The long word club

One of my pet peeves is conference speakers who sit down and put on their reading glasses. This is a sure sign that they’re about to eschew slides and read their paper aloud. Moreover, the paper will be crowded with abstract concepts described entirely through words of 8 syllables or more.

It may be called “a conference paper“, but this does not make it acceptable to inflict 30 minutes of unsupported listening on a tired audience. The projector is there for a reason.

I’d been moaning about this when my colleague Mary sent me a link to a blog post by Mark Carrigan,  in which he discusses  sociologists’ habit of writing in unsociably dense, turgid prose.  Carrigan quotes Les Back in the Art of Listening,  comparing academics to “bookish limpets” (2007, p. 163).  So if we recognise our own weaknesses in this regard, what should we do about them?

James Mulholland  has argued that rather than attempting to make complex research more accessible to general audiences, we should simply embrace esoteric knowledge and technical language as intrinsic aspects of dealing with complex ideas. Stay in your ivory towers, he urges, and write books that few people will read.

Carrigan suggests that blogging and tweeting offer possibilities for making academics’ writing more engaging and opening it up to a wider readership. While I’m not completely convinced that that academics who blog are not already preaching to the converted, I do think that Mulholland is missing the point somewhat. The debate is not about whether we should change the books we write, but how we might persuade more people to read those we do write.

The title of this post was inspired by / stolen from:

Gardener, S. (1992). The long word club: The development of written language within adult fresh start and return to learning programmes. Brighton: RaPAL.