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Friday, September 3, 2010

More Bad Writing

Here's some bad writing to consider:
With the fierce competition for space in journals, not to mention top-tier journals, expectations exist for a high quality of research (Blackburn & Lawrence, 1995). Although successive generations of academics at research universities publish more than those not at these universities, it is likely that this is as much a matter of personal choice, fulfillment, and field advancement as it is institutional expectations for merit, tenure, and promotion. The expectation is survival. Survival implies a competitive spirit that may overlook civility in favor of success. This competitive environment invites bullying...

(Twale and De Luca, Faculty Incivility, 66)

Causal relations are not clear in writing like this. Does limited space in journals lead to expectations for high quality of research, or is this simply a roundabout way of saying that the quality of research is judged by publication in top-tier journals? The concessive "although" in the second section is equally unclear: it is unlikely that faculty of research institutions publish more because of "personal choice"; rather, these are the type of institutions in which more research is produced, almost by definition. The next sentence seems contradictory: now the focus shifts to something that was minimized in the previous sentence, namely promotion and tenure. Survival in the research university means getting tenure, a competitive process which may lead to bullying. Or maybe not, since the paragraph doesn't really lead logically to this conclusion. It sort of sidles up to the conclusion with baby steps, so that the lack of space in journals at the beginning of the paragraph seems to produce bullying by the end. But how did we get there?

The authors are advancing certain claims, but the only citation they provide in this particular passage is in support of a relatively banal and tautological point: top-tier journals are more competitive. The citation does not make it clear what Blackburn and Lawrence are actually claiming, either: it is unlikely that the central claim of their work is that academic research is competitive!

The longer sentences here are wordy, expressing simple points in convoluted fashion. The shorter ones, on the other hand, are non-sequiturs requiring more explanation.

I applaud the effort to address the problem of academic bullying, but this book (what I've read of it so far) is full of sloppy thinking, unarticulated presuppositions, and false dichotomies. For example, is the top-tier researcher likely to be the bully? Or could it be the more typical case that the older scholar who hasn't published as much bullies the younger, more successful researcher? Is bullying more common in top research institutions or in liberal arts colleges or in 2nd-tier state schools? I don't really know, but do Twale and De Luca know, and how, exactly, do they know what they claim to know? Not being in control of the language they use, they give the impression of not being in control of their knowledge, either. They appear to have no empirical basis for some of their central claims. For example, they repeatedly imply that academic bullying is on the rise, but they don't really know that as far as I can tell. Maybe the problem has always been there. Maybe it's less widespread now than in the past. How would you find out the answer to that kind of question? "Horror story" is not the singular of data.

After I wrote the above, I was curious to know the reception of this book and found a review by Michael Imber (who like me is a professor at the University of Kansas, although I've never met him) in the Review of Higher Education that supported my first impression:
Among the theses advanced by Faculty Incivility are that there is more incivility in higher education than there used to be; that there is more incivility in higher education than in other organizations and work environments; that the organization and culture (particularly the emergent "corporate culture") of higher education promotes incivility; that there is less cooperation among faculty in research and teaching than there used to be; and that women in higher education suffer a greater share of incivility than men.

All of these theses would be interesting and important if they were supported by evidence and logic, but the book doesn't even come close. Instead it presents a badly written, poorly argued screed, full of jargon, convoluted sentence structure, misused words, and sources that don't make a convincing case for any of its claims.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Yes, that "may" makes the sentence true at the cost of making it trivial. You want to get yourself into a position to say under what circumstances it does overlook civility.