When I first set out to plan my Kickstart session I wrote down that it needed to be “Fun and engaging. Accessible but not patronising.” I wrote this down as though this was something that was incredibly unique to communicating with teenagers. It was only upon re-reading it that I realised how bizarre my thinking had been. What sort of audience would I not stick to these rules with? Had I thought that a group of professors would want to be bored and patronised? Perhaps this stems from the fact that I’ve always thought that there’s an underlying rule that academic presentations don’t need to be engaging or accessible. Content is always stressed over delivery. This is an area where I believe storytelling is really great for thinking about public engagement. What is the point in telling a story if either no one wants to hear it or no one can understand it?
James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are often viewed as these great masterpieces in English Literature yet they are so difficult to read that it’s amazing that there are enough people to give them so much acclaim. I think the same is often true in academic writing and presentations.
My own research focuses on cultural capital, a concept coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Broadly speaking cultural capital is seen as a familiarity with the dominant culture which is rewarded within the education system. Because cultural capital is supposedly unequally distributed by social class, working-class children are immediately at a disadvantage because of their relative lack of cultural capital. One element of cultural capital which I think really links to the idea of accessibility is the ability to use and understand ‘educated’ language. Using very technical and grandiose language in our writings and presentations can inadvertently snub much of our audience. I still remember arriving at university and feeling highly embarrassed that I didn’t understand this word ‘dichotomy’ that everyone seemed to be using. What was this strange term that had the potential for such a catastrophic mispronunciation?
I’ve always loved George Orwell’s ‘Five rules for effective writing’ which translates so well into rules for accessible academic public engagement. His rule of “Never use a long word where a short one will do” is hopelessly ignored by so many academics who seem to write as though they are constantly using a thesaurus (often their writing doesn’t seem too dissimilar to the time Joey tries this on Friends). Every time I read a sentence in a journal that is the length of the page I wish more academics would follow the rule “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”. I think the most important of these rules for communicating my own research will be “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent”. Terms such as ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’ are central to much of my research — but completely inaccessible without a detailed introduction beforehand.
The language we use to communicate our research should always be engaging and accessible and not “an intimidating and impenetrable fog” which Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes brilliantly describes stereotypical academic writing as (for examples of academic writing which break all of Orwell’s rules one only needs to look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest).