroom participation and reduce test anxiety with one simple technique.

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“Once in a Lifetime”: Starting your first tenure-track job

"Same as it ever was?" Not even close, pal.
I just saw that a new advice essay on starting a new tenure-track job invoked the timeless wisdom of Talking Heads, and I thought, “perfect!”

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself yourself
My God!…What have I done?!

Across the country, and in your home institutions, newly-minted Ph.D.s are starting a strange new journey in brave new worlds… and it can seem rather surreal. (By the way, did you know there is an upcoming free webinar on coping with the “impostor syndrome”?) All of us that were once in that position recall your swirling mix of conflicting feelings — exhilaration, caution, bravado, fear, enthusiasm, terror… keep going…

There was a great piece in the Chronicle four years ago with highly advisable advice for new tenure-track faculty… if you’re starting a new job this year, you should read this. Right now.  But for today I’m sharing a thoughtful and useful piece by four junior psychology faculty in a range of different institutions, providing advice to first-year tenure-track faculty after just completing their own. It’s worth checking out (and sharing with new colleagues, if they don’t yet subscribe to this blog!), because the position of the first-year tenure-track faculty member is certainly not the same as it ever was.

And besides — the authors are down with David Byrne. They must be wise.


Once in a Lifetime

A tenure-track job is finally yours. Now how do you make it through the first year?

Careers- First Year Tenured Track

Creative Commons

We were in precisely that position last fall as we began our first years as assistant professors of psychology. Like diligent young scholars, we had read books and articles about how to succeed in academe and they had helped us map out some goals. But they were less helpful when it came to some of the day-to-day challenges, especially those that seemed unique to our departments and institutions.

All sorts of unexpected questions kept popping up all year, things like:

  • “The class test scores were awful; what do I do?”
  • “I ordered something a month ago; should I follow up with a staff member, or am I being too impatient?”
  • “Should I bother my chair about something that might be insignificant?”

Our reading didn’t provide clear answers to those questions, so we started asking each other. We are four friends who, after earning Ph.D.’s in psychology at the University of Virginia in 2013, accepted positions at institutions that vary widely in size, mission, and student population. As we moved into our assistant professorships, we organized weekly video chats to compare notes, share our triumphs, and troubleshoot our challenges. At the end of our first year, we realized that our experiences might be useful for faculty just starting out at other institutions. So here are our for-what-it’s-worth insights.

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