Academic taboos #3: what cannot be written

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

what can't be writtenAcademic writing has powerful conventions that lecturers, doctoral supervisors, and published academics work to uphold. Proper academic writing should be correct in every detail of grammar, punctuation, spelling and structure. It should use the third person, for neutrality, and to remove any sign of personal bias. The author should be as specific and precise as possible, and careful not to over-claim.

All this leads to some interesting linguistic contortions. ‘Two categories were studied to assess… the results highlight… the article will show…’ These kinds of constructions are commonplace in academic writing like nowhere else. Nothing is studied in a vacuum, and it is not ‘results’ that highlight or an ‘article’ that will show. Research is carried out by human beings, who decide what will be highlighted or shown in the reports of their research. Whose interests does it serve to conceal these truths?

In some disciplines, it is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge the researcher’s and authors’ roles in writing; to use the first person, and to accept the inevitability of bias while looking for ways to reduce it as far as possible. Yet moving away from attempted precision and correct use of English is still taboo. This causes problems, for example when the author needs to represent spoken English, such as in quotes from participants. Academics, research participants, and readers disagree about whether quotes should be rendered exactly, with their ‘incorrect’ grammar, or tidied up. If quotes are collected online, entering them into a search engine can identify participants. Quotes including swear words may alienate some readers. Exact quotes rendered in writing, with all their ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and half-formed sentences, can make participants seem uneducated or unintelligent. Generally, academia prefers sanitised quotes. However, this can be viewed as an abuse of authorial power, as it removes authenticity from participants’ words.

In fact academic writing conventions are all about power. The apparently laudable aims of precise, unbiased writing conceal the power dynamics at play. Academic writing conventions ā€“ themselves allegedly neutral ā€“ in fact operate to exclude those who cannot or will not abide by them.

The good news is that there is now a tiny but growing movement to break down these conventions, led by some brave doctoral students, supervisors, and universities. For example:

  • Nick Sousanis, now Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University in the US, presented his doctoral dissertation as a graphic novel at Columbia University in 2014. The following year it was published by Harvard University Press, entitled Unflattening.
  • Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect in Canada, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia in 2015. Entitled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, it has almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English academic writing conventions.
  • Piper Harron is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. She was awarded her PhD from Princeton University in the US in 2016. Her dissertation included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’, as well as a whole lot of jokes.
  • Ashleigh Watson, a doctoral candidate at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, founded So Fi, a sociological zine publishing creative sociological writing including fiction and poetry, in 2017.

Academia needs to take these kinds of alternative formats seriously. They enable more voices to be heard, more fully, than the conventional style of writing. Some universities have developed helpful alternative format policies to support this movement, such as this one from the University of Exeter in the UK. Implementing these kinds of policies will enrich academia.

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