Just How Readable are Academic Texts?
Why is a baby’s cry better than most professors’ speech? The ancient Greeks knew the why, Quintillian codified the how, the medieval universities made the what a core part of their curriculum. Rhetoric, put simply, is about knowing how to make your point effectively. And that entails a lot—a syllabus worthy of inclusion in education at the highest level. A good rhetorician knows that choice of expression changes according to the situation, the audience and the communicative purpose. A baby’s cry for food is one of the most rhetorically flawless expressions. It beats—by a long way—a lecturer’s eloquent speech to dozing students. The baby effortlessly matches its need, the situation, and the way of using its voice to get the best results.
Good communication relies on linking the need and situation with the choice of language. To analyse the articles this week I use terms from Halliday’s functional grammar to show each article’s need: one of the seven broad categories of meaning (Halliday, 2014, p. 35-36); situation: field, what the article talks about; mode, what kind of text we’re talking about; and to talk about choice of language there is tenor, what relationships are implied between the writer and the reader (p. 33). Academics want to read flowing and interesting text as much as anyone else. When Sword asked them what constitutes good writing, ten elements emerged. I’ve used her ten attributes (Sword, 2009) to see how effective the language choices are likely to be. My hope is that the combination of Halliday and Sword will deliver results with which I can make a judgment about the level of rhetorical mastery in each.
In the following table, I present my analysis of the three articles in this week’s reading. You will also see a Classification on the far right column. 1 means ‘old-school academic’; 2 means a ‘hybrid’ between 1 and 3; and 3 means ‘in the stylish manner of Steven Pinker’, who has also lashed out at turgid, stifling and moribund academic prose (Pinker, 2014).
|Need||Situation||Choice of Language|
what the article is about
what type of article it is
|Number of Sword’s criteria present||My
|Barron et al. (2010)||primarily reporting, aspects of expounding||discussion on staff perceptions of international students in UK university environments||written academic research paper, report on qualitative questionnaire responses, informative, exhortatory
|academics to academics, equal relations between writer and stranger reader, conciliatory in that the pressures on the expected reader are acknowledged in positioned in relation to the problematised issue
|Bennett et al. (2010)||various: reporting, recommending, sharing, exploring||a collection of proceedings following a consortium on aspects of quality assurance in higher education, a written record for participants||a collection of written reports of varying genre ranging from a short opinion piece to a longer quasi-academic article||participants to participants: expected readers to include: consortium participants, governmental agencies, policy-making bodies, quality assurance network non-participants, employers, HE staff||some reports used the personal voice, some reports had elements of story||2|
|Cummings et al. (2005)||recommending with aspects of reporting||describing how innovations in university reform can be achieved by middle-level academic staff||written academic research paper, placed mid-level staff actions within various existing theoretical frameworks||academics to academics, equal relations between writer and stranger reader, conciliatory in that the pressures on the expected reader are acknowledged in positioned in relation to the problematised issue||catchy title, some elements of story||1|
Table 1. Analysis of the three articles
You will notice that only three of Sword’s ten attributes appear, and that no article get 3 on my scale. Most of the writing is in the third person, there are only glimpses of a story-like narrative and the sentences are predominantly in “academese”, that is the type of convoluted, jargon-laden, “stylistically lamentable” prose so beloved by professors (Pinker, 2014). Rhetorically speaking then, all texts score low even though their base content may be tolerably interesting. Cummings et al. organise their opus in a free-fall; a captivating opening question is followed by repeated unannounced sections without any regard to rhetorical meaning, before lumping the reader with a short discussion and conclusion. Their main strategy presumably is the guessing game of ‘what comes next’. Bennett et al.’s proceedings is structured far better rhetorically in that each article drives home a sub-point of the main argument. Barron et al. structure their discussion in a standard introduction—methodology—results & discussion paper format that represents the de-facto standard in academia. That this paper is probably the best in terms of rhetoric speaks more to the expectations in academia than to its captivating writing.
Many authors teach writing skills as discrete units that can be combined, the “building blocks” approach (Creme & Lea, 2008, p. 36). They talk about types of writing, drafting and reviewing (Murray & Moore, 2006), even about how to use technology (Fairbairn & Winch, 1996). But the first, second, third and final focus should be how to get your reader to understand your message: in other words, a focus on rhetoric.
Creme, P. & Lea, M. R. (2008). Writing at university: A guide for students. Third ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Fairbairn, G., & Winch, C. (1996). Reading, writing and reasoning: A guide for students (2nd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Press.
Halliday, M. A. K., & Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (2014). Halliday’s introduction to functional grammar. Fourth ed. London: Routledge.
Murray, R. & Moore, S. (2006). The Handbook of academic writing: A fresh approach. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Pinker, S. (2014). Why academics stink at writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/ on May 19, 2015.
Sword, H. (2009). Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 319-336.