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On gobbledygook

One of the tasks for participants in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching course that I’m helping to convene at Brookes is to create an annotated bibliography. The discussion that has spun out from this has been fascinating. One of the participants particularly drew attention to this quote from Cathy Davidson: “if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Academic gobbledygook is one of my main bugbears. There are so many different things that can make something impenetrable to readers, some of which are really difficult to avoid. One comes from the idea of threshold concepts, which are steps in learning that change your perspective on a field. These can be particularly difficult to teach, not least because, once you grasp them, it’s very difficult to then see things the way that you used to see them, and therefore communicate to people who then haven’t acquired that mindset. Concepts and the language to describe them become so intrinsic to the way you see the world that communicating with people who haven’t crossed over to that mindset becomes particularly difficult.

Another problem is that within a particular discipline, some terminology is regularly used, to an extent that you’re no longer aware that it’s a specialist terminology. I used to research into subcultures in virtual worlds, and ranted to friend that an editor of a paper asked me to explain the words “furry” and “steampunk”. I just felt it was asking me to talk down to my audience. Rather than commiserating, my friend responded with doubts about my own sanity, that I’d probably got too far into my own little world because those definitely aren’t words that everyone would recognise. Terminology is useful, when it encapsulates a range of ideas that would otherwise take a long time to unpack, but we always need to be prepared to unpack them for our audience. When doing a session on technology enhanced learning I always ask people to flag when I’ve used a term or abbreviation they don’t know.

What does annoy me in those situations though is, that you can get some people who act all outraged when you use a phrase that they don’t know. I was at one workshop on PDAs (that dates it) where someone in the audience got very belligerent with the person running it that she hadn’t said what PDA stood for. It was in the title of the session. Why attend if you don’t know what it is? Or spend 10 seconds googling it. Or work it out from context. Lack of understanding about terminology is a failing of two people, not just one. It’s not like spelling it out helps anyway. Anyone know what DVD stands for? Does knowing that help you watch a movie?

I think the one thing we can guard against more easily in the fight against gobbledygook is the tendency to pack ideas together so densely that sentence structure and following the conceptual trail of an argument, become difficult to follow. Sometimes this is sloppiness, but it is often because the writer is unsure about the validity, or even academicness, of the subject they’re talking about. The temptation is to dress it up with fancy words, or cram two previously unmatched ideas together and expect the audience to work out for themselves what those two concepts when blended actually mean. When I next come across an example of that I’ll add it to the comments below.

Being a reviewer for a few journals has helped me enormously here in being prepared to go through something a colleague or submitter has written and say “I don’t understand what this means”. I could probably have a go at working it out, or forming that synthesis in my head myself, but that’s not something a reader should have to do. That’s the author’s job.

Another thing that we do is placing so many caveats and double-negatives around something in order to actually avoid making as firm a statement. It’s not inconceivable to doubt that the absence of double-negatives can lead to the lessening of the propensity to reduce the failings in sensemaking of many statements.

Gobbledygook is just being a poor communicator. However there’s a form of academic writing that starts with a phrase like “it is not inconceivable that” and then uses this as an axiom in an argument. The master of this is Greenfield, who’s created a whole new career out of making statements like “children are on social media so much, it is not inconceivable that it will have an effect on them” and then working up to “given that there is such an effect what can we do to limit it.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how the reasoning works). The discussion then subtly glosses over the element that the original statement is totally unsupported and a bit weasely. At no point is there actually any lying going on, it’s just a subtle misdirection that sounds like a valid argument. At this point we’ve got past gobbledygook and are into the realm of bullshit, which I will post about next time.


For great examples of bullshit, one of my favourite books is Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I think if more people were primed to detect it, and have little less patience with it, we would all contribute to making academic writing a bit more accessible.



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