Graduate School Corrupts Effective Communication

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Over the past few months I’ve read somewhere around 200 academic papers related to transparency, accountability, and e-governance. Over that time I’ve reached several conclusions, all of which I am documenting in a series of posts on Global Voices. But the conclusion that has determinedly raised its hand more than any other is this: graduate school corrupts effective communication.

This morning, in preparation for today’s post on parliamentary informatics websites, I re-read Arthur Edwards’ 2006 paper “Facilitating the monitorial voter: retrospective voter information websites in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.” It provides some useful context to a few case studies of voter information websites. But the 30-page paper should really be a three-paragraph blog post. Between those few paragraphs of helpful context, I have to suffer through pages and pages of paragraphs like this one:

According to institutional theories of political action, political actors make their choices within an institutional context of certain rules of conduct, codes of rights and duties, and methods constituting a ’logic of appropriateness’ (March and Olsen, 1996:252). A part of the institutional context of ICT design and usage in democratic practices is the political system (Hagen, 2000). Political institutions include formal and informal constitutional rules, including the electoral system, the party system and executive-legislative relationships. Against the backdrop of these political system properties, we can evaluate the ‘appropriateness’ of information-seeking by voters and choices made by the designers of political websites (see also: Hoff, 2000). In this section, I address the two dimensions of voters’ information needs and relate these to political system properties. What follows also serves as the basis for the selection of the cases.

In case you’re having a tough time deciphering just what Edwards is getting at, let me help: absolutely nothing. Or how about this for slurred obviousness:

The idea of responsiveness is captured in the cyberneticians’ classification of essential capabilities of a control system. Such a system requires instruments for effecting change in the state of the world (generally referred to as ‘effectors’) as well as ‘detectors’ for providing data about the state of the world. Transparency in its fullest sense thus requires that citizens be able to exert an influence on (to ‘control’) the way that public services are provided, based on their views or preferences about how they are provided, as well as knowing about the decisions that are made.

That comes “Transparency Mechanisms: Building Publicness into Public Services” by Lindsay Stirton and Martin Lodge.

Why, one might ask, can these highly educated individuals no longer write in standard English? And why does it take them so many words – and so many syllables – to make such simple observations? While I have no concrete evidence that Edwards, Stirton, and Lodge wrote with clarity before they enrolled in graduate school, my hypothesis is that there is a strong culture of calculated confusion in academia that deliberately isolates graduate students from The Real World.

I don’t know how to battle against the disease, or which noble warriors are waging the war, but perhaps a “Journal of Comprehensible Writing from Academics” could help highlight and celebrate the woefully under-represented examples of clarity and effective communication in academia?

Update: I realized that it’s in bad form – and even hypocritical – of me to only complain about poorly written scholarship without pointing to the good stuff. So, two examples of clearly written, well researched, and insightful papers about transparency:

That’s all. :)

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